Thoughts On Anya Kamenetz and the Open Education Movement

Many thanks to Cable Green for linking to this interview with Anya Kamenetz:

Kamenetz’s recent article in Inside Higher Ed has also been getting a lot of attention, as has her blog, as she promotes her new book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. I have my copy on order and look forward to reading it. Kamenetz is obviously bright and seems to have synthesized a number of important trends in a fresh way. She is impressive.

A couple of things struck me as I watched this interview. First, this seems to be evidence of a possible game changer for the more radical end of the open education movement. I have tended to be very skeptical of theories that higher education will become profoundly more self- and peer driven and will eventually break its bonds with traditional institutions and formal certification. The university is an incredibly stable and change-resistant institution. It has lasted over a thousand years without much evolution in its basic structure. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one big one is that it has tended to reinforce class differences. Late Twentieth-century efforts to make college accessible to everyone notwithstanding, higher education has generally been a strong marker of class status throughout its history. College has been seen as a way to get ahead or, much more frequently, stay ahead. But when you have bright, articulate, talented young professionals—including the child of two college professors, no less—saying that formal higher education may not be the best path to a fulfilling career, it is a sign that, finally, the institution of the university may be under serious threat. Middle class tuition-paying students who grow up to become middle class endowment donating alumni are the economic lifeblood of the university. If they begin to skip college in larger numbers, it would probably force some big changes.

On the other hand, it’s worth thinking about who might get left out of this potential revolution. Folks in the field of educational technology tend to romanticize the notion that the university shall wither away (to borrow a phrase). But ed tech is full of autodidacts, much more so than the general population. I think we tend to assume too often that all people learn the way that we do. (Note that I am not accusing Kamenetz herself of this tendency; I haven’t seen any evidence of it in the bits of her work that I have seen so far.) If you talk to typical community college professors in the United States, they will tell you that their classrooms are not filled only with the idealized digital natives about whom we gush in admiration, wonder, and possibly envy. They see many students who have not been taught how to read, think critically, or even follow directions. Increasing numbers of them are autism spectrum, mentally challenged, or mentally ill. I’m talking about people who tend to subsist on the fringes of the economy. Many are marginally employable in good times and unemployable during serious economic downturns like the one that we are in now. In times like this, they return to the same education system that they dropped out of in the first place because it wasn’t able to meet their needs,  hoping desperately that it will make them employable again (which is one reason why your friends teaching in community colleges may look more stressed than ever this year). These students are not autodidacts, they are in the most dire need of a good education of anyone in our society, and it is not clear to me that the blossoming of open education for their more fortunate peers will do anything for them other than suck the much needed funds out of an already badly underfunded education system.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think the DIY U vision is a bad one. To the contrary, there are many aspects of it that are good, necessary, and overdue. I just don’t think it’s a complete vision. If we are not careful, open education may actually end up reinforcing economic divides, all while we pat ourselves on the back for giving away “free education.” We are failing to educate millions of our citizens in this country, and billions around the world. It’s easy for those of us in the open education movement to see our work in opposition to proprietary technology companies, proprietary textbook companies, and the gatekeepers in the university system. But it’s not the “evil” LMS companies, or the “evil” textbook companies, or the “evil” administrators and bureaucrats that are failing these students. It is all of us. Education is an affirmative responsibility. We need to make educational resources freely available to those who need them, but we also need to do much more than that.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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30 Responses to Thoughts On Anya Kamenetz and the Open Education Movement

  1. Thanks for the provocative post. I think that we open-education types can easily ignore or overlook the very different meanings inherent in the word “free.” Richard Stallman, talking about free software, describes it as “free as in free speech, not as in free beer.” We might consider “free” in open education through a similar lens.

    The Open Ed movement has the potential to offer access to education to exactly the marginalized populations you identify above–in theory, anyway. In practice, the lauded “self-directed learners” tend to be people who could, would, or do succeed in formal school environments, and the resources and tools that could help narrow the gap between those learners and those who struggle are too often co-opted for test-prep, drill-and-practice, and similar purposes.

    Iiyoshi’s and Kumar’s book, Opening Up Education, exclaims that we’re headed for a “perfect storm” for the open ed movement. That may be true, and if so, it’s time to start looking at the practices that surround open educational resources and figuring out what sorts of offline instructional practices, institutional changes, and policy changes can help support a broader reach for open education.

  2. I’m not nearly as worried about misinterpretation of the word “free” as I am about misinterpretation of the word “education.” Learning is a skill. Some of us are lucky enough, either through nature or nurture or some combination, to have that skill. For us, what we mainly need are resources to learn from and sometimes colleagues to learn with and/or a mechanism by which what we have learned can be recognized as economically valuable.

    For those who or not so lucky, they need guidance through the learning process. This is where your point about practices and policies around OER comes in. We have to develop a better understanding of the difference between educational resources and education itself, and how to bridge the gap for those who can do it on their own.

  3. Doug Holton says:

    Norm Friesen posted similar thoughts here:

    “It avoids the apocalyptic predictions that Tapscott and Williams (and I might add, a David Wiley and Stephen Downes) continue to make. For example, Kamenetz does not predict –and much less give an expiry date for—the university’s demise. Instead, she sees trends like “technohybridization” (blended learning) and the “personal learning paths” as central to DIY in higher ed. In fact, arguing directly against Wiley and Downes”

  4. Wow, great reference. Thanks, Doug!

  5. Whilst I think that there will need to be fundamental changes to higher education I am actually quite optimistic about the future. I think your point about auto-didacts is a good one but at the moment we don’t give them the flexibility to learn at the pace that they desire. At the same time, as you observe, there are a proportion of students who prefer to be coached through their higher learning. I think we need to look at outcomes. Universities should set the curricula for courses of study and allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of that curricula through appropriate assessment. Learning might be entirely through self study or it may be facilitated through coaching. University fee structures could vary according to whether a student was requesting assessment only or coaching and assessment. Such a model would encourage auto-didactic behaviour, allow universities to increase the number of students studying their courses whilst minimising the additional infrastructure required to teach more students in a traditional way. Universities would need to invest in assessment management systems in order to ensure consistency and rigour in their assessment practices.
    At the moment we have a situation in which universities say that students can’t possibly pass a course unless they have undertaken that course. This is plainly ridiculous and we have an increasing number of students who set out to disprove this. The notion is that all knowledge comes from the university when we now live in a world where that is not the case. The only thing that the university can own is the curricula of their courses because they are gatekeepers of the credential. This need not be a bad thing because you can tie course curricula to the research activity of academics responsible for the course.
    We would end up with a higher education system in which:
    1. those being coached through a course actually want to be coached through a course.
    2. course curricula would be differentiated through the research being undertaken in the area which might achieve a much greater nexus between learning and research at the undergraduate level than is currently the case despite the rhetoric.
    Finally I would add that I would hope that universities might start to offer more single course options that would encourage students to continue higher education studies though out their lives rather than focusing on major life events such as enrolling in a degree program.
    So being optimistic, I see a better, more flexible, less stressful role for universities in facilitating learning amongst populations and at the same time continuing to lead the generation of new knowledge through research. Let’s see what I think on Friday after fighting bureaucracy for a week.

  6. Lisa says:

    Hi Michael,

    I wrote a blog post about this topic on my OpenPhD blog.

    We have charter public K12 schools to explore new ways of doing things, and they are fully accredited. Why don’t we have charter institutions of higher learning for the same idea? Especially in the digital age! For instance, here is one of my ideas for a “Charter University” – a school that simply is a credit clearing house and testing body. For example, if a student wanted a degree in English, “Charter University” would list course descriptions and number of credits required for a standard BA in English – the student could collect these credits from any and all accredited universities/community colleges across the country – submitting transcripts along the way. Once all the course work was completed, the student would sit for a comprehensive exam in the major. If passed, the degree and the accumulated credits/gpa would be awarded. No “in house” residency rule required. If proving a student has the knowledge is what matters, does it really matter from where they got the knowledge?

    Turns out my site is mentioned in Anna’s book.

    While I haven’t kept up with my blog posts as well as I should, my autodidactic learning goes on. My knowledge of Open Textbooks has grown with my involvement in Foothill-DeAnza’s CCCOER project and Cable’s Open Course Library project as well. Open education does work for the motivated. Being able to challenge the status quo of the university process is the next step. Europe has a PhD by Publication, that may be the next step in the evolution in the US as well.

  7. Mark Notess says:

    Thanks for posting this, Michael. Quite interesting. One wonders whether Anya’s Yale education could be approximated or surpassed by an autodidact using OpenCourseWare, TED, and social media. I’d contend not. If I evaluate the resume of a Yalie, I assume they might bring more to the table than knowledge and skills measurable by a test. I assume, for instance, that they knew what Yale was, that they desired Yaleness, that they either were exceptionally motivated and brilliant or were very well connected. I assume they were able to pressures of being surrounded by similar high-powered people who either put themselves under tremendous pressure or whose parents or faculty did so. I assume they graduate with a unique set of experiences enabling them to get jobs in NYC and pay for an apartment there, or at least walk away from all that.

    Of course such assumptions may be partially or completely false in any given case, or even in most cases. But my point is that the name of an institution on a resume, along with the major and GPA conveys much more than academic knowledge and skill acquisition.

    Although I’m interested in the possibilities and limits of open education, I’m much more interested in affordable education, mainly because I share your (Michael’s) doubt about the limits of autodidacticism.

    A Yale education will never be affordable except for the special few. The large majority of college students are educated in the non-elites, e.g., not at the Ivys or at Major Research Universities. I’m much more concerned with how to make their educations affordable and high-quality, in terms of the delightfulness of the experience, the economic value of the credential, and the long-term value of the personal growth achieved.

    So for me, the directions I’m most interested in (of those mentioned by Anya) are NCAT, WGU, and the SNHU Advantage Program. I also wonder who will come up with the online analogue to places like Berea College, which charge no tuition and serve students with an average family income of $29k/yr.

    On another topic, I have a hard time reading comments on this blog because of the low contrast between text and background colors. Let’s have some contrast!

  8. Mark S.,
    It’s an interesting idea, graduating fees according to whether a learner wants assessment only or coaching and assessment. But it does seem likely that this approach would simply continue to reproduce the divide we have between the more privileged and the less privileged. Anyone with the resources would want coaching AND assessment, UNLESS they already felt like they were close to expert-level in an area, but in practice, what’s likely to happen is that the less wealthy will opt for the assessment-only approach not because they choose to but because they must. The wealthier students will make use of coaching opportunities to continue to advance past their peers. This is exactly the sort of split we see in, for example, standardized assessments like the SAT or the LSAT. For many of these tests everybody has to pay just for the assessment, and if you have the money you’ll pay for coaching as well–and, with few exceptions, outperform the non-coached test-takers.

  9. As I mentioned in the post, I haven’t read her book yet. But my impression from the bits of her work that I have read is that she is explicitly talking about non-elite institutions. What I think she’s saying is that, if you’re paing $18K a year to go to Generic U, and you’re taking out loans to do it, and you’re taking a Generic Major because you’re not quite sure what else to do, that’s no longer a good bet for your future. Figure out what you want to do and build an individualized path to where you want to go. Lacking the stamp of a prestige university, just getting the degree to its own sake may not pay off, either financially or in terms of personal fulfillment.

    It’s hard to argue with that thesis. My main concern is what happens to the students who actually need the structure of a university if and when tuition funding thins out because more students are going to school later, for shorter periods of time, or not at all. I don’t read Kamenetz to be calling for the ending of universities as we know it—in fact, she seems to be significantly more incrementalist than some of the standard bearers of the open education flag—but when tuition money drains from a system that is already under financial stress, there will be consequences, whether they are intended or not. If that’s the way things are going to go, then we need to be prepared to restructure the college experience to meet the coming fiscal and demographic realities.

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful posts and comments, guys.
    Yes, I am explicitly talking about “The other 85 percent” of students, dropouts, non-elite institutions. I find it somewhere between amusing and maddening the extent to which discourse around higher education is focused on the Ivies.

    Yes, “we need to be prepared to restructure the college experience to meet the coming fiscal and demographic realities.” Technology and social media–combined with experiential education, in hybridized forms–offer an obvious way forward to do that. They’re not the whole solution, and it’s not going to happen overnight.
    One of the most valuable changes I posit in the book, is that by opening up the model , maybe we can destabilize traditional hierarchies of education. 4 year should not be the be-all and end-all.

    To the point of Yalie vs. autodidact:
    I have a friend who barely graduated high school. He’s studied at Stanford and UCSC and his resume includes Harvard Law School (he was a TF without ever being a student) and Google. As an intellect he’s head and shoulders above 75% of the people I went to college with, and what’s more impressive, he’s insatiably curious–always carrying around a pen and paper to write down ideas and new words he learns. That’s the true autodidact edge–never having their love of learning extinguished by endless tests and conformity.

  11. The trouble is that, if you’re an institution that has a very successful thousand-year history of being an island of consistency and tradition in a sea of change, then responding to rapidly and dramatically changing market conditions probably isn’t among your core competencies. Most public universities are pretty bad at strategic planning. And we certainly have no evidence that the Federal or state governments have the ability to take leadership roles in guiding higher education through a time of crisis.

    Anya, the kinds of changes that I understand you to be suggesting—which I agree would be very good in and of themselves—may trigger other changes that are deeper and more disruptive—and not always in a good way. The university system in this country is already battling major financial brushfires. If the winds of change blow hard enough, things could get serious fast. The audience for my blog include some of the people who are most likely to man the bucket brigade, which is why I am calling their attention to the fact that we need to start thinking about contingencies. I didn’t worry about it so much before because, despite the fact that many of these changes are long overdue, I just didn’t believe there was any trigger on the horizon that would be strong enough to force them on higher education. Now I’m not so sure.

  12. monika hardy says:

    So glad I happened onto this. Great post, great video, great comments and links.

    I am at the hs level, working on similar change. But also working with educators to make some drastic change in pre-service teacher training.

    In our search for answers, we’ve come up with a diy highschool we are calling – your school-design it. The premise and new standard being threefold, 1) access [to the web, tools, and time], 2) teachers modeling personal learning networks [modeling true learning], and 3) students engaged in personal learning networks. All this feeds into the personalized ed that I heard Anya talking about.

    In our vision, we see k-8 as the place for foundational content standards, only through logic and programming and gaming. [and recently i’ve wondered about introducing everything as a foreign language, after spending kids’ first few years learning 1-3 foreign languages.]
    We see 9-12 as a quasi college, where kids spend time as Anya suggested, researching Ted talks, finding their art/passion, and then creating their own courses/curriculum to that end.
    And then, we see higher ed, as a quasi career, where many are no longer paying for higher ed. We see higher ed cost perhaps non-existent, because students are in essence interning for their future employer, and know that free courses with no actual certificate will more than suffice. Or, major companies are actually paying for their tuition in return for their innovative ideas. Or, the government realizes that the answers to world problems would best be solved by these brilliant minds, if given the trust and resources to but tackle them.

    It’s ridiculous that change isn’t happening faster.
    The power of networking should make this a simple fix. I ask myself daily if the stall is because so many are that afraid of change. Especially when the change we need empowers students – which for some crazy reason unsettles the people who are used to making the decisions.
    So many debates about “free” when really it’s about better use. Flow of money, I think, is coming to a close. I think transparency is the new currency. I think school as real life, solves world problems without that flow of money, and gives students more purpose and fulfillment in their learning experience.

    I feel it’s ridiculous as well, that government is missing this.
    I feel we can make this change on our own, because of the personalization, diy pln’s etc, the web allows. We don’t need more resources, or money, or time, if we are just smarter about how we spend each one.
    But …if we could get governing forces, [ie: the government, the rulers of the unis and public schools], to get this, and see that it really is the best option for all players, the speed and equity would alleviate a ton of stress, and seemingly endless debate.

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  14. In a comment to Stephen Downes’ post you wrote: “Until we face that reality and include in our vision for open education a plan to help those students, we are failing them.”

    I think most of the OER people include in their vision a plan to help people in disadvantaged circumstances. For instance in one article related to Wikiversity — the OER platform of the Wikimedians — I wrote:

    “The Wikiversity community should actively recognize groups that would most benefit from further developments in the diversity of offerings in Wikiversity. Indeed Wikiversity should be pro–active in reaching new audiences, such as those with reduced opportunities for education. In free and liberal education, the focus is on those who have less favorable combinations of circumstances in their lives and in society. Wikiversity can assist the disadvantaged in a variety of roles much like free and liberal education has served social change globally.”

    Learning in and with an open wiki project: Wikiversity’s potential in global capacity building
    by Teemu Leinonen, Tere Vadén, and Juha Suoranta
    First Monday, Volume 14, Number 2 – 2 February 2009

  15. Teemu, I don’t deny that many—I would venture to say most—advocates of open education have a real and heartfelt interest in helping disadvantaged students. It is obviously a movement that is driven by idealism. Rather, my point is that the open education discussions I have seen focus on increasing access to educational resources and to educational conversations without consideration to the fact that many disadvantaged students have not been taught the skills they would require to take advantage of those newly available resources and opportunities. For example, in your own article, you don’t ask the question, “What should we do about those students who don’t know how to learn through a wiki and don’t have the skills to figure it out?”

    At my local community college, faculty are discovering that a very large percentage of their student body do not have the skills they need—self-organization, planning, independent critical thinking, academic reading, and so on—to participate successfully in fully online or even blended distance learning courses. I’m talking about courses that are instructor-facilitated. Making such courses free and open will not make it any easier for those students to learn through that modality. In fact, it will likely make it harder, because the students will have even less of the scaffolding that they need.

    There is no doubt that, in a world where literally billions of people have no access to education, providing an open education of the type you describe will help many. That’s a really good thing. But I would hazard a guess that the majority of those students have been denied from birth so many of the environmental stimuli and models for good learning behavior that you and I may take for granted that they will be unable to participate in a meaningful way. Free and accessible do not mean the same thing. Until the open education community confronts this distinction head-on and starts talking about how to handle it, I will continue to see this as a dangerous blind spot.

  16. Michael,

    Good point. The question of how to guarantee that people will have the basic skills needed to participate in wiki projects (provided that we would have be able to solve the issue of technical access to the technology) is critical. As you pointed out we often forget how complicated the world is.

    I think a best solution is a mixture of solutions. We need public libraries, high quality basic education, OERs, higher education, positive discrimination in higher education, community colleges and open learning processes in the spirit of peer-to-peer teaching/learning). In this cocktail the high quality basic education is the most important – universal and free. After this the other things may follow.

  17. Ruth Howard says:

    Yes fear of change Monica! Yes establish foundations of self directed learner first. Yes the whole government education model is for the middle classes Michael. Higher have their own models and lower have slim hope herded into middle class schooling. I find it so unjust! The solutions need to go beyond middle class values. Testing surely has to go as a necessary prerequisite for demonstration of learning. Whatever is replacing the old will pretty much be the antithesis of govt schooling currently in Australia. I think the class system in education has to go and like you infer Michael only that will topple the universities as they are. The main thing is that they enable greater learning outcomes to those that are ready.

    Dr Sugata Mitra’s (see his TED Video) has already found part of the solution revealing children to be self learning and self organising and in my mind he points to the role of education itself as a questionable conduit for learning.

    Monica that’ s some idea gaming using foreign languages early on. I can see that.
    Thank you everyone for this discussion, I do tend to jump on the bandwagon about how good it all will be-being middle class myself! I appreciate your tempered insights.

  18. David Wiley says:

    I have left a longer collection of thoughts about this thread on my blog here.

  19. Ruth Howard says:

    ‘topple the universities as they are. ‘ perhaps transform is a more meaningful description than topple.

    It’s the equitability & accessibility I speak to. What I understand is technology itself is and will lead to this, Africa I am certain will likely lead the world within a couple of generations.

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  28. Anya Kamenetz in her comment above says:
    “Yes, I am explicitly talking about “The other 85 percent” of students, dropouts, non-elite institutions. I find it somewhere between amusing and maddening the extent to which discourse around higher education is focused on the Ivies. ”

    I believe there is a parallel to the phenomena of the “inadvertent freelancer”
    Brian Sommer put it like this “…there don’t seem to be sites designed for the inadvertent freelancer and I suspect they have very different needs wants and requirements.”
    I prefer to put it like this : in a perfect world where content is king, inadvertent freelancers would receive work offers based upon potential, talents, skills

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