Shirky essay on online courses

2 minute read

Clay Shirky reflects on the nature of college education and the potential disruptive nature of online courses: “Napster, Udacity and the Academy”. For those who don’t remember, Napster was a highly disruptive factor for the recording industry during the late 1990s-early 2000s: a way for millions of college students to download free music instead of paying for CDs at $17.00 and up.

Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.
We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, were probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.
Cheap graduate students let a college lower the cost of teaching the sections while continuing to produce lectures as an artisanal product, from scratch, on site, real time. The minute you try to explain exactly why we do it this way, though, the setup starts to seem a little bizarre. What would it be like to teach at a university where a you could only assign books you yourself had written? Where you could only ask your students to read journal articles written by your fellow faculty members? Ridiculous. Unimaginable.

I bolded the phrase with “artisanal” because it is so evocative. Lecture is theater. A great lecture can capture and hold attention better than any video. Yet, lecture is not the perfect medium for many subjects. Certainly not mine. Paleoanthropology and genetics demand multimedia.

For me, the most impactful part of Shirky’s essay is the conclusion, in which he turns to the low quality of some existing massively online open courses (MOOCs). He recounts the case of a math professor who enrolled in Sebastian Thrun’s statistics course, finding the content and course generally poor. The full story is recounted by the anonymous math professor’s blog, “Udacity Statistics 101”. Shirky reviews the rest of the story, in which Thrun quickly responds to some of the criticisms and the math professor admits that colleagues at his own institution have similar pedagogical problems. The point: University courses are often flawed and rarely fixed.

Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.

University courses are hidden behind closed doors, and the only audience – undergraduate students – are very poorly positioned to judge the quality of information they receive. We all have stories of lecturers who go on and on, semester after semester, giving students the same set of erroneous facts. Can open online courses take advantage of the bazaar instead of the cathedral?