There are two basic options the way I see it: fundamentally change the way higher education is delivered, or resign ourselves to never having enough of it.
DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz is an interesting book that feels a bit uneven. It’s really two different books -- one on the history of higher education and the conditions that have led to crazy price increases, and one about the alternatives to traditional higher education. I think my main problem with the book is that way it’s split. I picked it up expecting the book to be primarily about how individuals can completely change our current higher education system to make it more affordable, equitable, and effective for the future of our economy by embracing new technology and ways of thinking. I thought it would be more about the Do-It-Yourself University and the tools, peopel and organization that make that possible, than it turned out to be. There's definitely some of that. The problem is that it takes too long to get there in the text.
It seems like the author spends too much time building a case for changes to the system. I don’t think she needs to do that for this book. While some of it is needed, that fact that the reader has chosen to read this book already indicates they are interested in learning about different approaches.
That said, the sections where she builds the case and goes over the history of the higher education is still interesting and worth reading.
With those expectations appropriately set I can recommend the book, especially for someone who is interested in how we got where we are today.
At its heart, the book is about the “Edupunk” movement:
"Edupunk is about the utter irresponsibility and lethargy of educational institutions, and the means by which they are financially cannibalizing their own mission," is the opening salvo of his [Jim Groom’s] first e-mail to me.I found the author’s discussion of the history of higher education to be quite interesting. I never gave much thought the idea that today’s most prestigious universities weren’t that way for most of their history.
"Higher education has become a given for most high school students in our culture, and the fact that they have to pay out the nose has become a kind of unquestioned necessity to secure a job. But as we are increasingly seeing with big media, newspapers, and the like—traditional modes of information distribution are being circumvented, and higher education is just as as vulnerable in this new landscape... There remains a general refusal to acknowledge the implications of how easy it is to publish, share, teach, and even apprentice one another outside of the traditional logic of institutions. "
What edupunk—DIY education, if you will—promises is an evolution from expensive institutions to expansive networks; it aims to fulfill the promise of universal education, but only by leaving the university behind. Educational futurist John Seely Brown talks about "open participatory learning ecosystems.'"' Alec Couros at the University of Saskatchewan calls my blend of news sources contacts on Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and e-mail a "personal learning network."
Any college that trumpets its "centuries-long tradition of academic excellence," however, is lying. Colonial colleges were established long before high schools, so they often filled classes with barely literate fourteen- or fifteen year-olds. Throughout the nineteenth century, "Nowhere were really challenging intellectual demands being placed upon [students]," Rudolph states flatly, and as late as 1904, "Dean Briggs of Harvard announced his preference for moderate intelligence'," preferring well-mannered and well-rounded gentlemen to grinds. Along with low standards, there was "little emphasis on completing degrees" well into the nineteenth century, writes University of Kentucky historian John R.Theun in his 2004 book A History of American Higher Education, something of a sequel to Rudolph's work. Students felt free to leave after a year or two of classes. The current college dropout rate of nearly 50 percent is actually pretty good by historic standards. Only a handful of colleges have ever done better.
It’s helpful to keep this in mind. Traditional higher education is the standard in our country by tradition. And yet that tradition is only decades -- not centuries -- old.
A university degree is typically considered the way to advance and make life better in our society. The author reports that today that’s not the case. A degree doesn’t help someone advance; it just prevents them from falling behind. She explains that the value of a degree has declined relative to the cost of obtaining one. She also quotes a sociologist who calls financial aid a form of welfare and income redistribution, which is an interesting way to look at it.
Unfortunately, education alone has been the program, more or less, since the 1970s. Stanford sociologist Mitchell Stevens has called federal higher-education aid America's most ambitious social welfare program. "We don't call it welfare—heaven forbid! That's one of the reasons it's so popular. But if you think of welfare as a means of redistributing social resources or public wealth, there's no question this is a primary method in the post-World War II era," Stevens says. "In the twentieth century the federal government worked systematically to allow as many people as possible to lead middle-class lives. Obama's proposal for a majority of Americans to get a degree by 2025 is only an extension of a fifty-year-long federal government commitment to feeding prosperity through access, by investing in campuses and putting money in college students' pockets in the form of grants and federally subsidized or guaranteed loans." This is Becker's human-capital theory at work: invest in our young people and they will yield a return both for themselves and for the nation at large.
The problem is that it hasn't worked. In the decades since a BA became the primary visa for entry into the middle class, the middle class has only gotten smaller. We often hear about the $1 million average lifetime income premium for a college diploma." But if you look at median incomes by education since 1970, there's no increasing return to a college degree to go with the increased cost. There's a steep decline in the incomes of less-educated workers combined with flat or declining income for more-educated workers. That is, the noncollege penalty is rising, not the college reward.
One of the items that makes a degree so important is just that -- the degree. It’s that it signals that the holder has completed the education process. Any plan or alternative to the traditional system that does not include that BA is doomed to failure regardless of how much or little education participant receives in an alternative system.
The signaling hypothesis says that whatever work earns you the diploma doesn't really matter. College is nothing more than an elaborate and expensive mechanism for employers to identify the people who were smarter and harder workers and had all the social advantages in the first place, and those people then get the higher paying jobs. Now that it's illegal to discriminate in employment by race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, judging people by where and how much they went to school is just about the only acceptable form of prejudice left.
A popular alternative that always comes up in discussions about how to fix the higher education system is to rely on more Community College, Vo-Tech, Apprenticeship programs, alternatives. They cost less, can provide skills people can use right away, provide more practical education than many University programs, offer alternative structures, and may be better suited for those whose expertise is not academic.
It seems like this is a great solution. When surveyed, people generally agree that this a great idea -- for other people’s children. Not for their own.
Carnevale has worked in the House, in the Senate, and for the AFL-CIO. He was named by President Clinton to chair the National Commission on Employment Policy and by Bush the younger to work on a similar commission, and he's also advised President Obama. Under Clinton, Carnevale was caught up in the sticky politics of trying to advocate paths other than four-year college. Clinton signed the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities work-based learning and partnerships. But key provisions of the bill—including the use of the word 'apprenticeship"—were weakened in Congress. "We took it to the Hill and the people who care about poor people and minorities said to US, 'Look. There are two education systems in America: one where people go to college and live happily ever after and the other, where people don't, and struggle. The worst thing that can happen IS that we have two systems that work, because we all know who's going to be in the other one.'" In other words, explicit vocational tracking is a no-no even if the outcomes for poor people are better, because they enshrine social divisions in law, something Americans have always been wary wary of doing. "In the end the truth is the public rejected the idea," of school-to-work, says Carnevale. "In all the focus groups, we asked people: do you think everybody needs to go to college? Seventy to eighty percent said no. But what we forgot to ask, and asked a few years later, was, Should your kid go to college? Eighty-five percent said yes."The solution, the author suggests, is likely somewhere in between. Restructuring the system requires a mix of Universities, for-profit colleges, and personal learning networks. Online resources make more of this possible every day. Universities provide credibility and employ thousands of brilliant people and knowledge experts. They play a major role in credentialing students. The question about how to mix all these different resources together for maximum effectiveness and to drive costs down.
Cost cutting in public higher education, it should be clear, is a moral imperative. State and federal subsidies helped create the tuition monster, and state and federal governments can combat it I if they work in partnership with institutional leaders—not with across-the-board, feast-or-famine cuts, but with rational changes that focus on incentives for affordability and productivity Families and students have a role to play as well. They need to become more informed consumers who aren't afraid to ask tough questions about the value of their degree.
The same is happening in education. Since 2001, a growing i movement, from MIT, Stanford, and hundreds of other universities worldwide to insurgent bloggers and entrepreneurs barely out of school themselves, is looking to social media to transform higher education. They're releasing educational content for free to the world and enlisting computers as tutors. Google has scanned and digitized seven million books. Wikipedia users have created the world's largest encyclopedia.YouTube Edu and iTunes U have made video and audio lectures by the best professors in the country available for free.
Online education is becoming more of a possibility every day. Even though the web has been accessible by the general public for more than 15 years, we are still only beginning to understand how to use it. We continue to put lectures online and try to use existing pedagogies in online university education, but it’s similar to how people thought after the invention of automobiles when we still referred to them as horse-less carriages. It requires new ways of thinking about and presenting material. Done well, it can have a transformative effect.
Online classes like these are an example of what David Wiley at BYU calls the "polo parable."Think about playing polo with ponies on a field, versus water polo in a pool. "They're both called polo and at a high level they're both the same activity," he says. "But no person in their right mind would think you can take a playbook and run the same strategies as in the pool. The idea that you can take tried and true teaching methods from the classroom onto the Internet and see success boggles my mind."
Gardner Campbell, an open-education figure who was responsible for hiring Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington and currently teaches at Baylor University, does Wiley one better. He's argued in presentations that on the scale of disruptive technologies, the Internet is more than the printing press, it's the alphabet. "It's a new way of thinking. It's a meta-tool."
The author does talk about a number of possible solutions, including expanding for-profit schools (which face some of their own perception troubles), start-ups partnering with existing small schools to leverage their accreditation, and more.
For-profit colleges have led the way in innovations like self-paced, all-online programs, assessment-based learning, and student-focused customer service. They have the advantage of focusing exclusively on learning. They are free from the slightest hint of snobbery. John Holt, in his radical 1976 critique Instead of Education, speaks approvingly of the Berlitz language school, which judges itself by how well it serves everyone who wants to study, not by how much it discriminates in choosing students. He calls schools like these "schools for do-ers, which help people explore the world as they choose."
Dave Clinefelter, the provost of Kaplan University, would agree. Kaplan U has grown out of the test-prep company in just seven years I to enroll 68,000 students in associate's, bachelor's and master's degree programs on seventy campuses and online."Traditional universities : at yardsticks like how many students you denied entry to, what your peers think of you, and where your faculty published," he says. "We don't care about any of that. We care what our students learn and whether they get a job in their field. We want to be the best university in the world and we want to be able to prove it to people."
A company called Straighterline already offers an important version of this idea: accredited online college courses for $399 per course, which includes ten hours of one-on-one tutoring. But the course credit is granted by just four small, unknown, community and for-profit colleges. This approach is half a step away from really blowing things up. It would just take a few more prestigious institutions getting on board to change the way people feel about online on-demand education.
A complete program of education isn’t about going to a school for one thing. It’s about pulling together all sorts of different educations elements to enhance the learner’s knowledge, while still working to address the signalling issue.
The way I look at it, a complete personal learning plan ought to have four parts: finding a goal and the credentials or skills needed, formal study, experiential education, and building a personal learning network. Crabapple was kind enough to serve as my model and explain how she did each part her own way. '
She includes a lot of resources in the book, and again, there’s a lot of useful bits in there. In fact, the last 15% of the book is all resources, bibliography, and Index. The book feels to me like it’s a collection of alot of stuff, rather than a straightforward story or how to get there. Still, if these are topics that interest you, it may well be worth reading the book. I did learn things.
I guess my problem here is that while it certainly has a lot of good points and information, they way it’s put together means that I can only give it an unenthusiastic recommendation.
You can find more of my book review here.