changing economics of classroom management

Like many of my colleagues I’ve been reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Bottom line, it’s a thoughtful and accessible book that I think I will use in my Writing in the Digital Age course in the fall. It looks at the activities that networking eases and/or enables in a variety of contexts–social, commercial, political, etc. Shirky doesn’t directly investigate education, though many of the situations he explores involve students in one way or another. Of course education is my running interest, so I want to think a little about that here.

So here’s the simple story. As Shirky details, our contemporary ideas about corporate management developed in the 19th century in the railroad industry as an effort to make the most efficient use of tracks by compartmentalizing management. Even more fundamental, corporations emerge where the collective management and institutionalization of certain business practices reduce the transaction costs of conducting those practices in an open market enough to offset the overhead costs of the institution. (Obviously that’s an oversimplification, but you can see the general idea.) So a large part of what Shirky discusses begins with the ways that network technologies reduce the costs of forming groups and conducting certain practices.

How does this relate to teaching? (if there was such a thing as "rhetorical question music" it would be playing right now)

Well, we all now how the educational practices we grew up with developed as a kind of mirror to factory life: sit in one place, undertake repetitive tasks, move when the bell rings, etc. The structure of educational institutions is not unlike that of industrial corporations with teachers as the equivalent of floor managers or some kind of mid-level management. If we update that image to include more constructivist approaches–sitting in circles, group work, and so on–we perhaps move toward a more post-industrial management model where we have project-based, cross-departmental groups and flatter hierarchies. Nevertheless, the basic economic equation still applies: educational-institutional practices work because their coordination of pedagogy and curriculum is still cheaper than attempting the same goals in the open marketplace.

This is still largely the case. However, all institutions are also hampered by their economics. Because all activities within an institution incur costs and require management, institutions must be cautious of failure and cannot engage in activities that do not raise to a certain level of production (i.e. one that would outweigh overhead costs). In this way they are roughly analogous to books in a bookstore. Every book costs a certain amount of overhead/shelf space. If that book can’t sell well enough, then it can’t be in the bookstore. On the other hand, Amazon can sell that book without a problem.

Educational institutions face similar problems. For a school to invest substantively in any activity (I’m just going to stick with a technological activity to stay with the theme here) means committing financial and human resources in that direction. Take the example of Second Life. If my college were to decide the incorporation of learning in virtual worlds was an institutional goal, not only would they have to invest in multiple islands, they would have to train support staff, then they would have to train faculty, and then they would have to provide support and access for students. (BTW, I’m not suggesting that my college should do this; it’s just a hypothetical example.) Now you’ve got some real expense attached, so you’d better get some real results. Total failure would not be good! A more realistic example might be iTunes University. For us to really invest we’d need a whole support structure for recording, editing, and uploading faculty lectures. It had better prove to have positive pedagogic results.

[Unfortunately our notion of better results is predicated on prior technology. That is, for any new technology to be "good," it has to do a better job of what the old technology did. Of course that’s not really how these things work, is it? It would be more accurate to say new technologies do things differently rather than say they do them better. A word processor will not help you improve your penmanship. An automobile doesn’t make you a better equestrian. A phone doesn’t make you a better letter writer.]

But I digress… If we take what Shirky is pointing out, we can realize something here. There are hundreds of technologies, techno-practices, learning projects, collaborative opportunities and so on that educational institutions cannot possibly take on. The risk of failure or the limited interest/scope mean that the institutional costs outweigh the potential gains. But this is not the case, or at least does not need to be the case, for individual faculty (especially tenured faculty). Networks allow us to take low cost risks on a variety of technologies, practices, and collaborative projects. Most of these technologies are available for no financial cost. One does have to invest time of course, but if you make this choice you are saying "This is the way that I teach. I am going to invest my teaching labor here."

What you have to do is make your "pedagogy of risk" clear to students. They need to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Because, in all truth, there is as much to learn from a failure as from a success. So even if your ventures fail 9 out of 10 times or 99 out of 100 times, that failure can still move you toward your curricular goals as much as your success might. And that one success might be something truly special and relevant.

Again this brings us back to Shirky because these changes are bigger than the classroom. The industrial-classroom model was about minimizing individual-user error. Each student, on his/her own, must strive to make as few mistakes as possible (that way we don’t ship defective widgets). The post-industrial-classroom model was about using consensus to produce solutions with the best risk-reward results. It also was about minimizing mistakes but on a more collective level and with problems that were more complex. As Shirky explains, networks have helped to reduce the cost of failure. As such, we don’t have to worry so much about minimizing failure.

Just think about what this means for writing instruction! How much of writing instruction is about minimizing error? Even if you subtract the old-school grammarians, how much of feedback, revision, editing and so on is about making sure the writing is "clear" before publication? Now we have a whole new "process"! Just as the work processor radically altered the way we might revise our writing, the network transforms the way we deliver our compositions and interact with our audiences.

In the end that’s what a blog like this is all about, right? A hundred posts that would fail to become articles but can be shared and discussed. In a sense perhaps the critics of blogging are right, blogs are about the failure of writing, but they are about how that failure now comes so cheaply that we need not worry about it anymore. And every once in a while, there’s some success.