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Once an edupunk, always an edupunk

By Lisa Neal Gualtieri / July 2008

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What do you do when you have no training budget? Wring your hands, beg for money, or become an edupunk! As described in a recent eLearn Magazine article by Laurie Rowell, edupunk is the au courant term describing "an educational approach that combines creative drive with a maverick attitude…in which the educator—or possibly the student—designs the tools for teaching and learning." But edupunk has been brewing for years.

Twelve years ago, long before the term edupunk existed, the training program I worked in at EDS suffered from dwindling enrollments for their classroom-delivered courses due to corporate cutbacks and rising travel costs. I suggested to my manager that we try creating an online course which had not been previously offered. My manager's primary measure of success would be in attracting students to the online course after the embarrassing cancellation of many classroom courses due to low enrollment.

What did I do? First, I consulted with my mentor for this endeavor, Jenny Preece, who guided me based on her experiences teaching online at the Open University. She was a great sounding board and encouraged me to experiment. Jenny also introduced me to the work of Diana Laurillard, whose perspective was to exploit technologies for their unique capabilities rather than replicating existing classroom practices. While I'm not sure my mentors were edupunks, they certainly fostered my edupunkish tendencies.

With no budget for technology purchases, I couldn't evaluate, purchase, or implement one of the few learning management systems (LMS) available at the time. Instead I scouted out what was available internally and through shareware (the precursor to open source). Internally I found room-based videoconferencing, and externally I found NetMeeting in beta, Virtual Places (later acquired by Lotus and incorporated into Sametime), WorldsAway (a primitive Second Life predecessor), and IRC (think instant messaging).

I next determined how to restructure a one-week classroom course into something that made sense using my anemic inventory of available free technologies and would benefit students while doing justice to the topic. I decided to shift some work to individual assignments outside of class and give students small group projects as well. The rest wasn't your typical lecture, but was instead designed to facilitate discussion.

My first online course, on human-computer interaction, ran over a four-week period with three synchronous class sessions each week. The remaining course hours were spent on assignments. For group assignments the 20 students, who were dispersed globally, had to use technology to work together, they were encouraged to start with a description of which technologies they used and what worked and didn't work in their final presentations. While most used the technologies from the course, a few used others, which gave me new technologies to consider adopting. Time zone differences proved to be the biggest challenge for these projects, and students came up with creative time-shifting workarounds—these were my edupunklets!

The best thing about having neither the budget nor permission to purchase technology was that I was not bound by the normal corporate edicts to adhere to the "company standard." I had the freedom to use any free technology I could find, and to change technologies when my own impressions or my students' feedback suggested a change. For example, I found that the visual information from videoconferencing added little to lectures or discussions and my students were camera-shy, so I used it only where it seemed to add value.

And after playing around with virtual worlds, it struck me that I could use them to have informal gatherings for my class. I found that there were far more humorous experiences in the virtual world than ever occurred in any other aspect of the online course, such as when two students who lived in the same city but had never met decided to meet and share a computer for my class party—and had their avatar pocket one head and put on another when they changed who typed. Then there was the student who became rather addicted to WorldsAway and the romantic encounters she had there—only a problem to me if it kept her from completing her coursework (which it didn't!).

Developing an online course in this way was the most fun I've ever had teaching online. My manager was thrilled because he met his headcount goals and was recognized by his manager for breaking new ground while saving money. But the ultimate benefit was in that my students were exposed to new technologies and new ways of using them for learning.

My successful pilot initiated an entirely new corporate training program at EDS that used the same technologies I had successfully experimented with in my course, but with some modifications: Guess whether there were any more class parties in virtual worlds? The program lasted a few years with no further technological or structural changes until the group was disbanded during another round of cuts. Just like punk rock that is turned into elevator music, innovation can be homogenized until the roots are almost forgotten.

For anyone starting up an online program, having a budget is great, but it leads to purchasing decisions and a commitment to those selections. Deciding to abandon a purchased product implies that the selection process was flawed, after all. Even with open source there is a time—and time is money—which can limit the extent to which changing the technology mix is possible.

In my current classroom teaching, I got permission to have an external website instead of using the university's LMS. I felt too constrained by the LMS—I couldn't provide access to any course materials to anyone outside of the university. The concern exists that chaos will ensue if all instructors do that. But is it better for students to have all courses delivered the same way or to have each delivered as the teacher believes is optimal?

Even if I'm not as much of an edupunk right now in my daily life, my edupunk inclinations are merely waiting for the next opportunity.


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