Last week I had the privilege of visiting the Met School in Providence, RI and spending the day with legendary educator Dennis Littky, his team, and his Big Picture Learning students both at the Met and the new College Unbound program. Dennis and I have been talking about the best ways to tap into the tech tools available to enhance and inform his high-touch, personal-development approach to education, which focuses on the whole student and on getting the student out into the community to learn from everyone and everything they come across and pursue their passions. I was so struck by the respect that everyone in his learning communities showed each other. He’s sending one of his team members to Mozilla Drumbeat in Barcelona next week.

I fortuitously happened to be there on the day of the college students’ Midterm Exhibition. Michael McCarthy, a College Unbound student in his late 20s who is an Afghan war vet, produced this video as part of his exhibition. It is stunningly high quality and lays out the challenges facing everyone who is concerned with the intersection of ed and tech so very well. His thinking is several steps ahead of the majority of administrators & teachers I’ve talked to. I am hoping that everyone who reads this blog wants to help him out with his project–I know I do.

I am getting more excited every day for the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival. I’ve interviewed about 25 of the nearly 300 participants about their projects and plans, from HASTAC to the Hackbus. I’ve ordered the new MacBook Air for lightweight documentation on the move and a pair of fierce walking boots. I am cutting down on caffeine to increase my sensitivity for the big boosts I’ll need to follow what’s going on from 10 am to 8:30 pm and probably late into the night (since both Spaniards and geeks tend to dine late).

I feel like each space is going to follow its own story arc over the two days and many people will be experiencing tunnel vision (in a good way) focusing on their various projects, but my delightful job is to cover as much of the festival as possible (with the team of Matt Thompson, Matt Garcia and all the fabulous bloggers here and elsewhere).
Also, just because of my personal skill set, I’m gravitating toward the blah-blah-blah sessions rather than the bleep-bleep-bleep.
So, besides keynotes and such, here’s some particular sessions I really want to check out:
THURSDAY
11am Intro to Badges
12pm Hacking Wikiversity
14:00–14:50 Storming the Syllabus: Session #1 Twenty-first century Literacies: Building a syllabus together with Cathy Davidson
3pm: Ideas&Values of WebCraft
4pm: Graffiti/ Free Software (you have to check this out)

FRIDAY
11am Pathways to Open Content
12pm Earn my Storyteller Badge at the Citizen Identities and Neighborhood Literacies for Open Learning #2
2pm Keynote w. Prof. Manuel Castells
3pm Building an Open Textbook with FlatWorld Knowledge
4pm The Next Big Thing for OER-what is it???
5pm Hopefully yoga but maybe the open mic??
6pm With much assistance I will perform a feat of entertainment, edification and multitasking not unlike the time my friend Stevhen cooked spaghetti with shrimp live on stage while performing gypsy rocknroll during his band’s concert.

An alternate phrasing of the anti-elitist objection is to say that a DIY U future will automatically perpetuate the meritocracy, by giving even more advantages to the best students. To which, I have a couple of different answers.

Are we really against having a true meritocracy, in the sense of a society that rewards excellence? Yes and no.
I think there’s a basic fundamental tension between democracy and meritocracy. This tension was actually described quite well by Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy” in a satire written in Britain in the 1950s:

Young’s fictional narrator describes that on one hand, the “stolid mass” or majority is not the greatest contributor to society, but the “creative minority” or “restless elite”. Yet on the other hand…from such adherence to natural science and intelligence, arises arrogance and complacency.The casualties of this progress described by the phrase “Every selection of one is a rejection of many”.

The major problems with meritocracy as it is currently practised in America, as I see them:

1) Since I don’t have as strong a faith as, say, Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, in the genetic component of socioeconomic advantage I have to believe that the large racial and economic gaps that persist in our educational system are the result of systematic inequality, not differences in innate ability. Therefore it follows that a massive injustice is being perpetuated on thousands of children who get crappy instruction in crappy schools and never get a decent chance to go to college, even though if you had stuck them in a top-flight public school from 1st grade they’d definitely be Ivy League material.
But not enough is being done about this, and I think that’s partly because the New Elite have so much faith in the status quo that has put them on top.

2) The self-identified “elite” do tend to be hothouse flowers who look with disdain on the mainstream choices of their fellow Americans from fast food and evangelical religion to reality TV. Not only is this an annoying attitude when you’re on the receiving end (I know this because I’m from the South and people are always slagging on the South in front of me) it has fed the flowering of a defensive ignorance from folks who choose not to believe in, say, climate change because they hate Al Gore.

3) There’s a lack of diversity in the talents that we recognize, cultivate and reward as a society. Working with your hands, affinity for the natural world, a tendency to support and build community rather than strive after individual achievement are just three traits neglected by the self-identified “elite.”

Here’s how I believe a DIY U future can help:
1) I believe that there are super smart autodidacts out there stuck in crappy schools, or no schools at all, in the US and developing countries, for whom the provision of Ivy League quality courseware for free constitutes a bonanza of educational manna. Maybe there aren’t a billion William Kamkwambas out there. Say there are only a few dozen in each country, wouldn’t that make the money already invested in OER come out into a good investment?

2) Opening up the walls of the Ivy League & other elite colleges can demystify what goes on there and possibly even endear it to the public. There’s a big difference in the way people feel about their public library (like saying, This is OUR public library) vs. how they feel about the campus library, or the college campus in general; there’s a difference in the way people feel about the campus sports arena, which they visit regularly, vs. some weirdo physics lab. On the other side of things, opening up the walls of elite universities could foster some much-needed humility for the self-identified elite. I know for me personally, when I have to go explain my Yale-bred thinking to the students and faculty at Kansas City Kansas Community College, it leads to much soul-searching and posts like this.

3) The open, decentralized, nonhierarchical pursuit of knowledge can foster a greater diversity of topics and pursuits than that accommodated in even the most commodious course catalogue. Whenever and whereever education consists even partly of people getting together to learn whatever they want, we naturally see the proliferation of study of practical, hands-on skills like composting and bicycle repair and yoga and basic web design and guitar and Spanish. This is good because we may need these kinds of skills a lot more in the sustainable future that we’re hopefully evolving toward.

I just returned from a swing around some more or less non-elite colleges in the Midwest where I faced a common objection to DIY U:
You talk about access. But the students being left out of the current system are the ones who need more one-on-one support, so how can online educational resources, even if they’re free, possibly help them?

To which my basic answer is: You got a better idea?
Either we use technology to bend the cost curve in higher education, or we resign ourselves to never having enough of it. For-profit colleges will continue, quite expensively, to take up the slack by targeting the students left out of the current system: working adults and the first in their families to go to college. I agree that it would be a good basic strategy to reallocate the $ saved through use of open educational resources toward one-on-one support and mentoring for the students who need it most.(I’m not sure I agree that these types of services could never be delivered digitally with economies of scale: For example at Miami Dade college where automated text messages follow up on students who miss class. But that’s another discussion).

Viewed this way, the creation of open educational resources from the Open Courseware Consortium to open-source LMS like Sakai, and even open study groups like OpenStudy could essentially be viewed as a necessary and productive resource transfer from rich schools to less well funded ones.

Server Dude
Image of P2PU class “Draw the Internet” assignment, via JohnDBritton on Flickr.

In preparation for the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival next month (coming up in just 13 days!! whoo hoo!!) i’ve been conducting preview interviews with participants. The best of these, as well as other Q&As, blog posts, Tweets, speeches, essays, and other contributions, will eventually go into the Festival Report, which I’ve been describing as a “quickbook.” It’s faster, looser, and more open than my normal writing methods–entirely fitting that all these experiments in open learning and teaching should be documented in a way that’s itself an experiment.

A couple of weeks I interviewed John D Britton, a programmer, champion couchsurfer and Bar Camp participant who got pulled into open ed more or less through this blog post.
I also dropped in on his P2PU/Mozilla School of Webcraft class, “Anatomy of A Web Request,” and talked over video chat to students from all over North and South America.

When I asked about his methods for teaching a P2PU class, Britton countered, “I tend not to use the term ‘teach’. I’m a facilitator. Part of the philosophy of P2PU is that everybody is equally responsible for their learning.” Still, he said, breaking out of that old paradigm–and figuring out what to keep from it– is an evolving process. His first P2PU course, “Mashing Up the Open Web,” he said, took far too much time. “I was online holding office hours every Sunday from 10 to noon. I was the single point of failure for the course–it was very top down, very traditional, and hard to keep up with.” In his current class, he’s giving the students more responsibility for discussing amongst themselves and critiquing each other, although as the facilitator he’s still responsible for giving out assignments and, importantly, imposing due dates. The due date, it turns out, is one aspect of the traditional education experience that’s still essential in the peer-to-peer learning world.

Britton, who dropped out of college himself and works for a company called Twilio, loves leading P2PU classes because, “Teaching something is the best way to learn.” For his next P2PU course he’s really putting that philosophy into practice. The topic is window farming, which he describes as “totally out of my knowledge domain… I want to learn how to do it, so I might as well document it and learn it with a bunch of other people.” Right on!

Crossposted from GOOD magazine.

“Almost no one is working on higher education overseas.” That’s what Conor Bohan, head of Haitian Education and Leadership Program, told me in his office last week. We met at the Clinton Global Initiative in September and bonded over this common interest.

Here’s the problem. The balance of power and wealth is shifting rapidly from industrial to postindustrial economies, and with it, the demand for a highly educated workforce. This is true around the world: a simple high school diploma is no more a guarantee of a living wage job in Haiti than it is in the US.

But most international education aid whether from governments, big foundations, or the World Bank, focuses, understandably, on the pressing need for basic literacy. What’s required is nothing less than a quantum leap for the higher education attainment rates in, say, sub-Saharan Africa (about 5 percent) approach those at the top of the heap (Canada and South Korea, above 50%).

Conor’s program, HELP, is trying to make a tiny difference in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. He started it when he was working in Haiti as a schoolteacher and one of his star students asked him for $30 to enroll in secretarial school. After questioning her he learned that her real dream was to become a doctor–and today she is.

HELP accepts only students with straight A’s through high school. They received 350 qualifying applications for 30 slots last year. It costs a total of about $5500 a year to send a student to Haiti’s  public university, or one of its Catholic or private institutions, and to provide them with funds for clothing, shelter, books, academic advising, and internships. HELP believes firmly in building up local capacity by sending students to college in-country, where the quality is said to be quite good–University of Miami president Donna Shalala has said,”The one institutional strength Haiti has had is its higher-education system.”

Graduates of HELP’s scholarship program increase their income from about $600 a year with just a high school diploma to about $14000 a year on average. That’s an incredible payoff, better than almost any social entrepreneurship program you could name. It seems like a good idea to me that they do it without creating debt for the students, unlike a microfinance student loan program called Vittana that has received a lot of attention. I’ve started talking to Conor about the possibility of connecting his students with academic advising, peer study groups, English classes, and mentorship opportunities over the Internet. If you have any ideas about this, get in touch. I also think sponsoring a HELP student would be an amazing fundraising project for a US college campus.

I’ll be streaming live from Stanford today at 3-4:30pm (6-7:30pm ET).
Here’s the UStream link.

Anya Kamenetz, author of
DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (Chelsea Green, 2010)
will be visiting the School of Education on
MONDAY 11 OCTOBER, 3 – 4.30 PM
CUBBERLEY HALL 115
She will receive critical commentary from sociologists
Michael Hout, UC Berkeley,
(an expert on inequality)
& Marc Ventresca, Oxford/Said Business School, (an expert on innovation and new markets).