The (strange) economics of learning

February 19, 2010

The economists tell me economy is really the study of scarcity…  This seems like a rather acceptable definition to me as in a financial economy I certainly feel the scarcity… of finances this is. However others have defined economies with different units of commerce.  For example, Davenport and Beck defined an economy in terms of attention – you have limited attention to “share”, so that is indeed a scarce commodity.  Maybe something on what they say in more detail in a later post. However, since I’ve been in academia I have been thinking about “learning” – afterall, this is largely what is supposed to happen at universities, whether through teaching or research.

So I have been wondering whether the economic principles can apply to learning.  It is indeed a need for knowledge that drives people to universities… or am I missing something?  Learning is a relatively time-consuming exercise, so to argue that there is a scarcity could perhaps work? Although there is no shortage of knowledge, and we won’t easily run out of it, the unit of commerce is not the knowledge, but our “acquisition” of it. Maybe the unit of commerce is “learning opportunities”. Students (learners) pay some money to be afforded the opportunity to learn something.

BUT, maybe the same principles afterall does not apply!? If a learner were to buy, say a new cellular telephone and certain numbers does not appear on the keypad they would surely complain… However, if the unit of commerce is “learning opportunities” and I were to have a short lecture (say only 30 minutes rather than the schedules 90 minutes) the students mostly go “Yeah !!!! Bonus…! 🙂 ”

I can only conclude that learning seem to adhere to a very strange economy indeed.


What is an expert?

February 10, 2010

Over the last week or so I have been thinking what makes somebody a “true” expert.  The conclusion that I have come to is that true expertise stands on multiple legs.

Firstly, knowledge.  The expert must know more than just the basics about a domain. He/she must have a solid grounding in the theoretical principles underpinning the domain.  But to KNOW is not all….

Then there is application. The expert must be able to apply his.her knowledge. In other words he/she must be able to DO something. There is a definite skills aspects to this. But, I dont think that is it…

Also contextualization is important. A true expert recognizes that his expertise is domain specific. He/she realizes that knowledge and skills are different depending on the context in which that knowledge is applied… Which leads me I suppose to the ultimate quality of an expert:

The ability to create knowledge in the domain. If you have a body of knowledge that you can apply and contextualize, you may have mastered the material in the domain in such a way that you could bring new knowledge, new understanding to a domain. A real expert grows his domain.

In a a blog interchange following The Rise of the Instant ITIL Expert James Finnister compares this to a cook that follows the recipe and the great chef who can write a great recipe. I think this is an excellent analogy!  Not recognizing what true expertise means lead to the lots of non-experts calling themsleves experts. This is certainly the situation in the ITIL playing field – see e.g. How to implement ITIL for a client.

What does this all mean? Probably that there is much less experts out there than what we think.  And the message for me and my fellow academians?  Be careful that we dont KNOW so much that we cannot DO stuff with our knowledge… we may therefore not be able to CREATE true new KNOWLEDGE… ouch!