Shirky education remix


I’ve been thinking a lot about Clay Shirky’s Blog post Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. I thought I’d remix some of his thoughts from this post into an educational model.

All of the bold words are my changes and do not in any way reflect Shirky’s thinking. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this blog posts and thought I’d have some fun and see if I could make it work for education.

See what you think!

Education and Thinking the Unthinkable

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry’s popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry’s work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year old kid can access more information then you in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” I think about that conversation a lot these days.

The problem educators face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several. One was to create computer labs in common areas. Another plan was to purchase a couple of computers for the library. New teaching models such as Project-Based Learning were proposed. Alternatively, they could pursue the idea of giving every teacher a computer. Still another plan was to convince tech firms to make their hardware and software cheaper, or to partner with the businesses running data networks to achieve the same goal. Then there was the nuclear option: only allow teachers and administrators access to computers that could be tightly controlled.

As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of computer education. Would open or walled gardens work better? Shouldn’t we try a carrot-and-stick approach, with education and prosecution? And so on. In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in administrative meetings, for the obvious reason.

The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital content would reduce learning, and therefore test scores. Dislike of viruses, spam, pop-up ads and porn would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of teaching and learning would not transfer online. Even standardized tests would be inadequate to constrain massive, online learning opportunities. (Prohibition redux.) Administrators and teachers would not regard students as allies, nor would they regard parents as enemies. Schools’ requirement that the students power down and learn offline would be an insuperable flaw. And, per NCLB, forcing teachers to teach content rather than skills and wisdom would piss them off.

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside education, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastically preaching about a new literacy, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on education is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of education in a world of standards based reporting!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of education, as a general-purpose vehicle for educating the next generation, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

China and India are having success, so we can too!” (True test results are one of the few kinds of information whose recipients don’t want to share.) “Mass generic education works for China, so it will work for us!” (Mass generic education works only where the provider is educating millions of students on very little funding.) “Schools should charge for content!” (They’ve tried, it’s called Charter Schools.) “High Social-Economic Schools are doing fine on tests!” (Those schools who have high parent involvement and pass levies and bonds; users are paying not just for content but for resources.) “We’ll form a committee!” (…and hand a competitive advantage to every student who has a laptop.)

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving education demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for education to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old teacher as content king method destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a content system, because the core problem of “learning just in case” solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of learning just in case — has stopped being a problem.


Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s inventi
on had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace education, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.


If you want to know why education is in such trouble, the most salient fact is this: Text books are terrifically expensive to purchase and keep up to date. This bit of economics, normal since Gutenberg, limits competition while creating positive returns to scale for the press owner, a happy pair of economic effects that feed on each other. In a notional town with two perfectly balanced text books, one book would eventually generate some small advantage — a new method, a new layout — at which point both teachers and students would come to prefer it, however slightly. That text book would in turn find it easier to capture the next school, at lower expense, than the competition. This would increase its dominance, which would further deepen those preferences, repeat chorus. The end result is either geographic or demographic segmentation among text books, or one text book holding a monopoly on the local mainstream audience.

For a long time, longer than anyone in the education business has been alive in fact, text books has been intertwined with these economics. The expense of printing created an environment where States were willing to subsidize the publishing. This wasn’t because of any deep link between teaching and learning, nor was it about any real desire on the part of schools to have their budgets go to text book companies. It was just an accident. Teachers had little choice other than to use the text books, since they didn’t really have any other resources to teach with.

The old difficulties and costs of printing forced everyone doing it into a similar set of organizational models; it was this similarity that made us regard Wikipedia and Google as being in the same business. That the relationship between schools, publishers, and teachers has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.

The competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it. And when States, local districts, and teachers, and kid, were all able to use that infrastructure to get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did. They’d never really signed up to fund the text book publishers anyway.

Text books do much of schools’ heavy lifting, from math — covering every angle and method — to history and basil readers. This coverage creates benefits even for content that is not covered, because the work is used by everyone from students to district administrators to parents and grandparents. The publishers often note that text books benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that content if some significant fraction of the currently employed publishers lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy educator to expound on the potential of Alta-Vista, then just a few years old. The answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation: “Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. What no one would have told you, could have told you, was what actually happened: Search Engines became a critical piece of infrastructure. Not the idea of search, or the business model, or even the software driving it. Search itself spread to cover billions of web pages and has become a part of public consciousness about what is now possible. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.

In the webs gradual shift from ‘one way communication (Web 1.0)’ to ‘social and interactive (Web 2.0)’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as search did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

Teaching has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been kits and the teachers imagination. Sometimes it’s been team projects. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Florida Virtual Schools and Spokane Virtual School, like Capella University and University of Phoenix, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

Society doesn’t need to learn just in case. What we need is to learn just in time. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen teaching and to strengthen education have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen teaching instead.

When we shift our attention from ’just in case’ to ’just in time’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Clarence Fisher, or Darren Kuropatwa. It could be Brian Crosby, or Chris Lehmann. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for teaching are going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many schools, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, education will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of state funds. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of education but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the education we need.