Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education

Posted on Thursday, August 13th, 2009 at 3:38 pm by dpacheco

Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt, and soon-to-be Chelsea Green author (watch for announcements!), educates and illuminates in this article from Fast Company. In it, Kamenetz articulates a new development in education: in this day and age, people expect information to be free. What does this mean for higher education? It means that looming on the horizon is nothing less than a revolution. The great democratizing Internet is helping anyone who wants to be a part of it crash the gate and get a $100,000 education for the price of an internet connection. The only thing you can’t get is that little piece of paper that says “Degree”—yet.

From the article:

Is a college education really like a string quartet? Back in 1966, that was the assertion of economists William Bowen, later president of Princeton, and William Baumol. In a seminal study, Bowen and Baumol used the analogy to show why universities can’t easily improve efficiency.

If you want to perform a proper string quartet, they noted, you can’t cut out the cellist nor can you squeeze in more performances by playing the music faster. But that was then — before MP3s and iPods proved just how freely music could flow. Before Google scanned and digitized 7 million books and Wikipedia users created the world’s largest encyclopedia. Before YouTube Edu and iTunes U made video and audio lectures by the best professors in the country available for free, and before college students built Facebook into the world’s largest social network, changing the way we all share information. Suddenly, it is possible to imagine a new model of education using online resources to serve more students, more cheaply than ever before.

“The Internet disrupts any industry whose core product can be reduced to ones and zeros,” says Jose Ferreira, founder and CEO of education startup Knewton. Education, he says, “is the biggest virgin forest out there.” Ferreira is among a loose-knit band of education 2.0 architects sharpening their saws for that forest. Their first foray was at MIT in 2001, when the school agreed to put coursework online for free. Today, you can find the full syllabi, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and some video and audio for every course MIT offers, from physics to art history. This trove has been accessed by 56 million current and prospective students, alumni, professors, and armchair enthusiasts around the world. “The advent of the Web brings the ability to disseminate high-quality materials at almost no cost, leveling the playing field,” says Cathy Casserly, a senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who in her former role at the Hewlett Foundation provided seed funding for MIT’s project. “We’re changing the culture of how we think about knowledge and how it should be shared and who are the owners of knowledge.”

But higher education remains, on the whole, a string quartet. MIT’s courseware may be free, yet an MIT degree still costs upward of $189,000. College tuition has gone up more than any other good or service since 1990, and our nation’s students and graduates hold a staggering $714 billion in outstanding student-loan debt. Once the world’s most educated country, the United States today ranks 10th globally in the percentage of young people with postsecondary degrees. “Colleges have become outrageously expensive, yet there remains a general refusal to acknowledge the implications of new technologies,” says Jim Groom, an “instructional technologist” at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington and a prominent voice in the blogosphere for blowing up college as we know it. Groom, a chain-smoker with an ever-present five days’ growth of beard, coined the term “edupunk” to describe the growing movement toward high-tech do-it-yourself education. “Edupunk,” he tells me in the opening notes of his first email, “is about the utter irresponsibility and lethargy of educational institutions and the means by which they are financially cannibalizing their own mission.”

The edupunks are on the march. From VC-funded startups to the ivied walls of Harvard, new experiments and business models are springing up from entrepreneurs, professors, and students alike. Want a class that’s structured like a role-playing game? An accredited bachelor’s degree for a few thousand dollars? A free, peer-to-peer Wiki university? These all exist today, the overture to a complete educational remix.

The architects of education 2.0 predict that traditional universities that cling to the string-quartet model will find themselves on the wrong side of history, alongside newspaper chains and record stores. “If universities can’t find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them,” professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written, “universities will be irrelevant by 2020.”

Read the whole article here.

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