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Clay Shirky is a man of many talents — author, educator, and now Vice Provost of Educational Technologies at the New York University. This week, Clay joins Paul and Rich to discuss his role in procuring tech for a large educational institution and shares how the pandemic made us more aware than ever of ed tech’s shortcomings. He also breaks down the dangers of optimizing for stability instead of flexibility. Could low-code solutions be the answer for universities? Clay thinks so, but it’s not always that easy.

Transcript

Paul Ford What is FERPA? That just sounds terrible.

Clay Shirky It’s either a skin disease or the federal regulation, depending on whose acronym you’re using. [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]

PF Hey, Rich.

Rich Ziade How are you, Paul?

PF Oh, I’m doing good. I’ve got a little sniffle. So you know, the audience is going to have to deal with that. Maybe they can fix it post.

RZ Oh, you know, it’s the fall. So it kind of fits in nice. 

PF Whatever, whatever. So like, that’s not what we’re here to talk about here. I have someone I have known–an old friend==someone I’ve known for over 2000 Internet years, who is joining us today. They have written over 2 billion books. They’re an educator. They’re tall. There’s just a lot going on with this person. I basically don’t want to do too much setup because the minute everyone starts talking, it will just be a nonstop orgy of madness. And so let’s get into it. Clay Shirky is here today.

RZ Welcome clay.

CS Hello!

PF Just for the audience who may not know Clay, you can hit his Wikipedia page. But Clay was extremely online extremely early in a very high level kind of way. Let me give you a potted history of yourself in 20 seconds and you can tell me what I missed. Noted author, focused a lot on sort of the the creative work that people did online and how it congealed. That book was called Here Comes Everybody. There’s a couple other books in there. Educator at ITP inside of NYU, been all around the world. And then sort of surprisingly to those of us who’ve known him for a long time became not just an educator, but a university administrator, went kind of upper level it started to organize and think things through, became a provost at NYU and ran a lot of the digital stuff acquired a lot of software licensing, he worked with vendors, which I think he loves, I think he loves working with educational software vendors, that’s what we’re gonna talk about is how great they are.

CS Couldn’t be better, really. [Rich laughs]

PF And now he is here and probably has about 20,000 other irons in the fire. What did I miss?

CS You missed a lot of minor stuff. But those are certainly the major points, I think the one thing I’d say is I became an administrator rather, because we moved to Shanghai for a few years to help NYU open the campus there. And it became really apparent that both understanding the internet and understanding academic culture was a really useful sort of translation role to serve. So I ended up being kind of de facto administration there and then became an administrator for real so that when I was coming back to New York, my boss said, ‘We’re going to create a role for online across the university, do you want to take on that role?’

PF You went to China, you’re like, alright, this is where this the futures there, I’m going to go, this will be cool. And it was so overwhelming and complicated that you had to become a manager? [Clay laughs]

CS Everyone who goes to China says it is overwhelming and complicated and the speed with which that country is changing, it makes it hard to keep up with. From here, I haven’t been obviously in in about 18 months, as many people have not been in about 18 months, our son is in school there. So we do get some reports from the field. But it is quite amazing. And given that my work is in social media being on both sides of the firewall, I had class of Chinese students, and then international students about half and half of each population. So I was working with one of the few groups of people that had both WeChat and Facebook and their pockets and relied on both. So we could do comparative work in Shanghai that was very difficult to do in really any other part of the world. And it was absolutely fascinating.

RZ We take pride in the fact that our listener base isn’t just in the technical world, in the technology world. Give the one minute summary of what WeChat is, Clay.

CS So WeChat is the central piece of Chinese social media. But it is also the central sort of organizing platform for Chinese life. There had been a series of essentially copies of Western software, QQ and Runun and so forth that that filled various niches and you could often find things. Weibo looked like Twitter when it launched. And then of course, it would have be adapted to local circumstances. WeChat is essentially a piece of social media that’s unlike anything in the West because it is not just phone first, but in many ways the software for phone only internet users. It serves some of the functions of Facebook, some of the functions of Instagram some of the functions of Twitter, but it is also a major commercial platform. And the payment system on WeChat allows for a whole number of businesses that essentially only operate inside that application. Essentially a phone that has WeChat running on it, is a phone that works. And a phone that doesn’t have WeChat running on it is a phone that’s broken in the Chinese context. And interestingly if you follow the Apple and Android thing the fact that WeChat is as portable as it is between the two platforms–Apple has never been able to get the sort of app specific advantage in China that it enjoyed in the United States for a whole variety of reasons. Because WeChat has been, you know, cross platform and Android first.

RZ It’s a monster. 

CS Yeah, it’s a monster.

RZ We could just go on a tangent about education software, the pandemic slammed the gas on education software in such an intense way. This intercourse between Zoom and Google Classroom and just the whole world. I’m talking, I’ve got elementary school kids. Could you see it coming? I mean, it was fascinating to finally dive into that world because we never had to, we never had to prior to that. Give us your perspective on what this shone a light on the last couple of years? 

CS Well, it has shone a light on the fact that that most ed tech is not good.

PF Oh my god, it’s terrible. [Clay laughs] When you log into a colleges internet portal, you cannot believe–maybe NYU is better.

CS We suffer from the same thing as anybody else’s. And we suffer from the same problems that everybody else does for the same reason, which is, ed tech doesn’t mean software that’s optimized to be used by educators. It means software that’s optimized to be bought by educational institutions.

PF This is 90% of what this podcast is about.

CS We are the last dumb clients. We don’t talk to our peers before we buy software. We work off of checklists from Central Offices without talking to people in the field. When I came to my current role as Vice Provost for educational technologies, I set up NYU’s first usability lab. We have 10s of 1000s of users who are incredibly tightly integrated with us. Faculty, students, we interact with them in all of these different ways.

PF Nobody ever talked to them. 

CS Nobody talked to them! 

CS I mean, this is a hell of a plot twist. I mean, you would think education and academia–and just listen, let’s learn and understand and make the right decisions.

PF Oh, you would think.

CS You would think. [Rich laughs] Well, you might think that. So essentially, the dilemma is because academics institutions are so stable. And because our platforms are so widely used in so many different ways, once a decision is made to use a particular platform, particular piece of software, it’s like an annuity for whatever company is selling, right? We looked at our course registration software, there are fewer than five days in a year in which it’s acceptable for that piece of software to be down for any hours. So if you want to make big changes, your change window was less than a week a year.

PF How many students at NYU? How big is NYU? 

CS NYU is about 75,000 people total, slightly less than 60,000 that are students. And we got about 8000 faculty, the rest are administrators.

PF Okay, so really the size of a–it’s a mid sized city,

CS Right. It is 10,000 people more than the city I grew up in. Yes, that’s exactly right. 

PF You think about that, you think about the water, you think about the the electric, you think about the buildings in the town you grew up in, you need more of that. And it all has to work together and software needs to knit it together.

CS So the problem with educational technology is that it’s not optimized for flexibility. It’s optimized for basically stability. So when COVID hit and I just actually asked a roomful of my colleagues this question I said, when COVID hit, did any of you call your ed tech vendors for help? [Rich laughs] I mean, Paul already did it, right? [Paul laughs] There was this moment of silence. And then the entire room started to laugh, right? Because the tools we turned to when this thing hit–Google Drive, Slack, and of course, Zoom, right? Which is to say, all of a sudden, everyone in my position, and roughly my position across you know, 1000s of colleges and universities across the US discovered that teaching and learning is work. And the tools that are optimized for work might be a good thing to adopt.

PF We’re connected to a giant financial services firm. And for years, they’ve been trying to get you know, Zoom going, procurement couldn’t deal. Talking about 48 hours.

CS Right. When the choice is Zoom or go out of business, all of a sudden, it’s a different set of impairment.

PF Yeah, it’s like, well, I guess the crisis is here. But yeah, why would you call–oh boy, there’s a lot of them too, and they’re also bad.

CS So this, I think, is the real opportunity here, which is, can we use the giant X-ray we all just got of colleges and universities as workplaces, and where we need the flexibility and we needed to be able to let people trust their judgments and try new things. Can we actually keep some of that as the crisis of Bates? Sometimes, by the way, the answer is no. You know, if you look at the Iveys, by and large, they are getting out of the business of offering courses online as fast as they can, even though, you know, they’ve also gone out and said, these courses were worth the tuition you paid when, you know, we were under conditions of COVID. And I don’t see how you can keep both of those thoughts going, but somehow, you know, somehow they are managing. But there is a real opportunity here to treat the work we do as work and to look to what collaborative tools, what people who make collaborative tools know about working, and then adapt it to education, rather than waiting for Ed Tech vendors to kind of catch up to the needs of flexibility and reconfigurability and all the rest.

PF So if ed tech people don’t think it’s work, what do they think it is?

CS You know, we have such a specialized set of characteristics, the center of the organization, we’re under, you know, particular federal law about student privacy, and so on. Ed tech vendors can always treat what we do as being so highly specialized, because those special characteristics exist, but they can expand that to cover every aspect of the work.

PF Every single time we get someone coming in with like a healthcare related software project. They’ll be like, well, what do you guys–what do you do about HIPAA? And it’s like, we’ve read the documents. We can do it. We’ve done it and we can implement HIPAA strategies into the software, it’s actually not nuclear science.

CS And FERPA is our HIPAA. FERPA is the federal regulations on student privacy. You know, for all that governmental regulation is a blunt instrument. What FERPA enshrines is basically the kind of norms you want colleges and universities to have, right? People who shouldn’t have access to student data shouldn’t have access to that data. You should not be able to figure out where a student is at any given point in time, which means you don’t give out enough locale information that someone could predict where to find a student, if they’re not in class, etc, etc, right? These are all good goals. But they’re not the kind of goals that means our software is so highly specialized, that we couldn’t actually use something like Zoom, you know, instead of the some of the stuff that was engineered for higher ed except, but it’s really engineered for his interaction with the student information system or what have you. And ironically, even though we nominally think about these big systems, we don’t even get good interoperability. But I cannot tell you how many times in the last 18 months, some email exchange ended with, ‘Ugh, just send me the CSV file and I’ll pull it into a spreadsheet.’

PF Alright, let me give you two solutions. Okay, solution one, we’re gonna open source everything using Linux. Solution two, why isn’t this all on Salesforce? Okay. Tell me why both of those are amazing, brilliant ideas that should be implemented as soon as possible. [Clay laughs]

RZ Oof.

CS Never cause your co-founder that much pain, Paul. Rich has completely disappeared out of my off of my screen, he’s so doubled over in pain, he’s below his camera. [Rich laughs] The open source problem, or the open source proposal is interesting. But we actually moved off of an open source tool called Sakai because the community was moving away from that was our learning management system, the community was moving away from it. And the difficulty with open source tools. As you know, O’Reilly pointed out 20 years ago, open source tools tend to be written by people who know what they’re doing. So they have bad user interfaces. They don’t have the kind of user interfaces that actually help people who don’t understand the tool, use it. But our problem is not the lack of interoperability at the level of API’s. Our problem is really the lack of interoperability at the level of data. If there was a standard schema that said, this is how you describe a student and every piece of software imports and exports it, we wouldn’t be in this ‘Ah, just give me a CSV file.’

PF You’re asking academic IT folks to sit in a room and work on that together. That’s 36 years. 

CS This is my bugaboo about this industry. And I’m actually trying to change that in rooms I’m in. We have this legacy, literally, you know, we’re medieval institutions. Our institutional form was invented by literate Catholics in the 11th century and hasn’t, hasn’t changed all that much since. And so we regard ourselves as total institutions as the sociologists say, institutions that structure the lives of everyone involved. So we have this terrible habit of not talking to each other. It’s like, okay, yeah, we compete with Duke and Michigan for faculty. We compete with him for students, we do not compete with them for usability of our learning management system. So every room I’m in, I’m like, you show us your documents, we’ll show you ours. There is so much room for collaborative overhead.

PF This should be perfect for academics, getting into a room and talking about XML schemas for like, weeks, months, that should be fine.

CS And I will tell you that even talking about XML schemas for months would be faster than our current pace of updating our infrastructure.

PF I’ll do it, Clay. I’ll volunteer.

CS One big system every every 10 years, as you say, you know, pivoting in 72 hours. And one, interestingly about COVID. The one thing that I think gives us a shot at preserving some of this, it’s the thinnest of silver linings on a dark, dark cloud is the Delta variant. Because everybody was getting ready last May to be like, the CDC just said, forget we ever said anything about masks, it’s going to be the Summer of Love, we’re going to be right back to normal September 1, Just you watch. But so Delta comes along. And all of a sudden, everybody’s like, Oh, that was an emergency. We did that for a year, we’re done with that, thank God, we can, you know, wrap up Zoom in wax paper and put it back up the fridge above the fridge where we store it. And then Delta came along, and everybody’s like, Oh, we still need to be able to preserve this capability, we need to be able to pivot. At NYU, it was, you know, and really, any place in NYC would have had this, but our first day of class happened to be September 2, which was the day of a hurricane. And so our ability to pivot and move to remote was tested on literally the first day of class. And it kind of reminded people like, this is not just about the pandemic, this is about climate changes. Snow days are predictable. Rain days are not predictable. You can predict when it’s gonna rain, you can’t predict when it’s going to shut the subway down. Students get sick. Now we have ways of keeping them on track, etc, etc. So these capabilities, I think, Delta really introduced the idea that there were other reasons besides the kind of, you know, first frame of the pandemic, for us to keep these tools around and keep number in terms of our ability to pivot.

RZ I’ve had this theory swirling around in my head. Paul and I have stepped down running Postlight. And one of the things we’re trying to get the new leadership to do and they’re doing incredible job is to move nimbly. And what we’ve asked them to do is simulate an unforeseen event, because unforeseen events tend to align everybody real fast, right. And the pandemic was one of those for education.

PF Strategy tends to be really slow. Strategy is like over the next 18 months.

RZ Let’s have a meeting. Let’s have another meet. Let’s talk it out. Share a document. I feel like Google Docs is slowing down–

PF Crisis is an amazing accelerator. Clay doesn’t know the org that well. It used to be that Rich was the crisis.

RZ I was a human walking crisis. [Pau laughs] Yeah, yeah. Meeting titles are like, ‘Guys, you’re not gonna believe this’ was the subject line of a meeting title. [Rich laughs] So I guess we’ve been shitting on ed tech. And just education is the sector just doesn’t doesn’t get it right. But the truth is, they do because they function and they continue to function. And they have functioned for a very, very, very long time. So I want to turn this on its head. What can the world learn from education? Is there anything? Or should we just ignore it all? Because it’s just a bad scene?

CS Well, Paul, and I were having this conversation before we started recording us in the Catholic Church were the last medieval institutions. And medieval institutions are organized around constituencies, not goals, and universities, colleges, We are the world champions of not going out of business. If you look at institutions that have been around since before–

PF There are like no businesses that are–

CS Icelandic Parliament and that one construction company in Japan.

PF Yeah, yeah, it’s 900 years old. 

CS Everybody who’s predicting disruption, there’s, you know, since universities have this one obvious goal, we’re just going to replace that goal and do it faster and better, and the system will collapse. That has never happened. And it’s not going to happen, because the premise is wrong. We’re not organized around a small set of optimizable goals. 

PF There’s no deliverable in it. 

CS There’s no deliverable. Right. We are in the business of identity formation, among other things. And everybody wants to reimagine colleges and universities as skills delivery. If we were skills delivery, General Assembly would have put us out of business 10 years ago.

PF This drives everybody crazy, because they’re giving you all that money, and you’re getting an identity to return? This is a terrible deal. Right? Except it kind of works out.

CS And I will say this sort of terrible deal rationale. The fact that you know, post 2015 the Republican Party’s platform basically includes suspicion of higher education full stop, is a huge problem for us. And you can see in the numbers, it just goes from majority of Republicans approve of that what higher education is doing minority disapprove. It just crosses like an X in 2016. 

PF Oof.

CS So that for us is one of our our long term challenges. We are much more challenged, frankly by the Republican Party than we are by any of the proposed disruption of hiring coming out of Silicon Valley.

RZ Well, you know, there’s one way to counter the Republican Party and that is Salesforce. This podcast is sponsored by Salesforce Education, Paul! What do you think? 

PF Well that consists back, right? So like, I love Clay’s idea of like, let’s get the standards right. Let’s make it possible to interchange data. What about the one size fits all ERP, Salesforce model? That has to be knocking on the door.

CS So there are certainly people within the university who are looking at sort of our relationship with students, and saying exactly the kind of thing you say, when you look at an ERP. They’re saying, we have all of these sort of fractured student experiences. But we know it all adds up to college in the students mind. We can’t even say what kinds of things the students are interested in, or how they might get engaged, unless they’re in a credit bearing class, we have all of these kinds of separate groups that are that are keeping track of this stuff. And all of this is traveling under the label ‘student success’. And student success is one of those things like evidence based medicine, like the first time I heard the phrase evidence based medicine, I thought, Well, what did we used to be doing? [Rich laughs] 

CS So the fact that we’re now saying, we are organized around student success is a tacit admission that for the thick end of 1000 years, we were not organized around that goal, right? Colleges and universities were places where learning was offered, but it was not guaranteed. And it was not the faculty’s fault if it didn’t happen.

PF They’re structured around permanent identity for themselves.

CS Right. So the ERP model for a bunch of student experiences is quite interesting. And one of my colleagues is very engaged in this is actually looking at Salesforce. So it’s funny you mentioned that. But that’s not the classroom model. The classroom model is much closer to Slack, Google Docs, |oom. And that’s the piece that I’m involved in, which is I would rather see educational institutions think about the kind of work students and faculty are doing. And then in retrospect, find some way to tie it to the student information system, recording grades, making sure that people who are in the class are enrolled, and people who are enrolled in the class. Like those are things you can deal with after the fact. That’s the stuff that Ed Tech vendors sell to us up front. And the actual experience of using the tools for the collaborative aspects of teaching and learning is often limited or fractured. I’d rather see, frankly, Google Classroom plus Google Docs plus Zoom, if you were starting a college tomorrow, and you would use those three things, you would be pretty far along–as long as you had faculty practice around using them–you would be pretty far along to what you needed to offer all kinds of both in person and online education. You still need a database in the background, you need some of the ERP stuff, but the for all of the kind of like the suggestion that there’s huge complexity about doing this. What we learned during COVID is teaching online is a two step process, go online, teach. In fact, right, the people who can get up in front of a classroom of students and walk them through the Crimean War, or how meiosis works or whatever they’re teaching are really good at that. And just getting them comfortable with the medium they’re working in, actually matters a lot more than what features the software ships with at the factory.

PF How much money could you save if you did that? 

CS You could save some. I mean, the problem we’ve got is we have cost disease, right? So almost all of the expenses of a college university are compensation expenses, whether it’s for faculty or staff or administrators. So you could save some but the problem I’ve got with Ed Tech–I mean, NYU has the money to pay for this. We’re paying for it every year, I’m sure if I went to the EVP and said, we can save 10% on software, he’d be delighted. That’s not even the problem we face. The problem is, we know what software that connects people can do. Right? When people walk out of their classroom, they’re so tied to the experiences they’re having on their phone with people they care about and subjects they care about. And then they walk into the classroom literally or figuratively. And what we offer them is so weak and thin. We don’t even think to try to steal from Instagram. We so often say basically, this looks like web design circa 2003. And that’s just how college works. It is the cultural–I think the cultural loss that I face much more than the economic loss when I imagined the difference between what educational software could be and sort of what it is today.

PF You know, what I love is when you find out what these Facebook communities where kids are shitposting memes about their disciplines. You know, it’ll just be transportation oriented or urban planning or like, you’ll get like a bundle of advanced mathematics beep. So they’re just the same stuff. And they make no sense at all. And everybody’s having the best time. 

CS Numtots.

PF For people who don’t know about this, just Google ‘numtots’. I don’t want to ruin it any further, just Google.

CS That to me was an eye opening experience about how much kids who are interested in a discipline will just run with it if they’re given the tools and the environment in which they can have that conversation with one another. 

PF And then it either veers into like some sort of very weird proto fascism or straight to Marxism. It is a very funny fork in the road. [Paul laughs]

CS Right, right. Right. It’s a trolley problem for society.

RZ But what you’re saying here, I mean, I want to throw that for a second. I mean, you’re not just saying, software can be better and easier to use, you’re saying the educational experience can be better, the actual higher ed experience can be better. So this isn’t just about administration. This isn’t just about we got to have registration and class bulletins and all that. It’s actually not great now, because the social experience of the internet is far more fun and engaging than the educational experience. 

PF It makes sense, right? Because like we think of it, we’re like, oh, it’s a procurement problem. But of course, no, it’s the whole damn thing. Everything has changed in the last 20 years, and everything changes in the last two years. So of course, you got to rebuild the system a little bit.

CS And if you look at what people get themselves up to when they join the group chat, and it really almost doesn’t matter whether the group chat is just SMS, or it’s on Slack or Discord, or whatever. What you see is a degree of engagement, we could support as well. I mean, college is famously a place where the side conversations among people doing the same or similar or even wholly different things are part of the experiment.

PF Most important part, right? 

CS Our problem is the official rationale was individual mind, individual mind, right. The instructor produces material, and not only to the students internalize that material, but if we catch them working too closely with one another, then they’re actually potentially liable for academic punishment. And then we all accept that in some place hidden from the faculty, those students are having conversations with each other all the time. And what the internet did is it made those conversations that were invisible to the faculty and to the administration visible. There was years ago, a kid up in college in Canada, who was brought up on academic charges for starting a study group on Facebook. And he named it after the room on the campus set aside for study groups to meet. But somehow, when it happened online instead of in person, the college freaked out. So some of it is just we have not caught up to the central dilemma for almost all social software, which is a bunch of stuff that you used to get kind of implicitly and for free now has to be planned and designed for. And we’ve been very good at creating negative spaces for students to go and gather together and do whatever they want to do. And very often that’s talking about the things they care about. But we’re not nearly as good at doing that affirmatively. And that’s essentially the challenge that we’re being presented now.

RZ Do you guys use Slack today? As a university?

CS We don’t. I mean, not for anything wrong. In fact, we’d like to use it. But as I have just recently said to them, you know, one of the pieces of math I’ve learned in my new job is that any number multiplied by 75,000 is a large number. And any number divided by 70,000 is a 75,000 is a small number. So our dilemma is that any software that has a per head charge is almost impossible for NYU to adopt. But you know, as an administrator, I don’t want to adopt software that has me telling people who want to use it, they can’t. So whatever, we’ll see what happens, all of that stuff is still very much in motion. I like Discord a lot. But my experience is that anybody who didn’t grow up around games or over 35 has a hard time with Discord.

PF It’s a lot. It’s a lot. 

CS I mean, just just the fact that it starts in default night mode suggests a certain–[Rich laughs]

RZ It’s already 2am. 

CS If you’re using Discord, it should feel like 2am Even if it’s four in the afternoon.

PF That expert in Latin American economic history, who is now forced into logging into Discord.

CS That kind of, you know, it’s amenable to side chat, it’s amenable to threads. People can joke around to do serious stuff in the same same place and even kind of segment that stuff. That’s all really compatible with how academic conversations work. If you go to an academic conference, there’s the presentations, and then there’s the hallway conversation, and then there’s the bar. And everybody knows exactly what to get out of all three of those situations.

PF This is something we talk about constantly, which is the conversation is more important of the artifact but you have to be close to the artifact.

CS That’s exactly right. Yeah, academic conference is very often the paper presentations for macguffins. They are ways to say, in this room if everybody’s come to hear this paper, in this room are probably a lot of people you would like to talk to.

PF Give some advice. I’m out there, I’m listening to this podcast, I am a product manager, technology type. Somebody’s ready to do a little career inflection. I would like to help out in educational technology, where should I spend my time? What should I learn? What should they be thinking?

CS That’s interesting. I mean, we are woefully under staffed and underprepared on the client side. And I don’t necessarily mean there are not enough people in IT What I mean is there are not enough people who are part of both the technology conversation and the academic conversation. So you either get places where the you know, the IT is treated like a back office function, even though IT is now the substrate for substantially all academic conversation outside of individual classrooms. Or you have academics who have an idea of what’s possible, but don’t have a sort of conversational partner to help them figure out what it means in terms of technology. And salespeople are incredibly adept at interjecting themselves into that crevice. And speaking to whichever side they think is going to write– And like I said, I’ve been in the shop five years, I have never responded to a cold call email, I just write I will only talk to vendors, if we have an open RFP. Or if I am part of a consortium of other peer schools looking at it. If I can make any change in academic behavior. No school would ever talk to an individual vendor under any circumstances. 

PF Huh. Okay.

CS That would go a long way, I think towards making people treat this as a holistic exercise. So there is a lot of potential pivot for people who understand the technology and can translate that into academic goals and vice versa. And then on the product side, you’d be much happier to work in the educational unit of Slack or Google or whatever, the people trying to take real collaboration software and make it fit these institutions in particular, than an ed tech startup that has a feature that they’re going to try and sell to 30 universities and then milk it for two decades.

RZ One last closing bit of advice, I want to zoom down to the administrator, I don’t want to be too prescriptive with where they are. But they’re in a community. They’re trying to get things to be better. And they’re hitting walls left and right, for all the typical reasons. They want to improve tools they want to improve student experience. But it’s a slog. What advice would you give even just just that person that’s sort of in the mix in that community college in Illinois? How do they get change to happen?

CS So my experience has been that the hugely underleveraged resource that any administrator has, is that if you reach out to somebody who’s in a similar job at you at a different institution, you will get an answer a surprising amount of the time. This is true. I mean, you talked about administrators in small institutions, which is one piece of the dislocation. There’s also administrators in large institutions tend to, you know, very often big colleges and universities are designed around the silos of excellence principle. And that’s what I found when I got to NYU. So during COVID, you know, I worked hard, I tried to do what I could to keep NYU going, I think I did an okay job. But nothing I did in those 18 months, was as important as having set up a couple of cross school talking shops, for the educational technologist, for all of the people who ran fully online programs, so that when COVID hit, it was already clear where to have the conversations and where to have the knowledge share. And that pattern of just, let’s talk to our peers is really hard to support in the Academy because it’s just the institution is not often set up for that. But for almost any administrator out there, and whether you’re in IT or you’re in a school, or you’re in some role in central that relies on technology. There’s just enormous value in talking to peers and other schools and just hearing how they do what they do. If I was in an evangelical mood, I would set up a bunch of mailing lists for categories of similar schools that I thought could could learn from each other. And when you host a couple of things like that, we can’t do it for the whole industry. But the thing that they have in Silicon Valley, you know, this was an original intuition about Silicon Valley is that the unenforceability of non compete agreements made it much much easier for Are people at competing companies to actually have conversations with one another. I would tell almost anyone in almost any position, Rich, if they were in the role you you described, just find 10 schools that are like yours, and just figure out who there you might want to be talking to, and strike up an informal conversation. Because when you’re the only one working on problem X, which in small colleges is very often the case, you don’t have any backup for your own intuitions, you don’t have any place to go and bounce ideas off of. Almost by definition, you’re working in a role that doesn’t have to people occupying it. But there’s somebody else out there. I mean, every college and university swears that their ones and zeros are special. But in fact, there’s a collection of problems that are so common across these institutions.

PF Alright, so look, Clay, if somebody wants to get in touch with you–

RZ Yeah if somebody wants to cold call you. [Clay laughs]

PF What are you looking for the world? Who should get in touch? What should we do?

CS Clay.shirky@nyu.edu always works. I don’t want to talk to vendors, as I said, because that’s–look, we spend 10s of millions of dollars a year on ed tech software. Right? We have a way of writing an RFP, we talk to people, we know who people are, we’ll go you know, we’ll go look at software when it’s needed. But I’ll say one other thing that we’re trying to do me and Ben Maddix, my opposite number at NYU, we’re just having this conversation this morning. There’s an opportunity for us. And for a lot of colleges and universities to take the giant X-ray, we just got out of our IT practices during COVID. And to spend the next year fixing those things rather than trying to implement lots of fancy new stuff. So I’m much more interested in people who are using Google Docs in innovative ways to teach. 

PF There we go.

CS Than I am in somebody who’s got an idea for a VR classroom. 

PF There we go. So if you are able to organize your classroom with Google spreadsheet, or I guess, AirTable or whatever, like if you’re hacking together an ed tech platform with low code, get in touch with Clay Shirky. 

CS Yes.

PF So Rich, if people need to get in touch, what should they do? 

RZ With Postlight?

PF Yeah, yeah. I’ve herd o it.

RZ Paul, I’m gonna give him your cell number. Hold on. Let me pull it out. No. Postlight.com. Just check us out. We do all kinds of cool work. We are in all sorts of sectors. Check us out. We’d love to talk. You’ve got ideas, problems, reach out. Hello@postlight.com is the email address. Clay, have a lovely week. Thanks for listening. Take care.

CS Bye!

[music ramps up, plays alone, ends]