Book: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

Book: DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Amy Kamenetz. Chelsea Green, 2010

The excerpt below, by author Amy Kamenetz, was published in Reality Sandwich, This excerpt is about the “edupunks,” the radicals who want to liberate scholarship and learning from the constraints of institutions altogether. I also call them the monks. The book was just published by Chelsea Green.

(you can find another excerpt, on open content, textbooks and courseware, here)


“The monks’ world starts with a toaster.

Well, not quite a toaster. What Thomas Thwaites exhibited at London’s Royal College of Art in the summer of 2009 was a couple of leafblowers, a suitcase full of chunks of iron ore, and a microwave, with which he had managed to smelt a piece of pure iron “about the size of a ten-pence coin.” The Toaster Project was a solo attempt to fabricate, from raw natural materials, the same Chinese-made appliance that sells in British stores for £3.99 ($6.60). Thwaites took his cue from sci-fi humorist Douglas Adams, who in his novel Mostly Harmless wrote of the average modern human, “Left to his own devices, he couldn’t make a toaster.”

In his artist’s statement, Thwaites wrote, “It’s about scale, the total inter-reliance of people and societies, the triviality of some (anti) globalisation discourse, what we have to lose, and DIY.” To translate: The chain of industrial processes, transportation miles, and person-hours that snakes behind even the simplest object is invisible even to the best-educated among us. Living within this invisible matrix is profoundly alienating. We ignore the cost to the environment and the fate of the people around the world who serve as cheap labor to make our cheap products. DIY is one possible response.

Not explicitly educational, the Toaster Project nevertheless illustrates two basic strategies important to DIY education. The first is to seek out the vividness of direct experience, to encounter the world, and, if possible, to make yourself useful. Henry David Thoreau argued for a Toaster Project approach to education.

Students, he wrote, should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. . . Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month,-the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this — or the boy who had attended the lecture on metallurgy at the Institute in the mean while, and had received a . . . penknife from his father? Which would be more likely to cut his fingers?

The second strategy is to share information with a community. I found out about the Toaster Project on Google Reader, a free application. Every day when I’m surfing the Internet reading news and blogs, I can click a button and share what I’m reading on Reader, Facebook, or Twitter with several thousand of my friends and contacts, who also share their links with me. The Toaster Project is highly shareable; Thwaites put a lot of information online, including step-by-step videos. If I wanted to, I could probably draw on these resources and use my microwave to smelt iron too.

The monks contend that community- and practice-based learning can transcend the limitations of existing educational institutions. Jim Groom (“The great Reverend @jimgroom, Groom and Doom, Groom Fills The Room,” as he was announced, via Twitter, at the 2009 Open Education conference in Vancouver) is a chainsmoker with glasses and an ever-present five-days’ growth of beard. He has the discursive, occasionally irascible manner of a longtime graduate student. Groom’s day job is educational technologist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. His secret identity is open education blogodaemon and coiner of the term “edupunk.”

“Edupunk is about the utter irresponsibility and lethargy of educational institutions, and the means by which they are financially cannibalizing their own mission,” is the opening salvo of his first e-mail. Higher education has become a given for most high school students in our culture, and the fact that they have to pay out the nose has become a kind of unquestioned necessity to secure a job. But as we are increasingly seeing with big media, newspapers, and the like — traditional modes of information distribution are being circumvented, and higher education is just as vulnerable in this new landscape. . . There remains a general refusal to acknowledge the implications of how easy it is to publish, share, teach, and even apprentice one another outside of the traditional logic of institutions.

What edupunk — DIY education, if you will — promises is an evolution from expensive institutions to expansive networks; it aims to fulfill the promise of universal education, but only by leaving the university behind. Educational futurist John Seely Brown talks about “open participatory learning ecosystems.” Alec Couros at the University of Sasketchewan calls my blend of news sources and contacts on Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and e-mail a “personal learning network.”

He draws a diagram that looks like a dandelion head. You, the learner, are at the center. The seeds are people, texts, courses, Web sites, blogs-any knowledge resource. George Siemens and Stephen Downes, who collaborated in offering the Massively Open Online Course, call their theory of learning in the digital age “connectivism.”

Learning networks in previous decades were insular groups formed around academic journals, learned societies, and professional conferences. Today, galaxies of students, academics, professionals, and amateurs are using blogs, wikis, presentation tools like Slideshare, YouTube videos, and e-mail lists to collaborate, pursue, and present knowledge in any discipline. All are supported by, yet independent of, universities, other cultural and government institutions, and private companies, not to mention hours of volunteered time by enthusiasts. Just now I picked a topic out of thin air — Tuvan throat singing. In hardly more time than it takes me to type the words, I find YouTube videos, personal blogs, ethnomusicology papers on Google Scholar. A few more keystrokes and I’ve opened up a dialogue by sending an e-mail to Ted Levin at Dartmouth, who, I find, the Washington Post called the world’s foremost expert on the subject.

In my e-mail, I ask him how often he responds to queries that he receives out of the blue. Just hours later I got an incredibly generous response in which Levin said, in part,

Yes, a lot of people e-mail me with questions about Tuvan throat singing, and yes, I respond to each and every inquiry. But I don’t respond equally. The depth of the response is commensurate with the thoughtfulness of the inquiry. . . My point: that “research” via Internet can get you only as far as the doorstep in certain kinds of knowledge seeking, and that to go beyond that requires that you step off the Internet and into more personalized forms of knowledge transmission. Since I’m committed to this kind of knowledge transmission, I believe it’s my duty to share what I know with any serious seeker or researcher who comes along, whatever the portal by which he or she reaches me.

The casual intellectual venturer can dip in and out of established learning networks to answer a specific question, as I did when contacting Levin, or get a good introduction to a person or subject. But as Levin argues, actually becoming a part of a learning network requires some level of participation and contribution of your own-contribution that typically takes the learner from the virtual world to the real world and back again. The quality of the answer is dependent on the quality of the question.

Ideas travel faster over informal, digitally connected networks than when they are siloed inside academic departments. Such networks are especially useful in emerging, cross- disciplinary frontiers of research, where there are no established departments. In fact, the open-education movement is itself a primary example of this kind of learning network. “Given the abundance of information and given the connective and social opportunities around technology, perhaps the teacher’s role is one of multiple nodes amid an overall network,” says Siemens. “The world has become more and more complex. As a student you need to create your own learning network that will allow you to make sense of the abundance of information. It’s a process of wayfinding, social sensemaking.” Like Hansel and Gretel leaving trails of crumbs through the woods, or like bees doing waggle dances to point one another to the nectar, “Students need to be able to connect, provide continual feedback to each other, and form sensemaking social systems.”

The whole project of formal education has been historically based on the idea of society transmitting its ideas, values, and technologies from one generation to the next, and from dominant civilizations and cultures to “backwards” or “primitive” ones. In the modern era we added the task of making and incorporating new discoveries into the curriculum year after year. As our society got more complex, we developed bigger and bigger institutions to teach more and more people more and more things.

Well, now the world is changing too fast, and the need is growing too much, for institutions to keep up. Scientists say we have less than ten years to reinvent how we use energy, how we get around, and how we make things if we don’t want our civilization to collapse from the effects of global warming. And to do that, we as a species also have to find better ways of communicating, making decisions, and understanding and weighing each others’ needs. No one person knows how to do this; it requires a new synthesis of the wisdom of the ancients and cutting-edge discoveries. Our best hope is to get better at empowering individuals to find answers for themselves. In other words, forget about giving the guy a fish, or teaching him how to fish, either. Teach him how to teach himself, and he’ll always be able to acquire the skills he needs to find food, skills you haven’t even thought of yet for things you didn’t know you could eat.”

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