The current model of higher education in the U.S. is deeply flawed and unsustainable, says journalist Anya Kamenetz, in her new book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Kamenetz’s critique is both economic and social, encompassing such topics as the cost of tuition and textbooks, loan-based financial aid, admissions patterns, and the deteriorated job market.
Despite the gloomy picture she paints of traditional higher education, Kamenetz seems fundamentally optimistic about how technology is lowering barriers, presenting greatly increased opportunity for a “do-it-yourself” education.
Kamenetz gave the keynote address at the June 2010 Sakai conference, the flagship community-source collaboration of higher education institutions aiming to improve online learning systems. I caught up with her to talk about technology, learning, and higher education. —Mark Notess
Mark Notess: As I read your book, I found myself wondering what kind of book it really was. What’s the genre: self help, social critique, futurism?
Anya Kamenetz: For all of my career, I haven’t really known how to classify myself. I’ve been a journalist, but one that’s gotten involved in causes and hasn’t been able to keep from saying what I really think.
As I got interested in covering the topic of change, I did shift over into this futurist-ish tenor, although I try to avoid making too many predictions in the book because that’s just a really good way to look foolish. I do try to talk about trends, and I think things are in the process of changing — you can identify some certainties, some clear trends that are happening.
MN: I actually have a question about that because it seems like for any objection people raise about a future vision, you can come up with a website or a blog or something that some faculty member somewhere has done that’s a counter-example. But how do you distinguish something that’s a viable trend from something that’s just a dead end?
AK: That’s a really good point. Since the earliest reaches of the Internet, we’ve had this problem where there are examples that don’t exemplify anything because they don’t become trends. It doesn’t really change anything. People still buy dog food at a pet store and not at Pets.com.
It’s also particularly difficult in the area of higher education because we’re transforming from what I argue is this activity of higher education that is so completely identified with the institution, the university, that it excludes every example that isn’t in a university, and that includes community colleges. It has come to be an absurdity now that community colleges have half of all undergraduates, and yet they’re not considered to be at the center of the project of what we think of as higher education.
And so, when you’re talking about what’s representative in terms of the future, it’s like every part of the future is smaller than the monolithic institution because of its nature. You’re opposing this giant unified vision of the past of the university with a million little things that are happening.
You’re going to radically shift your view of higher education if you just take for granted that you’re going to concentrate on the experience of the average student — the majority of students — because the degree to which we focus our attention on the 20 percent of students at selective institutions, and in particular the tiny fraction at a small handful of selective private institutions is ridiculous. It’s just completely ridiculous.
MN: Technology broadly defined is about efficiency and quality control, and probably some other things, too, but those two leap to mind.
As a student, I want a high-quality education. I also want that quality to be acknowledged and recognized by others, say, by people who might offer me a job. So what are some of the dimensions of quality in an education?
AK: I would also add to what you are saying. Technology is about speed. Technology is about ease of communication and ease of access. There are a lot of things technology does for us.
AK: What are the dimensions of quality? Transparency about what is your objective in learning and what it is that you are actually learning. The ability to be prompted to reflect on what you learned and to publish it to the world in a way that’s visible to potential evaluators of all kinds who are going to continue to evaluate you throughout your life. Persistence of learning, so that you are able to go back and reconnect with the ideas easily, and also with the people to some extent.
MN: You mentioned Walmart in your talk. I wasn’t sure whether you were talking about the “walmartification” of higher education or about the recently announced Walmart deal with American Public University.
AK: I think both in a sense.
MN: Do you have any thoughts about what Walmart’s doing with APU?
AK: Yes. I think that it’s an important trend, and the most important part of it is the statement of responsibility on the part of a large employer toward its employees to educate those employees.
There are two fronts in the Walmart wars. Walmart has done amazing things to establish itself as an advocate for sustainability, obviously for efficiency. It totally transformed the way the American retail business works. They have an advance in their improving social models. And then they have a retrograde: the anti-Walmart is about the destruction of American communities and the destruction of the American job because they’ve replaced it with this sort of low cost alternative.
This [the APU agreement] is a really interesting example of both. It’s a socially positive initiative that also threatens to cheapen the very nature of what a higher education means. So the degree to which it’s just a public relations maneuver versus the extent to which it is actually taken up by a significant percentage of their employees is going to be proof. I think it’s also going to be something that other large employers might want to define themselves against and say, we agree with this idea of educating our low-wage employees, but we are going to do it better than Walmart does.
MN: Do you have any thoughts on Walmart’s choice of an education partner?
AK: Walmart has been criticized in the past for relying too much on state funds. The company basically assume that the employees are going to be on Medicaid and food stamps in some cases, because they don’t really offer healthcare for workers or their kids. So if they were to partner with a community college, you could argue that they are taking advantage of the resources of the community college-state educational resources.
By partnering with an institution that gets most of its funding through the federal government (through higher education aid but also through investors) you could argue that they’re following their own kind of light and saying that we’re in the private sector, and so our partner should be in the private sector as well. But I’m sure that they also made the decision because of a like-mindedness between having one partner that could serve them across the entire nation and not having to deal with the bureaucracy of local community colleges.
APU and Walmart are both corporate and they have a similar corporate mindset, so I’m sure there’s a complement there.
MN: Traditionally-minded faculty often see technology as a distraction from the business of teaching and learning. In your keynote, you said that distance education is often seen as a “poor, pale imitation of the real thing.” Are there ways that technology can actually improve the quality of education?
AK: When you’re in your car, if you’re texting while driving, that’s an application of technology that is worsening your driving experience. It’s an absolute distraction. If you have a GPS system in your car, that’s increasing your driving ability and increasing your driving experience, because the application of the technology is toward the goal that you’re engaging in: driving. And I think that technology can be used in both ways in teaching and learning.
Professors aren’t happy with students in their classroom using technology to their own ends: to communicate with each other on things that have nothing to do with the class. But professors who have engaged in things like immersive simulations, game-like learning, and online participation in blogs and wikis, have found that it changes the practice of teaching in a way that enhances student engagement, enhances student-professor communication, that opens up the possibilities for what students are able to learn and cover in a smaller period of time. And it totally transforms the teaching experience in a way that is really exhilarating.
MN: Are there example of where it is done well?
AK: The Open Learning Initiative is doing some of the most rigorous research that I’m aware of. The course modules they build offer immediate supportive feedback to the students, to the professor who’s running the course online, so they can see exactly where each person is, and to the researchers so that they can constantly improve and tweak the modules so that they offer the right content to the right person at the right time. They have enough research data now to know that if you’re teaching people how to sum vectors, you should show an animation first and then make them read a text, or the other way around, depending on your population and a set of parameters, and on and on. And they’ve proven that they can teach people a stats course in half of the class time and a quarter of the seat time, with better retention.
MN: That leads me to ask whether Baumol’s disease is real or illusory in higher education. Is it really like a string quartet? [Baumol's cost disease describes jobs where salaries go up even when productivity doesn't, often because it can't. For example, the live performance of a string quartet still requires the same amount of resources it did 200 years ago. The question is whether higher education is similarly immune to productivity gains.]
AK: I love the string quartet analogy. If what you want is a live performance of a string quartet, you have an irreducible problem. But if you like MP3s and you like having a whole Garage Band simulator, remixing and re-recording, if you like having a choice and a decision to listen to any one of a thousand renditions of the same quartet on Youtube at the click of a button, it’s not the same thing as being in a room with a live string quartet. Some people would argue that it’s much much better.
MN: Or if you want to listen to it while you’re running.
AK: They might have trouble keeping up with you! So it becomes an apples to oranges comparison, yanking us away from a single pointed conception of what higher education is, just as we might yank ourselves away from a single conception of what music is. It can be very valuable in challenging fatalism.
People who are immersed in social media talk all the time about the high bandwidth of “meat space” and the idea that there is something irreducible. We may not be able to define it or know what it is, but we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. What we want to do is take a close look at those benefits, how they’re being delivered by people face-to-face, replicate them as much as we can, and supplement that.
MN: I want to take issue with one thing you mentioned in your keynote, which is the discussion of your Facebook friends who post an article and talk about it. I’ve seen that behavior too on Facebook. But that kind of behavior, when I compare it to sitting in a classroom with a cranky professor who is making you define your terms, and so forth, is so different.
AK: The rigor.
MN: I find on Facebook that’s it’s more like “don’t we all think this person’s an idiot.” It’s a lot of like-minded people comforting you in your identity more so than challenging the thought process and teaching you how to construct an argument.
AK: It’s interesting. There’s all kinds of conversations that go on online and there’s a vast range of tenor of discussions. I participate in a lot of online communities, so I don’t take a one-dimensional view of it.
MN: I’m thinking specifically of Facebook here.
AK: There are blogs that by there very nature demand that you support your points with evidence. There are very adversarial conversations going on with people coming from very different points of view, which can be wonderful if you’re trying to construct an argument.
I also find on Twitter that there’s a skittering kind of curiosity that goes on, and people dip in and out of things, and they’re offering links and pointing into other ideas, and that can move off of Twitter and onto other forums.
So yes, I think that different discussion areas lend themselves to different kinds of discussions just like on campuses. People can meet under a tree and have one kind of conversation and meet in the library and have another kind of conversation and in a seminar room, yet another kind.
MN: I’ve been playing in my mind with the “DIY” metaphor. If I remodel my bathroom, it either works or it doesn’t. But I don’t have to carry a credential from that to anyone. Does the need for a credential move away from the DIY model?
AK: It’s a multi-dimensional issue. If you teach yourself to fix a toilet, and you can show people the toilet that you fixed and the bathroom you remodeled, you might be able to get people to hire you. If you have demonstrable results from your learning, and you live in a community that is open to recognize the ability of people to participate based on what they’ve actually accomplished and not just on their credential, this can happen.
But the other thing about DIY, it has its hardware store connotation, but it also has the connotation of punk, where DIY is a positive value within a community that supports that idea. If there are communities that support the recognition of people’s opportunity to demonstrate their work in an independent way, and we say we like that or prefer that, it creates a counterbalance to this one-path meritocracy.
MN: Do you think that’s a trend that will persist-the punking of the workplace? Or is that something that just happens for a few people in a few types of disciplines or careers, but it’s not really going to take over and replace the existing paradigm?
AK: I think the fact that there’s so much interest in these kinds of models from Silicon Valley and from the venture capital community — and these are some of the most innovative parts of our economy — tells me that this is a trend in the way things are going. We recognize that the current system is leaky and it’s facing huge access and capacity problems.
What that creates is an arbitrage opportunity because there are people out there who are extremely talented and valuable, who don’t have the resources to succeed in the current system. In a crass sense, they are undervalued talent. They’re non-credentialed talent. Is there a way for them to prove their talent in order to succeed? Are they going to be able to advance that way? On their way up they’re going to get hired by forward-looking companies who are going to underpay them because they don’t have a credential, and then those companies are going to succeed wildly. So that’s the opportunity that the Silicon Valley group sees. And I think that’s going to be a growing opportunity until it evens out.
DIY U is available in our bookstore.