As a Mr. X put it rather rudely this morning:

[UPDATED: On August 9, several months after writing this email, Mr. X wrote to me and asked me to remove his name from this blog post. I am fully within my legal and moral rights not to, but I decided to comply because I was really happy with the way this blog post turned out].

From <>
date Thu, Apr 29, 2010 at 12:46 AM
subject Sophistry and Hypocrisy

I find it rather ironic that you (to the best of my knowledge) have failed to use the word sophistry in the free eight pages of text that I was able to read of your DIY U. Now I have to ask whether you believe knowledge should be free. If you say yes, then you must also make a case for why you are not a hypocrite. If you say no, you must also make a case for why you are not a hypocrite. If you choose not to respond I’ll be even more disappointed. If I chose to copy your book and put it online in PDF format and you sued me for copyright infringement when I freely distribute your text for anyone to read then I would see you as the god mother of sophist hypocrites.

I suppose you might read all of this as threatening and insulting, but that is not my intent. I’m only trying to determine which side you are on. Send me a copy of your book and I’ll read it front to back. Save a tree send it PDF. If it has merit, I’ll recommend it to anyone I know who will read it. If they want to pay for it then good for them and you. But I have a feeling I already learned about what you are saying from Socrates.
I wish you well if you are spreading good knowledge and people want to pay you for that. I wish you hell if you are just another sophist.
Maybe I am completely wrong. Please help me understand.

Mr. Shennen L. Dean


Others have asked the same question somewhat more politely. I will try to answer as simply as I can.

I am a human being, and I believe that human beings ought to be paid for their work.

I am a content creator, and I believe that content creators ought to be paid for their work.

I am a professional writer and journalist, not an academic or a performer, and it’s important to me therefore that I be paid specifically for my writing and reporting, not just for lecturing or other services, and by my readers, not just by other organizations.

1) That’s the most honest way for me to get paid. When I write for publications that rely on advertising revenue, the advertisers have a whisper of influence over the focus of what I write, no matter how much we like to pretend that they don’t. Even if it’s just in the sense that Fast Company is “a business magazine” and therefore my articles have to have something to do with business.

When I subsidize my writing with speaking engagements, I am taking time away from writing and I am collecting revenue directly from organizations that have particular agendas, such as corporations and universities.

2) Looking at it from the categorical imperative: If people like me can’t get paid directly by readers for writing, reporting and research that they conduct independently, then the world will have less of that kind of work, which I believe has value.

Does this stand conflict with the ideas I put forth in DIY U? I don’t think so. I support all content creators getting paid for their work. I think that the cost of educational content should drop to reflect the true cost of digital distribution (so I favor models like Flat World Knowledge). I also think educational content is somewhat different from what I do: it’s created explicitly as a public good using public funding, so it should be released as a public good once the creator has been amply rewarded for her time. Gifting one’s intellectual fruits to the masses is an act of noblesse oblige for those who enjoy the support, protection, and status of the academy (such as it is in these days). That said, I don’t want to be greedy! If and when I sell enough copies that Chelsea Green makes back the princely sum they advanced me, I would consider releasing it for free download once I regain the rights.

In conclusion, please buy my book! Or if Dean or someone else pirates it and puts it up on the web, or if you like the multiple excerpts you’ve read online on Scribd and elsewhere, you can always Paypal me a couple bucks directly.

\"Ed Tech Live with Steve Hargadon\"

I’m posting an excerpt from the chat log too so you can get a sense of the awesome people and conversation that ensued.

22:02 – Larry
When we know what we can do or learn, more of us will start learning on our own – the issue isn’t learning – its making what we learn into a certificate or degree or somethings useful that proves we know what we say we know that is useful in the world to others
22:16 – jackiegerstein
Colleges will be more specialized – students will go shopping for courses-contents, a “learning module: another there to create their own education and plan
22:47 – TranqJones
technology and information has become so accessible… we’re changing from a didactic-skewed education model to an experiential model

I had a conversation with a well-informed friend in DC who urged me to sound a bit more skeptical note in my comments on the growth of for-profit colleges.

The case for for-profits is as follows: They concentrate on students who are nontraditional (aka the new normal: working adults) and underserved by traditional colleges. They offer them help filling out the FAFSA forms, more convenience and better customer service. They aggressively pursue growth in enrollment–growing at an estimated rate of 5% to 10% a year or five times to 10 times faster than the overall market. That type of growth is needed to fulfill people’s demand, not to mention our national goals of a more credentialed population. And to the extent that the sector is truly market-driven, they have the potential to be more innovative and efficient than public or nonprofit colleges have proven to be (although a Twitter friend pointed out that the majority of online students are still enrolled public and nonprofit colleges, forprofits certainly have a disproportionate share of the online market at 42% vs 9% of all students). Some for-profits have good fit with some DIY U ideas: open enrollment, unbundling of services, judging their programs on quality of results rather than prestige, and tying degrees more closely to workforce needs. In my book I relate these ideas back to John Holt’s Instead of Education, where he praises the Berlitz language school, among others, as a “schools for do-ers”.

The case against for-profits is that they are not so much “serving” the underserved as they are targeting or exploiting them. Although students take out loans similar to those at private colleges, the quality of education is really in many cases more like community colleges. Although enrollment rates are high and growing, graduation rates are very low. And students who attend these colleges are twice as likely to default on their loans. A recent paper by Mark Kantrowitz found that 60% of the discrepancy in default rates was due to the demographics of their students, which leaves 40% that the for-profits still have to answer for.

My friend argued forcefully that this situation is highly reminiscent of the mortgage crisis: that these colleges are peddling yet another false promise of the American Dream, in this case, the college diploma part of the dream, not the homeownership part, to those who are truly not qualified to take advantage of it. That their graduates and especially their non-graduates will have a very hard time pulling in salaries commensurate with their debt. Yet unlike the hapless homeowners, they can’t go into foreclosure or walk away from their debt under any circumstances, and so they’ll be stuck all their lives.

Points very well taken, and I’ll try to be more balanced in the future. I may have been guilty in the past of bending over backwards to be fair to the sector, perhaps out of my own contrarian streak.
I just want to add a couple of observations:
One is that for-profits, even more than other colleges, essentially operate as federal contractors, because their revenue comes from tuition which comes mostly from federally subsidized student loans and Pell Grants. That means if we’re concerned about quality in the sector, federal regulations are the way to go.

The second is that the same kind of policies that would improve the performance of for-profits would improve the performance of all colleges, but they freak traditional higher ed out. Things like administering tests to see what students are actually learning, or imposing real accountability for terrible graduation and default rates.

And finally (and perhaps sounding a more conciliatory note) the historical tendency in higher education has been for successful institutions’ goals and aspirations and standards all to drift upwards. Some may see it as naive if I celebrate the fact that Grand Canyon University has community service extracurriculars and liberal arts classes, but I see it as part of a necessary trend if we’re going to get to a higher education future that serves everybody.

watch it here:

I talk about Generation Debt and DIY U.

CSPAN has an amazing video library. I also looked up my appearance from 2006 for Generation Debt, where you can see that I am, embarrasingly, wearing the same blazer, and Pedro still mispronounced my name.

But it’s really an amazing show, with some really loyal viewers.

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Probably the most common question I get about the future of higher ed. In the words of Ezra Klein:

“So in Kamenetz’s world — a world that I agree would be far better for pure learning — what steps into the role played by accreditation, both the one you get from the college you went to and the one you get from the relative selectiveness of that college against other colleges?”

This question assumes that the system of accreditation we have works well today, for the majority of people.
Actually, accreditation today works well for people like Ezra and myself who managed to get into and graduate from selective schools. This is by definition a small minority of people since “selective” means “lets in a small minority.”

It works less well for people who graduate from less selective schools.

It works extremely poorly for people who do not get degrees–often because they are poor and have to work more hours while they’re in, or instead of going, to school. They are cut out of a good percentage of decent-paying jobs. In fact, even in progressive circles there isn’t much public conversation about improving the quality of non-college jobs because the human capital policy we have assumes–”oh we’ll send more people to college so they can qualify for good jobs.”

This third group is a majority of Americans–just over 60 percent have less than an associate’s degree.

So, “accreditation” today aka the BA imperative, does not work well for most people.

I am going to argue that as long as the value of your degree is correlated with the selectivity of the college you went to, we’re probably forcing out a lot of very talented people (Harvard could fill its undergraduate class with valedictorians ten times over–sucks for all those kids who don’t make it!). As long as your success in college is correlated with how much money your family makes, even if you are just as smart and just as well prepared, for the simple reasons that you have to work more hours in school and that the cheaper colleges you attend have fewer resources to help you, our accreditation system works against social mobility.

I’m going to also argue that what we really want, to promote maximum prosperity for the maximum number of people, is for everyone to be able to find jobs suited to their talents. “Bad fit” leads to comparatively lower earnings and less job satisfaction. This is just as true by the way for the double-Ivy-League degree lawyer who’d rather be building boats in Key West, as it is for the waitress with a keen analytical mind who should be working for Accenture.

Still, accreditation remains a huge unresolved question.
One answer I look at in DIY U involves building reputation-based online networks where people can create portfolios and be judged on their actual work and accomplishments, not by the names on their diplomas. The Internet generally makes it easier to hire based on demonstrated skills, not how you look on paper.

Another answer involves judging colleges differently, for instance by their graduates’ improvement in learning or by starting salaries of graduates, rather than by how selective they are. Judge by outputs, not inputs.

Yet another answer is simply to create new forms of accreditation. Excelsior College for example is a pioneer in assessing and awarding credit for independent learning.

Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Andrew!

I talk about how higher ed is like both the mortgage bubble and the health care crisis.

I was so excited to open the Education Life section and see a whole article about free and open courseware, including reviews of individual courses and online, a sampler of popular lectures from MIT, Berkeley, and Yale.

The piece covers the news that broke at the Hewlett OER conference at Yale where I spoke last week. Hewlett has been instrumental in funding the open courseware movement to date. Now they are tightening their purse strings and also tightening their focus. They want to fund projects that focus on “deeper learning”, that improve teaching and learning practices, that track who participates and how they benefit, and that create “proof points” that can be taken to Washington, DC and to state legislatures and used to inform bigger policy programs.

Ultimately the vision is for publicly funded, evidence based education that is far more affordable and accessible than we see today.

The parallel movement of course as I talk about in the book is for self-learners and, even more exciting, self-organizing communities of learners to be able to take advantage of these resources to educate themselves, for free, outside the auspices of institutions.

Originally wrote this on spec for the Times but they 86′d it so I put it up on the Huffington Post.

“Opportunity to create a commercial webisode series for New York City’s most renowned Sports store.”
“[Assist] a Brooklyn-based visual artist/art director/blogger/tastemaker with several upcoming projects.”
“MODELING AGENCY –You will be required to do hands on work with assisting models and staff with the company.”
“Exciting lingerie company…responsibilities include: preparing packages, swatching, various paperwork, organizing design room & samples.”

What do these New York City jobs found recently on Craigslist have in common? All are for unpaid summer internships. And all are quite probably illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

On April 29 at 9 pm, I’m doing a call with the members of the Evolver Social Movement (a very cool website/network you should definitely check out.

They’ve also posted an edited and recustomized excerpt of DIY U on their site, Reality Sandwich:

The whole project of formal education has been historically based on the idea of society transmitting its ideas, values, and technologies from one generation to the next, and from dominant civilizations and cultures to “backwards” or “primitive” ones. In the modern era we added the task of making and incorporating new discoveries into the curriculum year after year. As our society got more complex, we developed bigger and bigger institutions to teach more and more people more and more things.