Saturday, August 29, 2009

Good enough

I've just read a good article in Wired Magazine called The Good Enough Revolution; When Cheap and Simple is Just Fine that had me nodding in agreement most of the time. Many of the most popular applications on the net are successful not because of their high quality but because they're easy to use, always available and most importantly cheap or preferably free. The concept of "perpetual beta" for many applications has become the norm and users are quite willing to put up with shortcomings if they get it all for free.

The music industry is a perfect example of good enough. 30 years ago music lovers dreamt of buying a state-of-the-art hi-fi system with massive speakers, hi-tech amplifier and super-sensitive turntable all stacked up to impress in the corner of the living room. Perfect quality was the objective and buying a hi-fi system was a major project. Today I seldom see such sophisticated systems and mp3 is the choice format, much to the dismay of the music industry. The sound quality is not impressive but it's a convenient format and you can have your entire music collection in your pocket.

It's a similar story in many other areas. We use Skype for communication despite occasional lag, use cloud computing applications like Google Docs that lack all the features of Microsoft Office but do the job well and fly with no-frills airlines despite their indifferent customer care.

... what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they're actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as "high-quality."

Is the current interest in free and open education typified by pioneers like Peer 2 Peer University and University of the People a further example of good enough? I hope not and believe that they are necessary to jolt the mainstream universities into more innovative strategies for expanding the reach of higher education. Is there a risk, however, that we see the growth of a cut-price sector in education with freelance faculty working for low wages and without job security? Quality is essential in education and quality costs.

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