The Next Big Thing

A little while ago, I asked readers to identify the Next Big Thing in blogging. Although not immediately blog-related, it looks like this Amazon initiative may be it. Amazon has digitized about 100 000 books, and offers you the capacity to search within them.

In blog terms, the most notable implication is that it provides bloggers with a vast source of linkable raw material on which to comment. (I assume linking requires you to download the book segment provided by Amazon, then upload it, which is a bit more trouble than linking to a Web page, but no doubt this process will be simplified over time).

Maybe less dramatic, but possibly equally important is the MIT Open Courseware initiative. MIT has made the course materials for over 500 courses, included lecture notes, slides and exams, available to anyone who wants to use them. Here for example is an introductory course on game theory.

One immediate impact is to kill off, once and for all, the most popular version of the commercial online university. During the dotcom bubble, a number of leading universities tried to establish online commercial ventures and many others tried to assert ownership of course materials produced by their staff, with a view to selling it online. Clearly that isn’t going to happen now that MIT is giving its materials away.

A second impact is to make it much easier for a competent lecturer to set up a new course from scratch, even in a relatively poor (but Internet-connected) university in a less-developed or middle-income country. Using course materials developed by someone else at MIT is not a substitute for a well-prepared course in a field where you are already at or near the frontier, but it’s a very good starting point for anyone who is not at that position. And once MIT has done the hard work of setting up a coherent delivery system, there’s every reason to hope that other institutions will join in.

Even for universities that are already in the top 25 (all 50 of them!) there would be big benefits if publication of course materials became as routine as publication of journal articles is today.