Thursday, April 29, 2010

Review: DIY U by Anya Kamenetz

"DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education", by Anya Kamenetz, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010.

This is  good introduction to the current state of tertiary education in the United States, the Open Education movement and the potential for technology driven disruption to the sector.

The book is tightly focused on the US situation, the rest of the world gets an honourable mention.

The first half is a fairly critical overview of the state of Tertiary Education in the US.  It's interesting, but the issues are not as valid for Europe where the costs are lower, and social inequality less severe. The Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) for the US is currently around 47, about the same as places like Kenya, and Jamaica, compared to 35 in Ireland, where I write, or 24 in egalitarian Denmark. The extent of the problems in the US system are alarming, and a good warning for those who might ape the American system.

Kamenetz takes the view that much of higher education in the US is a racket. High cost enforces scarcity of space at elite institutions, and filters out students from advantaged backgrounds. The Graduates from elite institutions, filtered by class and economics before their first day on campus, then proceed to do well and form the next generation of the elite. They even promote themselves on the basis of their selectivity:
 "It's like Weight watchers advertising that they only take skinny people."
The system excludes many on grounds of costs, and many more enter the system,  incur student debt and yet fail to graduate to reap the marginal benefits of a degree at a lesser college. She is critical of a system where everyone aspires to go to college, when not everyone needs to, and every college aspires to compete with Harvard. The cheap credit of the 00's drove massive expansion of student debt as people borrowed vast amounts of easy money for degrees they often never completed, driving spiralling fees as people equated cost with exclusivity and quality.

In the second half of the book she moves on to talk about solutions, driven by technology, and the Open Education movement. Why pay fees when you can get the knowledge for free? Why go to such expense to build social networks when we can build networks of people with a common interests faster and cheaper online? She correctly identifies assessment and accreditation as the critical points not easily solved online, and raises the question of whether in the internet age, online portfolios of work could replace conventional accreditation. She cites the idea of open source projects in Software, where a potential hire can be checked out in advance by the quality of their work in open source software projects. Ideas like 'Whuffie' and smart assessments get a mention too.

It's a good overview of the topic. All the main events, players and ideas, from The MIT Open Courseware through to Personal Learning Environments, The University of the People and Massive Open Online Courses are covered in brief. If you've been following thinkers like Stephen Downes, David Wiley and George Siemens online, there won't be much here that is new to you, but if you've only heard the terms Edupunk and Open Educational Resources, then it's an quick primer on what going on in the sector, and what changes it could bring.

It's short, clear and to the point. The author is a journalist not an academic, and it shows. Few academics write so clearly, most would drag it out to 400 pages to little extra effect.  Even if you are familiar with the ground, it's probably worth a read. If you are not, and have an interest, it's a good starting point.


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