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.