Information Scarcity – Institutions

Why would universities work under an information scarcity model of learning and resist moving to an information abundance model of learning?

I believe that there are several reasons such as research focus, efficiency of teaching, teaching rather than learning focus, and real – rather than stated purpose.

Research Focus

The definition of a university is a higher education institution that has research as the primary activity of the institution. Some would argue that the research interests come second to teaching, however, the reality is that research is the only game in town. The status and prestige of the institution is based on research and has nothing to do with teaching. Academic hiring and promotional opportunities pay lip service to teaching but are focussed on research activities with the few teaching only posts seen (and treated as) second class academics.

The very idea that teaching release is given for excellence in research clearly states where an institutions values lie. There are even teaching only colleges that will give teaching release for what can only be called a mimic of real research. Clearly, research activities are what is valued in higher education.

In many institutions, students are actually referred to (in the backrooms and corridors) as cash cows to support the real activities of the institution. Teaching is seen as a necessary chore that is made as efficient as possible, meaning doing it with as small a resource commitment as possible, which brings us to the second reason.

Teaching Efficiency

Large lectures with as many students as possible packed into the allocated space is efficient. In one hour, a learning event for 400, 800 or even a thousand(s) students can be checked off an administrators list with the accompanying income.

In a world obsessed with efficiency of delivery and accountability of resources in virtually every aspect of our lives, maximizing efficiency in teaching is seen as a positive aspect of a successful institution. To advertise inefficiency would be seen as negative aspect of the university administration. As a result, in most institutions, minimum class sizes are specified. If fewer than twenty students sign up for a class it is canceled because it is inefficient to run such a small class.

Obsession with efficiency leads to larger and larger lecture theaters, in spite of the fact that “no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective (for learning) than lecturing”.

Teaching rather than Learning Focus

If you closely examine teaching activities in education from the earliest start through to higher education, education is focussed on teaching. In the training of a teacher, the time spent learning how people learn is almost non-existent. I was talking to a recent education graduate and he told me that he could remember the class he took that talked about how people learn, and I was very excited. I asked him what the resources that were used to teach this, and he said “I think you misunderstand me. I mean that I took a class, a one hour class about how people learn. Not a semester long class.” Needless to say, I was astounded. I knew that the emphasis on learning is minimal, but that minimal.

It doesn’t change as students get older. I have studied how people learn and how that can be applied to formal learning situations for decades now, and am considered a curiosity – not to be taken seriously. You would think that a higher education institution would want to have a learning expert somewhere in the institution. Instead, they bring in teaching experts. There is not even lip service paid to learning. It is all about teaching.

Institutional Purpose

Many institutions have, as a part of their mission statements (or whatever they call them) words like leadership, excellence, reaching potential, innovation, and on and on. Although these buzzwords are officially a part of the heart of the institution, actions speak louder than words. Larger lecture theatres, relegating teaching to a second class activity without even a mention of learning, rewarding and focussing almost exclusively on research – this is why institutions work under an information scarcity model.

Institutional Information Scarcity

Information scarcity means that information is hard to find and is housed in information repositories (universities). Learners must go to a place of learning in order to access information. Learners must gather together by the hundreds and thousands to hear the words of a scholar and engage in real learning events (lectures). Access to significant information (journals, books etc.) must be carefully controlled, and this access is sold to learners. Institutionally, an information abundant model would threaten their very existence as the guardian of information. Scarcity adds value. Without institutional control, there would be no scarcity and the cash cow (undergraduate) would disappear and the real activities of a university would cease because of the lack of funding just as newspapers and investigative journalism disappeared with the classified ads and the associated income stream.


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