Convenience, Hubris, Content, Context

There are two reasons I’ve been writing more than usual about music lately. One, I’m trying to follow my own advice to fledgling bloggers, which is to write about the stuff that you are genuinely most interested in, and not worry too much about what you think you’re supposed to write about. Two, I can’t stop seeing parallels between what I see as the smarter analyses of the current state of the music industry and that of the educational domain.

For instance, this presentation by Ian Rogers from Yahoo! Music rightfully garnered a lot of attention when it was posted a few months back. The most commonly quoted passages:

History tells us: convenience wins, hubris loses. “Who is going to want a shitty quality LP when these 78s sound so good? Who wants a hissy cassette when they have an awesome quadrophonic system? Who wants digitized music on discs now that we have Dolby on our cassettes? Who wants to listen to compressed audio on their computers?” ANSWER: EVERYONE. Convenience wins, hubris loses. [check Fredric Dannen’s comments here]

I’m here to tell you today that I for one am no longer going to fall into this trap. If the licensing labels offer their content to Yahoo! put more barriers in front of the users, I’m not interested. Do what you feel you need to do for your business, I’ll be polite, say thank you, and decline to sign. I won’t let Yahoo! invest any more money in consumer inconvenience. I will tell Yahoo! to give the money they were going to give me to build awesome media applications to Yahoo! Mail or Answers or some other deserving endeavor. I personally don’t have any more time to give and can’t bear to see any more money spent on pathetic attempts for control instead of building consumer value. Life’s too short. I want to delight consumers, not bum them out.

…In the end you get what you pay for. I won’t spend another dime paying engineers to build false control, making listening to music harder for music-lovers. I will put all of my energy into making it easier and making the experience better. I suggest you do the same.”

I can’t help but substitute the proper nouns for ones closer to my own experience. In a sense, I’ve been adopting a strategy like this for some time myself. When I meet with someone who says they want a blog or a wiki, but all of their questions are about privacy, and control, and roles, and structure, and monitoring, and management, I do my best to answer… and to an extent those things can be addressed. There once was a time when I was so determined to get people using social software that I was willing to engage programmers to make the tools behave in a way that they were never intended — with results that were occasionally rewarding, but more often highly labour-intensive and with disappointing outcomes. Now, if the common-sense middle-ground strategies (and thank you edublogosphere for your tireless efforts to develop and share these approaches) don’t assuage the concerns, I’m likely to smile and say something like, “you know, maybe what you need is a Course Management System, UBC supports the biggest, baddest CMS on the planet, let me hook you up with some people.”

Which may be an improvement, or it may be a cop-out… but I wonder what the online education milieu might look like if we as a profession adopted something like Rogers’ pledge. And where might we focus our efforts instead?

If, on the other hand, you’ve seen the light too, there’s a very fun road ahead for us all. Lets get beyond talking about how you get the music and into building context: reasons and ways to experience the music. The opportunity is in the chasm between the way we experience the content and the incredible user-created context of the Web.

…Lets envision the end state and drive there as quickly as possible. Lets not waste another eight years on what is obvious today. Lets build the tools of a healthy media Web and reward music-lovers for being a part of it.

What I find heartening is that everywhere I go I hear more and more educators, many of them in positions of real influence in their institutions and beyond, talking this kind of language, thinking hard about what knowledge-lovers need and how we might build a healthy media Web that supports and rewards them. What I worry about is that for whatever reasons, we find it hard to let go of the strategies that have caused us so much pain and hassle in the past, and keep digging ourselves in deeper and deeper…

5 thoughts on “Convenience, Hubris, Content, Context

  1. > When I meet with someone who says they want a blog or a wiki, but all of their questions are about privacy, and control, and roles, and structure, and monitoring, and management, I do my best to answer…

    Quite right. Those questions do not demonsrate an interest in convenience, they demonstrate an interest in, as you say, hubris.

    To these I would add many of the questions cenetered around quality, reliability, consistency, etc.

    It’s not that I don’t think these are important things. I do, just as I think audio quality in a musical recording is important.

    But not SO important that such concerns make it necessary to make access to learning so much more expensive, so much more exclusive, so much more difficult…

  2. I’m confused.

    The very word “hubris” stacks the deck from the outset, which makes me distrust the quoted remarks, which prevents me from thinking the argument he advances worth engaging, at least on those terms.

    I’m also confused by Stephen’s response, probably because I don’t understand what “hubris” means in this context. Is it hubris to strive for excellence over convenience? Convenience literally means “we arrive together.” THAT’s cool, and that arriving-together can be the prompt for, and result of, excellence. But convenience usually connotes comfort, obviousness, low commitment, mindlessness. There’s a place, a necessary place, for zoning out in our lives, for escape, for relaxation, for letting our minds float downstream–but already in alluding to “Tomorrow Never Knows” I see I’m resisting shallow convenience in favor of committed playfulness. And I sure as hell don’t believe that education has any place for low commitment and mindlessness, if that’s what “convenience” means. I also don’t believe that widespread access necessarily entails lower-fidelity reproduction. iTunes isn’t a lo-fi medium just because of an impulse toward democracy. And scaled-up locked-down industrialized lowest-common-denominator education isn’t that way just because that’s the only way to scale, because it isn’t, and it better not be, or we’re in a whole heap of trouble as a nation (here in the US) and a civilization (globally).

    To my mind, it’s hubris to think we can have easy, mindless, purposeful, educated lives as citizens of democracies. I think that’s what Stephen means. But I don’t think that’s what Rogers means.

    Maybe this is the pull quote that gets my gizzard:
    “I want to delight consumers, not bum them out.”

    Our mission in education is to delight AND instruct. I’d go further and say that it’s to make delight instructive, and instruction delightful. But getting to that place is a lot of hard work and doesn’t foster the kind of compartmentalization I see in most institutions of education. It also requires that we understand what expertise is, and how it can help, and how it can most fruitfully be modelled. We should be delighting and instructing each other hourly. Instead, we’re buying “enterprise solutions” and caviling on the ninth part of a hair about secondary or tertiary concerns while we flush our primary mission down the toilet.

  3. Great post. Most of what I’ve been having to do is work with clients to create content, then find creative ways to lock it down and restrict access. I don’t have much hair left to tear out…

    But, it’s slowly changing. I met yesterday with a guy from a big important department, and he’s insisting on using MediaWiki to collect his department’s information, and let vendors and partners edit it themselves.

    I’m also finding myself saying “Blackboard can do that.” to people asking me to set up websites and restrict access. If their main concern is locking stuff down, I don’t have the energy to deal with them any more.

    One final thought – it still really pisses me off when people are referred to as “consumers” – yes, people can consume stuff. But the real value in a population is when individuals are valued for their contributions as well.

  4. I need to clarify this paragraph in my comment:

    “To my mind, it’s hubris to think we can have easy, mindless, purposeful, educated lives as citizens of democracies. I think that’s what Stephen means. But I don’t think that’s what Rogers means.”

    I was writing way too early in the day and made a mess of that bit. What I mean is that I think Stephen, like me, believes that it’s hubristic to think that mindlessness and ease can characterize the lives of democratic citizens. But I think Rogers means that it’s hubris to turn out specialized high-end artifacts to achieve more interesting and sophisticated and immersive results, and that the opposite attitude is to make everything like toasters. But I’m still confused as to whether that’s what Rogers means, or what part of what he means you’re affirming.

    If a student came to me and said, “Hey, I give up on getting an A in your class, just tell me what five-paragraph essay template will get me the C I’m happy with,” I’d tell that student that he or she would have to earn that C without simply connecting the dots I gave them. If they want a connect-the-dots exercise, they’ll have to do that for themselves, and I’m confident they’d know how after the K-12 drill. I just can’t be a party to that.

    All of that said, there is a place for containers, for easy and convenient document delivery, for online gradebooks. I use Blackboard’s online gradebook. I had a DOS 3.1 gradebook that was better–it allowed me to drop the lowest grade, for one thing–but it wasn’t easily shareable, so Bb wins that round. The difference is that I don’t confuse a COURSE management system with a LEARNING management system. What I fear is that the drive to convenience, in Rogers’ terms (as I understand them), will inevitably lead to exactly that confusion.

    I’ll help colleagues with Blackboard whenever that’s appropriate, and I’ll use Blackboard (so far) for what it’s good for, but I won’t help Blackboard make the case that it’s anything other than a low-threshold, static document delivery system. I ask Rogers: is that hubris?

  5. @stephen – you’ve made that point on quality before. I don’t quite have the guts to say it so baldly, not yet anyway, but have to admit that I get pinned down all the time by people waving demands for old-school (in this case, I mean the term literally) values to be met, when it never is the intent.

    @D’Arcy – true on “consumers” — though a big part of Rogers’ presentation was foregrounding the contextual enhancements by people not traditionally thought of as “producers.” I wonder if we should similarly shun the term “users”?

    @Gardner – I might be misreading you, but I saw a different target for Rogers’ (and, I think, Stephen’s) assignment of “hubris” — I interpret it as this notion that “we control the medium, and we always will.” In the context of the music business, it was that record companies were so enamored of their tight little conglomerates of companies, stores and radio networks that they refused to deal with online media at all. They thought their position was so strong that they could ignore that MP3s offered a very real value proposition to listeners. To transfer that attitude to the educational realm, it’s like educators thinking “we have a stranglehold on public funding and accreditation, so we can decide to ignore the uncomfortable bits of this pesky new media thing”… I am seeing signs all over that people can learn outside of institutions and are willing to do it. Our blog networks are one example. And Keira is part of some amazing grassroots education via “learning parties” and other efforts. The response has been amazing, and these events are giving people immediate, real-world skills in a way that theoretically-mired “sustainability courses” being offered by local institutions never will.

    I can see your concern about creating a faux-educational culture of convenience in which the experience is reduced to something very much like simple consumption (there’s D’Arcy’s point again)… I fear that education is increasingly seen as a commodity for reasons that have nothing to do with new media, and a lot to do with skyrocketing costs and an attendant culture that sees learning in purely instrumental terms, as some sort of engine for short and medium term economic development. With the debt-loads that students need to take on now, it’s not unnatural for them to turn around and demand “customer satisfaction.” Not to mention clear connection to how this learning is going to help them get a job to pay off those student loans.

    I’m all for friction, paradox, etc… but on the learning and thinking side, not on the technology side. I think where this post may have went off the rails for you Gardner is that I was fixated on the technology implications — I want online learning technology that is lightweight, easy to mangle and that can be transferred or transmitted anywhere with all the speed and ease that digital media promises. I might be naive, but I think that our best hope of preserving a culture of inquiry and intellectual rigour is to move in that direction.

    As it stands, I feel like the main thrust in education technology (at least in terms of funding and resource allocation) feels a lot like the stance of record companies in the late 90’s: BlackWeb meets our needs, as our needs are currently constituted, and it perpetuates our current power. Nobody really likes how it works, but too bad. Meanwhile, out on the margins of institutions, and outside of them, learners are finding experts, peers, and information, publishing provisional thoughts, getting iterative feedback… If we don’t get our act together soon, we may find that a huge piece of what makes us relevant may have moved elsewhere.

    As an aside, I have a different take on Tomorrow Never Knows. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” was not a call to become a passive consumer. The drug Lennon was singing about was acid, not soma. I always took that song (and its insistent, pounding, ominous musical track) as a call to tap parts of the mind that usually were supressed by traditional notions of intellect. Hippie-dippie psychedelic ravings, maybe — but not convenience.

    I apologise for this rambling, and I also suspect I am not doing justice to your great comments (all of you). My head is fighting the effects of a cold and a low-sleep night.

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