In an age of Wikipedia, powerful search engines, and forums loaded with insights from volunteers, information is truly becoming free (economically), and thus worth even less than agriculture or manufacturing. So what has replaced information as the source of value?
The answer is expertise. Because most activities offering a good return on investment require some rule-breaking--some challenge to assumptions, some paradigm shift--everyone looks for experts who can manipulate current practice nimbly and see beyond current practice. We are all seeking guides and mentors.
Hmmm. It seems to me that in the future, with information and data so ubiquitous, what we have to offer to our students is expertise. But expertise in what? Perhaps a topic for another post...
But a combination of technological support and user commitment could promote more online learning. We should have rich media that allow people to differentiate themselves through avatars or other indications of personality, and technologies for forums that mix the immediacy of chat with spaces for posting and manipulating files. Culture change is also required: experts have to be willing to guide a new user step by step during explorations of a problem, and the new users have to take correction in good humor.
Finally, I am convinced that professionally written and professionally edited documentation will maintain its usefulness. A text, as English professors have long said, is one half of a conversation, and the reader provides the other half. (Famous texts become the focus of a multi-reader conversation that can continue for thousands of years, but that's another issue.) So a learner who can engage with a text as well as with a human trainer has a chance to benefit from a very concentrated form of expertise.
In a sense, a justification for the existence of the company he works for, O'Reilly. But still some good points. In an age of abundance, will we pay for quality. Of course, the comments has some lively discussion too.
Vincent van Wylick [09.05.07 06:44 AM]
It's a nicely written argument, but I'm sorry, I don't agree with you. Expertise is something that has always been valuable, before the information-age, after, and in-between. We will certainly need it to shift paradigms and transverse to a new age, but it does not, in my opinion, represent an age in itself. And with the age of free information, it is also doubtful whether expertise will have a high ROI for very long time either. For instance, I would feel fine developing expertise, using it for my own business, and publishing what I learned for free on my / a blog.
Ah, the problem of people giving away their expertise. Hard to compete with free. The idea that there are "knowledge workers" out there who are willing to donate their expertise is fundamental to many concepts, such as free and open source software.
Tim O'Reilly himself chips in (a long comment, heavily edited by me):
Tim O'Reilly [09.05.07 08:48 AM]
I'm not sure I believe your premise that information is becoming free. Just because some kinds of information are becoming widely available for free doesn't mean that all kinds are. In fact, I think there's a kind of law of conservation in this area, in which as some kinds of things become free, others become valuable and hoarded.
And while I do believe in the value of expertise, it seems to me that it's incorrect to say that it comes "after" the information age. Expertise has always been key to the information age.
What we're facing today in the collective intelligence era (which is what I'm going to start calling Web 2.0) is the rise of new forms of computer mediated aggregators and new forms of collective curation and communication.
These do, in many cases, replace the kind of expertise that I outline above.
But there's another kind of "expertise," which has more to do with intuition, insight, and application of knowledge. It can be enabled by knowing lots of stuff (the traditional definition of expertise) but it is far more than that, and in fact, sometimes benefits from knowing less. When all the experts agree, it's often the outsider with a fresh point of view who shakes things up.
Knowledge vs. information vs. expertise, the issues that are driving a lot of the conversations going on in the profession these days.
Oram has a series of posts on computer documentation and many of the concepts he explores are relevant.