Early observations from the implementation of the new Moodle system replicate the predictions of Marshall McLuhan – founder of the field of media studies. One of his comments was that the form of an old media becomes the content of the new one. For example, before printing appeared in Europe, books were generally religious texts, but also incredibly valuable and beautiful unique hand-made objects. The library of Cambridge University in 1424 contained a grand total of 122 books. ( I don’t know how many of these were written on paper, which was a new technology then, replacing vellum). After Gutenburg, the first products from the printing presses were copies of the Bible, and buyers could order extra hand-drawn decorations for them so that they looked more like manuscripts.

McLuhan himself was a historian of the Middle Ages, and his theory of mass communication often reads like nostalgia for that lost world before widespread literacy and newspapers.  But he was the first thinker to understand the importance of the new electronic media.

We can see that the first steps of teachers moving into the virtual environment are to recreate as far as possible the handouts they previously made on paper. Text on paper is, for our civilization, about the only valid source of knowledge. McLuhan suggested that this concept of “knowledge” was one of the effects of the creation of printing. According to his theory, the ancient and medieval world had an idea of knowledge something more like what we call “skills” and the ability to deal on a practical level with complicated situations.

McLuhan’s first work in this field The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man was published in 1951. Then television was new and McLuhan did not live to see the era of mass use of computers. Nevertheless, his approach is useful as an example of the seriousness of the issues involved. We, as students and workers in universities, should be aware of how deeply our expectations and imaginations about the possibilities of the new system are reflections of the culture of the printed word.