Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The power of large numbers

I just got the following message that gmail somehow failed to flag as spam (I can't possibly be reading my messages faster than other folks--so what gives? I've grown accustomed to certain advantages in not keeping up to the minute with my email).
Dear Friend,
I am Mr.Chi-Lin Huang I work with Bank Sino Pac, formerly known
asInternational Bank of Taipei as Executive Vice President & Deputy Head
of Division,Wealth ManagementI have a deceased client funds in my bank of
$17.3M USD and I need you to front as beneficiary,your benefit is 50% of
the total funds.Ifinterested
contact me with your Name,Address and Phone number,for more information on
Huang Chi-Lin
As much as I hate to decline potentially lucrative business deals (and of course my whole life I've being dying to front as a beneficiary) I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not going to fall into 8.74 million dollars by contacting Huang Chi-Lin. And my guess is that millions of the recipients of this message feel the same way. So why go phishing with such lousy bait? Because even if you only git one nibble in a million, you've come out ahead. You've literally made almost no investment to get started.

What do we have in education that compares to this--a relatively low investment (near negligible) with the potential for high payoff? I got thinking about this after a DRK-12 conference in which there was much discussion of the "next generation" of educational problems. Several of these discussion points were closely related to web 2.0 kinds of issues (flickr was explicitly invoked for example) along with (as you'd expect MMORPGs/environments like 2nd life). While there might be tremendous benefit to seeing someone put together a learning environment in 2nd life and then share it with the world it is not what I would characterize as "almost zero investment" quite the contrary, open education is all about investment--and in some sense the ROI isn't all that grand. To date, the biggest re-use I've seen of my (admittedly quite small) contribution to the community has come from/to myself. Students going through the new CS3 version of the flash class can choose to use the Flash 8 materials if they have an old version of the software--and pull them down from OCW.

I'll grant that this has been tremendously useful. But--this still involved a fair amount of effort to put up (although I'll admit I didn't do much of the heavy lifting). So if open courseware and open education aren't the exciting investment opportunity of the educational domain what is? What comes at a minimal cost with the long odds of a high payoff? I see it in bad ways of course, my kids negotiate everything and I mean everything. Talk literally is cheap, so they've learned to speak up and see what happens--because they know it's a non-zero chance that we'll cave or change our minds. Sounds a lot like some of the behaviorist "pigeon pecking" experiments.

But can't this be a force for good? How about open content spam? You email a Shakespearean sonnet to the in boxes of teeming millions with the hope that a handful will actually read it. You add commentary/critique/discussion opportunities with the hope that 10% of them will continue on after just reading the sonnet.

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