Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky, in this talk, discusses the emerging problem for organizations that the Internet represents.  Organizations are designed to solve the problem of coordinating costs, but then become interested in self-promotion and survival.  There is the 80%-20% problem; roughly 20% of a group does 80% of the work, and roughly 80% of a group does 20% of the work. From an institutional point of view, having one of the 20%ers on staff is a huge waste of time, money and resources. They occupy an office for twelve years, do nothing particularly productive, and then leave, having only written one useful or interesting memo in all that time, or designed one product, or written one piece of code.    But what if that code is the security patch that prevents hackers from stealing money from a bank?  What if the product is an iPod?  What if it’s the Marshall Plan?  Do you want that guy’s code?

Schools are institutions too, and we are just as effectively blind-sided by the reality of the Internet’s effect as any other institution.  Let’s consider some possibilities:

  • students using text messages and cellphones to cheat on tests and exams.  
  • iPods during classes.
  • plagiarism on the rise in essays
  • Wikipedia, Wolfram|Alpha, Google as tools for student research
  • The ability to mash-up materials to form erzatz textbooks and curricular materials
  • the use of the internet to bind together homeschooling groups
  • The current economy, which makes private schools too expensive

And so on.

Schools are not immune to this transformation, no indeed.  If anything, we are more pawns to it than other kinds of institutions.  We are handed a group of kids, by our district if we are public school teachers, or by our admissions department if private school teachers.  With those children as students, we are to (choose any 4, and add 4 of your own):

  • perform plays and musicals;
  • assemble rock bands, chamber ensembles, choruses and a cappella groups;
  • field (successful) sports teams;
  • publish a newspaper; 
  • run an art gallery;
  • produce a highly personalized coffee-table book a year;
  • organize a varsity math squad;
  • assemble a debate team; 
  • throw a film festival;
  • fight drug abuse;
  • and provide an education in math, science, history, literature, and foreign language; 
  • as well as miscellaneous other curriculum.

Is this a screwed-up business model?  Can you say insane? How can one run an institution that does all these things, and does them well?  Moreover, are there any non-academic institutions that try to do all this? 

Today on my way out of dinner, a colleague asked me about Ida, the new fossil lemur-monkey missing link from 47 million years ago.  He said that he couldn’t find anything about it, but mentioned that there was an upcoming TV documentary “on the 25th”.  I shrugged my shoulders, and said, “Use YouTube.  Duh.  Plus the BBC Website.”  I pulled out my iPhone, and found the videos he needed to see.  I pulled up a website when he asked for more information.

Then I said, “Do you get it now?  You were going to wait for another three days for the right information, when someone else wanted to give it to you.  Instead, through the power of technology, I handed you the information now.  I gave you the keys, and the keywords, necessary to do more research if you want to; and in the walk from dinner to our apartment I may have provided you with all you need to know.”

This colleague is big into lesson closures, so here’s mine:  learning is done all the time, around the clock, around the calendar. A teacher is anyone who provides the right content, on time, in a meaningful format.  And teachers who can do that, don’t need a school surrounding them any more; they can carry the school library with them, and numerous other resources like e-mail and websites and more.  To plagiarize Thucydides:  The school isn’t the building. It’s the people.

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