Education is not Music: A Long Winded Agreement with Aaron Bady

Mark Guzdial has been posting a great deal on MOOCs, as have we all although Mark is much easier to read than I am, and his recent comment on Aaron Bady’s response to Clay Shirky’s “Udacity is Napster” drew me to the great article by Bady and the following key quote inside Bady’s article:

“I think teaching is very different from music”

and I couldn’t agree more. Let me briefly list why I feel that a comparison to Napster has no real validity, to agree with Aaron that Clay Shirky’s argument is not well grounded for the discussion of education. What’s interesting is that I believe that Shirky identifies this point in his own essay, but doesn’t quite realise the full implications of what he’s saying:

Starting with Edison’s wax cylinders, and continuing through to Pandora and the iPod, the biggest change in musical consumption has come not from production but playback.

Those earlier inventions systems started out markedly inferior to the high-cost alternative: records were scratchy, PCs were crashy. But first they got better, then they got better than that, and finally, they got so good, for so cheap, that they changed people’s sense of what was possible.

The first thing we need to remember about music is that music is inherently fungible because, when viewed as a piece of work, you can replace it with another effectively identical item. Of course, here we need to be careful and define what we need by identical, because music, as it turns out, is almost never identical but it gets treated that way. If you doubt this, then go and review how much it costs to insert the song “Happy Birthday to You” into a movie or TV show. It doesn’t matter if it’s Homer Simpson yelling it drunkenly, or the Three Tenors singing it sotto voce as part of an Ally McBeal shower hallucination flashback, you will still be liable to fork out dollars to the company who claims to hold the copyright. If you understand the history of how we even made music small enough to send across the (much, much slower back then) Internet, we had to start with the MP3 format, which threw away enough ‘unneeded’ data from the original CD files to shrink the files to a little less than 10% of their original size. This is the technology that we needed before we could even get around the idea of Napster, because enough people had enough music on their hard drives (because we’d already dropped the size) to make file sharing useful. However, as Shirky also notes in his article, this lossy compression technique changes the way that music sounds and you can tell the difference if you listen carefully and know what to listen for. Yet, this is the same song and Napster got into trouble for sharing compressed artefacts of lower quality and perceptible difference from the CD originals, because music, as this kind of artefact, is fungible despite very different levels of quality. Identical, to an audiophile, means sounding precisely the same (or true to the source, really), but identical to the copyright owner is a representation that clearly indicates unauthorised use of copyright material – which is why George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” ended up begin described as sufficiently similar to “He’s So Fine”, despite it being a brand new recording and not just a compressed copy.

So, yes, Shirky’s original quotes are both true – we have improved playback and while MP3 is still very common, lossless and much higher quality reproductions are now available. However, the point that has been missed is that the vast majority of people do not care in the slightest. The average person will only notice a shift from MP3 to lossless if they suddenly discover that their iPod has dropped in capacity, when measured in number of songs, by a significant margin. If I listen to “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay, and yes, Joe Satriani fans, I picked that deliberately, then the effective difference in my enjoyment of the song, my ability to sing along tunelessly in the shower and the ability to recite the words if asked, has nothing to do with the quality. This is not true of certain pieces of classical music, where the compression artefacts start to have more of an effect, but these are not the core business of file sharers and those who trade in compressed artefacts. However, MP3 artefacts rarely sound like long scratches, dust on the record or a bad needle – yes, they can be irritating, but the electronic form, pre and post-compression, is generally protected from such things unless you get some serious cosmic ray action in your storage media and even then, you have to be very unlucky.

The Napster music argument, for me, falls down because the increase in quality does not have a direct connection to what the majority of the user base would have considered an acceptable product. Yes, it’s better now but, for most people, so what? Music sharing services are considered useful and valuable because they share songs that people want, where most people don’t think about the quality, they accept the name and the recognisable nature of the song as enough.

This is not at all true for education, because educational experiences vary wildly between lecturers, courses, institutions and eras to an extent that it is impossible to consider them in any way to be interchangeable – quality, here, is everything. If you have an international articulation program, you know that the first thing you have to do is to work out what has been taught, and how it has been taught, inside a course of the same name as one of yours. Even ‘name equivalence’ doesn’t mean anything here and we do not, or we should not, grant standing based on a coincidence of name for a course. There is no parallel guarantee that my low quality version of a course will give me the same ability to “sing in the shower” as the high quality course will – and this is, for me, an unassailable difference.

There is no doubt that the opportunities that might be offered by blended learning, full electronic offerings, and, yes, MOOCs (however they end up being defined) are something that we have to consider because, if they work, they allow us to educate the world, but claiming that this must occur because Udacity is like Napster completely ignores the core difference between education and music in terms of the consumer base and their focus on what it means for a service to meet their requirements. If students didn’t care about the perceived quality, then we wouldn’t have the notion of the ‘top schools’ or ‘low end schools’, so we know that this thinking exists. A student will happily put an MP3 on at a party, but it remains to be seen if they will constantly and out of design, not desperation, put a MOOC course on a job application, and expect a good result from it.

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