How does knowledge expand so fast?

Often times when I present to educators there is a discussion about the relevance of content. Not the content is irrelevant, but that is changing so rapidly that it is extremely hard to keep pace with the change. We often hear data that says knowledge is doubling every… you fill in the blank, every 12 months, every 18 months, every 24 months. I’m not quite sure how these numbers are calculated and for the longest time I wasn’t sure how this explosion in knowledge occures.

Evidently I’m not the only one that has that question. On several occasions individuals have approached me following my presentation and asked, “Just how is knowledge expanding so fast?” Usually followed by, “I just don’t get it.” I recently was vividly reminded how the explosion in knowledge occurs.

As you may be aware from previous blog post I don’t type these posts, I enter them with speech to text software. A couple of weeks ago one of my friends and colleagues, Kevin Honeycutt, began using the same speech to text software. Now for those of you that know Kevin, you know that he is a social networking fanatic. When he started using his new speech to text software he was very excited and posted a comment to Plurk and twitter. Within 30 minutes a representative of the company that makes the software contacted him to see how he liked his software.

Of course he was amazed and delighted, and also a little creeped out :-) It’s worth analyzing how the company knew that he commented and why. Most likely, the company has created a Google alert that notifies them immediately any time Google detects whatever word or phrase the company was looking for, and e-mails them immediately. if you haven’t done a Google alert it’s easy and fun. Just go to google.com (if you don’t have an account just create one quickly, it free) and click on Google alerts, enter a phrase, and tell it you want to be notified once a day or every time an instance occurs.

So how does this make knowledge expand? Think about this, you are a scientist and this morning in your lab you made a discovery. During your coffee break you post to your blog and explain what you discovered. Soon after you posted your blog a spider from Google crawled through your bog and indexed it. As it crawled through your blog it found the exactly phrase a scientist on the other side of the world was looking for. She’d created a Google alert looking for that phrase, and as soon as Google found it, it sent her an e-mail with a link to your blog.

So on the other side of the world she was having her morning coffee and looking through her Google alerts. She found a link to your blog, clicked on it, went to your blog, read about your discovery, and a great big lightbulb went off in her head! The discovery you made was just a piece of information that she needed to move forward on her own work. She quickly applied the piece of information you had supplied and made even more gains in her work. At the end of the day, she posted her discovery to her blog and another scientist somewhere else in the world had his light turned on by her piece of information. And so the cycle goes.

In the past your initial discovery would have been written into a formal paper, submitted for peer review, published, and some months or years later ended up on her desk for her to read in a professional journal. In the 21st century that process takes hours or minutes. So you can see that the sharing of information is speeding up how quickly discoveries are made, shared, and used to create new knowledge.

Now the bad news. When speaking to educators I now ask them how many have set up Google alerts in their subject area so that they are staying current on the most up-to-date knowledge and discoveries in their field. How many respond? Almost none. It’s not all their fault, there are many barriers. Most schools mandate a textbook that the teacher must use in which the information is dreadfully out of date. Almost all states have high stakes standardized test that are as out of date as the textbooks.

So send me a comment and tell me what you think about this, I’d love to hear from you.

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