An Interview with Clay Shirky

As part of my research on the myths of teaching and learning, I am at last publishing my interview with Clay Shirky of the past 14 June. I needed a long time to review it and transcribe parts of it in order to better convey what was being said. I also played a bit with the video, which is intentionally very low-tech, and at last I was able to transform it into a lower-resolution format and upload it to YouTube. Please, note that the video is completely surreal, since I didn’t realize it was being shot against the light of a window. Thus, basically only Clay’s silhouette is visible, and mine appears luckily only sporadically!

Clay was very kind and we had a very nice conversation which included many themes that are related to my research into the myths of teaching, learning, technology and the Web. I am writing a bookish thing on the subject, so the ideas that I am publishing here will form part of that. For the moment, though, it is interesting for me to share the conversation i had with him as unedited as possible. Here are Clay Shirky’s main points on the subjects covered in the interview. After, the video.

On the changes that are happening -both within and without the University- he finds it very difficult to convince students that what’s happening is actually happening!

If you take 100 19-year-olds and educate them to whatever you felt comfortable giving them a diploma in a particular field, you would not build something that looks like the traditional college today. I think he would take social networks for granted, global access for granted, online learning for granted. I don’t think he would do an online-only college -face to face is so  important- but I’m not sure that you would build a building on the edge of town and move all the people in that building for 9 months a year, 4 years ion a row.

Is the University secure enough to change under its own speed or is it going to be [under] a disruptive external force?

Education today is expensive, slow and inefficient, but creates something of obvious value to participants.

On the divide between learning and credentials:

Separation between high-quality educational material (Khan Academy, U of the People, George Siemens), and the amount of money that comes to play once you ask for certification is I think indication that the system is splitting apart.

Retention rates measure the gap between the way college is funded and the perceived value for the students. Cost of college is not reflected in the price; cost of college is reflected in the time commitment -the opportunity cost. So for many students it looks like an acceptable bargain from the outside. [However,] in their Freshman year they discover there is an additional bunch of costs they’re asked to bear.

On “content”. I say that by putting all that value upon content, “we allow ourselves to perceive knowledge as a frozen body of facts”. He replies:

We always overestimated the value of access to information and underestimated the value of access to each other.

<My bold>I can’t agree more!</>

On content and the publishing industry, Shirky has a very strong position:

My fear is that because of tenure -the tenure committees assess the quality of the journals- some cartel is going to form to successfully prevent the widespread of knowledge, the widespread in particular of scientific information for another generation.

I comment that “the publishers are taking a revenge by forming alliances with LMS’s and thus closing things up on themselves again -notwithstanding the Internet!

He adds:

The Journals today decrease the speed and decrease the scale of knowledge dissemination. [Unlike in the past, when their role was exactly the opposite!]

On copyright, Shirky thinks we may have two different stories:

1) A new bargain gets formed whereby copyright holders accept a degree of leakiness in return for which the anti-copyright [people] accept that things do spread publicly but eventually, so copyright goes […] into being a model of flow [wherein the speed of the flow is much more important that its content].

2) Locked devices. The direction the iPad is going… [shows] the world I know is torn apart. Now computers are for professionals and iPads are for amateurs who don’t need a computer for creativity [for the production of knowledge].

It is a sad story that keeps me awake at night. It’s alarming.

Clay says he  is happy to see people with iPads also using external keyboards. This means that the disappearance -as Jobs prophetically stated- of the computer is not complete yet and that people need to have a full computer to express their creativity.

He talks about many more ideas: for instance, of the clash between the digital and the atom-based world when a student gets sued by his college because he had created and managed a Facebook Group in his Chemistry Class. The fact is that some rules about the world are not obvious any longer and sometimes they simply do not apply in the inline world. For instance, in the brick-and-mortar world you don’t need to think what happens when you have big study groups of more than 100 people, simply because it is unfeasible to have such groups! He talks about this example in his book “Cognitive Surplus“.

He talks also about the agreement between NYU and the University of the People (, the initiative that opens a tuition-free, open University with online BA Programs in Computer Science and Business Administration [See The New York Times: Partnership to Further Global Quest by NYU]. Clay says with this that he believes NYU President is actually saying “Your incoming freshmen class at any given year is our single most valuable asset.”

Which is a nice quote from a President!

OK, now enjoy the video interview. The “tape” stops recording -just because my iPhone decided so- just at almost the right time, just after I was telling Clay about Jim Groom [and community]’s unbelievable self-sustaining radio station #ds106radio.

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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