I can still recall the excitement and pride each time, as a teenager back in the 1960s, that I bought the latest Beatles LP. The only way that I could listen to my favourite music at a time and place of my own choosing was, of course, to own my own discs, so it was not surprising that my peers and I took great pride in the ownership of our record collections. Today, of course, there is no need for physical ownership in order to hear our choice of music wherever and whenever we like. Internet technology enables us to share and listen to music in all sorts of ways that do not require ownership. This is just one example of the ‘sharing economy’, a phenomenon that is driven largely by the ease of information exchange made possible by Internet technology, and that challenges traditional assumptions about the benefits of exclusive ownership.
Even as a teenager I thought (when I was not listening to my favourite music) it was rather crazy that everyone living on our street owned their own lawnmower, when no one could have any possible reason to use a lawnmower for more than about 30 minutes a week. Why not share?
Recorded music and lawnmowers exemplify, respectively, the two key drivers of the sharing economy:
- reduction in scarcity through the digitisation of information
- utilisation of spare capacity through exchange of information
Both recorded music and text have lost their scarcity value because they can be reduced to streams of binary data that can be sent anywhere in the world at the click of a button. Free music is available through (for example) YouTube, and free books are available through (for example) Project Gutenberg. Now these systems are not completely free, of course, because the infrastructure and gadgetry cost money. But usually once you have bought into a system you are free to access as much stuff as you like without additional cost.
Internet communication also makes it easier than ever to utilise spare capacity, and not just for lawnmowers. It is estimated, for example, that the average car is parked for over 90% of the time. Hence the increasing popularity of Internet-based car-sharing schemes as an alternative to car ownership.
Reduced scarcity and improved ways of utilising spare capacity are transforming our lives through many very different forms of sharing, some commercial and some not. Examples include Airbnb, Blablacar, Couchsurfing, Ebay, Freecycle, HuffPo, Snapgoods, Uber and Zopa. They work in very different ways but what they all have in common is that they challenge and disrupt – and sometimes upset – those involved in traditional methods of providing goods and services. (Just ask a London black cab driver what s/he thinks of Uber!)
But could the sharing economy also challenge, disrupt and upset traditional methods of providing education? The resources needed for education certainly seem to have something in common with both recorded music and lawnmowers. The traditional scarcity value of educational text is certainly evaporating. Just think of how easy it is now to access academic journals compared with the situation a few decades ago, when one had to track them down in the stacks of university libraries. And of course this evaporation of scarcity is very much what those of us who are committed to open educational resources have been promoting.
As for spare capacity, I believe that we disgracefully underuse the physical resources represented by schools, colleges and universities. I wrote about this here a year or so ago: “Schools and colleges are locked shut for far more hours in the year than any other public building I can think of.” Sometimes I wonder if the open education movement ought to focus on physically unlocking buildings as well as on metaphorically unlocking text- and video-based resources.
Before we had Internet technology, educational resources were scarce and so we needed institutions (colleges, libraries, universities) and hierarchies of power in order to control, manage and restrict access to these scarce resources. I suggest that many of our assumptions about the management and structure of educational institutions are based on this history of scarcity.
So how might a sharing educational economy work?
What would an educational version of Airbnb look like?
Over to you, dear readers.
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