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The Generative Nature of the Digital Economy and Its Challenge to Educators

Humans have lived with scarcity, despite occasional moments of abundance, through our entire existence. We have survived and are infinitely adapted to scarcity. But today, we struggle with material abundance, and are not doing well. We have so many cars that we are warming our planet; we have so much food that diet plans are best sellers; and, for those interested in knowledge, information streaks by constantly as if we are standing 2 feet from the side of a racing freight train. Because of the technology saturation moment that is called Web 2.0, we are struggling with an overwhelming flood of uncategorized information and uncertified sources of knowledge.

Behind this phenomenal turnaround in the human condition over the past half century is a very simple change: from a culture centered on energy that degrades from the moment it is generated (heat through pipes, electricity over wires, explosions in the pistons of automobiles) to a culture centered on energy generation that then produces more energy. From degenerative energy production to generative energy production. No, not nuclear fission. The principle of generative energy production that so defines our time relies instead on memes, a cultural unit similar to a physical gene in determining how potential plays out.

A dollar bill is a meme. The bill is only a small piece of cotton-linen-silk worth a few pennies; and the idea of a dollar unit of value as expressed in numbers in bank statements or investment portfolios is even more obviously based just on a culturally shared faith. The one dollar meme is a belief that the value of the dollar bill or the number representing a dollar is real, and that others will also accept it as real. The more that this idea is shared every day, the more dollars there are, so the energy behind this idea about a dollar is generative: The more you share the idea, the more total ideas (dollars) you have.

As velocity of exchange increases (more people spending their beliefs about the value of a dollar to get new shoes), the total wealth in the society increases. In this sense, we could think of financial exchanges as "social sites:" The New York Stock Social Site.

Economies depend on the generative energy of ideas and beliefs. But how does this principle apply in our centers of learning? How do we create value from the generative exchange of ideas, which is now the primary driver of our culture, in higher education? In previous centuries, oral traditions and print conquered distance and time so that human knowledge could be spread and preserved, but the power of idea generation in those past times seems now to have been running in slow motion. Digital technologies have added the dimension of velocity to the dimensions of distance and time. Now ideas are "exchanged" so rapidly on the Web that our knowledge wealth has grown by orders of magnitude to the point of surfeit.

In a just-released book, Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge [Iiyoshi and Kumar from MIT Press,] my co-authors Neeru Paharia and M. S. Vijay Kumar and I describe the issues of abundance in this era in the chapter "A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance." Our chapter says that one way to frame the knowledge surfeit is through open educational models.

Open education is a celebration of the abundance of ideas and knowledge. The celebration is the many ways that ideas and knowledge can be experienced now in the digital age that just a decade or two ago didn't exist. But abundance has completely changed the basic strata of higher education: Since there is no scarcity, seat time in a classroom cannot be just about getting "content." The value of that one-dimensional approach to learning has declined as quickly as mortgage investments.

How does a teacher reclaim the value of students coming to class in this time? Here's an analogy from the New York Times on September 15, 2008 [], an article entitled "Six Food Mistakes Parents Make." The mistakes are: Sending children out of the kitchen, pressuring them to take a bite, keeping "good stuff" out of reach, dieting in front of your children, serving boring vegetables, and giving up too soon.

All teachers should read this article and see how these 6 principles can analogously inform their views of teaching. Because, what we learn is that even small children don't like to be "spoon fed," but instead like to be involved in food preparation in the kitchen (they like to have a stake in the process), like to have an attractive array of food options from which they can freely choose, don't respond well to flavorless foods (boring vegetables), intuit parents' own negative views of enjoying eating (the problem of dieting in front of children), and will in fact eat foods at first rejected if parents continue to offer those foods over weeks and months.

These six principles sound a lot like open education and active learning. Making food fun, and not part of a power relationship, offering variety, and demonstrating your own joy in eating, taken together as an approach, works with getting kids to eat. It might just be a good set of principles to adopt now. The entire world is now part of a knowledge economy: Higher education is not the only show in town, but it can surely be the best show in town.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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