America’s colleges and universities were among the first institutions to make use the of the Internet. But while academics have recognized for decades how the spread of technology can have huge benefits for their research and communication, higher education overall has largely ignored the transformative potential of the Internet.
Sure, some colleges use online course management software, such as Blackboard, but this is done to replace administrative functions like collecting lecture slides and handouts or tracking assignments. Online courses are prevalent in the for-profit sector, but not particularly common at brick and mortar institutions, which largely rely on lectures for instruction.
That model worked OK when colleges educated a largely homogeneous group of students and had little funding woes thanks to ample state funds. If that model isn’t broken today, it’s certainly teetering on the precipice. State funding is down, tuition is up, and the students come from a wider variety of socioeconomic backgrounds with varying levels of preparation. With all of these simultaneous pressures, it’s little wonder that graduation rates are largely stagnant and that huge numbers of college students will walk away never having earned a degree.
But what if instead of relying on the traditional institutional-based model of higher education, today’s students used the Internet and related technology to design their own course of study—a “do it yourself university” that doesn’t rely on a single physical space and allows students to tailor the curriculum exactly to their needs. That’s the premise behind Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, which was released earlier this month.
Unbundling higher education, as Kamenetz refers to the phenomenon of breaking up the functions of colleges and universities, first requires understanding what it is we hope to get out of our degrees and how the finances of all that work. In that regard, the first half of the book is devoted three chapters that disproves much of our lionized version of American higher education’s liberal arts history, discusses what is about postecondary education that leads to its valuable effect on wages, and addresses what factors cause college to cost so much.
That part of the book is interesting and well-written, but the real meat and potatoes comes about 100 pages in, when Kamenetz shifts gears to highlight the ways that technology is being turned into a disruptive force in higher education.This is mostly explained in two chapters, which I would describe as internal vs. external projects.
The internal projects are interesting things that are being tried with or within universities. It’s the best chapter in the book—a clear-cut description of the most important projects and movements involving technology that are taking place through colleges today, and a must read for anyone who wants a solid and wide-ranging introduction to what is being tried out.
A couple of these projects in particular stand out as being particularly noteworthy. For example, Kamenetz profiles the Master’s in Teaching program at the University of Southern California, which involves a content management system known as 2tor. Similar to social media sites like Facebook, 2tor features a feed of information about assignments and discussions, but also allows students to make use of the small video cameras each receives to upload videos of themselves teaching or conducting interviews with school administrators. Doing so makes it possible to get far more feedback on teaching quality in comparison to other programs that may rely on just a few in-person site visits. She also provides mini-case studies of Western Governors University, an online school set up by 19 states; the open courseware movement, in which schools develop and freely share class content; and the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit that uses technology to help colleges simultaneously reduce costs and improve student learning. (Kevin, who is also quoted several times in the book, wrote an article about the center in Washington Monthly.)
The takeaway from the internal change chapter is that lots of colleges are trying new and different things, but these efforts are diffuse and lack coherence. That’s not a bad thing per se. It allows for experimentation and means that the solutions will vary significantly. But it also means that a lot of effort is duplicated and colleges may not be able to tap into existing expertise. The resulting in chaotic random acts of innovation, rather than a big picture strategy that aims to create a climate that encourages everyone to try something new.
If the university-focused efforts seem chaotic, the following chapter on external, or non-school-based projects, is anarchy. Here Kamenetz profiles people such as Dougald Hine, who helped found The School of Everything. A website that helps connect people who who have an interest in a topic with either teachers (paid or unpaid) or other individuals who also want to pursue that same topic, the School of Everything sounds more like a pared down version of Craigslist where the only goods available are educational. While the School of Everything is intentionally random and disorganized, other external efforts like Peer2Peer University and the University of the People try to establish a bit mores structure while still relying on open source courseware and software.
The advantages of the external learning options are pretty clear. Flexible and easily accessible, they charge minimal, if any, tuition and can be completely adapted to a student’s interests and whims. But they also critically lack existing formal structures, such as accreditation, which are supposed to ensure a degree’s validity and establish an education’s legitimacy. For those hoping to just learn about a new topic or brush up on an old one, that absence isn’t a big deal. But for those who want to actually pursue an education through this path, it’s a big omission.
These are all really interesting descriptions of existing projects and ideas, but how does one put together the formal and informal opportunities to create a meaningful education plan? Kamenetz’s answer is the “do it yourself university,” where students combine formal education and free/open content to create their own learning paths. She sums it up best with an allusion to the old saying about fish and fishing:
Our best hope is to get better at empowering individuals to find answers for themselves. In other words, forget about giving the guy a fish, or teaching him to fish, either. Teach him how to teach himself, and he’ll always be able to acquire the skills he needs to find food, skills you haven’t even thought of yet for things you didn’t know you could eat.
That’s a compelling idea, but I had trouble understanding how that would actually play out in practice. A chapter that gives a kind of guide for how to think through this helped, but it still felt a bit vague.
A critique raised elsewhere is that the idea of a self-designed university wouldn’t work because it can’t provide an accepted degree. That’s true of the current system, though that’s not really Kamenetz’s point because she envisions something more open than what we have today. That said, how you would establish a program on your own that would still give you a recognizable credential at the end is a tough problem to solve. The easiest solution would be probably be some sort of test, but my guess is that would not go over well.
The advice Kamenetz provides for people who do want to pursue something like a do it yourself university in today’s system consists of good advice I would give anyone who is considering shelling out any kind of money for college—think about career goals and look for ways to have practical experience and personal connections that can help that process as well.
But much of this is from the student side. Unbundling higher education will in the end need at least some help from the inside. As granters of degrees, schools are the only ones that can create an open and self-directed learning program within the context of a recognizable credential. I think this process will accelerate from its current slow pace—geographically isolated and cash-strapped schools would both benefit from a greater move to open content—but the end result will be more modest than some of the more out there external projects ongoing now.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Colleges can provide the formal community that can help motivate students by giving them a sense of connection to a place. They can also use distribution requirements to force students into a broader education than they might otherwise pursue. Having discipline-specific experts, meanwhile, provides a source of knowledge students can tap into to ensure that they design their own learning programs in a thoughtful way.
No one is about to take a bulldozer to America’s colleges and universities. But the poor education outcomes and even worse financial situation must be addressed. Implementing some of the best parts of both the internal and external reform projects that Kamenetz describes seems like a good place to start.