And After The DIY U, We’ll Have The New Wave U, The Grunge U, The Emo U

Anya Kamenetz’s site on her new book DIY U

Jed Lipinski in Salon:

Higher education in this country is in a state of crisis. Nearly nine out of 10 American high school seniors say they want to go to college. Yet almost half of U.S. college students drop out, outstanding student loan debt exceeds $730 billion, and tuition fees rose 248 percent between 1990 and 2008, more than any other major commodity or service.

As Anya Kamenetz suggests in “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education,” these problems, and the fact that students and teachers are increasingly venturing beyond campus walls to gather and share information, spell trouble for the future of the conventional university. In her book, Kamenetz, the author of “Generation Debt” and a staff writer for Fast Company magazine, argues that a decentralized college experience — in which the least effective parts of college life are replaced by technology, social media and self-directed learning — can limit dropout rates and reverse the devastating cost spiral.

Kamenetz doesn’t advocate leaving the university behind, but she envisions a future where the 80 percent of American college students who attend non-selective schools (mainstream public universities and community colleges) create their own personalized course of study. Some American universities are already making classes available for free online, and using blogs, YouTube, Facebook and, yes, Twitter, to move toward this new model for higher education.

Lisa Gillespie at Campus Progress:

But even after Kamenentz’s case against the traditional four-year grind, I still tend to believe that that perception—for good or bad—is deeply ingrained. When I was looking for jobs, most listings required a bachelor’s degree. When I go to networking happy hours, the inquiry following my name is always, “Where did you go to school?”

Kamenetz calls this universal belief in the power of higher education a “world religion.” A four-year degree is seen as “a pathway out of poverty.” I am a believer in the power of higher education and my life thus far is a testament to it. But Kamenetz has rocked that perception with her analysis of the way colleges play games with the cost of tuition and how technology has great potential to overhaul the system of higher education, just as it has done with media.

Kamenetz starts with a history of higher education, kicking my “liberal arts” education in the teeth with the fact that name for a “liberal” arts education comes from what they called the education necessary for free men—as opposed to slaves. Colleges were originally mostly private and did not receive federal funds; they struggled for students and taught theology, geometry, ethics, grammar, and hunting. Then, in the 1860s, states established agricultural and mechanical schools, which revolutionized the way the public perceived colleges. After this change, colleges were seen as hands-on institutions that taught practical skills. By the early 1900s, college became a way to achieve social status. That fact is still largely true today. Education trumps race; if you go to college, there is the potential to move up in class even if you have no money and come from little of it.

According to Kamenetz, universities no longer offer the pathway out of poverty that was once (and still is) so widely believed. This is where Do It Yourself (DIY) education and Edupunks come into play. Kamenetz proposes that in the future, higher education institutions will no longer be as powerful as they are now, and the bundle of services they deliver (socialization, hands-on learning, theoretical learning, networking, and a diploma) will become separate entities.

The open education movement is one of free and low-cost open course ware that is delivered to the student mainly through a computer screen. “The sites iTunes U and are two places where free audio and video from dozens of top-tier universities, museums, archives, and cultural institutions can be found.” The University of Southern California (USC) has completely online courses that uses 2Tor, which uses several applications to mimic office hours, widgets, assignments, and the classroom.

But the open education movement, as innovative as it is, doesn’t cut costs. And the skyrocketing cost of higher education is one of the most compelling parts of Kamenetz’s argument. She discusses “cost shifting” in universities, or when a university system raises tuition because state funds are down instead of cutting costs, as most business’ would do. But the cost doesn’t lower when funds are flush either; when federal student aid increases, universities see it as an opportunity to expand programs, hire more faculty, and be less dependant on state funding.

Dean Dad at Inside Higher Ed:

Kamenetz’ framework rests on a mostly unacknowledged, but remarkably deep, set of privileges. If you had a strong high school background, and you have money and leisure, and you have social connections to smart people who are willing to spend time with you, and you can afford all kinds of technology, then you may be able to do something with this. (Astute readers will recognize the young Bill Gates and the young Steve Jobs in those descriptions.) But if we’re honest, we have to recognize that most of the people who download TED talks don’t do it as an alternative to college; they’ve already been to college. If you have a well-developed set of skills, you can avail yourself of all kinds of things. But in the absence of those skills, it’s just information. And those skills come from somewhere.

If you’re serious about education for the non-elite, you need institutions. The institutions need to be accountable, and open to creativity, and efficient, and changed in a host of ways that I spend most of my waking hours obsessing over and probably more that I’ve never even thought of. But you need them. Every serious social movement of the past two centuries has understood this. The internet has changed a lot of things, but it hasn’t changed that. The rich kids may experience unbundling as liberation, and to some degree, it can be. But for the vast majority, the issue isn’t that their individuality is being squelched by The Man and his distribution requirements. It’s that without effective educational institutions from preschool on up, they will never get the chance to develop their skills in the first place.

Mike Konczal at Ezra Klein’s place:

In 1968 Garrett Hardin argued that with a commons, “a pasture open to all,” overuse would inevitably occur. Inefficiency would reign, since this overuse (or, in some cases, underuse) would continue unless propertizing rights were introduced.

There are two problems with this right out the door. One is that it quickly invokes a game theoretical vision of community, the RAND-sponsored midcentury cyborg science that comes with all the associated paranoia and myopically paranoid self-interest. There’s been a large body of research on how the commons can in fact govern itself efficiently through the use of, among other things, social norms, and this body of research scored a major win with Elinor Ostrom, author of “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action,” winning the Economic Nobel Prize last year.

The other problem is that it assumes the commons is available to all. Is it? Can women use the pasture for their self-gain? Can the poor, who may not own animals, use the pasture? And if an overuse occurs, and there is a food shortage, do people suffer the consequences equally? When taught to students, the tragedy of the commons often looks like a prisoner’s dilemma, a two-dimensional space where you are a, implicitly but never stated, privileged and full member of the community and everyone who is not you but similar each takes an axis. To reflect these distributional concerns, you’d need to both create a dimensional space for each group, and assume the payoffs of each action and each other’s actions. It’s easier to collapse the space
down to the simplest dimension, but you lose the ability to conceptualize these issues. And without the conceptualized math, you also lose them entirely.

Two things happened in the late 1990s that are relevant here. One is that the “shock” privatization of Russia was a complete disaster (see, for example, Black, Kraakman, Tarassova: “Russian Privatization and Corporate Governance: What Went Wrong?”), shaking the neoliberal belief in the idea that it doesn’t matter who owns something as long as someone has the property rights over it with certainty.

The second was the growth of what we’ll call zero-marginal cost production, or the creation of digital artifacts. When something exists on the Internet it has two special features. You “using” it doesn’t prevent anyone else from using it. You can read this blog post in your city and it doesn’t stop someone else from reading it in their city, as opposed to if it were a single book. Also it is virtually costless to reproduce: You can e-mail this article, or Facebook it, or tweet it (do it! do it!) and it is virtually free. If you wanted to print another book, that would cost some money. Controversially, the cost of such a good should be zero, as it is always free to produce another one (see Timothy Lee here).

Notice that this immediately destroys our biggest concerns with the commons problem mentioned above. Go ahead and overuse! You won’t destroy the field. Provided that electricity is well priced to environmental degradation (ahem carbon pricing) there’s no commons problem. The first problem of the commons mentioned above is gone. (Outside the scope of this blog post, but it isn’t of course; the commons are privately owned and stored on servers that cost money, and when this veil is pulled it can cause anxiety about, say, privacy.)

But what about the second issue, the one about distribution? In the debate over this, there is often concern about the supply issue; if a good is free, how can you ever pay the cost of labor and capital to produce it? Hence the concern about DRM, copyright, etc. I’m more interested in the demand side: If an object is free to reproduce, then everyone can have it. To use a very loaded phrasing, it can be distributed to each according to his or her need. The idea that, like virtual fishes and loaves, there will always be enough should radically alter the terms on which we think of distributional justice. The commons is real, and there is plenty for everyone.


So even though it is in the commons, only certain people have the ability to actually use it. The third world’s genomic resources can be accessed by all as if this was a commons, but “all” in practice refers to large U.S. corporations. This may still be a desirable state of affairs, it may not be, but the distributional issues of who can actually access the commons gets lost in the shuffle.

I thought of this while reading Anya Kamenetz’s “DIY U,” an interesting and worthwhile book (and Web presence). It’s a book about how the Internet, or the free-to-reproduce public domain, can revolutionize education.


Is education simply a matter of hitting “cntrl-c” and “cntrl-v”, and absorbing that information through a non-space of the Internet? Or do the institutions that transmit and reproduce this information play a pivotal role? Will a self-directed educational goal primarily benefit those with stable homes and the time and capital to cultivate this? Is “DIY U” accessible according to need? This is the framework I think of as I read and explore this work.

Reihan Salam:

Our oxygen-rich atmosphere is a commons, yet Armstrong is better placed to exploit it than yours truly. Here I’m being a cranky libertarian. Clearly the better comparison is the way the rules surrounding cycle-racing are structured, and the resources devoted to training and equipping young cyclists. But the fact that different resource endowments, skills, and proclivities are distributed unequally across populations and institutions doesn’t strike me as shocking news, and it doesn’t strike me as reason to empower regulatory elites — particularly regulatory elites that are vulnerable to capture. In the realm of culture, we see this in endless copyright extensions that entrench the power of media incumbents, hence the reforming agenda of the free culture movement.

My sense is that Mike is drawing on cutting-edge theory to tell a very familiar story. Call it the producer’s lament. Basically, traditional producers — of handicrafts, of pop albums, of community college education — grow accustomed to making a product in a particular way. When cheaper alternatives threaten to put them out of business, we hear a wide array of arguments, many of them conflicting and contradictory (but hey, whatever works!), about why the new mode of production is profoundly dangerous or unjust. Clay Shirky has vividly described how this discourse has played out in the book-selling and publishing industries, as has the always excellent Tim Lee, and, in a roundabout way, Mike is making the case for the community college deans who see that their noble but profoundly problematic business model is threatened. (Mike, I’m guessing, would have been there with Gandhi in defending handlooms in 1930s India, and that is part of why he’s great.)

Ed at Gin and Tacos:

When I first read DIY U, with its “Are you shitting me? Jesus, you’re serious, aren’t you?” subtitle Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, I knew nothing of author Anya Kamenetz but I was willing to put my life savings on her being affiliated with either Cato or Fast Company. Sure enough she turned out to be a Fast Company Imagineer or whatever they call their practitioners of this brand of sycophantic free market leg humping:

The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore.

That is an actual quote. Is it not self-evident that once we are all learning from “open-source content” (like Wikipedia!) the educational experience will be improved? This kind of bluster is par for the course for the magazine that spent the nineties promising us that the unregulated market would bring us to economic nirvana. Life was going to be one long technogasm laden with “innovation” and unfettered prosperity for all; we would all be wealthy once The Internets let every Tom, Dick, and Harry buy mutual funds. But I digress.

Being at the bottom of the academic hierarchy offers me unfair perspective on the changes that are sweeping higher education, and the reader will of course note that I bring some bitterness to the conversation given that most of these democratizations involve me getting paid $1000 per course for 16 weeks of work without benefits or any commitment beyond semester-to-semester temp labor. Would that this transition in academia from stable, albeit not particularly highly paid, tenured employment to the just-in-time Labor Ready model that is replacing real faculty with adjuncts/part timers be forced upon us without the patronizing mantra about how this is all for the good of the students.

Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. When the author of DIY U describes a model of students “cobbling” together a self-guided degree consisting of “course materials readily available online,” I cannot convince myself that the Yale-educated author believes that even as she is paid handsomely to type it. Perhaps 1/10 of a percent of undergraduates are mature and motivated enough to effectively direct their own course of study. What Kamenetz describes feels more like replacing the 12-course tasting menu at El Bulli with a trip to Old Country Buffet and calling it a wash. The idea that anything meeting her description would qualify as an education is prima facie ridiculous and requires no further discussion.

The real benefit, though, is that it will let more people go to college because everything will be cheaper. The adjuncting wave of the early 1990s was supposed to make education cheaper. It didn’t. Now online courses are supposed to be making education cheaper (price being conflated with accessibility in this line of argument). Despite spreading like wildfire in the last decade – from dedicated online schools like University of Phoenix to the best (and worst) brick-and-mortar schools – the price of higher education only increases. So who benefits from replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts if not the students? If students aren’t getting cheaper or better education from online courses, why are colleges so eager to establish them?

The answer, as anyone on this side of the looking glass knows, is that it’s cheaper – for the university. Adjuncts are cheap, desperate temp labor who don’t complain. Online courses have essentially no overhead and are taught in the vast majority of cases by – you guessed it – adjuncts or graduate students who, if they finish the long trek toward a Ph.D., can look forward to taking a paycut to hop on the adjunct treadmill. These changes are not in the interest of students. Nobody sincerely believes that. They do not make education cheaper or better because that is not their intent. The goal is simply to make education more profitable. Universities like that. State legislatures (when the schools in question are public) like it even more.

Online education or the kind of choose-your-own-adventure college experience described in this book has a place. This role has been filled historically by community colleges, the primary clientele of which has always been adults who need work-related training. If, as a result of creeping credentialism, some low-level county government bureaucrat or State Trooper needs a 3-credit course in such-and-such to qualify for the next step up on the pay scale, then online classes are clearly a good option. They make sense because no one cares what is or is not learned in this instance. Passing the course is merely a means to a very specific end in the career path.


Still, what Kamenetz is flagrantly not describing is the thing which did so much to make economic mobility a possibility (and which is now almost gone), the post-war project on the part of American liberals to bring higher education into reach of whoever was academically eligible for it. This has been a desperately unfinished project, to be sure, but it’s one whose outlines are still clear many years later, and it’s the thing we’re missing right now.

Take California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, drafted in 1960 to provide a coherent blueprint for building what has since become this country’s flagship public institution. As the Public Policy Institute for California put it in an illuminating study, the architects of the Master Plan had clear goals for expanding California’s college educated work force:

When the Master Plan was established in 1960, only 11 percent of working-age adults in California had a college degree. The Master Plan’s goals of access, affordability, and quality allowed for the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates to be admitted to a University of California campus and the top 33.3 percent of high school graduates to be admitted to a California State University campus. The Master Plan thereby both anticipated and provided for a large increase in college enrollment and the awarding of college degrees in California. It was understood that the state needed to provide funding to realize the enrollment increases, and until the past decade or two, the state was, for the most part, willing and able to do so.

I emphasize that last sentence because it really is the crucial point here; the people who wrote the Master Plan simply took it for granted that educating the state’s citizens was the cost of being a first world nation, and they were willing to pay the cost to do so. They took the long view on their investment in California’s students, a long view that has been pretty well born out: a state filled with well educated workers will benefit at a broad social level as those educated workers go into the economy and create value. That’s not really controversial.

Where liberals in the 1960’s part company with today’s neoliberal consensus, however, is the belief that government should pay for these things when students cannot. In the 1960’s, as the Legislative Analysts Office puts it, the Master Plan called

“for student fees to cover the operating costs of noninstructional services (such as laboratories, student activities, and athletics). Financial aid would be made available for students who could not afford these costs, and for all California residents direct instructional costs (such as faculty salaries) would be paid by the state. Ancillary services (such as parking and dormitories) would be self–supporting.”

In plain English, the upshot was that while student paid enough in fees to cover “noninstructional services,” the state was on the hook for things like, you know, teaching, since it’s manifestly the case that not all students can afford such things. This was deemed to be a good investment, and it has been.

Today, on the other hand, the model pretty clearly understands students as subsidized customers, and as the subsidies drop, the product moves out of reach. Instead of simply paying for “non-instructional services,” students are expected to make up, out of their own pocket, whatever shortfall there is between the University’s budget and the state’s funding. Instead of an investment in the future, in other words, students have now become the customers. And instead of committing to provide an education to everyone who is academically eligible, “public” universities are becoming public in name only, behaving more and more like publicly subsidized corporations. But this changes the entire fiscal structure — and decision making logic — of a university like the UC; instead of educating citizens for the public good, universities make decisions based on where the money is to be found.

And so we have online classes, a development which only an administrator — or a student who wants the accreditation and doesn’t care about the education — could love. And which is why, by the way, you see schools like the UC taking the lead on online education; universities with endowments and economic stability aren’t so desperately insolvent that they’ll jump into the pool before they know whether there’s any water. And because the UC is not only at the mercy of Sacramento but is actually run by the governor’s appointees, they’re going to be the quickest to strip mine what’s left in the system, to “do more with less” by finding ways to make people keep paying for inferior product. But at most, the expansion of online education will simply allow an upper crust public university like the UC to stem some of the bleeding; not only is the scale of the savings to be had much too small to make up the budget shortfalls from the state — which will continue to be made up by rising fees — normalizing online education will do less than nothing for the next tier down. An online course from Berkeley or UCLA, after all, at least has the name; an online course from Marshall University does not, and will just lose local students to the more prestigious schools.

More Konczal:

A few things about the book “DIY U,” which is worth your time, as is Kamenetz’s previous book, “Generation Debt.” (I wonder if those who wrote about the “It-Sucks-To-Be-Me” generation realize how wrong they got it when they look at the unemployment statistics among people in their 20s, heavy in debt, during this financial crisis and the jobless recovery coupled with long lasting impact on wages.) This book is coming at the beginning of a longer dialogue about college education and the United States that I’ll continue to develop at my blog.

— There’s a tension with what DIY U is supposed to accomplish in the book. In one part it is supposed to revolutionize community colleges as well as create community college-like learning vehicles online. The other is to deflate the prestige of private, non-competitive colleges, in order to encourage kids away from taking on the debt necessary to attend these places as well as finding better uses of how to educate themselves.

— A lot is predicated on whether or not online classes and collaborative learning can replace a college experience. Or will it turn college into a form of community college? Ed: “Online education or the kind of choose-your-own-adventure college experience described in this book has a place. This role has been filled historically by community colleges, the primary clientele of which has always been adults who need work-related training.” I could see a revolution in terms of this, but would it substitute in for the experience of college as we know it?

— That the DIY U revolution should remove a prestige bubble from private competitive institutions, that the value of a Harvard or a Yale should be reduced if one can attend it virtually online, isn’t approached in the book. I find that interesting.

— The notion of what to do with public colleges is a bit up in the air. Kamenetz quotes Kevin Carey as pointing out that the driver of the increase in college tuition is the increase in public colleges. The book at times seems to call for a return to a Master Plan-style approach, but instead is hoping technology will be able to step into the gap that is pointed out above between state funding and people’s tuition.

— On this, I think there is less conflict than Kamenetz points out. I think you will see state governments embrace online education. But I don’t see them passing on any of those savings on to the students, in the same way that the savings on replacing teachers with adjuncts was captured entirely by the university. A university now envisions itself as a profit-maximizing firm instead of a “public option” of college education. And given that education is our society’s only chosen form of social mobility, if only middle-class people can afford college, then only middle-class people are eligible for the benefits of the 21st-century economy.

In fact, online education could fit right into the transition to the hybrid university where it’s public in name (and subsidies) but private in terms of tuition. This hybrid university paper was written by Mark Yudof before he became president of the University of California, and there’s some debate about whether or not this is part of his vision. See zunguzungu for more on Yudof and changing the U-Cal. system.

I think this will likely be the future. But will it be a good one?

More Salam:

I think we’d all profit from more exposure to Clayton Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation. Tim Lee ably summarizes his work here. Basically, we have a large “non-consuming” population, people who are shut out of the existing higher education sector. MP3s were inferior to CDs, but they were also cheaper. And so they served the needs of the non-consuming population. Some of us, including Mike, I think, care about the non-consuming population. Products designed for non-consumers sometimes get better and cheaper faster than the dominant existing product.

Mike says he can see a revolution in terms of adults who need work-related training, as though this is some kind of afterthought. But this is the heart of the education problem in a country going through an enormous economic transition, and in which rates of functional illiteracy and innumeracy remain troublingly high. I know we all love adjunct professors. But you’ll forgive me for worrying more about the prospects of the long-term unemployed, and wondering if a full-time stint at Dean Dad’s community college is exactly what they need.

– That the DIY U revolution should remove a prestige bubble from private competitive institutions, that the value of a Harvard or a Yale should be reduced if one can attend it virtually online, isn’t approached in the book. I find that interesting.

Well, I’m pretty sure that Anya would love to see that happen. She’s spent several years criss-crossing community colleges, talking to students about debt and their anxieties about the future. So it could be that she was more exercised by the challenges they face than launching a Kulturkampf against an Ivy League she sees as less and less relevant with each passing year. I’m saddened by the thought that Anya’s book would have won more favorable attention from this crowd if only she had included more Princeton-bashing.


1 Comment

Filed under Books, Education

One response to “And After The DIY U, We’ll Have The New Wave U, The Grunge U, The Emo U

  1. This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last week.
    I have been coming to this blog for a couple of days now and i’m very impressed with the content!

    thanks & regards
    avid – online university

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