A pedagogy of abundance

It has been said that previous economic models were based on scarcity. In a physical world one has to deal with the basic principle that once you give something away you no longer have it. Resources are finite. Making them, sharing them, moving them, storing them – it all eats up resource. But in a digital world these considerations disappear, or drop to near zero (there is still a cost in storing say, but nowhere near as much as a physical item if we compared a digital book with a real one for example). We thus need a new form of economics that accommodates this – an economy of abundance.

As an aside, this is why the attempts by Lily Allen and Peter Mandelson to control filesharing are fundamentally wrong – they are still grounded in the assumption of scarcity.

It strikes me that a similar argument could be made for pedagogy. We have developed pedagogies of scarcity – when resources were difficult to access and locate. These could be content in the form of books or articles (thus we carefully select these for the students), or in the form of an individual (thus we create the lecture system where people can get access to them in a physical space). But even more than this we know that collaboration is time consuming so we develop pedagogy around structuring this difficult task.

But in a digital world many of these assumptions again disappear. We have access to all the content we need and we can be part of an individual’s network without that taking extra time from them – if I start reading someone’s blog it doesn’t cost them anything for me to be added to the readership. And sharing has become a much simpler action, almost a by-product of just existing online. And while sharing is not the same as collaboration, it is also more than just working alone.

So what is the pedagogy of abundance? Resource based learning and Problem based learning are reasonable contenders since one could argue they set about providing a framework for interpreting and working with content. George Siemens connectivism is probably the main contender as it puts the emphasis on connections in the network. I also heard Rosemary Luckin talk recently about participatory science and the model they have developed at London Knowledge Labs. This again is a contender because it places the individual at the centre of a network of resources, environment and tools, with a set of filters inbetween.
But I still feel that we haven’t really developed a pedagogy that has some of the following basic assumptions:

  • Content is free and abundant
  • Sharing is frictionless
  • Social interaction is key
  • Complexity resides in the network
  • Complexity arises because people don’t explicitly collaborate
  • The filter is significant

So, I’d be interested to hear if you think there are other contenders for a pedagogy of abundance and also other characteristics it should embody.


  1. Is everything in abundance? Attention remains scarce doesn’t it? So the ability of learners and teachers to give their attention to both learning resources and each other remains a limiting factor. To refer back to one of your previous posts, one of the factors influencing the extent to which there will be a revolution in HE is the extent to which consumers (i.e. students and potential students) are willing to continue paying for a ‘pedagogy of attention’ (by which I mean at least partly f2f attention).
    Perhaps I’m missing something? (I don’t really talk the learning-lingo so I might be off-track here!)

  2. Hi Andy, you’re certainly not missing something, you are quite right. There is some kind of inverse law here I think between content/tools abundance and attention. As tools/content/resources become more abundant then attention becomes more scare. The reverse is also true – eg when we had a scarcity of resource on TV (only 3 channels in the 70s), then attention was in abundance – ie it was easy to get several million viewers even with a poor show.
    This is why a ‘pedagogy of abundance’ would need to accommodate this and place great emphasis on the filter, but I think you are right to raise it as it is a principle on its own, something like ‘needs to compete in an attention economy’.

  3. I think the first assumption that you lead on is perhaps too simplistically put: content can be / should be made free, because sharing is frictionless, social interaction means people will share in a way that is too complex for one organisation or publisher to follow and track, let alone control. But not all content is abundant. Lily Allen is not abundant; there is, for better or for worse, only one Lily Allen. It is therefore down to her publisher to work out a means of letting us have a bit of her for the smallest possible transaction, or for free, while providing the necessary (financial/emotional/egotistical) means to keep her producing her market-led unique stuff.
    In education, too, knowledge is often declared ‘free’ and abundant, and the stuff from history ancient and contemporary is. But for new knowledge, we must pay. Medical and scientific research, study into how language is morphing: it all attracts a cost that, in this case, publishers, governments and institutions must/could/should/do strive to make as low-cost or free as possible.
    So, as Scotty might say, “we have the technology”, to make things free or low-cost, but we – publishers, Governments, individuals with mortgages – don’t always see the clever model that makes the genuinely non-abundant stuff free.
    And frankly, I’m prepared to pay for non-abundant talent, be it academic or, I must confess, Lily Allen. For the latter, I pay by putting up with ads every now and then while I listen, or even parting with 79 of my Scottish pence. Now *there’s* a story… 😉

  4. Hi Ewan,
    the flippant aside to the music industry was probably a mistake. I think the main point holds true about pedagogy – we haven’t developed models that have abundance of resource and lightweight sharing as key principles.
    On your points though – I agree, talent is not limitless and people need to be paid for this (although they may need to get used to being paid less than they used to). You allude to the Spotify model which I think is an example of moving to an economics of abundance. I think where Mandelson/Allen are wrong is that they think if they can just stop file-sharing we can control these resources like physical ones and then apply the same economics. They are trying to force economics of scarcity onto abundance. I think they’d be better off trying to find new models, which exploit the assumptions of abundance, which is what the music industry has been doing from the start and thus rather missing what they could be doing.

  5. I have a question regarding one of your assumptions: what do you mean with “complexity arises because people don’t explicitly collaborate” in this context?
    Is it that ideas cannot be easily tracked back to their originator? or maybe that ideas become more complex because they are distributed over different actors in a network, and therefore, it takes the learner much more time finding and constructing the pieces of the puzzle?
    Or am I looking in a completely different direction than you intended?

  6. Hi Martin
    I think this is right. Anything that can be turned into ones and zeros is immediately made adundant. Stopping that is a waste of time. Anything that can’t though remains scarce. Working out how to package the two to keep food on the table and value in the interactions is the hard part. Lots of people are racking their brains on this issue. Godin for example on the impact of scarcity and abundance on marketing and business: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/09/flipping-abundance-and-scarity.html Dan Tapscott of wikinomics fame has also waded into the pedagogy model too: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/tapscott09/tapscott09_index.html His views are not alone. The whole Edupunk thing might just be said to be a reaction to the challenges laid down by the new abundance. I’ve got a collection of the best Edupunk articles and key players here on PsychFutures:http://psychfutures.ning.com/profiles/blogs/2009-the-year-edupunks-killed
    PS we’ve met a while ago, colleague of Michael Reddy.

  7. A commenter has already noted that attention is not in abundance. I would broaden that out more to say that time is not in abundance – there is so much that I would like to be able to do, but simply do not have time to fit it in. Knowing that its all out there is frustrating…so talk about how we make so much more availabe and abundant isn’t helping either! i guess I’d have to argue for a pedagogy of the depressed (with apologies to Freire)!

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