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DIY, says 'edupunk' star. Distortion and sell-out, say critics

Few scholarly cheers for author's 'branded' vision of accessible higher education. Sarah Cunnane writes

In 2008, a diverse group of people working in and around higher education decided they were - in the words of the film Network - "mad as hell, and not going to take it any more".

The cause: the omnipresence of "cookie-cutter" content management systems for teaching such as Blackboard and the focus on new technology as a force for change, rather than on the potential of the community around that technology.

The result: edupunk. The term was coined by Jim Groom, instructional technology specialist in the arts and humanities at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, and it was quickly adopted by a group of academics, mainly in the US and Canada, who wanted students to create their education rather than merely consume it.

On his blog, Groom has described the importance of the work of edupunks, who he says are working in opposition to "the decline of higher ed into a series of feeding lots for the private sector job market".

The definition of edupunk is somewhat loose, as preferred by its creator and early adopters. The New York Times defined the term as "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".

However, The Edupunks' Guide to a DIY Credential, a new self-published e-book by journalist and author Anya Kamenetz, has ignited an argument about the use of the term and what it stands for.

"It's a word that has had a lot of different meanings, but it appeals to people," Kamenetz says.

"Everybody loves the idea of being a bit rebellious, and the idea that I'm trying to get across is that there is a student-centric way to approach higher education.

"People can get resources in their own hands and take charge of the process. In many cases, that is exactly what they should be doing; that's the way to learn in the 21st century."

Kamenetz first came across the idea of edupunk at a panel at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas in 2009. "I was really interested because they were saying a lot of the same things that I had heard; that college was too expensive and it doesn't necessarily offer what people need," she says.

Her first book on the subject, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, which was published by Chelsea Green in 2010, explored what Kamenetz has described as "the communities of visionaries who are tackling the enormous challenges of cost, access, and quality in higher ed, using new technologies to bring us a revolution in higher learning that is affordable, accessible, and learner-centered".

Stephen Downes, senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada, was on the SXSW 2009 panel that Kamenetz attended. He has taken issue with her use of the word edupunk, calling her interpretation "the opposite of anything like punk".

"The way do-it-yourself learning is depicted in her guide, it substitutes presentations, resources and materials from professors and books for presentations, resources and materials online through videos and online documents," he says. "There is no sense that it is do-it-yourself learning; it's just putting digital in place of traditional learning materials."

Downes attacks Kamenetz's work as portraying a "superficial understanding of online learning and education in general", but adds that the media coverage of the edupunk phenomenon is partly to blame.

That's not punk, that's ridiculous

"That somebody who isn't involved in any significant way in edupunk, who isn't well-versed in edupunk, who is probably getting it wrong, can be considered the authority on the subject because she is the one who got a book deal - it's ridiculous," Downes says.

But for Groom, edupunk is best summed up in a quote by science-fiction writer Brian Sterling. Talking about the use of the suffix "-punk" in describing new social trends, Sterling said it was used to describe "using modern social networks to route around established disciplines".

Groom adds: "The point was to reinvest what we do with educational technology with some sort of imagination and, hopefully, some idea of liberation from the corporate control that is infesting the work we do."

He says he has "some sympathy" for the aims of Kamenetz's guide, but feels the problems stemmed from the use of edupunk to "brand" her ideas and sensibility.

"There are people who have invested a lot of thought in this and it means a lot to them. It's a little bit more than a brand," he says. "These are people who have fought tooth and nail for these ideas; for them, it's not a fad. If you mess with the bull, you're going to get the horns."

In a post on his blog last year, Groom summed up the importance of the idea.

"The cost of higher ed has gone insane in the US, but rather than positing the entrepreneur, corporation or free market enthusiast as saviour - we need to recognize that there has to be a third space," he writes.

"There has to be a way for people to organize and share freely and openly through a series of trust networks that aren't necessarily mediated by institutions."

Another participant on the 2009 SXSW Interactive panel was Gardner Campbell, director of professional development and innovative initiatives at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He is not surprised that edupunk has become "a brand".

"Even a revolutionary movement that resists all forms of definitions and embraces spontaneity is going to risk co-optation," he says.

Campbell says that although he agrees with the ideas behind edupunk, he remains unsure that "punk" was the right term to adopt.

"It runs the risk of becoming reactive," he says. "It's the idea of: 'What are you rebelling about?' - 'Well, what have you got?' It could very easily devolve into a wholesale condemnation of 'The Man' and be destructive without any value at its centre."

Kamenetz agrees that the use of the word is "open for debate" but says her purpose in writing the book was to reach a more general audience.

"The traditional discourse about edupunk was in a small circle of academia and was really restricted to academics. I'm trying to translate it to a much broader population," she says.

What about the revolution?

Campbell feels there is "a necessary and beneficial place" for the kinds of strategies that Kamenetz advocates in her guide.

Nevertheless, he says that he struggled with her decision to offer a "gentle introduction" to the ideas of the original band of edupunks.

"It's not as richly considered or as usefully complex as the initial conversations that happened around edupunk," he says.

"A gentle introduction to truly radical, revolutionary ideas is almost a contradiction in terms. I would want to find a compelling introduction for people who are willing to commit to thinking hard about something. I think that would be a more useful approach in the end."

In response, Kamenetz says that the vast number of people who are engaging in higher education "are not doing it for revolutionary purposes".

"Once people start participating in these concepts I think a much more radical transformation is possible. But it doesn't happen until mass numbers of students try to break off from what's being offered to them," she says.

Downes says that if edupunk were to evolve into something more radical, then he might be able to get behind the word once again.

"If edupunk simply becomes another form of consumerism, there's nothing new there," he says. "But if, by contrast, it creates the sort of individual empowerment on a wide-scale basis that we think it can, that would be something that would be celebrated. That was punk: the message wasn't 'love our music'; it was 'anyone can make music'."

Not fade away

Despite their disagreements, all agree that, even if the term edupunk becomes distorted or fades away, the ideas behind it - whatever they may be - will survive.

"The forces that are colluding to shape the transformation of higher education in the 21st century are not going anywhere, so there's no chance of the ideas and issues dying," Kamenetz says.

Groom says he is "done" with the word edupunk "for a while, at least", but that this wouldn't stop his work.

"I rail against these [existing higher education] systems because I think they are important," he says. "Their evolution as systems and academic institutions is crucial to who we are as people. That's why I work for universities: because I believe in them."

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com.

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