Annual Meeting of the ICT-Initiative: "Information, Knowledge and Knowledge Management", TU Darmstadt, March 26-29, 2000


Ingrid Lohmann, University of Hamburg                                                                                                     home

Knowledge Acquisition through Knowledge Production - The "Comenius in War" Digital Exhibition Example


Today we are witnessing fundamental economy-induced transformations not only of the conditions of scientific production but also of the access to scientific knowledge and information. These transformations which include both formal and informal education can be summed up as 'market driven': Once put and packaged into digitalized forms, the chances to marketize science and scientific results for educational and training purposes on a global scale are in principle excellent, which will lead to major transformations in the modes of scientific production itself.

A most undesireable side effect of this development, though, is a growing and vastly unreflected tendency to favour receptive and in many respects static - at the cost of productive and creative - forms of knowledge acquisition.

Facing this situation the institutions of higher education, especially universities (as long as they themselves are in control of their information technology infrastructure) are challenged to develop and test ways to create and communicate knowledge which emphasize on the learners as subjects of their knowledge acquisition processes, which strengthen them as creators and not just recipients of knowledge and information in digitalized forms.

In short, a new interpretation and reinvention of the 200 year-old concept of Selbsttätigkeit seems to be necessary. The Virtual Exhibition "Comenius in War" - which is in fact conceptualized as laboratory for the teaching and learning possibilities opening up with the new technologies - exemplifies how this might be managed.


I'm a teacher of history of education at the University of Hamburg, department of education. One of my current fields of research are the local and global processes of marketization of education and of commercialization of schools and universities. What I'm interested in here are - among other aspects - the effects of what is called 'the new economy' on the modes of scientific production. Also I am interested in the transformations of the teaching and learning processes in higher education through new technology; there is no doubt that the changes currently taking place in the relations between technology and the didactics of higher education - including university studies - will have a deep impact on knowledge management. In these changes teaching and learning processes are no less involved than scientific production, and most of this development, I fear, will be overturned by the question "can this result be commercialized or not?"

Let me give just one little example of what can happen to academic science in connection with digitalization: During the last few years a number of presidents of US-universities signed contracts with consortiums of dot-com companies. What is being sold to the corporations by the university presidents are the rights to marketize each and every online teaching unit or distance learning course which any of the university's scientific personal produces. In none of these cases has the academic body of the faculty been asked their prior consent. Some of the teaching personal have instituted proceedings against this practice and try to claim their intellectual property rights, but the outcome of this is still open (cf. Noble 1998). In its latest version which is currently under discussion, the German Hochschulrahmengesetz for the first time intends the university presidents - and no longer the ministry - as the ones with whom scientists negotiate their contracts. As you can easily imagine the possible future scenarios of this yourself there's no need to go deeper into this.


History of education is part of each of the different academic pedagogical studies we have in Hamburg. This means that future teachers as well as adult educators and students interested in an academic career have to choose it during their first two years of study; they can but don't necessarily have to choose the 'Comenius in War'-course which I'm currently testing as a one-year (two-terms) seminar. According to the regularities for this type of core curriculum seminar I'm talking about here, the class doesn't include more than 20 students.

Since this seminar type is part of the core curriculum, there is a chance to involve these students from their first term onward into getting acquainted with and using new technology: they must have their personal E-mail account - E-mail is used for information and communication in addition to the sessions -, they must find materials in the world wide web with the help of search engines and online ressources, they must deliver texts - be it their own or from other authors - images, photographs and sometimes also soundclips in digitalized form, and in the end they must design and produce their own individual path through the exhibition.

Which means: they have to transform, combine and present - conventionally in the classroom and online - what they found, wrote, designed, and can reasonably argue about and advocate as a multimedia product which is worth to be put on the web.

We do of course give them ample opportunity to learn the required technical skills in the seminar itself; it is important not to take for granted that they have them in advance, although there are always a few students who know better than I do how to fabricate websites - which certainly is very helpful and inspiring.


The main idea of the Comenius Virtual Exhibiton is: to combine an introduction into modern pedagogy - starting from Johann Amos Comenius or Komensky - with reflections on the differences and similarities between the old culture of the book and the new culture of information technology. The third aspect is: to combine these two elements - introduction into an academic discipline and its history, reflections on the changing relations between economy, society, culture and the media - with practical experience in today's cultural and technological revolution: by not only using the new technologies but also producing with them.

For the first time I had this course planned in May 98 for the summer term of 99. The NATO bombings in former Yugoslavia which took place during this term gave reason to rename the project into 'Comenius in War'. But there are also academic reasons to put together the beginnings of modern pedagogy and the European early enlightenment history with questions of peace and war.

Komensky had been born in Bohemia in the year 1597. He spent most of his lifetime in the Thirty Years' War which had been set off by the Defenestration of Prague in 1618. Komensky himself was deeply involved - both personally and as one of the leading European intellectuals of his time - in the Protestant uprising that had begun in Bohemia and stretched out all over Europe in the decades preceding the Treaty of Westphalia. Some of Komensky's most important writings in the fields of theology, encyclopedia of the sciences and pedagogy stem from the decades of war and soon after and they clearly aim at civilizing - or rather: healing - the societies in the battered European territories and the new born nation states by means of schooling, education, the spreading of scientific knowledge and Christian faith.

Now let me explain the starting page of the exhibition which is understood as an important part of its interface. The image is a kind of portrait of Komensky from around 1660 and is itself an interface of its time; there are quite a few images similar to this one in pieces of 17th century art.

This picture organizes the access to a world of knowledge which adheres to a range of newly emerging bourgeois activities: to a world of knowledge which has become very much differentiated and diverse. This picture also claimes that this world of useful knowledge can reestablish social cohesion, which was lost during the long and devastating years of war, with the help of true religion. Working activities like agriculture, setting letters and printing books, building houses, but also astronomy, painting and sculpturing and most of all spreading knowledge to others do contribute to God's worship.

At the same time this picture exemplies very nicely that interface design definitely is not an invention of our times.

Steven Johnson calls interfaces 'the probably most important art form of the 21st century'. Johnson is Editor-in-chief and cofounder of Feed, an award-winning online cultural magazine, and was named "one of the most influential people in cyberspace" (by Newsweek, among other magazines). He stresses the importance of closing the gap between technology and culture, which has been characteristic for modernity, and of overcoming it in information technology. In his recent publication on "Interface Culture" (1997:19; dt. 1999:29) he raises the question of how we should understand the cultural role of interface design in today's world. According to Johnson its importance revolves around a paradox:

"we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp. Our only access to this parallel universe of zeros and ones runs through the conduit of the computer interface, which means that the most dynamic and innovative region of the modern world reveals itself to us only through the anonymous middlemen of interface design. How we choose to imagine these new online communities is obviously a matter of great social and political significance. The Victorians had writers like Dickens to ease them through the technological revolutions of the industrial age, writers who built novelistic maps of the threatening new territory and the social relations it produced. Our guides to the virtual cities of the twenty-first century will perform a comparable service, only this time the interface - and not the novel - will be their medium." (p 19f)

This said, it is easy to understand the role of interface design as part of knowledge management and the learning process in higher education, especially for those students who will themselves later on work in areas of information processing such as teaching.

My idea of the future teacher is not one of a person who just follows the routes either engineers or information scientists or media experts paid by media corporations interested in bestselling figures laid out for her and her students. To use bestselling products can of course be a useful shortcut to attain knowledge, skills and information. But the university and especially teacher training is definitely not the place where it might be adequate to be satisfied with the receptive part of knowledge and information - expertly as it might be prepackaged.


The Comenius exhibition is administered by two servers in our department, one based on IBM technology and the other on Mackintosh. I thank Torsten Meyer who is the head of our faculty´s MultiMedia-Studio for the shockwave design of the starting picture. Since we wanted to have the whole picture on the monitor and not minimize it further, we have to do without the tool bar. I am not very happy about this solution because on the other hand it makes the handling of the exhibition a bit more difficult. At this point, however, aesthetic considerations were set prior to user friendliness.

Window No. 1 contains a contemporary soundclip introducing into the drama of modernity, while No. 3 is a piece of music from Komensky's times;

No. 2 contains or will contain texts and other material about today's New World Order;

No. 4 contains material under the title "end of times: visions and nightmares of the future" (including cycerpunk);

No. 5 contains material referring to the beginning of modern times, symbolized by the sailing off of Columbus and the discovery of America as the starting point for modern European history;

No. 6 contains texts of classical authors in the field of education; this window was chosen for the aspect because gardening and the cultivation of plants was formerly used as a metaphor for educational activities, and pedagogues viewed themselves as gardeners;

No. 7, the artist's shop, contains texts on the education of girls and women; this window was chosen for the purpose because it emphasizes the constructionist elements of modern thinking about women;

No. 8 contains texts which reflect upon the present, just as might have been the case in lectures of the 17th century;

No. 9 - the window in the window - contains material about the Thirty Years' and other wars;

No. 10 contains scientific literature about Komensky's work;

No. 11 contains soundclips with Komensky's own voice in Latin and German and his wife´s voice in Czech - one of the wonders made possible by information technology, unthought of before;

No. 12 is not quite figured out yet;

No. 13 contains electronic links to useful (Comenius) websites

No. 14 is a workshop with picture galleries and other materials for further uses

No. 15 contains excerpts from Komensky's writings

No. 16 shows the respective subject of the window activated;

No. 17 like No. 12 is undecided yet;

under No. 18 you'll find help to ease you through the exhibition;

No. 19 contains pedagogical literature of today, and finally

No. 20 is our copyright, contributors and acknowledgments site.

In the seminar the students have to deliver digitalized materials to be put into these windows. Into their individual paths, on the other hand, they put the materials they want, also additional ones, and design them the way they want; the only condition here is that the path must refer to or analyze a specified pedagogical question or theoretical problem. Apart from that the topic for each individual path is chosen by the students themselves. There is one backdraw to be made here; it would of course be more consequent to let the students develop the idea for the interface themselves and not let them use one defined by someone else (certainly I was the one who learned most by trying to figure out the "best way" for the management of the exhibition material); so maybe the next step will be to drop this exhibition and make room for other online experiments of this kind which serve the purpose of Selbsttätigkeit better. (So far no path in the exhibition sufficiantly illustrates how they should turn out, but there certainly will be a number of examples by the end of the summer term.)


If teachers are to maintain the role they are supposed to have according to the best ideals of Enlightenment, they must experience themselves as knowledge organizers. Equally they must learn and reflect upon best ways to help others to create and communicate knowledge and information.

To a certain extent, therefore, students and especially future teachers must learn to become interface designers themselves. This is why scientific production and university teaching, too, especially under the conditions of new technology, should be conceptualized and understood as interface designing - at least to a certain extent. Apart perhaps from 'Do it Yourself' and of course John Dewey´s 'Learning by Doing' there is - as far as I can see - no adequate English translation for the term Selbsttätigkeit which has been the central category of modern educational thinking in Germany and Switzerland: of Bildungstheorie like for example in Wilhelm v. Humboldt, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Twohundred years ago, the term Selbsttätigkeit was the equivalent for the then new concepts of science and education to the bourgeois economic and political ideal of freedom and independence. I'm quite sure that the old concept of Selbsttätigkeit will turn out helpful for the task of rethinking knowledge management today.

Humboldt       Schleiermacher       Pestalozzi als Erzieher

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Website Ingrid Lohmann. Last update Oct. 4, 2001