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.