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The Gaping M Shaped Void for DIY Education

Notes from the blog crypt.. This post has been lingering in the drafts area for a while; it reminds me of one of those mystery containers of Unidentified Food Substances in the back of me fridge. I keep thinking I had thrown it out, and every time I rummage around, I look at it and wonder, hmmm maybe there is still something here?

cc licensed flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

I have these two braided streams of thoughts I cannot untwist; these were to intended as separate posts but could not sort which one came first. And I am not really blogging this as much as dumping in an iPad at 30,000 feet over California.

One strand is assembling a mixed jumble of thoughts after finishing Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U. I read it partly out of curiosity of what was mentioned of my colleagues/friends in print, partly as a group of others suggested a group reading/mashup of posts/tweets which seems to have dissipated (once again a lesson is, like a successful wiki project, you need a gardner and perhaps a driver to keep the drum beat going).

As a side note of economics I still don’t understand, the Kindle version was priced on Amazon at 18 cents cheaper than the paperback. I opted for the latter, which have marked up in highlighter, underlines, and indecipherable notes in the margin. As much as you will remind me what I already know- that I can annotate in Kindle, it does not feel natural. It is overhead. But that’s another post.

But back to the DIY U book.

I cannot sort out what the — I cannot recall the phrase Gardner Campbell uses in his seminar– the key phrase that gets to the heart of the message. Does the author wish to be part of the movement to revolutionize education? Does she have a stake? Or is she the semi detached journalist; get close to the subjects to extract an essence, distill it, and move on to some other topic next? Is it aimed to be a success at sales, so it is keyed to attract attention?

The answers don’t really matter, but I found myself reading in states of being ready to argue and criticize, and other times more quietly opened up to new ideas that I almost did not expect to get (the assumed value of a four year degree, the economics of pricing education, the “signaling hypothesis”, a range of interesting organization projects educating out of the mainstream model).

And really, when writing about a book, the tendency is to think you have to issue a final “thumbs up / thumbs down” which seems pointless in the longer view. I have to say as a result of reading the book, I have some new lost neurons swimming in a different direction, and who knows where they may go? I have to admit I came away with more than I expected, but like that jar in the fridge, there’s a certain wafting odor I cannot escape from.

I also struggled with the writing style- in the same paragraph, it wavered from obviously highly researched sources where every sentence was footnoted followed by a sentence of sweeping generalization that was just left hanging out there, e.g.

Community colleges fill in the gaps by taking all comers, yet the product they offer is generally acknowledged to be a substitute for the real thing.

WTF? Who generally acknowledges this assertion? Is it a typo for someone named “Generally”? Wither footnote?

And I am sure it is the magazine journalistic style, but the writing in DIY U just teases towards the powerful personal stories that Clay Shirky weaves into the chapters of Here Comes Everybody, but in DIY U we just get flimsy postcards of the stories, and they drop off the table in a forgotten heap. Probably a victim of editing? I don’t know. I don’t write books. But that seems a loss as we get half stories that bob around among a river of facts and footnotes.

What I did get out of DIY U is the awareness that I held the assumption (my own generally acknowledged) that the more schooling we get people to march through, the better of society will become, the human capital theory. We have created this culture where the main route of personal success is directed through a golden arch if higher education– when really there are a set if societal, environmental advantages available to a larger degree to people of certain social economic stature who get a better head start, like me. It’s not that an undergraduate degree gives you an earning advantage; the numbers indicate that it’s more a case that lacking the degree puts you in the group who’s incomes are declining, “That is, the non college penalty is rising, not the college reward” (p28).

I do struggle with what seems unsaid but is that the main purpose of becoming educated is focused on job, salary, income afterward. The author makes passing reference to the contrary, but moves quickly back to the the home stats of income as the outcome of education. Absolutely, to me making an income, getting paid for my skill is important, but was never a goal. I have trouble with the notion that the purpose of an education is measured by the salary levels achieved after. Then again, a dog has to eat.

The examples in the chapters on “Computer Science” and “Independent Study” are a healthy mix of ones I knew and many I did not; my dim memory of the Western Governor’s University were way off of the interesting approach described where teaching is separated from assessment, “Faculty members at WGU are not responsible for grading; that would be a conflict of interest.” It sounds like they have unbundled the traditional roles of the job of a teacher.

Taken as a whole, the examples of DIY in action seem isolated, interesting, fascinating, hope-raising exceptions to the rule, but also feel like minor ripples on the deep still water of our educational system. They feel like outliers than a movement or anything close to a “revolution”.

But let me get to the alluded to missing gap I find not just here, but even in the notion of open education as a whole (and something I deeply care about).

What is going to motivate the large swath of a society to become educated or to learn something in a self-directed fashion? It’s one thing to be facing a need that I need to to know first hand– how to fix a bike dérailleur, how to stop a leaking toilet, how to bake a lemon meringue pie how to add a widget to a web page– these are all places DIY shines, when I know that I don’t know something and want to fill that gap. It is clear when I don;t know something I want to know. Lots of people do this.

But what is going to drive people to learn what they don’t think they need to learn? What they don’t know is worth learning? In a DIY world with people tooling up for a better job, are they going to DIY their way into poetry? French literature? Is the limits of education the things we need to know how to perform/get a job? That a bothersome underlying under toe in DIY U- that the purpose of education is to end up in a job. That feels…. lifeless.

Left to my own naive, immature interests as an undergraduate, without the general education requirements, I would never have been motivated to learn Art History, Philosophy, Photography.

Or try this as an exercise. Go down to your local mall, Walmart, grocery store, city park, a place where you see a wide swath of the general public, Take a look, and try to figure out how many of these folks are ready, equipped to DIY it. Yeah, it’s a judgement call and it teeters to the area of crass judgement.

So in DIY U, the author does make a valid argument, to me, that the notion of pushing more people through more four year degree programs wont really lift the boats–

A four-year college degree is stilla good investment for the individual who is academically prepared, has the external resources and internal fortitude to finish that degree. But the current official strategy of trying to cram more of our least-prepared young people into our most resource-deprived institutions, with the absence of any other components of a welfare state or investment i quality job creation, and hoping it makes America into a more boradly prosperous country is not likely going to work. (p29)

What I get, and accept is that people equipped with the factors to succeed in college will benefit most from it. College works for people who start with a head start on the factors that leads to success in college.

But we get to the end of this, to the resource guide, which is… resourceful, but as I think about all of the steps it takes, and the motivation of the people described as doing it, I am left wondering at this end of the spectrum, how many people really are ready and motivated to DIY it? It’s a lot to take on, not un-doable, but the mountain of motivation seems — epic huge. I cannot help but think a small number of people will even have some of the DIY moxie that Molly Crabapple shows (p 137).

The examples of open courses I have seen are… well about open education. People enter with their interest and motivations already packed.

Anya swings close to this on page 131:

Both learners and providers need to get comfortable with identifying meaningful objectives – and meeting them. For individuals, the true value of education has to be intrinsic, not extrinsic.

Just creating more DIY stuff for people who already have a DIY affinity is not going to deal with this intrinsic value creation.

So the gap I see is; just like Anya paints that the current college system favors those with a pre-disposition to succeed; what we have now in the prototype DIY U also seems to favor people with other pre-dispositions to do well in this different environment. I don’t see that tent being any larger than the traditionalist education one.

Of course it is extremely early in the game; on a comparable scale, DIY U is at the stage of the first protozoan species, so we are a long way from giraffes or butterflies or pterodactyls.

At the same time, all of the new magic gadgets (I agree with Will that it’s not easy), all of the new offerings from “eduprenuers” (I too share a disgust for that term), all of the hopes for revolutions — are all too focused at the leading edge, the people who already have a leg ahead in the space.

There is a huge gaping void we are not doing anything about in our dreams of self-directed open learning… what is going to motivate people to even be on this road? Not to mention to stay on it? What/who is going to support, buoy, guide, inspire the ordinary Joe/Jane/Juan/Julia/Jorge down the street?

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Are we dreaming of magical bridges? And what is in that jar?

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Thanks for the insights, Alan, as I am reading the book.

    Your doubts about motivation and ability in an open education context echo my own, and I agree that the shift to a new mode requiring the same skill set (curiosity and a desire to learn being primary to both) wouldn’t make the tent any bigger. I am also a strong believer in general education, for very few students know what they need to know. Exposure to new ideas is, I think, basic to a college’s mission.

    What I’m curious about is the idea of scarcity. The author does comment on the fact that more people are getting college degrees than ever before, but in noting that it’s still not enough (in comparison to other countries) skims over the idea of scarcity only briefly.

    I wonder whether scarcity is the point, and not just for getting a good job. The whole idea of DIY undermines the scarcity of those obtaining degrees, because what is a degree but a weeding mechanism? Again, I mean this not just for employers but for society. As the last MA in a department now filled with PhDs, I selfishly proclaim that the value of the degree goes down the more people obtain it. How does DIY handle that?

    Back to your main concern. The new role of the professor would indeed be as a guide in the DIY world, and I already see that happening and am engaging in some of it myself. I predict that, for the reasons you mention, the measurable result will not differ at all from other pedagogies.

    1. “That a bothersome underlying under toe in DIY U- that the purpose of education is to end up in a job. That feels…. lifeless. ” Yes I agree. The whole book is underpinned by that sort of soulless instrumentalism.

  2. Glad to see the question of whether higher ed is indeed necessary for everyone. I believe an additional problem with the philosophy of more education being better for society is that it enables us to avoid improving primary and secondary education. Why bother? Everyone will either go on to get their high school education in college or drop off the face of education after high school.

    I overheard a conversation yesterday in which a person raised in Europe described having to write 2 theses, learn 4 languages, and take 2 years of calculus before graduating from high school. While there are problems with the European system, this example does suggest that it is possible to have high expectations for secondary ed and that it is possible to have the political will and financing to meet those expectations. Put another way, if the primary and secondary ed in the USA is in a world of hurt, why should we expect better from the remedial world of postsecondary ed?

  3. I’ve often been nagged by the same 2 questions you ask here, Alan. The way I’ve blogged it from time to time is, “when we can’t know EVERYthing but we CAN know ANYthing, what will we CHOOSE to know?”

    What is missing from the typical discussion along this theme is that business models are changing as well which may very well lend themselves to the DIY future, if indeed that’s the destiny we face.

    Shirkey’s insightful observations (see regarding collaboration replacing institutional models of business, may result in a more dynamic just-in-time community forming platform (thinking of the original open-source dev community here as Shirkey mentions).

    If this is the case, then documented credentials will not mean as much as portfolio’d collateral demonstrating real-time ability.

    What I like about this possibility (assuming the relationship and reputation economy model can emerge fully), is that people can focus on their passion (amateur vs. professional).

    As for how to help people broaden themselves ‘beyond’ their focused passion to try domains outside their targeted interests; well, that’s a great question. My naive guess is that if people were truly appreciated for their abilities, their self-efficacy (Bandura) might allow them the confidence to branch out into new territory.

    After all, an experienced and confident explorer might could go anywhere, right?

  4. Great insights Alan with key questions raised to make us reflect.

    This week UCF hosted a joint conference in Orlando for campus teams made up of senior executives sponsored by the American Association for State Colleges and Universities and EDUCAUSE.

    Key resources promoting institutional transformation were advocated to stimulate thought. Kamenetz’ DIYU book was distributed to the 12 campus teams towards a hope to re-imagine undergraduate experience especially for publicly funded campuses hard it with the economy. Our conference aims to transform the academy, but your questions strike at the heart of individual intrinsic motivation.

    Personally, I think those that need a 4 year-degree most need two things: belief that they will get the help to succeed when they need it and inspiration from people they can relate to who made it. Social networking can fill this void.

    Don’t look in the malls for much improvement, the motivated will be homebound most likely with children or in new, unfamiliar military duty stations.

    We need DIYU to be more like DIYL (Living) that has learning at every turn. A good question for us perhaps is how are we inspiring?

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