Anya Kamenetz’s book on education reform, DIY U, was a worthwhile read. In the first half of the book, she discusses the problems confronting America’s higher ed infrastructure. Her perspective here is useful, bringing in information about spiraling student debt loads and increasing tuition. As a 2008 college graduate, I experienced many of these problems firsthand. I waded through this section as fast as I could, eager to dig into Kamenetz’s suggestions for do-it-yourself education. The second half of DIY U is dedicated to outlining possibilities for reforms that could solve these problems.
Unfortunately, while there is a useful guide that distills and frames some of the huge constellation of available educational resources now available on the Internet in chapter 7, the rest of part 2 was underdeveloped where I had hoped it would shine. Still, I should mention that I thought a few of the high school seniors I know would get a lot out of reading it. From my experience talking to the graduating members of the class of 2010, belief in the 4-year college as the ticket to a successful life remains strong, even among those who don’t really know what they want to do with their lives. When I was that age in 2003, I too gave no thought to other options. I’m glad I did complete my undergrad and took on the debt that enabled me to complete my degree because I think I learned a lot while studying there. By the time I got out, I didn’t expect my degree to do for me what I had thought it would do going in though. And I think it’s good I came to that realization.
In their joint review of DIY U for the open access journal in education, Jon Becker, Meredith Stewart and Jason Green mention that Kamenetz should have separated her analysis of institutional reform efforts from student-led DIY reform. I felt the same way about that. A university moving some classes to the Internet to save money is a separate issue from students trying to achieve the best education they can afford. (The fact that universities typically do not hand the cost reductions from online classes down to students makes this point especially clear.) Other reviews discussed in the #DIYU hashtag on Twitter mention the same shortcoming. For example, Zunguzungu’s post emphasizes that universities have steadily shifted costs to students, rather than the notion that students are paying more simply because costs have gone up. Ed from ginandtacos emphasized the parties getting “ground up” in the rush to bring education online in his fiery review of the book, (It’s mainly the students and adjuncts who are forced to teach the online options).
Philip Auerswald recently mentioned DIY U and summarized part of the universities’ dilemma like this:
The costs of a college education have risen more rapidly in the past quarter century than even the much-discussed cost of health care, yet over the same interval the quality of the service provided has–let’s be honest here–not improved.
And the ginandtacos review brought online courses specifically into the firing line, saying:
No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. … The adjuncting wave of the early 1990s was supposed to make education cheaper. It didn’t. Now online courses are supposed to be making education cheaper (price being conflated with accessibility in this line of argument).
It’s not enough to bring its cost back in line with what a student can reasonably afford. That is not the vision of education reform I hoped for in DIY U. As I mentioned in my preliminary comments on chapter 3, reform that reduces costs while keeping the quality of learning roughly stable is not a solution to the problems I sensed in my own undergrad study. Replacing the learning done in a traditional classroom is not what the Internet is for, I think. There are new tools for collaboration, for shared knowledge creation, for the persistence of learning networks beyond a 10 or 16 week term. I think the possibilities that connected education creates go a lot further than reducing transmission costs or increasing access. I wished to see a picture of how the best elements of the university (which I saw as the great potential energy created by a classroom full of minds engaged on a particular topic) could be strengthened and set free by collaborative tools now available online.
But as Anya said here (and also here), she wrote the book to start–or widen–a conversation rather than to finish one. The people who will actually create the next generation of learning are the students who put their future on the line to try things that haven’t been done before, and perhaps also some institutions adventurous enough to give professors that chance within their walls.
The university felt inefficient to me because it didn’t quite get me and my classmates to the level of “deep” learning that I wanted. My classes were more surveys than deep analysis. We rarely got past figuring out what authors were saying about a particular topic, as we usually had more readings assigned than a couple days of class discussions a week could cover and usually more than a students could manage to carefully digest on their own. The other elements of the inefficiency I felt are in the artifacts and networks my classmates and I created. We each wrote dozens of papers over the years, but I don’t now have access to any of the insights other students’ gained that they didn’t mention in discussion. As I mentioned in my chapter 3 comments, the box of notebooks I have in the garage is a pretty poor artifact of learning itself. Its contents need weeks of effort to turn into something that I could share with somebody else. I want an educational network that builds knowledge together, not focused into our own notebooks and papers that only our professor will ever read. And I regret not taking the efforts necessary to ensure my learning networks would continue after the end of a particular class. To me, successful transformation of this experience means better learning for individuals and better collaboration for groups to get even undergrads to the deep analysis that the valuable curation of perspectives makes possible.
Professors spend a lot of their effort designing courses to curate up interesting analysis and comparison of high quality scholarship, but the execution is weakened by this inefficiency. Students can’t get as deep into comparing these perspectives as their professors wish they could. Class networks are limited in space and time by the present pedagogy, but they do not need to be. Outside institutions, learning networks grow and decay organically as individuals’ interest in a topic develops. Jason Green made this point in a comment to my chapter 3 review, talking about the conversation that sprung up around #DIYU:
This ad hoc learning network addresses some of the complaints you have about the university. The network that forms around this project can persist. The blog posts people write will persist. The lack of an “instructor” shaping the discussion and lecturing forces participants to interact and be active if they want to learn.
Successful reform within institutions would bring in this dynamic that is born of successful DIY learning.
While many of the discussions already stewing in the open education community are not answered in this book, hopefully DIY U is read widely outside of that (pretty tight) network and helps bring these issues and possibilities into new heads. Anya Kamenetz leaves a lot of room for others to imagine what learning in the future will actually look like. She introduces a few of the problems that students of DIY methods (or “open education”) will encounter, but leaves the solutions to them.
Among the largest challenges discussed in the open education community is the question of accreditation: how will students of openly available online courses demonstrate the same level of knowledge in a subject as those who possess a transcript from a well-known university? The lack of a widely accepted method of documenting DIY learning and its outcomes will leave students at a disadvantage to those whose fancy college diploma impresses employers. While some employers like Google do their own testing to determine candidates’ quality, there is a lot of inertia in the current education value model. Employers often want to leave the evaluation of a student’s performance in school to the schools. Until it becomes common for employers to see candidates providing cobbled together documentation of learning, people will have to overcome a massive hurdle. Karl Grindal notes a consequence of students starting to adopt a DIY approach:
While certainly insufficient, if not wholly inappropriate, its a simple fact that employers prefer the student who went to an “impressive school” over one who goes to a community college. By creating an online alternative to on campus education, we risk increasing the distance between the haves and the have nots.
Another great hurdle that Kamenetz seems to gloss over is actually building a “personal learning network.” It takes a lot of engagement, time, hard work, and luck to get it going. Stian Håklev, one of the founders of the peer2peer University (p2pu), mentions in a recent presentation overviewing open education that the early stages of network building can be lonely and can take years of blogging into thin air. Higher ed institutions have a huge head start in creating learning networks because they by definition bring people together. In my experience, those networks often failed to persist as well as those developed outside the university, but if an institution built its pedagogy around helping students connect with each other and experts, I think we could see a revolutionary jump forward in the effectiveness of higher ed.
I’m glad to have read Anya Kamenetz’s contribution to this conversation, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in connected education reform. I look forward to the next stages in this conversation, and I would even encourage @anya1anya to revisit this material and work in a deeper analysis of the questions she left open this time.