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Teaching in a Networked Age

April 30, 2012

In his keynote address at NYU’s recent Teaching with Technology Conference, Clay Shirky explored the massive potential for digital tools to fundamentally change not only teaching, but academia at large. His talk was simultaneously a call to action—empowering instructors to experiment with the increasing “palette of the possible” these technologies engender—and a reminder that although they can be exceedingly helpful in connecting people, these tools are not a replacement for the face-to-face interactions at the core of our institution.

Shirky, who has a joint appointment at NYU as a professor at Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) and distinguished writer in residence at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Faculty of Arts and Science, is a renowned social media theorist. His work focuses largely on the utility and implications of decentralized technologies like mobile phones, peer-to-peer networks, and social software. The combination of this research and his own pedagogical experience provide him with a unique and valuable perspective on the challenges and opportunities raised when leveraging new technologies in instruction.

Institutional support, collective cacophony

When introducing Shirky at the conference, Tom Delaney, Vice President of Global Technology, described a previous conversation they had had about strategizing NYU’s evolution into a truly Global Network University, a development through which, according to Shirky, “tech becomes non-optional.” The best thing that NYU can do as an institution, they discussed, is to provide the community with the infrastructure, communication, content, connectivity, and best available tools, then “allow the cacophony to invent itself, and not invent it for them.”

In conversation after his presentation, Shirky opined that instructors usually know the most about the pedagogical needs of the community and the challenges of effectively integrating technology into teaching. He reflected on how NYU’s varied environment provides teachers with “huge freedom to experiment... We have a very high degree of agency in our own classrooms, and over each session and unit to make it most effective.” In his own teaching and research, he has found that conducting small, incremental experiments, rather than implementing large transformations, is often the most effective strategy, and provides the opportunity to decide what does and does not working in any given situation. This individualized, “pro-cacophony” approach doesn't just benefit to each instructor and their students, but can also maximize faculty’s ability to discover new ways to work together—all of which is of great value to NYU as a whole.

Finding equillibrium

Maintaining that the “range of utility and possibility that [digital] tools enable is a wonder,” and encouraging fellow faculty to experiment, Shirky also extolled the value of finding balance: “Technology and face-to-face communications aren’t replacements for each other. They have to be used side-by-side.” In his keynote address, he shared stories from his experience at ITP and at Studio 20 (the “experimental journalism wing” at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute) to illustrate the importance of finding that equilibrium.

Consistently at the forefront of exploring new technologies, ITP was one of the first places at NYU to experiment with wireless connectivity in classrooms. “At first it was great to be connected all the time," recalled Shirky. "Then, after awhile, [we discovered that] virtual presence means actual absence; even when students were paying attention, the number of potential distractions were enormous.”

His solution, both at ITP and more recently in his work at Studio 20, has been to determine when it make sense to use the technology, and when it makes sense to say “lids down, turn your laptops off and look around the room”—a move he describes as ‘bringing air back into the room’ and enabling one of the classrooms most valuable assets: the ability to convene face-to-face conversation. “There is a common perception of technology that ‘you just have to let people do it,’ but that is untrue. You can integrate...It isn’t any tool, any time, with unfettered access”. Exercising this kind of self-regulation can help instructors utilize technology in their pedagogy in a balanced way that enhances communication, rather than hindering it.

Improved communication is, in fact, the main benefit of many technologies—a fact that Shirky sees as frequently overlooked. He advised conference attendees on a “classic mistake to avoid in thinking about digital technologies”:

We have historically and systematically over-emphasized access to information and we’ve under-emphasized access to each other as the principal value of the tool. The most valuable thing connected to a computer isn’t the applications, and it isn’t the file system, it’s the user.

Inspiration and transformation

Shirky also discussed the ways in which technology fundamentally transforms not only in-classroom instruction, but academia at large. In relating a story about another university’s disciplinary reaction to a student’s use of a Facebook study group, he encouraged instructors to avoid this kind of restricted mindset and to instead embrace new tools before they are considered “serious.”

It did not take long after the invention of the printing press [for someone] to start printing erotic novels. It took another 150 years for anyone to even think of the scientific journal. We, as academics, can not say ‘when that gets serious, I will use it.’ We’re the people who have to figure out how to make it serious. We did it with the printing press; we have to do it with these digital tools.

He then delved into the ways in which academic publishing has been transformed over the past ten years, and advised “There are no faculty whose own work has not already been changed by technology. As scholars and professors, if we change our own practice and don’t communicate that with our students, then we’re hiding.”

Shirky offered a few bits of inspiration for instructors as they explore the use of these tools in their classes. He described how students at Studio 20 excelled at creative uses of technology when presented with medium-scale problems, rather than complete freedom, or overly restrictive assignments. Assigned with the task of selecting an important, relatively unknown news story and then using technology to report on it, students created the acclaimed “My Water’s on Fire Tonight” music video about hydrofracking. The medium-scale scope of the assignment, according to Shirky, empowered students to use the technology in much more imaginative ways. “The technology allows a certain degree of exploratory freedom—we don’t have to specify everything at every step, but we also can’t dump so much freedom into the exploration that it all just ends up being random.”

Faculty and students at Studio 20 have also successfully leveraged technology to facilitate global scholarship. As Shirky explains it, given NYU's truly global scale, the University community can approach the entire world as a potential platform. At the Studio 20, they tackled the goal of creating a 24-hour news feed by maintaining by six different teams around the world. “Once you realize we don’t just have a lot of students in a lot of places, we have students awake and thinking, 24 by 7, we can think about the ways to use those resources.”

As faculty dive into or deepen the integration of technology into their own research and instruction, Shirky offered a final tip:

The most important thing I’ve learned about teaching with technology in my 11 years at NYU is that these are not new tools for doing old jobs. As we embark on figuring out where technology fits into what we do, we’re transforming the institution that we’re part of as we go... We’re having to ask ourselves not just "how do I get an electronic syllabus?" or "can I get an iPad to behave like a book?" We’re having to ask ourselves "if I adopt this tool, what new characteristics is this going to bring into my discipline, and what new challenges is it going to create for me and the institution?" It’s only in grappling with that, and in thinking about ourselves as an institution as we think though those problems that we’re going to get this right.

Learn more

As evidenced by the success of the Teaching with Technology conference, one important way to "get it right" is for faculty to maintain an open dialog, and to keep up to date on the successes and challenges encountered by their peers. Shirky encourages the organization of more such events, as they provide a way for instructors and staff to meet and learn about what each other are working on, facilitate interdisciplinary work, and provoke open-ended conversations. For more information about the conference and other presentations from it, explore the articles links at the right, or visit the Teaching with Technology Conference website to watch a video of Clay Shirky’s entire keynote presentation.



Kate Monahan is Project Lead of the ITS Publications and Communications group, and a graduate of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Clay Shirky is a professor at NYU Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) and distinguished writer in residence at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

This Article is in the following Topics:
Technology, Connect - Information Technology at NYU, Teaching and Learning

Type: Article

Teaching in a Networked Age

Clay Shirky, delivering the keynote address at the recent NYU Teaching with Technology Conference. Click the image above to watch his presentation. (Photo credit: Bancha Srikacha)

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