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An Interview with Howard Rheingold

By Laurie Rowell, Howard Rheingold / February 2010

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Howard Rheingold, writer, educator, and thinker, is renowned for tracking not just what is going on now in the digital world, but where the digital world will be going next. His books, such as Tools for Thought (1985), Virtual Reality (1991), The Virtual Community (1994) and Smart Mobs in (2002), usher in the next adventure in computer-human interaction.

In 2008 he was one of the winners of the Digital Media and Learning competition sponsored by HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation, an award he used to fund and design the Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory, a free service that integrates social media tools like wikis, chat rooms, social bookmarking, video conferencing, and forums into a coherent solution for both students and educators. He currently teaches Digital Journalism at Stanford University and Virtual Community and Social Media at University of California-Berkeley.

Laurie Rowell: How has greater access to information changed the character of scholarship and what implications does that have going forward?

Howard Reingold: I think you have to parse greater access to information in a couple of ways. First of all, information used to be authoritative; that is, you obtained information that was authorized. A book in a library was something that was edited and published and accepted by the library by official gatekeepers, and you could pretty much accept the validity of that knowledge.

The change that the Internet has brought is that anybody is able to publish anything, so there has been an explosion of information that's available. The person whose library is inadequate but who has an Internet connection has seen a radical expansion of the information that's available to them. And that information is interconnected; there is information about information. There are search engines, metadata, and links that you don't find from isolated pieces of information in traditional libraries.

At the same time, the authority of that information is no longer unquestionable. It's up to the consumer of the information, not the publisher of the information to test the authenticity of that information. So that's a radical change—in what information is available, the way the information available is structured and how it's connected to other information, and the degree to which it is available to people outside of your university library and your traditional means of accessing information. Equally importantly, the reliability, the accuracy of the information, can no longer be assumed and must be tested.

LR: That sounds like part of your "21st Century Literacies" discussion.

HR: That is in part a reaction to these changes. They are changes so radical to our knowledge and education structures that we don't really have time to use traditional means of changing education to enable people to cope with the changes in the environment.

LR: Tell me some of the rest of your concerns about 21st century literacy.

HR: I'm focusing on five literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection, and network awareness.

Librarians know crap detection as "credibility testing." I took "crap detection" from an Ernest Hemingway quote in which he said that what journalists need is an infallible internal crap detector.

What anybody who's going to be cut loose on the Internet anywhere in the world at any age needs to know are essentially two interconnected skills. One is "How do I find the answer to any question I would like to know?" Traditionally librarians are the specialists who help with this, and I think going forward that librarians are going to be even more important in helping with this particular literacy.

The other question, closely connected to that one, is "Once I use search to find the answer to anything I want to know, how do I determine that the answer is accurate?" The ability to test in a number of ways the credibility of information you find is going to become a central literacy. I don't see that taught to people before they get onto the Internet, and I think that's very important.

None of these literacies live in isolation. They are interconnected.

Participation literacy: So if you look at the statistics that have come out in the recent Pew Internet and American Life studies, a majority of American youth not only consume, but create and author online, whether that's customizing their MySpace page, or running a blog, or even running a YouTube channel. We are seeing that the newcomers to this new world, the young people who are growing up with online media, are not just passive consumers of information but active creators of it.

That doesn't necessarily mean that they understand the rhetorics of these media and how to interpret them to their own advantage. How do you use RSS to track an issue that concerns you? How do you use a blog to advocate a position on the use of a wiki to organize a plan to action? These I think are appropriate places for interventions by educators.

Although young people teach each other all kinds of things, they are not necessarily teaching themselves these rhetorics of participation, which I think are particularly important for citizens. The whole notion of the public sphere is that we have sufficiently well-educated citizens who are sufficiently free to access information about workings of the state so that they will be able to govern themselves.

The press has played an important role in that part of democracy. Now the press is being changed by these very same forces.

Collaboration: From the web itself to Wikipedia to open source, people are doing things together online that they've never been able to do before. There are definitely skills and literacies around being able to collaborate online.

Then finally I talk about network awareness. The Gutenberg Revolution was an information society. We are a network society. Humans have always interacted in social networks. It's an essential part of being human. It's an essential part of the advantage our species has, but there are physical limitations on who you can network with, how many people you can network with and how far away they should be, and we have now seen that the technological networks from the telephone network to the Internet have vastly expanded both in space and breadth and time the number and variety of people that we can contact in various ways in networks.

Understanding the nature of networks, the relationship between the structure of networks and the function, understanding the way small-world networks work, the kind of structural knowledge of networks that's emerging from network theory is, I think, essential for anyone who's going to live in that world.

But also there are some specifics, such as the digital footprints you leave when you are online and what you can do about it and what you can't do about it and understanding of your digital profile and the strategic importance of building one that works for you, knowing where the privacy controls on Facebook [are] located and why you want to be able to change those privacy controls. I think those are all important literacies that are all connected.

I haven't really talked about attention. That's the whole issue about laptops in the classroom, people using their Blackberry while they talk with you. We really have not adjusted our social norms to these new technologies that enable people to be always "on" wherever they are.

LR: Do you think our use of electronics has changed the character of reflective thought?

HR: One issue that has been raised—I think Sherry Turkle has raised it very well—is that there used to be a lot of interstices in daily life—walking down the street, waiting on the bus, waiting in line at the bank —in which people were alone, alone with their thoughts. Now people are rarely alone with their thoughts. You're either connected through your communication device or you're listening to your personal electronics, or you're watching a television show on your laptop or your cell phone. So I think the opportunities for individual reflection certainly have been diminished because of all the things that we can do during all those times that were formerly down time.

I think that's a matter of concern, for reflection is an important part of every spiritual tradition. I find students, when I ask them to reflect, need to be taught how to do it. It's not something that they're taught in school.

LR: A number of colleges and universities are facing steep budget cuts these days; how do you see that affecting the integration of technology into classrooms and research projects?

HR: Don't mistake me for an expert on institutions. Henry Jenkins and others in their report to the MacArthur Foundation said, I think quite wisely, that understanding the importance of these new literacies that are reactions to the new ways that knowledge is produced is not just another topic to shoehorn into the curriculum. It entails a wholly different way of looking at how education takes place. It's collaborative. It has less to do with delivering knowledge and more to do with learning skills and learning critical thinking.

There is a significant change in the role of the teacher as the authority. Rather than the authoritative deliverer of knowledge, they're the chief learners. So a lot of these are very challenging to institutions and to people who are familiar with old ways of doing things. There is a conflict going on there.

Of course, the capital investment of buying technology is often cited as the most important obstacle, but I would point out that if you buy the technology and can't support it, it's a waste of money. If you buy the technology and can support it but you don't have people who know how the technology is best used to achieve the institution's educational goals then, again, it is a waste of money.

LR: Talk about the Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory and take me through the experience of the typical educator who might be using this tool.

HR: I created the Social Media Classroom when I started using social media to teach about social media (that's what I have expertise on). But I've talked to enough educators in enough different fields to know that you can use social media to great effect in everything from geography to writing to scientific subjects. So when I started teaching them, I cobbled together a forum here, a wiki there, and a blog from a third party.

The students reacted by saying, "Not only do we have new subject matter" --of course, that's what a course is about, new subject matter--"but you're asking us to interact with all these new media in different ways. You're asking us to learn new collaborative ways and at the same time we have to learn all these different interfaces and all of these different logins."

So what I did was I started using the Drupal content management system because it's clean open source, and it does have a community of developers and does have some aspects of it that are ready to use. I started putting together Drupal modules. The [result] was a browser in which each tab would access a different medium so you could go from the forum to the wiki to the blog to social bookmarks very quickly with the same user interface and the same login and you'd be able to make links between these. I quickly found out it wasn't so easy for someone who is not really a programmer to put that together.

So I applied for the Digital Media and Learning competition that MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC run, and I was one of the winners the first year. The award money went to a developer who I worked with to develop a Social Media Classroom that could be downloaded for free if you have a server and some IT expertise to install it and configure it. Also we run a hosted version, so if you don't have a server and IT expertise, you can run it in our hosted environment.

We've got a couple dozen educators around the world using the social media classroom. I've used [it] to teach my social media class and to teach my digital journalism class about seven times. So that's a semester at University of California-Berkeley and a quarter at Stanford University. A number of people at both of those institutions—Stanford and Berkeley—are beginning to spread the word about it. And there are others around the world who are using it.

It still needs to be made easier to use, easier to download and configure and deploy, but we've run out of funds. So we're looking for funding to make it even easier. But this is a development process. I think ultimately students need to be able to mix and match the free Web 2.0 tools that are available to them, but I think before they are able to do that, they need something with training wheels, which this is, or an onramp to Media 2.0 stuff.

There's lots of information about this at

LR: You've written extensively about the emergence of the computer as an aid to thinking and as a "smart assistant." How will this human-computer symbiosis affect learning, education, and human thought in the next decade and beyond?

HR: Doug Engelbart, who is responsible for a lot of this, wrote Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. In 1962 he was talking about a system that used humans using language, artifacts, methodology, and training. Since 1962, we have seen enormous progress in the power of the tools and artifacts themselves, but the language we use and the methodology and the training have not advanced to that degree. When you're talking about education, as I mentioned before, this is a thing that technology has invented.

Going back to John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Neil Postman, there have been a number of educators and theorists about education who talk about education being more about inquiry, more about finding out for yourself than having knowledge delivered to you, more about collaboration rather than performing strictly for the teacher, more about constructing knowledge by doing things. These ideas are not new, but the technology affords all these techniques much better than they were afforded before.

I think there are tremendous opportunities, all kinds of educators out there—Mike Wesch's videos illustrate them very well—who are using all kinds of web technologies. It's not about technology; it's really about teaching and learning, and taking advantage of not only the knowledge and media that are available, but the communication capabilities that are available today.

LR: Speak to me about how video, mobile, or other key technology players in education are going to be used going forward.

HR: Nobody rushes home to watch their favorite television show at 7:00 on Tuesday night anymore. They record it. So why do a thousand people spend all that time and carbon getting themselves into the same room to hear a lecturer give the same lecture that they've given for the last 30 years—which could well be put on YouTube? So the question of what are we doing in this room together is radically changed.

I do put my lectures online, and I do post them in blogs and forums for students to access (just as they access textbooks) at any time. Are we required to all meet at Tuesday at 3:00 to read textbooks? We assume that the textbooks are read at the student's leisure during the week and that we come together to discuss them. So there are already a lot of changes.

Also the kinds of collaborative projects that students can do now have real scope. It's not just a toy project, but you can create a public good, a resource repository, or a tool that is available for others to use in the world. It's hugely motivating not just to get a good grade from a teacher but to get peer recognition and to get others in the world to be able to use what you've created.

LR: One last question. Tell me about your shoes.

HR: I paint my shoes. People ask me "Why?" And I guess my question is "Why not?" We don't have to buy all our culture from others, and we don't have to assume that you have to be a specialist to be an artist. So I paint my shoes.

LR: Do you do it yourself?

HR: Yes. In fact, if you Google "How to paint your shoes," you'll get my page.


  • Sat, 28 Nov 2009
    Post by Rick Reynolds

    I know exactly what you mean, Jane; I have been going through the same thing, myself.

    I just got the opportunity to develop an online school and course, but without much of a budget. So I'm going though all the possible ways to implement it, and unfortunately speed and cost need to be leading factors in what I choose. I won't settle for anything that isn't really good, but pulling that off on a tight budget will be a challenge. If you or anyone else has ideas, feel free to chime in! :)

    Thanks, Rick

  • Tue, 13 Oct 2009
    Post by Milton Bulian

    Here's another sign of the times: Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) building e-learning modules using an authoring tool and a templated approach. In technical training fields, they generally have less education than a degreed instructional designer, so they work for less. However, they also generally have less experience with learning theory and principles of education in general. Without proper front-end analysis and strong objectives on which to base instruction, much of the courseware is a testament to their knowledge of the subject and little more. One approach by an entrepreneurial ID consultant is to offer on-site training in instructional design principles specifically geared for SMEs.

  • Wed, 03 Jun 2009
    Post by Elizabeth Lair

    I think Jane has made a very good point that there is a move away from thoughtful instructional design to make way for rapid eLearning development. Too many elearning developers are attempting to take a classroom training or a policy and drop it into an eLearning module. The power of interactive and engaging training must be embedded in on-line learning or we will miss the mark.

  • Mon, 30 Mar 2009
    Post by Bob Smtih

    Outstanding brief article. I might add that gaming is the next iteration. However, we''re not even close to harnassing the learning potential of social networking.

  • Sun, 22 Mar 2009
    Post by Mary

    I see this happening in my govt agency too. Higher ups are more interested in putting a power point slide show (without any Bozarth enhancements) in the LMS and calling it training than investing in training classroom trainers to become elearning developers. The idea is that if you read it, you were trained ... sign here to document you were trained. I am hopeful that training evaluation and performance management may demonstrate the error of these ways.

  • Tue, 10 Mar 2009
    Post by Gary Woodill

    The question of "how the traditional classroom came to be held in such exalted esteem" is an interesting one. I would suggest that the elevation of the classroom is connected to the need for "standardization" of educational outcomes in terms of both knowledge and behaviors. This was demanded by the developing industrialization of the 18th century, culminating in the "monitorial education" and compulsory schooling of the late 19th century. The times and economic system demanded conformity and common knowledge for a stable capitalism to work. The present "post-industrial" era requires much more creativity and problem solving, and therefore a lack of conformity. That has helped to create the opening for the use of technologies that move us away from the stifling technology of the classroom.