Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The End of Expertise Scarcity

The holy grail of learning is: expertise.

The expert doesn't just know more and better than the beginner: she knows differently. (This implies that knowing is a how and not just a what, an action and not just a state.) 

Learning involves "automaticity": making a series of steps into one whole thing which we can do without thinking. It's a form of efficiency. Experts get things in and out of memory more quickly and in larger and more complex patterns

This is not a new insight: Aristotle already connected excellence to habit. 

But expertise is a hot topic. Malcolm Gladwell made it a hot thing by flagging the idea of "10,000 hours of practice" in one of his nerd-hot books. There is more research than you can shake a stick at. (Yes, there are expertise experts.) And there is no shortage of good advice about how to teach and train for expertise. 

All very well. We're all shooting for expertise.

Here's the rub. Most higher education rests on a single assumption--one that is increasingly dubious. This assumption is: expertise exists at the center of an economy of scarcity.

Consider the classroom. There is only one expert (a few, if you count the Teaching Assistants). The expert is the summit of a pyramid or the hub of a wheel's spokes. Everyone needs to be connected to the one expert.
  • We read experts' books.
  • We listen to the expert's lectures.
  • We give your work to the expert for feedback.
But the expert's time is limited: she's a scarce resource. So the access is limited. The opportunities for feedback are limited. Lectures are deemed the most "efficient" way for the expert to share her expertise--no matter how much evidence might question that assumption.

Nowadays it is fashionable to assume that the Massive Open Online Course (the MOOC) will change all this. But the MOOC  still has a single expert or two, and the "feedback" from experts is highly limited.

Say you want to learn how:
  • to knit, 
  • to sew, 
  • to play the guitar, 
  • to apply stucco,
  • to rewire a lamp,
  • to write a sonnet, 
  • to build a web site, 
  • to calculate an integral. 
Today there are no lack of resources from which to learn. We're fairly drowning in information--as has been observed for several decades. Now you can find an online video showing any of these things 50 times over. But stored media resources are very limited.
  • Which resource is the best? 
  • Where should you start? 
  • Are you doing a good job? 
In short:
  • What is the curriculum--the sequence of tasks which supports success?
  • What are the standards that define excellence?
  • Where's the feedback on my performance?
The contrasting term for scarcity economy is: the network. A network is not a pyramid, and it is not the spokes of a wheel. Instead of a single one-to-many connection, a network is connections: one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many.

Sociologist Manuel Castells described the features of a networked society. Instead of scarcity being the key question, the networked society has three key questions:
  • Can you find the node you need?
  • How far is it from one node to another?
  • Are you connected to the network or offline?
Today there really is no scarcity of expertise: you just don't know where it is. You can't find it, don't know how far it is, and may not be connected. There could be an expert next door, down the street, in your home town or in your social network. You just don't know it yet. 

If expertise were networked, the scarcity economy would end--and the model on which higher education is based would go with it.

A digital economy already reaches beyond scarcity. The recording and movie industries have already been transformed because an audio recording and a video are now easier and faster to make because they no longer require a separate physical medium: they use the same media the computer uses for so many other storage and retrieval tasks.

Now that we are all networked with various devices--phones, tablets, laptops, computers--when it comes to learning, it is now possible for us to shift away from the scarcity economy of expertise. The internet should do for learning what it did for music and movie buying, listening and watching.

It comes down to sharing. If we had a platform to share expertise with each other, the scarcity economy that defines higher education would be gone--and the price would fall. 

--Edward R. O'Neill

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