On Shirky and Bady

This is where we’ll talk about Clay Shirky’s “Napster, Udacity, and the academy” blog post and Aaron Bady’s response in Inside Higher Ed, “Questioning Clay Shirky.”

One useful place to begin this is to answer the question “who is Clay Shirky?” Shirky himself says to check out his Wikipedia page for more details, so there you have it. I think it’s fair to say that he is one of the leading speakers/writers on “new media” issues. He’s quite a charismatic speaker and a great and very accessible writer. I’ve taught his book Here Comes Everybody in my Writing for the World Wide Web class a couple of times, and I am thinking about using Cognitive Surplus next time or in the fall.

The piece we’re reading from Shirky is actually a blog post he had a while back.  I’m going to assume everyone has heard of Napster; Udacity is another company similar to Coursera: they’re trying to develop MOOCs that will offer college credit or at least these large and free learning experiences.

Bady, who is a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley (I might try to email him to see if he’s interested in reading our discussion here), is taking on Shirky in a way I sympathize with greatly. I generally agree with Shirky, but like Bady, I don’t think he quite has it right this time around. I think Bady’s point of MOOCs being “better than nothing” is an interesting observation in that it is true in both good and bad ways: that is, while MOOCs might not be a replacement (or even a part of?) a regular college degree, they are better than nothing, which might be just good enough.

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16 Responses to On Shirky and Bady

  1. Danielle says:

    Unlike Bady, I liked Shirky’s comparison of higher education to the music industry. I agree that the metaphor has its flaws, but I think the comparison helped me better understand what he was trying to say: that a revolution in education is coming and that we’re not adequately prepared for it.

    Still, I think I tend to side more with Bady in the sense that Shirky’s article seemed like a lot of talk and no real proof. Bady argues that Shirky needs to prove that MOOCs are beneficial to higher education, rather than just saying that they are. As Shirky claims, “MOOCs are only better than nothing and speculation that this will someday change is worth pursuing, but for now, remains just that, speculation.”

    I agree here that MOOCs *are* “better than nothing.” I think they serve a purpose for those who want to learn (I think anybody who wants to get something out of a MOOC and is willing to put in the effort *can* learn a lot), but at this point I really don’t know how MOOCs could fit into an actual college degree program. I don’t think anybody knows for sure.

    Overall, I agree with Bady that Shirky’s arguments didn’t really have much to back them up. I wonder if Shirky plans on writing a counterargument or has addressed Bady’s arguments anywhere?

  2. Bryan Alfaro says:

    While I agree with the points you brought up Danielle, I was left with the feeling that both of them had holes in their arguments. However, I too agree that while flawed the music industry analogy to online higher education was an effective framework to look at some of the potential coming changes or issues that will need to be addressed if MOOCs start to take a chunk out of colleges and universities bottom line like the Internet did to the music industry.

    And while Shirky argues MOOCs can boast about 23,000 people (about as many students Eastern Michigan University has on its entire campus during an academic year) completing just one online course out of 160,000 people who enrolled in the course, that still is only a “graduation rate” of about 14.4 percent.

    And truly Bady raises a point that I have been questioning since we began discussing MOOCs, investors have put up large sums of money (in one company it was in the millions or billions, I can’t remember which), and as Brady says, “We should ask questions about why venture capitalists are investing so heavily in educational philanthropy … and why so many people want education without, apparently, being able to pay for it.”

  3. The only apt comparison between Napster and Udacity is the money issue. People want to pay for music, they really don’t want to stiff the artist or go to jail. The real thing that let Napster thrive where the music industry didn’t was delivery. The music industry, with their classic ostrich move, screwed themselves by not setting up their own site with better amenities. To my way of thinking, the comparison stops there. Online education already exists and is constantly being worked on by academics at most colleges. Instructors are already aware of the benefits and limitations, and are working to get around them. The most important point Bady makes, that Shirky ignores, is that the existence of MOOCs, similar to the existence of Napster (okay, so maybe the comparison extends a bit) are symptomatic of a larger problem, as Bryan discusses above. It’s access, and the market is already realizing there’s untapped potential for selling individual courses to students. The only thing standing in the way of this working on a large scale is accreditation. Which, in theory needs to come from already verified institutions. So, to me the real question is a temporal one. I don’t think it’s going to take very long for colleges to see the value in letting students earn credit from open online courses. In order for the course to deliver that credit, it will need oversight. Which means it will have to pay institutions and faculty. Which means the courses will eventually cost money. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and could change the way we seek and view higher education.

  4. Oops, sorry, I meant to space that out a bit. Still getting over stomach flu at my house. Stay healthy people.

  5. chelsea says:

    I really liked Shirky’s idea of unbundling what education is all about…and I thought the metaphor, the comparison between Napster and Udacity was very effective. It was striking how he pointed out what MOOC’s weren’t doing, and therefore they weren’t trying to replace college courses….and yet, they might, just as mp3’s weren’t intended to replace audio files or cds bought at the record store, and they did. I think his point, though, about how elite schools will remain unaffected because of what they provide (elite status!) was key, especially in acknowledging the state of middle-class, more typical college experiences.

    I thought this was his greatest statement: “In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.”

    I honestly didn’t feel that Shirky was particularly optimistic about MOOC’s, but it might just be my own feelings projected onto the reading, as I’m not particularly excited about them. I thought he made some excellent and illustrative points that I hadn’t thought of (ie: efficiency and the cost disease).

    Something I’m not understanding, and maybe someone can clarify, is the Shirky principle. I understand the basic premise; that higher education is stuck in a sort of perpetual stasis because they are so focused on the past problem (or current problems), but I wonder what the alternative is? I appreciated Bady’s ability to sort of step back and see Shirky’s work as something to be analyzed rhetorically – this is something I have difficulty doing because I get so wrapped up in the content.

  6. chelsea says:

    i was thinking about the money aspect too, especially in Shirky’s article where he gave the example of the founder of Udacity leaving his professorship to start the company. I wondered where the money would come in, like, what was he living on?

    I think people want education without being able to pay for it because there’s still this idea that getting a college degree will magically make your life all better….and so we’re trying to find different means to an end, without addressing the fact that the end is broken anyway.

  7. Steve K. says:

    Three responses here:

    * I think the unbundling of education has actually been going on at places like EMU for a while now. Unlike the U of Michigan (which attracts a lot of “traditional” college students who start there as freshmen and finish as seniors, live on/near campus, go to school pretty much full-time, etc.), EMU has always had a lot of students who are transferring in credit from other places and even enrolled at multiple places at the same time. I’ve had lots of students who were taking classes at both WCC and here at the same time. That’s a sort of “unbundling.”

    * I agree COMPLETELY about the “hostage situation” of how a bachelor’s degree has become the main ticket of entry into the middle class in the U.S. We all know of lots and LOTS of jobs that require some college degree as part of the application but which probably don’t really require a college degree. Can MOOCs change this? I’m kind of dubious.

    * Probably the best example of the “Shirky principle” (and one he talks about a lot in his first book) is journalism and main stream media. Part of his argument with things like the internet is with things like Facebook, Twitter, Google News, HuffPo, etc., who needs dead tree newspapers? He’s probably right about that one.

  8. Steve K. says:

    I think Bady is being a bit cynical when he says “educational philanthropy” because that is of course not what it is at all. The idea behind things like Coursera and Udacity is to make money. How? Well, that remains to be seen how, but the way that venture capital startups work is people take a risk on throwing some money at something that might pay off to be a good idea. It’s a high risk sort of deal. This is how things like Twitter and Facebook got started, really: somebody took a risk at ponying up money for something that seemed crazy at the time but that seems brilliant now.

    Oh, and how do these people make money now? They’re paying themselves out of that venture capital money.

  9. The unbundling aspect is probably the most attractive. In my blog about these pieces, I brought up one of our earlier discussions about the everyone-must-go-to-college attitude that is so wrong for so many reasons, wondering if maybe the MOOCs could provide a solution of sorts to this problem. Would people be able to specialize, and take what interests them, thereby getting the skills employers require without the need for astronomical debt? Being a hostage sucks, but it’s a good analogy considering our current system.

  10. Melissa S says:

    What stuck out for me most was Bady’s discussion of why we are turning the solution from public institutions to MOOCs. Instead of dealing with higher and higher tuition rates, we are looking for ways around it. While I thought Shirky made a good case, and was especially please to see his unraveling of the “typical” college experience as really only the “elite,” I did not agree with his final statement that higher education (“smart people” has he said earlier) was watching by, in denial, as MOOCs take over. I am more incline to side with Bady that MOOCs don’t offer a revolution, but they are better than nothing. Honestly, I find it hard to fully wrap my head around the things MOOCs can do, might do, and won’t do. Having an “elite” educational experience myself, I am dubious of MOOCs impact on higher education, but I see the benefit for general population at large. And I especially see the benefit of doing MOOCs as professional development as opposed to a Master’s degree (myself thinking of taking a few to round out my resume). Like I don’t think the book will ever die, I don’t see brick and mortar educations dying.

  11. Jackie K. says:

    I like the idea of what a MOOC can do for a curious life learner. If they, or some form of them, do withstand the test of time, I can see myself sampling others, as my first week of experience with Coursera has been fairly positive.

    I’m not sure, however, about how I feel about MOOCs as the idealized replacement/stand-in/whatever-you-want-to-call-it for college education. I’m skeptical for many of the reasons people have already addressed here, but especially because it seems to be slapping a bandaid on some of the large, deep issues surrounding higher education–high demand (because of the perception of degree-as-ticket-to-the-middle-class-lifestyle), high tuition, cut funding, and academic resources that don’t seem to grow with the demand (more applicants, but not more available spaces, as Bady notes).

    I found this quote worrisome: “It is important to note that when online education boosters talk about ‘access,’ they explicitly do not mean access to ‘education of the best sort'; they mean that because an institution like Udacity provides teaching for free, you can’t complain about its mediocrity. It’s not an elite institution, and it’s not for elite students. It just needs to be cheap.”

    “Cheap” is one of those words that has such extreme positive and extreme negative connotations. You’re delighted to find designer shoes or fine hardwood furniture on sale for cheap, but there is a general understanding that the lower the price, the lower the quality. There’s getting a bargain on a cherrywood table, and there’s tossing out a few bucks to get a table made out of Formica. Since a college education serves to prepare students for the working world (just how much it prepares them is arguable, of course), how would future employers perceive education gained by MOOCs? Will it be perceived as an excellent bargain, a way to gain a good education without paying top dollar? Or will it be perceived as a cheap education in the most negative sense of the word? A MOOC education would, I agree, certainly be better than nothing. But how much better?

  12. Bryan Alfaro says:

    Yeah, the jail aspect didn’t really come to mind until you mentioned it Sarah, but yes–even in the world of academia people are sued into poverty over illegally downloading protected materials. There was the recent situation where Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz committed suicide in part because he was facing charges and fines in the millions for illegally downloading academic articles from JSTOR.

  13. Bryan Alfaro says:

    The dead tree newspaper issue is likely a resistance to new technology; a hold over of the generation that argues they like the tactile feel of a newspaper in their hands versus reading the news on a 3 inch iPhone screen.

    However, just like those hold over readers there are hold over advertisers that ares still not convinced the Internet is where they want to spend their advertising dollars. It’s still true today that the majority of newspapers are getting the bulk of their ad dollars from print not online.

  14. Sarah K. says:

    It was definitely interesting how Shirky related Napster to MOOCs. MOOCs are our MP3’s; I can see that. Now students have access course materials online for free and although they will not receive the credentials a college institution offers, they still can gain helpful information for free. Shirky doesn’t seem to think that MOOCs remain accessible. He thinks that although it is a nonprofit, decentralized organization of course materials with intelligent teachers involved, it will still end up like Napster did, which perplexes me. It seems like Shirky is arguing that Coursera courses are better than universities that make you pay too much for too little of an education whereas Bady is arguing that just because the education is free doesn’t make it any better. Bady doesn’t believe that teaching is like music. It was hard for me to choose my own position because I can see where both of these authors are coming from. I think the both raise important issues about education, especially when it comes to the learning experiences available to students.

  15. Bryan Alfaro says:

    While I agree with you about college not being for everyone, and that MOOCs could offer certain people more education without the huge college debt, there’s still the issue of accreditation. The MOOC platform/provider would need to offer some quality control/accreditation or the “student” would have to have some relationship to a college/university that would “validate” (offer credit for the MOOC certificate).

    Then again, maybe MOOC certificates of completion will become a staple listing on résumé in the future.

  16. Germaine Smith says:

    I’m inclined to agree more with Bady than I am Shirky, but not to say that Shirky doesn’t have some valid points regarding rethinking higher ed. I do, however, feel that Shirky can say what he can because he was educated at an elite institution that probably has access to more resources, professors, research facilities, networking, etc. than the average college so, I’m not quite buying into the whole it’s just a mediocre education for top $.

    If you go on reading the posts from other educators there are very similar responses to our class posts in that, there is a 50/50 divide on Shirky’s perspective on MOOC’s. One particular post that stands out is someone, referring to access by asking themselves, “How does this get us closer to world peace?” An interesting perspective followed up by:

    ”Prosperity through improved job skills is a good thing. But unevenly spread prosperity does not seem to be solving our biggest problems.

    A handful of high-profile autodidacts are headlined as success stories on Coursera. I suspect that those people would have succeeded just as gloriously even without Coursera; these stories are just another version of using Harvard as an example. ‘Empowering the autodidacts to educate themselves’ is just another tautology.”

    While this argument may seem against MOOC’s I see the validity in the framework/organization/content of the courses, more or less, designed and targeted to an already educated audience. After week one of our own experience, in the Chandler reading there was practically every sociological and linguist theory under the sun with the jargon to match. Because I have a sociology minor and am interested in these topics, have a pretty good grasp on understanding the reading quite easily, however, to the average educational level of Americans (which is at an 8th grade level), there’s no way anyone without previous knowledge would be able to keep up with all of these new theories/philosophies/ideas brought up on a weekly basis. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean access for all.

    I think the idea and philosophy behind MOOC’s is, but still in early discovery stages. I am personally still on the fence.

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