Clay Shirky is our MP3

Dear Clay,
Please stop being wrong about the future of Higher Education. It’s embarrassing, and it is damaging to those of us who actually work in the field and care about it.

But first up, could you stop being wrong about the record industry. The pattern of a newer, low quality format supplanting an old one is not an unusual experience for them . Cassette tapes were a lower quality than vinyl. CDs are a lower quality than vinyl (and to be honest, it is also arguable regarding cassettes). And record companies love this stuff because it means that they can sell us content we already own all over again. Why do we let them do it? Because the new formats are more convenient for some uses.

The recording industry has singularly failed to die as a result of the mp3. True, they didn’t develop ways of selling mp3s online but – guess what? – they didn’t develop record shops either. Record shops did that, and iTunes (etc) are just online record shops. Very successful record shops. More music was sold last year in the UK than at any other point in history.

One of the reasons for this *was* a by-product of Napster. Record companies realised that mp3 meant it was now viable to sell more of their back-catalogue, and that the interest was there. Previously as long as the Beatles and a few others were always available, most music was allowed to fall out of print. Which led to people searching second-hand record shops for that elusive single.

What Napster meant was I could search for the rare music I wanted to hear and have a real expectation of being able to hear it. That was new, that was great. There was no other way I could hear the music I was now hearing. If I could have paid for it, I would. Eventually, I did buy recordings by artists I wouldn’t have known about if it hadn’t been for Napster. And it wasn’t just me.

Mp3s cost much less to produce than CDs or records, so it was much easier to keep all the old music around. No need to store it in a warehouse, no need to distribute it to shops. And record companies didn’t make any money out of second-hand record shops, but they do make money out of iTunes.

And of course, there is a load of things you *can’t* do with new formats. If you are a serious DJ, you’re probably into vinyl. Sales of which have soared. You can do things with vinyl that you cannot do with CDs or mp3s. Maybe you are an audiophile – maybe you have a great sound system and miss all of that harmonic stuff going on up there above 41kHz. (of course, you can’t *hear* stuff above about kHz but you can hear the way that it interacts with the stuff you can hear.) Vinyl is good for you, as are raw audio files, SA-CD and DVD-audio. More formats to sell.

And then there is stuff like Spotify and YouTube. New ways for record companies to get paid, by subscription or via advertising.

So the impact of the “disruptive” Napster was that the recording industry was able to sell more music to us, and a greater variety of music, at a lower cost to them.

Maybe cancel the flowers?

Another alarming component in your argument is that you managed to attend Harvard, hear great lectures, but didn’t see the development of a scholarly community. Guess what Clay? – you messed up. You were kind of “lossy”. Your education was riven with compression artefacts.

Scholarly communities of interest don’t just form – you have to work at them. You have to make them happen by talking to people. Maybe you weren’t bothered – maybe you had other interests, but don’t hold the system responsible for your choice not to participate fully in it. If you do just want a pile of lectures and some essay questions maybe a MOOC would work for you, but many of the rest of us *did* get a lot more out of our university experience.

That would be a superb way of “screwing it up”, to use your scholarly term. To think that all a university experience can be is a bunch of lectures and some essay questions. To think that the availablity of a new format that suits some peoples needs a bit better means that nothing else is viable. To think that a degree is something that you purchase and experience, not something you work for with a great degree of pain and personal change.

The needs that MOOCs satisfy are the needs of a bunch of middle-aged men (and it is – nearly – always men) who are comfortably tenured but seek the thrill of being on the cutting edge of technology and “innovation” (whatever that is – looks to me like inventiveness with all the fun sucked out of it). They make for great TED talks. Wonderful blog posts. But they are nothing more than a surface solution to the surface problems a non-specialist observer could see in higher education.

The problems Higher Education does face is that it is a marketplace when it doesn’t need to be. We spend billions of dollars forcing universities to compete without any evidence whatsoever that this leads to a better or cheaper product. We spend more on HE than at any point in our history whilst departments are closing, services are withering and talented young academics are leaving in droves because they have reached their mid 30s without finding anything other than temporary hourly-paid work.

The last great hurrah of the baby boom. Grey-haired millionaires trashing our cultural heritage, denying to others the opportunities that they have benefited from, and using a free product to undermine the maturation of education systems in the developing world. Maybe that works for you -it doesn’t work for the rest of us. There are other formats we would prefer.

Thanks for that.

David

[p.s: See also Aaron Brady]

17 thoughts on “Clay Shirky is our MP3

  1. I like this at the end of Bady’s post:

    “Such things are better than nothing. But “nothing” only seems like the relevant point of comparison if we pretend that public higher education doesn’t exist. And if we ignore the fact that we are actively choosing to let it cease to exist.”

    Shirky is presenting political choices as if they are inevitable economic consequences, however education is only a market to the extent that policy makers choose to construct it as a market.

    So his vision may very well come true, but only if we allow politicians to choose that future for us.

    1. I agree – and AB’s response was much better than mine. My worry is that the likes of Shirky have the ear of policy-makers much more than the likes of us.

      1. Shirky thinks Bady isn’t cynical enough about the future, but Shirky isn’t nearly cynical enough to understand what Higher Education is. Knowledge acquisition, is for many students, not the end of higher education, but the means to the end of opening a path to prosperity or even upward mobility.

        The course we are on is that as changing climate, ongoing economic depression, and the persistant “hollowing out” of late capitalism make life for the former “middle-class” and aspirational members of the upper lower-class worse and worse, neither public higher-ed in the mode of the university, nor any new form of higher ed (MOOC or otherwise) will provide the kind of access public college once did (indeed this is already happening). The elite institutions will likely still be a typical part of the career path of elites, but measures put into place to allow a select few students from outside the existing elites to participate in that path will (further) degrade.

        1. I agree. Traditional HE is still (just about) offering this kind of access, but the twin pressures of market-positive government policies and the “disruption” from silicon valley are bringing this aspect quickly to an end.

  2. You write: “The needs that MOOCs satisfy are the needs of a bunch of middle-aged men (and it is – nearly – always men) who are comfortably tenured but seek the thrill of being on the cutting edge of technology and “innovation” (whatever that is – looks to me like inventiveness with all the fun sucked out of it). They make for great TED talks. Wonderful blog posts. But they are nothing more than a surface solution to the surface problems a non-specialist observer could see in higher education.”

    I think you are (wrongly) assuming that all MOOCs must take a certain form – that they are all about the lecture, that they are not fun, that they have anything to do necessarily with the regressive pedagogy of Ted talks. Which particular MOOCs are you talking about?

    1. I am referring only to the bigger xMOOC, as I think Shirky was. Certainly I love community-driven creative open classes like #phonar, #picbod and #ds106 , but they take great pains to point out that they are *not* MOOCs!

    1. Thanks – and I love the “singles” graph! I think you misunderstand my point regarding vinyl though – it’s still the best format for some applications, and has not “died” like so many have predicted since the 80s.

  3. “If you do just want a pile of lectures and some essay questions maybe a MOOC would work for you, but many of the rest of us *did* get a lot more out of our university experience.”

    Sadly, “a pile of lectures” and “some essay questions” is precisely what many college students get out of their higher education experience. I don’t think you mean to, but you sound like you’re putting the burden of engagement on the student. If that’s where the responsibility lies, then your basic xMOOC (lectures + quizzes + discussion forums) is perhaps just as good as a more traditional college course.

    To the extent that educators have responsibility for student learning (and I’d argue that we have a lot of responsibility), we have similar challenges in both traditional and MOOC-style courses: How do we design learning experiences that encourage and equip students to join in scholarly communities?

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