Edupunks Revisited

By Anya Kamenetz / December 2011

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Note: Mark Notess interviewed Anya Kamenetz in July 2010 for eLearn. We asked for an update on her recent work with the Gates Foundation and her reaction to being criticized for how she uses the term "edupunk."

A 60-something Asian-American events curator for a large urban library; a 40-something white computer programmer who has worked for Microsoft among others; a 19-year-old African-American AmeriCorps member. What do they have in common? None has a college degree; none has followed a traditional or linear educational path; all are independent-minded learners. And after attending a Seattle launch event for The Edupunks' Guide to a DIY Credential, all now identify as edupunks.

I first came across the term "edupunk" at a 2009 panel at South by Southwest while researching my 2010 book DIY U. Panelist Jim Groom, a professor at the University of Mary Washington, had coined it in May 2008, and it was picked up in that year's New York Times Magazine annual "Year in Ideas" issue. The meaning, said the magazine, was "an approach to teaching that avoids mainstream tools like PowerPoint and Blackboard, and instead aims to bring the rebellious attitude and D.I.Y. ethos of '70s bands like the Clash to the classroom."

I liked these rebellious professors who were interested in deconstructing education from the inside: getting students to set up blogs and publish their learning to the world, conducting "massively open online courses" that anyone could join. I saw them as part of a storm of disruption invading one of the most entrenched institutions in Western civilization: The disintegration of state support for public higher education both here and in Europe; the inexorably rising worldwide demand; the inflation of the student debt bubble; the proliferation of both large publicly traded for-profit online colleges and VC-funded edtech startups that were reinventing everything from lectures to flash cards to textbooks; Creative Commons and the global open educational content movement; and above all, the explosion of disorganized, unaccredited, totally unsupervised DIY learning that makers and hackers and users of social media are engaging in every day.

My editors, meanwhile, really liked the term "edupunk." I wrote about Groom and other parts of this landscape in a 2009 article in Fast Company, subtitled, "How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education." My book, which came in April 2010, was subtitled "Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education."

DIY U was half a critique of American higher education, and half a journalistic survey of ideas to make it better. I argued in the book, articles, and presentations that the university system had an unsustainable cost structure, wasn't delivering on its promise of increasing American social mobility or promoting meritocracy, and that the typical goings-on in the classroom are disconnected both from what people really need to know and how they are already learning outside it. Considering all this, I thought learners and their parents, as well as administrators and educators who were living these realities every day, would welcome the news that there were emerging radical alternatives out there, some of them cheaper or even free-and not only "free as in beer" but "free as in speech," offering unprecedented power to the learner to learn what they want, when they want, how they want.

A couple of program officers at the Gates Foundation thought so too. They offered to support me in the writing of a free ebook speaking directly to these learners. There are a lot of people out there who don't fit the traditional educational mold. According to the 2010 Current Population Survey, there are 44 million Americans 18 and over with some college and no degree, compared to 41 million with a B.A. degree. About 60 percent of B.A.s graduate with more than one institution on their transcript. About one in four take at least one online class. More students are older, working, and have families than at any time in American history. All of these people could use free resources, cheaper classes, and open platforms to help them as they followed their own idiosyncratic learning journeys.

The guide was designed to show you how. I wrote a series of tutorials, outlining the steps toward independent learning: drawing up a plan, building a learning network, finding a mentor, all boiled down as simply as I could. The bulk of the guide is a list of dozens of resources from open courseware repositories, to ways to get college credit for independent learning, to cheaper online learning institutions like Western Governor's University and Straighterline and open ed startups like University of the People and P2PU. I told the stories of people who were successfully taking part in all of the above, pursuing learning pathways off the beaten track. It seemed natural to me to call these people "edupunks." They were the real DIYers.

Gates Foundation is the largest private education donor in the U.S. They focus on the low-income and otherwise disadvantaged student, and the stated mission of their postsecondary programs is to promote "pathways to possibility." As a journalist and author, whose two previous books were published by commercial presses, a nonprofit grant seemed like a novel opportunity to support a writing project I really cared about. The product could be given away for free (although Gates, for bureaucratic reasons that I found impossible to fight, claims a copyright, the guide is free for anyone to reuse and republish in any format for any noncommercial use). And the foundation would support a tour and the creation of a great website-something no publisher does in this day and age. I don't agree with everything the Gates Foundation or Bill Gates personally says or thinks about education; neither do I agree with the contents of every book published by Penguin or Chelsea Green, or every article in every issue of Fast Company magazine.

Some, including Groom, have gone on record as very unhappy with my appropriation of the term "edupunk" for the ebook, which surprised me because they didn't object to the Fast Company article or to the book. Maybe that's the difference between a title and a subtitle, or maybe it's because Gates is too closely aligned in people's minds with Microsoft and all that is creepy and corporate on the Internet. They're entitled to their opinion. I'm a popularizer, and popularizers tend to get on the nerves of the pioneers. At this point I've heard from people in a dozen countries and from all walks of life who are excited about DIY learning and proud to call themselves edupunks. I'm going to keep working to spread these ideas as far and wide as I can.

About the Author

Anya Kamenetz is a senior writer at Fast Company Magazine, where she writes the column "Life in Beta" about change, and the author of several books. The Edupunks' Guide is a free book and website funded by the Gates Foundation. Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006), dealt with youth economics and politics; DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010) investigated innovations to address the crises in cost, access, and quality in higher ed. She was named a 2010 Game Changer in Education by the Huffington Post, received 2009 and 2010 National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing by the Village Voice in 2005.

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