The total volume of information available in the world is unbelievably large and is increasing exponentially. Much of this information is becoming available on the world wide web. I refer to this subset as the WAC, or “Wide Area Content.” WAC includes everything from journals on quantum physics to home videos on YouTube, and everything in between. One just has to do a Google search to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the information available at the click of a mouse.
It is reasonable to assume that a very small percentage of the WAC is relevant for any specific purpose. Let’s restrict ourselves to education for now. I refer to any subset defined for a specific purpose as the “Narrow Area Content” or NAC. The NAC, like the WAC, is also multimedia: text, graphics, audio, and video. There is a basic distinction between the two. The NAC is assessed intensively or repeatedly, whereas the WAC is accessed extensively. While learning a subject, repeated exposure to specific content is required by an individuals. Furthermore, the same content is also repeatedly accessed by a large number of other individuals similarly learning the subject as in a school environment.
It is important to stress that the WAC is a superset of NAC. So theoretically if you have access to the WAC, you have access to the NAC. The novice needs access to the NAC while the expert needs access to the WAC. While the expert can identify the NAC from among the WAC, a novice with her limited understanding of the subject area is likely to get lost in the WAC.
To illustrate that point, suppose you do a Google search on “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” you get 539,000 results. (Footnote: When I did the search with “Prisoners Dilemma” — in essence misspelling the term, I got 280,000 results. This shows that minor variations in spelling can radically change the search results and therefore how difficult it is to search effectively on the web.) Somewhere on the 14th page of search results is the definitive introductory work which an expert will take only a few minutes to identify. A novice will have to be very lucky to identify that same work without spending days crawling through hundreds of pages.
To illustrate the distinction between the WAC and the NAC, consider this. First, an economics textbook such as “Microeconomic Theory” by Hal Varian. Many students in the process of learning the basics of micro theory need access to the text, and each student requires repeated access to the text over the period of study. That text is part of NAC. Contrast that with papers on microeconomic theory that are of interest to doctoral students of economics. These papers are accessed only occasionally and that too by not all doctoral students of economics. This sort of information is part of the WAC.
One way to state the distinction between the WAC and NAC is to note that the former consists of a very large number of pages, the average number of page hits on which are small; and the latter consist of a much smaller number of pages with very high average number of hits. Thus 50,000 pages of an economics journal will get an average hit rate of perhaps 1 per year (assume 500 researchers accessing about 100 pages a year), while 200 pages of the basic economics text book will get . . . Let’s do the numbers. The average student reads a text book about 10 times over the course of the term. If a particular school has 100 students reading that text book, that implies 1,000 accesses to the entire book. In other words, the average hit rate for the pages of the book is 1,000 during a term. If the text is used for five consecutive terms for different batches of students, then the content of the book is accessed 5,000 times.
Here are the two points from the concocted example above that need underlining: First, the NAC is accessed orders of magnitude more often than the WAC. Second, the NAC is orders of magnitude smaller than the WAC.
In the next bit, I would like to explore the implications of the above two facts. You have to know the NAC if you wish to make anything of the WAC.