Edupunks and Technology Utopianism
Today my former employer, the Center for American Progress, hosted an event with Anya Kamenetz around an idea she presented in book last year, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. She has since followed that up with a book called The Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential (which you can view for free here) that tries to teach the public how to be an “edupunk.”
Kamenetz’s idea is simple. She’s seeing folks who either can’t afford to attend a fancy college or don’t think their current education they’re getting at a traditional residential four-year school is sufficient. So they’re turning to the internet. They’re downloading MIT or Harvard lectures. They’re doing their own research. They’re teaching themselves skills like computer programming through online tutorials and opensource developer groups. In short, these people are the up-by-the-boostraps Americans on which we like to think America was founded. This idea was even reflected in a euphoric opinion column by Bill Keller this week in the New York Times.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of admiration for these people, who are so determined to learn that they’ll turn to new technology resources to achieve their own version of a college education. And it’s hard to say that these DIY degrees are any worse than the ones from the graduates of any given Ivy League university. After all, just because you pay $40,000 a year doesn’t make you smarter—it just means you paid $40,000 a year for the degree and had good enough test scores to get in in the first place.
Philip Auerswald, an associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, pointed out that, basically, universities provide three things: an avenue for learning, access to networks of people, and—often at the end of 120 credit hours—a credential. Now, most information and networks that was previously found only at universities can be achieved other ways. If you’re a journalist, for instance, you can choose a beat, read lots of books about it, follow news online, attend webcasts of events, and exchange emails with experts.
I can see it in my own life. One of the main things I started writing about when I got out of college was feminism. But I never attended a single women’s studies course while I was at the University of Minnesota. Instead, I read feminist blogs, read the feminist classics on my own, and got involved with feminist media groups so I could attend conferences and happy hours. I wasn’t able to write about this because I had a credential. I was able to write about it because I did the research, even if it came about in a nontraditional way. And I’m lucky—I made a decision to move to an urban area with lots of likeminded folks who I could easily access through our common interests. In fact, the most successful people in fields today aren’t the ones who just attend classes and get a degree. They’re the ones that network, that do outside learning, and generally go above and beyond in their fields.
But though I think that Kamenetz’s model has a lot of potential for shaking up education, I remain a bit skeptical. She, of course acknowledges that her idea isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. But fields like computer programming or journalism are far easier to hack around with use of the internet. If you want to pursue, say, nursing, there’s not much of a way to get around having to attend a nursing school because you need a license and supervised training. Many have argued against our over-reliance on credentialing and licenses, but there needs to be a huge shift in public opinion for the idea of moving away from credentialing—and a substitution in many fields—for things to actually change.
Furthermore, some of the studies that have been done on distance learning haven’t been so rosy. Students who rely heavily on online courses are more likely to drop out. And, as one attendee from University of Maryland University College pointed out during the Q&A period session of the event, many students struggle with basic computer and internet literacy. It seems those that are best positioned to take advantage of the “edupunk” perspective, might just be those who are likely to attend a four-year residential college or university anyway.
That’s not to take away from students who have used the system—or lack thereof—that Kamenetz presents to find success. After all, learning on your own takes a huge amount of discipline and passion for the subject area you are pursuing. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the solution to education may not lie in the idea of traditional lectures by professors and exams. But how we get to that decentralized kind of learning will be a very interesting journey.