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.