DIY U: Can digital solutions save universities?

Anya Kamenetz's new book, DIY U, explores whether the university should embrace digital technologies, or resist

| June 4, 2010
DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

by Anya Kamenetz
(Chelsea Green,
2010;
$14.95)

In a world being radically altered by new media technologies, should the university embrace those technologies, or resist them? This is the question Anya Kamenetz explores in her new book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Her answer -- in this troubling, stylistically flat and haphazardly structured book -- is an emphatic yes for a wholehearted embrace.

The striking term "edupunk" was coined in a 2008 blog post by Jim Groom, an instructional technology specialist at the University of Mary Washington. In it, he railed against corporations who were co-opting the work of people (like himself) fusing "Web 2.0" technology (that is, information technology based upon user-centered design, file-sharing, the collaborative creation of content, and so on -- as seen in Wikipedia and Facebook, for instance) and education in new ways, and selling those ideas and technologies back to schools and universities in substandard form, and at exorbitant prices. Groom called upon his readers to go "edupunk," and reclaim this technology for grassroots, liberatory ends. Edupunk as a buzz-word quickly went viral after being picked up by The Chronicle of Higher Education in the U.S. and The Guardian in the U.K. The term "edupreneur" -- that is, someone who wishes to make money through education -- is, by comparison, self-explanatory.

Kamenetz, ironically mirroring the corporations that Groom detests, hijacks edupunk for her own ends. Her previous book Generation Debt chronicled her disillusionment after leaving Yale, and finding herself saddled with crushing student debt, and woefully unprepared for the job market. DIY U is her revenge upon higher education. In it, she argues that Web 2.0 spells the end of the university as an institution, and that this is a good thing indeed. The first part of the book explains the problem (the university), the second its solution (newer, better, more technology). In a series of chapters named after the traditional subjects that she hopes will soon whither away -- "History," "Sociology" and "Economics," Kamenetz attempts to show that the university -- as a place were young people physically gather in order to be taught traditional subjects by expert professors in order to gain knowledge and professional credentials -- though touted as democratic, is anything but. In reality, the American university is, and always has been, deeply conservative, exclusionary and run by a self-interested cabal of elites and bureaucrats instinctively opposed to change. Belief in the value of this institution is a "religion" for Kamenetz. As she puts it: "The university's ‘hidden curriculum' ... has always been teaching its own importance." Enter the solution: a new generation of edupunks, edupreneurs and the technological paradigm-shift they represent.

In the second part of the book, Kamenetz describes several experiments, such as the Open Learning Initiative and the Massively Open Online Course that seek to marry social networking, "virtual worlds," and video games with educational content. For her, these experiments do everything the traditional university does, only more directly, vividly, flexibly and cheaply. She portrays these innovations as inevitable, a part of the natural order -- the next stage in educational evolution. As she puts it:

"Whether hybrid classes, social networks, tutoring programs, games, or open content, technology provides speed skates for students and teachers, not crutches ... Increasingly, this is going to be a part of good teaching practice ... professors these days have no excuses for not bellying up to the buffet of brand-new, free course materials and activities, or logging on to the wealth of wikis and portals to find and share best practices."

As agents of this evolution, the edupunks, who seek to make education egalitarian and liberatory, and the edupreneurs, who simply wish to pry the doors of the university open for business, are one and the same.

One edupreneur she interviewed describes higher education as nothing but a market, previously -- and quite irrationally -- closed off to "innovation." If Web 2.0 were made pedagogically necessary, higher ed -- "the biggest virgin forest out there," as he puts it -- would be a fiscal gift that just keeps on giving. For Kamenetz, this alarming approach to a such a key public institution is not to be resisted, but rather embraced:

"it's worth remembering that businesslike thinking is both a necessary and venerable part of the educational ecosystem. Even monks have to eat ... then the community has to figure out whether and how to support them."

Then, she adds: "there is no free lunch." Her marshalling of figures such as the Brazilian socialist educator Paulo Freire (introduced via Twitter) in order to back up such views would have him spinning in his grave. I'm sure that Jim Groom, the anti-capitalist edupunk, doesn't appreciate it either. The idea that new technologies could very well create novel inequalities -- new classes of "haves" and "have-nots" -- is never broached in DIY U. And, the disastrous effects that her vision of higher education would undoubtedly have upon the North American academic labour force is dismissed as just so much collateral damage on the road to a brighter future.

Further, there are reasons for not "bellying up" to the effects of these technologies, or at least reservations to consider. The physical presence of educators and learners in a single classroom or campus does have much to recommend it, from the pedagogic role played by body language in seminar participation, to the university itself as a multifarious academic, social, and political community: a potentially quite democratic network, if you will. Moreover, the idea that novel technologies will revolutionize education nothing new -- tape-recorders, slide-projectors, radios and television all, at one point or another, were promoted by various boosters as the future of education, yet they never proved as effective (or, indeed as radical) as old-fashioned, person to person interaction between teachers and students (as Freire would be the first to assert). In addition to this, there is evidence to suggest that the (fiscal) cost of online learning can be quite high, particularly in liberal arts courses that demand a high teacher to student ratio.

In other words, high-tech learning does not automatically guarantee cost-effectiveness or efficiency as Kamenetz claims. To her credit, she does include one overt description of technological failure: a student's testimony of her online experience as awkward and alienating -- her computer even shut down while she was taking a test. She also points toward a balance of classroom and distance learning as one sort of ideal for the future of the university. But such instances are buried under a mountain of uncritical arguments for new media in the university. As it stands, higher education is very (very) far from perfect, and can surely benefit from what Web 2.0. offers; however this technology needs to be treated with caution, and is not the panacea that DIY U claims it is. That said, this book will surely be enthusiastically received by administrators wishing to trim the costs of face-to-face contact in the university, while appearing innovative, and future-oriented.

Luckily, beyond Kamenetz's book, there are the edupunks and their fellow travelers. For a sample of their interesting thoughts and experiments with Web 2.0, take a look at Jim Groom's blog (at bavatuesdays.com), or the philosophical musings of Barbara Ganley (at bgblogging.com), or the University of British Columbia professor Jon Beasley-Murray's fascinating use of Wikipedia to teach Latin American literature (explained in an excellent essay here: wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Jbmurray).

Groom, Ganley and Beasley-Murray are all proponents of using new technologies inside and outside the classroom, but for them, and unlike for Kamenetz, those technologies are just tools to be used towards humanistic ends, not ends in themselves (as Groom puts it, "I don't believe in technology, I believe in people"). This view is far different from the one put forward in DIY U, and could represent part of an actual, viable future for higher education.--Josh Cole

Josh Cole is a Kingston-based writer. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis on Canadian educational reform in the 1960s.

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