Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Thoughts on DIY U

Anya Kamenetz' new book, DIY U, is a celebration of "edupunks" and of the corrosive effects of new technology on traditional higher education. It's a quick read on a great topic, and it makes some worthwhile points, but I just couldn't get past a fundamental flaw in its argument. It mistakes elitism for liberation.

Before getting to the big point, a few smaller points. I don't know her personally, but Kamenetz' authorial persona is of someone who attends a lot of conferences in far-flung places, has access to some highfalutin' people, and can't be bothered with the details. That's probably a lot of fun, but the details matter. Every time I read something like this:

(Referring to BYU-Idaho) -- "the faculty is asked [?] to teach four credits per semester for three semesters. That's twelve classes per year..." (p. 76)

or this:

"They charge minimal fees on a sliding scale...from $15 to $100 per credit, adding up to $4,000 maximum for a full four-year degree program." (p. 117)

I can't help but notice that she doesn't understand the distinction between "credits" and "courses." When your argument is largely economic, that's a crucial distinction.

She also can't seem to decide what she thinks of community colleges. Without any apparent awareness, she glides from

"Community colleges fill the gaps by taking all comers, yet the product they offer is generally acknowledged to be a substitute for the real thing." (p. 16)


"Expanding access to higher education begins at community colleges..." (p. 40)

That would be access to a substitute for the real thing? How would that help?

But the economics of it, which are supposed to be the point of the whole enterprise, are a mishmosh. She veers from

"States, too, should direct more resources to institutions that enroll needier students." (p. 40)


"To truly progress in education, and in our society as a whole, we need to redirect our resources and energy from institutions toward individuals." (p. 48)

So "society" should direct resources away from institutions, but "states" should direct more resources to the institutions that enroll needier students. You know, the institutions that are generally acknowledged to be substitutes for the real thing.

After a while, following every twist of the narrative thread becomes crazymaking. Instead, her pronouncements are more productively read as riffs on themes. When you boil it down, her argument is that the "unbundling" of the package of goods offered by colleges will free up students to become their own field guides, bravely traversing the open and free internet to get the information when they want it, how they want it. After all, she gets "incredibly generous" free responses by famous people to her own emails, so it's all there for the taking! Just get those distribution requirements and climbing walls out of the way, and look out, world!

Um, no.

Foundation support underlies most of the "Free" offerings, since they aren't free to produce. The "incredibly generous" responses she gets to emails are underwritten, admittedly indirectly, by the institutions that pay their salaries. That's how it works.

The innovators that Kamenetz celebrates almost uniformly rely on either foundation funding -- she notes correctly that the Hewlett foundation has outsize influence in this field -- or on colleges and universities. Companies won't do it themselves, since they need a shorter-term payoff. People won't do it for themselves, since most don't have the capital and leisure. (And even if they did, they'd lose access to lab facilities, peers, experts, and potential mates.) It took an explosion of educational institutions, from the K-12 system to land-grant universities to community colleges, to attain the level of mass literacy we have today.

Economists teach us that institutions exist to lower transaction costs. Yes, they're prone to all manner of pathology; longtime readers may have seen me refer to some. But if you're looking for a place that combines geographic propinquity of teachers and students, the availability of financial aid, lab and studio facilities, philanthropic support, tax support, and some level of quality control, you're looking for...a college. You could try to cobble together something on your own, of course, and some of that is to the good. But to assume that turning loose tens of millions of high school grads to email random and now unpaid professors for "incredibly generous" emails that will prepare them for the twenty-first century is just silly. It does not work like that. It will not, and it cannot.

Kamenetz unreflectively buys into the anti-institutional prejudice that infects and discredits so much techno-utopianism. The whole "edupunk" conceit -- represented on the cover by a clenched white fist clutching a pencil, and a black wristband with a "DIY U" logo -- is based on the image of the heroic loner sticking it to The Man by going it alone. But when you look at the examples she cites, they're all economically parasitic on the institutions they propose to supplant. (To her credit, Kamenetz actually acknowledges this in passing, though she doesn't go anywhere with the observation.) They're like the punk rocker living in Mom's basement. I'd be a lot more impressed if he paid his own rent. (Old joke: what do you call a drummer without a girlfriend? Homeless!)

She also suffers from Liberal Arts Blindness. Some majors don't lend themselves to just looking at screens. Reading on your own is one thing, if you have the skills to do it well. (Experience tells me that undergraduates often wildly overestimate their own reading skills.) But access to chemistry labs requires institutions that own them, maintain them, supply them, and explain them. A Nursing major who never actually sees patients is not prepared to be a nurse. Art studio time isn't free, and neither is access to cutting-edge technology. The 'signaling' function of higher ed is all well and good, but sometimes students also actually learn something. And sometimes the something that they learn requires real-world facilities.

Colleges as institutions can also provide passable substitutes for Virginia Woolf's "room of one's own." This is where you find libraries, and study groups, and tutoring centers, and all manner of clubs and organizations. (I learned a lot about organizational behavior from my time on the college radio station.) This matters the most for the most disadvantaged students, whose home lives are often tumultuous. For many students, a separate college campus is the only realistic option for being able to focus on anything at length. This is where they discover other people who are interested in the same things they are; it's where they form new social connections that do a world of good.

Part of the maddening inefficiency of colleges is precisely that they don't capture the gains from what they do. That's by design. Although they have budgets and payrolls and all of that, they operate largely on a 'gift exchange' logic. (Kamenetz nods obliquely to this with her 'secular religion' analysis.) They're eleemosynary (or what she calls "welfare") by design. Professors who are paid by colleges often share some of their expertise with the public at large, out of a sense that it's just a good thing to do. (For the first several years I did this blog, I didn't make a cent from it.) That's great, and to the extent that some enterprising types can use that generosity to pursue their own quirky ideas, go for it. But if you take out that institutional underpinning -- by which I mean "salaried job" -- the whole thing collapses. I can write this blog because I have a day job.

The alternative to eleemosynary institutions isn't a sudden epidemic of autodidacticism; it's for-profits. That's the direction in which we're actually moving. The for-profits have their strengths and their weaknesses, but at least they recognize that you can't scale up without infrastructure. For all the mistakes they make, they grasp the fundamental importance of institutions. They just build (or sometimes buy) their own. To the extent that "society" redirects resources away from institutions and towards individuals, it plays directly into the for-profit model. Kamenetz correctly notes that for-profits rely heavily on Federal financial aid, but somehow never connects these dots.

Eleemosynary institutions have real and serious flaws, but they exist to empower the weak. They are necessary to empower the weak. If you rend them asunder, you will expose the weak to the predations of the strong. This is so fundamental that I'm surprised it even needs to be brought up. If it weren't scandalously unethical, I'd propose an experiment: take two sets of kids who barely got through a weak school district. Send one set to the local community college, and tell the other set it's free to educate itself under digital bridges. Come back in, say, ten years, and compare the results on any scale you want. Then talk to me about "edupunks."

Kamenetz' framework rests on a mostly unacknowledged, but remarkably deep, set of privileges. If you had a strong high school background, and you have money and leisure, and you have social connections to smart people who are willing to spend time with you, and you can afford all kinds of technology, then you may be able to do something with this. (Astute readers will recognize the young Bill Gates and the young Steve Jobs in those descriptions.) But if we're honest, we have to recognize that most of the people who download TED talks don't do it as an alternative to college; they've already been to college. If you have a well-developed set of skills, you can avail yourself of all kinds of things. But in the absence of those skills, it's just information. And those skills come from somewhere.

If you're serious about education for the non-elite, you need institutions. The institutions need to be accountable, and open to creativity, and efficient, and changed in a host of ways that I spend most of my waking hours obsessing over and probably more that I've never even thought of. But you need them. Every serious social movement of the past two centuries has understood this. The internet has changed a lot of things, but it hasn't changed that. The rich kids may experience unbundling as liberation, and to some degree, it can be. But for the vast majority, the issue isn't that their individuality is being squelched by The Man and his distribution requirements. It's that without effective educational institutions from preschool on up, they will never get the chance to develop their skills in the first place.

This piece needs wider circulation.
With my HS (and elementary) background, I would have learned all sorts of high level math using nothing more than Wiki today ... but who would evaluate my creative work and problem solving skills? I still needed that institution. Happily, a CC kept me sane during the last year of HS and a university offered me an "edupunk" approach to building my curriculum (with the guidance of a professor) that would not have been possible if I was left to my own devices.

I'll just add that I was stunned at the economic ignorance reflected in those statements at the top of your article.

I was also intrigued enough by the odd combination of credits and semesters to look up BYU-I. You should check it out, DD, as it has moved away from the agrarian calendar in a curious way (trimester, with fewer weeks but longer classes, so spring runs from late April to late July) and does appear to have a 12 class per year load.
I'd add one qualification to DD's critique--the presence/quality of a mentor may be a bigger factor than wealth or institutions. I say that because the "edupunk" idea seems like homeschool writ large. Freed from a standard curriculum, outcomes depend on the student and on the parents, not on the quality of the school system. Looking around at the other homeschoolers in my area, it's obvious that dedicated, creative parents can give their kids an excellent education regardless of how poor they are (and by poor I'm thinking of a family near us that homeschools because they can't afford the gas to drive kids to school every day).

Obviously, many poor families may not be able to provide that mentorship to their kids. On the other hand, I'd bet that a lot of well-off parents wouldn't be willing to sacrifice their career to focus on a child's education, but can't quite afford a full-time tutor.

I suspect Edupunk would actually work well in cohesive communities with a critical mass of educated older people who are willing to take 18-year olds under their wings and students are willing to trust them. This does NOT have to be academics or limited to the liberal arts. Why can't a Nurse take someone under her wing? Or an artist? Or a plumber? Isn't that how career education worked for most of human history? Ironically, this seems like the opposite of the atomized environment ("bravely traversing the open and free internet to get the information when they want it, how they want it.") that the author seems to imagine.
Your description of Kamenetz' authorial persona rings true. She was invited to speak at out community college. Afterwards, we always have a reception during which the students can meet and chat with the speaker. Rather than talk with students, Kamenetz spent the whole time on her cell phone (doubtless speaking with VIPs).
Oops! That should be "invited to speak at our community college."
Right on, Dean Dad!!!
Great post, and Kamenetz's book does sound pretty insipid.

One minor point: my undergraduate alma mater didn't bother with credit hours--one course equaled one credit. But I just checked and BYUI does seem to use credit hours, so your point holds.
What Rubashov said.

The number of 18-year-olds (or 28-year-olds) who could devise for themselves a course of study that actually prepares them (a) to do the things they want to do while at the same time (b) preparing them to live in a world in which they have to work, play, and live with others is very small. One of the purposes of the institutionalization of higher education is to provide (and to pay for) precisely that. One can complain all one likes about the content of the "general education" curriculum, but it's a necessaru component of what we need as a society to do, and I think it would be done badly or not at all in an edupunk world.

(But I do like the attitude, to be honest...)
Outstanding commentary.
Hear, hear. It's good to see such a cogent argument for the critical role of educational institutions in an age where all the fashion is to undermine them!
Her previous book "Generation Debt" suffered a number of the same criticisms--intellectually trendy/inflammatory while only considering a narrow band of society with wealth/leisure/education
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sounds like a book designed to sell the author much more than the ideas (under-developed, half-baked, or whatever state they're in).
Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

I particularly liked your points about "Liberal Arts Blindness" and the point about the likely audience of TED talks (i.e. college/university graduates). The apparently much hated "distribution requirements" also point to important educational value that DIY U would likely undermine: exposing students to news ideas and new subjects. On some level, there's an unavoidable need for professors and others to broaden the minds of students.

I'm also a bit tired of the examples of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They're unusual. Assuming that their success can be widely copied is like encouraging young people to become rock stars or professional athletes. Sure, some tiny fraction of the population will have those occupations and that rare kind of success but many will not.

P.S. Did you read the author's earlier book, "Generation Debt"? It made a number of strong points about the economic pressures facing today's young people.
I suspect that the author would interpret this commentary as the bleatings of a self-serving academic trying to preserve his job in an outmoded educational structure. Which makes me agree with Dean Dad even more.

Does the author even bother to acknowledge the features of that horrible system that actually do let students "edupunk" to some extent? Like, you know, electives, multiple-major degrees, cross-disciplinary degrees? Or just taking courses for the hell of it? But I guess if she did acknowledge such things, that would undercut her already weak arguments....
Thanks so much for this commentary-- you wrote what I wish I would have written on so many levels.

I also think it's important to separate what Kamenetz calls "edupunk" and considers it as a reaction to higher ed costs/a desire for intellectual liberation (and what I call "going to the library" and it's been around forever, used by some more than others) and the merge of technology in traditional education. "Edupunk" is a new twist on an old theme; the technology-in-education is a legitimate trend.
Through one of those channel surfing miracles, a CSPAN book-tv talk about Dr. Seuss was followed by an April 24 interview with the author of this book!

The interview confirmed several of DD's impressions about details and elitism. For example, she talked about the cost spiral in tuition but never addressed why it costs so much to go to Yale (where she went) compared to a CC or how staffing ratios and pay have changed in the past 20 to 40 years. Together, those all argue that students want personal attention (low student faculty ratios) from the best people, not simply watching MIT videos at home while reading a Wiki.

Ditto for her observations about liberal education. After one caller complained about the requirements (and waiting lists due to space limitations) to get into nursing, someone who was a nurse called to emphasize the importance of the communication skills learned in those liberal education courses.

I was particularly put off by her straw man comparing "assessment based" degrees to ones that reflect "merely" seat time, implying no assessment. Now it might be true that you can get a degree at Yale by "merely" putting in seat time, but it doesn't work that way in my world!
Just to clarify, that program was on today (Saturday) and their schedule shows a rerun tonight at midnight (12 am ET Sunday).
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?