Simon’s Watchmakers and the Future of Courseware

Mike Caulfield’s essay on Open Educational Resources, and what it would take to have remix/re-use resource for even courses of niche majors.


Herbert Simon, a Nobel Laureate known for his work in too many areas to count, used to tell a story of two watchmakers, Tempus and Hora. In the story Tempus and Hora make watches of similar complexity, both watches become popular, but as one watch becomes popular the watchmaker expands and becomes rich, and as the other becomes popular the maker is driven slowly out of business.

What accounts for the difference? A closer look at their designs reveals the cause. The unsuccessful watchmaker (Tempus) has an assembly of a thousands parts, and for the watch to be working these must all be assembled at once; interruptions force the watchmaker to start over again from scratch. For a watch to be finished the watchmaker needs a large stretch of uninterrupted time.

The other watchmaker (Hora) has chosen a different model for her watch: she uses subassemblies. So while there are…

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