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The Most Powerful Idea in the World
August 3, 2010 - 9:00pm

In William Rosen's masterful new book, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, the most powerful idea is not the invention of the steam engine. Rather, the title refers to the development of the concept that ideas can be property, and that through the availability of patent law and capital, individuals tinkerers can become industrial scale innovators.

Rosen notes that: "From 1700 to 2000, the world's population has increased twelvefold - but its production of goods and services a hundredfold". (page 316) Will the innovations around digital technology, from cheap and powerful mobile computing devices to robust cloud based applications, bring about a commensurate rise in productivity as the industrial revolution? The steam engine allowed the cost of energy to come down rapidly, through its original use as the power source to pump out coal mines to its subsequent use in locomotives to bring down the costs of transporting coal. Today, it is less clear if digital technologies can bring about similar improvements in the productivity of education (increased access and quality at reduced costs), that the steam engine did for energy productivity in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is ironic that the very intellectual property protections that catalyzed the willingness of inventors and entrepreneurs to invest their energy and money into the steam engine that are perhaps retarding innovations in education. Much of our current economic prosperity is built on the concept that ideas are property, yet many of the barriers to extending learning at low cost run up against this principle. Efforts to extend the infrastructure and content of learning outside of the marketplace, through open source and open educational content, have failed to significantly bring costs down or increase access.

Are we in the midst of an educational revolution powered by technology? Or are we grafting new technologies on old structures, changing education only at the margins?

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