Book Review: Edupunks Chart Coming Transformation of Higher Ed

DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, Anya Kamenetz, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vt., 2010

Anya Kamenetz, a 2002 graduate of Yale and staff writer for Fast Company, could be an academic’s worst nightmare. Articulate, forceful and skilled—her writing lobs volleys of criticisms that are hard to refute and harder still to ignore. In her last book, Generation Debt, she savaged the higher education world for its ever-rising costs, which in her view are crushing graduates under a mountain of debt.

DIY U aims more broadly—demolishing the pretensions of the most prestigious schools and mainstream institutions with equal ferocity. Higher education, in her view “is the closest thing we have to a world religion.” Its status as a scarce good that everyone wants is part of the reason that tuition costs have continued to outpace inflation year after year. The end result, though, is a good that is too expensive for most people to afford and perhaps not even worth the price.

Still, despite the provocative title and cover, this book is better at reiterating the failures of our current system of higher ed than it is in explaining the revolution it forecasts. Her historical survey—500 years of education in a few dozen pages—hits the key points but distills them into a rather cynical synopsis with few if any heroes. The standout figures that do emerge often have a dubious or elitist purpose; Clark Kerr’s efforts to classify institutions and funnel funds toward some rather than others, being a case in point. “Education is an essentially conservative enterprise,” notes Kamenetz. “If we didn’t believe that one generation had something important to transmit to the next, we wouldn’t need education. So, changing education makes people really, really nervous.”

Another chapter, labeled Sociology, dissects the who-gets-what subject even further. It is neither a pretty nor an equitable picture. According to Kamenetz, although higher ed may get kudos for generating knowledge or even making better citizens, it has been much less effective in terms of what she argues has been its wider role—at least since World War II—as society’s uplifter, bringing more people into the middle class and/or enhancing the nation’s economy.  Here, Kamenetz asserts that the earnings premium for college grads is insubstantial when compared to the cost—to the individual student and to society. In many cases (she cites the example of an Ohioan seeking to become a fire fighter), even the requirement for college course work may be contrived and over stated in many fields. Once again, there’s nothing particularly new in the observations, though Kamenetz writes with precision and a degree of passion that makes each paragraph hard to ignore.

But the meat of Kamenetz’s book is in Part II—How We Get There—in which she outlines the ways in which technology and new approaches to education can deliver something that is high-quality, accessible, affordable and relevant. Early on, she outlines the principles that lurk within her analysis:

  • The 80-20 rule—the importance of the 80% of institution that are non-selective as well as the growing number of for-profit colleges;
  • The Great Unbundling—the notion that colleges will be less inclined to try to “do it all” and may begin to specialize on research, instruction or assessment, for example rather than all three;
  • Techno-hybridization—Kamenetz predicts that more and more instruction will be delivered using a mix of online/remote technologies and traditional classroom approaches. It won’t be an either/or world;
  • Personal Learning and Pathways—Here, Kamenetz, foresees rapid growth in people choosing to develop (and institutions learning to support), highly individualized education strategies—emphasizing personal goals, assessment of non-traditional learning and delivery through both traditional and nontraditional means. This will implicitly threaten the economic gatekeeper role that higher ed has assumed—determining who will and won’t get access to higher education and, thus, who will succeed or fail economically.

Change is here and most likely accelerating. Certainly, the technological tools already available have the ability or at least the potential to deliver more and better information and to support learning more cost-effectively than ever before. Nor is this only something for learners. Educators, too, can gain insights into learners and into the effectiveness of their didactic approaches, while potentially magnifying their ability to teach effectively and to teach more people. As an example, she cites the work of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, where all kinds of new instruction methods are being pioneered and tested with educators and learners. “When compared to students in traditional lecture-section-paper classes, OLI students learn more, learn faster, and enjoy it a little bit more, too,” she writes. In one case, a grueling statistics course was run through the OLI process and emerged with half as many classes each week and half the number of weeks—yet student results that matched those of the traditional program.

So far steps like these have been mostly tentative. As Kamenetz observes, “Over its long history, and because of the weight of that history, higher education has been uncommonly resistant to innovation in teaching practices.” But change is probably unavoidable, especially when for-profits are lusting after a piece of the $300 billion higher education business. And for the “80%” of learners who aren’t going to go through the doors of the nation’s highly selective colleges, only results matter.

Kamenetz closes out the book with a “Resource Guide,” which takes DIY U from the realm of social criticism into that of self-help. Kamenetz is free with advice for readers seeking to develop a personal learning path and offers pages chock full of web sites, book titles and others connection points—all of which are probably valuable. Still, the departure of the critic’s voice makes one feel as if freshly arrived at some Land of Oz, where one is full of wonderment but also not quite sure whether this was the destination one sought when first opening the book.

Still, Kamenetz has produced a useful piece of work for learners and a valuable reference for those working to keep education relevant and useful in the 21st century.

Reviewed by Alan R. Earls, a Boston-area writer.


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