The “MOOC revolution” in higher education— the advent of massive online open courses—is causing massive anxiety in American universities, where professors are worried about the consequences of computers replacing campuses as places where people learn, reports. Two hundred years ago, higher education faced a different distance-learning technology, one as cutting-edge as MOOCs, that also augured a revolution in the way we think about knowledge. “A textbook is something anyone can read no matter who they are or where they’re from. It allows education to occur on a global, universal scale,” says Hansun Hsiung, a fourth-year graduate student at Harvard University who studies the rise and spread of textbooks in late-18th-century Europe and Japan. Today it might seem that there’s nothing more boring or conventional than textbooks, but 200 years ago they were a radical idea. Before textbooks, learning typically happened through direct exchanges between students and professors. But beginning in the 18th century, scholars began redacting blocks of information into standardized books that laid out content in logical, easily digestible fashion. The goal of the textbook, according to one 18th-century French pedagogue, was to “make all truths universally familiar, and spare [ourselves] any useless effort in learning.”

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