“Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, “How well he spoke,” but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, “Let us march.” Adlai Stevenson, introducing John F. Kennedy in 1960, as quoted in Adlai Stevenson and The World: The Life of Adlai E. Stevenson‎ (1977) by John Bartlow Martin, p. 549

I’m at a personal crossroads that has gotten me out of bed at 3 in the morning.
From the time that DIY U debuted at South by Southwest Interactive in March, and I went to lunch with Aaron Marshall, Sands Fish and Glenn Platt , people have been saying to me, essentially: nice book. What are you going to do about it?

But I didn’t set out to reinvent higher education, I’ve protested. I’m a journalist. I want to sit next to the guys who are reinventing higher education, and study them.

Now, there are people who don’t really respect or understand the role of the Fourth Estate, compromised as it may be these days. “Groom and I are just as much writers and journalists as she is,” said Stephen Downes about DIY U. Well, yes, you’re a writer in the sense that you communicate via the written word, but no, you’re not a journalist. You write a newsletter and a blog about a field in which you yourself are employed. It’s entirely partisan and entirely for insiders–you have no obligation to ever speak to anyone who disagrees with your basic premises, nor to make your writing intelligible or interesting to anyone outside that inside circle. More of a journaler than a journalist. Likewise, I made fun of Alan Levine on Twitter for taking issue with the fact that I physically described people in the book.

But that’s neither here nor there. On the whole the edupunks have been unbelievably generous with me, even if their take on the book (Cf Scott Leslie’s recent nice post ) can be summed up as, “Ok job. But you didn’t pay enough attention to edupunk!”

The point I’m trying to make is that even when people scoff, I’m proud of being a journalist, a social critic, even, in my most pretentious moments, a public intellectual. I think it’s a noble aspiration and a necessary role in society. And I’m in a pretty unique spot for making my living without a university appointment and without any commercial affiliations. And it’s a fine living. I don’t need any more money.

The issue that faces me now is this. I have a couple of offers on the table from “merchants” with plans to reinvent higher education through for-profit startups. Both of them have aspects to their projects that I find interesting, even groundbreaking. I also have some more nebulous offers, or really, requests for help, from an artisan and a couple of monks who are doing extremely cool things, and if I were spending 100% of my time on DIY U-related stuff I would have time to help them out.

What all these are pointing me toward would be a shift in my role from describing what’s going on to backing particular horses. I don’t know if I could write for the magazine anymore–certainly not about education. I could still write books, but I could no longer consider myself a journalist.

And that’s what’s keeping me up this late.

UPDATE: I can’t thank the commenters enough. Y’all have given me some really valuable feedback and not snarked on me, which would be easy to do. I am going to continue to think and pray about this over the holiday weekend but I really am leaning towards staying on this side of the line for now.

Jon Kolko at Austin Center for Design has a great piece up responding to a piece by Dennis Littky
on how pedagogy has, and hasn’t changed with technology and new understanding of how people learn. Kolko relates this to fundamental design principles that he tries to enact in his new experimental school, the Austin Center for Design.
“Of the low-income students who don’t drop out of high school and graduate with good enough grades to actually go to college, only 11 percent will make it through the process…We’ve blamed the media, the parents, and the kids themselves. Perhaps it’s time to start blaming the design of the education process—the design of the institution of education itself.

“Designers use synthesis to quickly learn new things and integrate new perspectives with their existing worldview. They are, to some degree, experts in learning, and the critical ingredients seem to translate to a strong pedagogy of education. These ingredients include primary and generative research, active participation, critique and coaching, and the ability to take risks (and potentially be wrong) without negative consequences.”

Kolko sees an incipient revolution. I do too. What excites me most as a top level trend is the phenomenon of great minds from different domains–design, technology, entrepreneurship–being drawn to the reinvention of education as a cool challenge to take on.


A really nice lady showed up at my reading at Magers & Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis last night (well, everybody was really nice, it was Minnesota) and spoke about a new approach to using technology to bridge the gap to postsecondary education for bottom of the pyramid populations. Learner Web started in Portland and is being implemented in regions around the country. It consists of a software environment with a set of “Learning Plans” based on open educational resources organized around specific goals, from GEDs to adult literacy to college readiness to becoming a citizen. The online resources, which are free, are designed to be integrated with existing local education programs and promoted by community based organizations. Best of all, anyone can sign up as a “telephone helper”–a virtual volunteer tutor who works from your home or anywhere with a phone and Internet connection to help people get through the learning plans.

I’d be willing to bet that there are far more people who have time to be tutors in this fashion than have time to meet with people every week. That means more community resources devoted to the least resourced learners in the community. While Dean Dad and others have raised kinda spurious objections as to whether the “DIY U” future is really helpful to people who are not already elite students, Learner Web proves them wrong.

Let’s talk about irony for a second. DIY U is getting attacked–from the left–because my analysis is TOO rooted in economics.

“It’s not enough to bring its cost back in line with what a student can reasonably afford. That is not the vision of education reform I hoped for in DIY U.” writes Ottonomy in a very thoughtful review. And Jim Groom, in an obviously and sincerely anguished post, is worried that focusing on reducing costs means reducing higher education in general, and specifically, gutting public higher education, and even more specifically, further casualizing academic labor (I could accuse that of being an ultimately self-serving point but as a print journalist I know what it’s like to fear losing your job to technological change).

“I’m afraid the rhetoric behind privatizing education, i.e., efficiency, reduced costs, and curricular freedom, will ultimately accelerate the decline of higher ed into a series of feeding lots for the private sector job market—-which is the worst possible scenario in my mind.” 

Here’s some ideas I want to establish and maybe we can go from here.

#1 To bring college tuition back in line with what students can reasonably afford is absolutely a bleeding-heart liberal, left-wing, public good. Period. It’s about expanding opportunity. It also is a surprisingly revolutionary goal. I believe it requires transforming all of higher education AND ending the university’s monopoly on learning, knowledge, and expertise.

#2 I don’t believe public college tuition in the United States is ever going to come down through massively increased public subsidies from states or the federal government. I wouldn’t be against that happening, I just don’t see any scenario where that is realistic. Also, I and many others have observed that higher education, like health care, as currently organized, absorbs ever-greater amounts of resources and goes back for more. That’s an internal dynamic of the institution that needs to be changed.

#3 If public subsidies aren’t going to significantly, proportionately increase, then the only way to make higher education more affordable is to change what you do with the public money you do have. That’s leaving aside the question of what “higher education” really is–whether college is or should be job training or liberal arts or anything in between. The only way to make higher education available to more people is to lower the cost of delivery.

#4 Technology can be used to raise quality and cut costs in public higher education. I’m sorry, but it can. That’s what NCAT has been proving for over 10 years. That’s what every other industry in society has proven.

So. Cost cutting has historically happened in public institutions through an adversarial dynamic of unilateral budget cuts that colleges respond to by shafting the newest faculty members. What if faculty members at public institutions, the ones who really care about students and who really care about the higher liberal arts/ non-vocational values of education, put the adversarial dynamic aside, and actually stepped up and got involved in the conversation about how they think resources would be best deployed? As in, “Our department is going to cut 25% from its budget this year by redesigning our courses along NCAT lines, put 5% back into salaries, 5% into a new skunkworks open education blogging project, and pass 10% back to the university.”

And here’s the stick part of what I’m describing. If we (note the “we”) who care about the impossible-to-quantify, soft-skills, liberal-arts, bleeding-heart, Plato-and-Aristotle soul of higher education, if WE don’t get intimately concerned about the dirty cost-and-efficiency-and-productivity stuff, then the future of higher education belongs to the privatizers and to the for-profits.

The fear that all of higher ed turns into “job training” is ultimately a red herring, because the most desirable and highly compensated jobs in an increasingly complex knowledge economy continue to depend on ever more highly abstract concepts, critical reasoning and social skills that are transmitted in something that resembles a collegiate liberal-arts context.  (Dan Pink’s book A Whole New Mind is essentially an extended argument for the liberal arts that is also a current bestselling business book.) In other words, even if Jack Welch ran Harvard, he wouldn’t get rid of all the namby-pamby Greek and Latin and stuff. The super-rightwinger state legislatures that attack humanities programs do so not because it is impractical but because they know it is valuable material, and having access to rational free thinking empowers poor people and also turns people into liberals.

What we’re talking about is broadly affordable public access to those experiences, AND what that requires, I believe, is the flowering and more recognition of a new type of learning context: the “ways for people to organize and share freely and openly through a series of trust networks that aren’t necessarily mediated by institutions,” that Jim talks about so beautifully.

And I actually put my ultimate faith in people’s ability to figure out how to do that. Maybe we pull together and renovate our floundering public institutions, or maybe we create entirely new types of institutions and pay for them with new combinations of public, private, and philanthropic money.  Capitalism is oppressive, but people are resilient, and the desire to teach, learn, and discover together is an innate and powerful drive, and social media gives us more and more ways to do that every day, and that’s a good thing. G-d forbid we woke up tomorrow and the entire University of California was razed to the ground, never to return, we’d be in a better position as individuals to recreate more of its functions with fewer monetary resources than at any time in the past.

I really enjoyed my DIY U events in the Bay Area: an event sponsored by PR&Company at the Hub coworking space in San Francisco, attended by some edupreneurs worth checking out such as Toolwire and Inigral, as well as the amazing Dawn Danby who’s doing her own work at Autodesk with software that teaches sustainable design.

; a screening of Default, a new student loan documentary at the historic Red Victoria movie house on Haight Street, featuring a live Q&A with the directors Serge Bakalian and Aurora Menenghello, me and another of the movie’s talking heads, Edie Irons, an old compadre who works for the Institute for College Access and Success doing the tough work on student loan and college affordability awareness (made the acquaintance there of another free-education radical who you’ll likely be hearing from soon);

;And finally last night a book reading at the amazing Book Passage in Marin County with another whole set of conversations and connections.

If it sounds exhausting, it is. But exciting! There are lots of mentions out there on the web, some great, some not (this is a feather in my cap for sure, and I’m really proud to be associated with Phil’s work, and you should definitely read Chrissie’s post, but overall I’m less concerned with critical notices/reax to the book per se than the quality of conversations that are swirling around and around these ideas.

So here’s some ideas that are kicking around my brain after all this ferment.
One: How to use technology to showcase the work of star teachers, either in their mode as raconteurs or offering their services as mentors?

Two: What is happening and needs to happen with student loans and the subsequent effect on college costs and college calculations. The ability to discharge student loans in bankruptcy is a basic consumer protection that must be restored for both private and federal student loans (read Alan Collinge for much, much, much more.) Ron Lieber at the Times has been doing great work on this point lately. Bills currently in the Senate and House of Representatives would make private, unsubsidized student loans (the Sallie Mae Signature type of loan, with the higher interest rate, made directly by banks to students) more easily dischargeable in bankruptcy–today you must be a destitute paraplegic to walk away from any type of student loan. Perhaps more importantly, Sallie Mae has acquiesced to this idea in theory.

What happens if private student loans become dischargeable in bankruptcy? Well, more young people would declare bankruptcy. Lenders would have to be more careful about who they gave out their money to. There would be less money available, in total, to finance college. This means, all else being equal, that colleges would no longer be able to charge whatever the hell they feel like, year after year, and that students and parents will continue to have to think more and more carefully about the cost of that college or graduate program.

I think this could potentially be a good thing, if public university systems (perhaps in conversation with a host of new nonprofits–the charter school community college idea I talked about earlier) take it as a cue to get deadly serious about providing truly low-cost educational options for the lower-income student. Otherwise, it just means more poor kids priced out of opportunity.

more to come…

Organized by Philip Auerswald at George Mason University, who got an amazing group of people to come–whoa, exactly a week ago! My panel with Amy Bernstein of Manpower Inc and Angel Cabrera of Thunderbird business school can be seen he

I also recommend Burck Smith of Straighterline’s remarks.

I don’t accept all of their criticisms about how I should have organized the book (not everyone understands the problems in higher ed as well as education professionals), and I don’t really understand why in a discussion of the future of education I should have to choose between talking about how institutions are adapting and how people are adapting outside of institutions, but I definitely agree with Jon Becker et al that “a huge missing set of voices in DIY U is that of the students, current and future.” If there was one thing I could have done differently in the six months I spent researching and writing the book, it would have been to talk to more students as I did with Generation Debt, or at least to include more of the informal conversations I’ve been having with students, graduates and dropouts for the past four years.
If you want to hear from students, you should check out the book on Scribd, Speak! The Miseducation of College Students, a collaborative project by students at Baruch College, the country’s most diverse, who are students of Anthropology professor Kyra Gaunt.They worked hard on short essays expressing their passions and their frustrations. They want more resources, more relevance, more recognition for their achievements. The straight up cost of tuition does not get them down as much as the cost of textbooks they never use and the financial burden they place on their families by being at school instead of at work. These are the front line college students who are the new normal in higher education.

“In high school, I always had impeccable grades and now in college it’s as if my world had flipped upside down and I experienced culture shock. Most of my professors don’t know my name. Because I commute and I have a part-time job there really isn’t much time for interaction with others. In my first semester at Baruch I failed a class, but not just any class, I failed MATH! Math is
my thing! Math is what my career is based on because that is my passion. How could I have failed a math class?” writes Daisy Mendez.

“It’s a catch 22 when I sit and talk with someone and they express their shock that I am so articulate and knowledgeable. I want to feel appreciation for the recognition of my intelligence, but I also feel disgust because it should not be seen as a phenomenon,” writes the volume’s editor, an African American named Malcolm Johnson.

In the fall I go back on the road to speak on campuses. I’ll be posting more reactions by students–and non students–in this space to the ideas of DIY education.