I’m interested in the debate that’s been sparked by my new project. It sounds dumb but I honestly didn’t see it coming, that people who didn’t object when I published a commercial book using a certain word in the title would be so up in arms when I proposed to bring out a free, nonprofit-funded, follow-up ebook with the same word in the title. But I think it’s probably a good, necessary debate, and I’m going to let it go on without me for a bit while I carry on talking to learners and people who are making things happen in the future of higher education.
Here’s something I need to clarify, though. It’s a point I often make in presentations.

I don’t think there can be meaningful innovation in higher education or any other field if cost is not a factor in decision making. If you look at the original formulation of Moore’s Law, above, you can see plainly that “economics dictate” continuing to make computer chips smaller and faster. To put it another way, investments in technology, which can be substantial, in terms of equipment and more importantly training, have to be just that, investments with a meaningful return, or they will not be repeated. There’s a place for pure, blue-sky research but eventually you have to pick winners in order to move forward.

So, how can technology lower costs while maintaining or improving quality in higher education?

  • In teaching: I point you once again to the work of The National Center for Academic Transformation. “From 1999 to 2004, NCAT worked with 30 diverse two- and four-year colleges (50,000 students annually) to prove that it is possible to improve quality and reduce cost in higher education. Course redesign using information technology is key to achieving both outcomes.”
  • In administration: This is an IT no-brainer. From recruitment to retention to support services to campus energy use to supplies and logistics.
  • In physical plant: Online or blended programs can reduce the need for expanding and maintaining the physical campus.
  • In textbooks and course materials: Open licenses and digital distribution have the potential to radically cut costs, especially to the end user (the student), while also reducing inequity: students can have access to a wider range of higher quality material even if they are at institutions with proportionally fewer resources.

In the case of higher education, as in health care, there’s a moral reason to consider bringing down costs. The high cost of these services today severely affects our ability to provide them to those who need them, and the cost is swiftly rising. Simply dedicating more and more public and private money to these services, even if politically possible, is unsustainable. I don’t point this out because I want to impoverish, privatize, or dismantle public higher education. To the contrary, I believe the only coherent position for those who support broad access to affordable, quality public higher education in this country is to support bending the cost curve.

Trade School Ends?! Where do we go from here?

photo via Ourgoods.org on Flickr

Adapted from my post in Fast Company.

On Thursday, March 24 from 6-7:30 pm I’m teaching a workshop on DIY U at the Trade School in Nolita.

In this month’s inaugural Life in Beta column I wrote about how the Internet can enable our natural generosity. Caroline Woolard, a visual artist who manages a cooperative artists’ space, is putting this insight into her life’s work for the creative community with OurGoods.org, a site that enables artists to barter space, material, and services, and Trade School, a cross between a 1960s “free school” and a performance art piece, currently running in New York City’s NoLiTa neighborhood.

Q. What is your background–educational and work and avocational?

A. Original Trade School co-founders Rich, Louise, and I all went to Cooper Union (the last free school in the US). I also participated in the following alternative education experiments : Anhoek School, Mildred’s Lane, School of the Future, and The Public School, and I live with people who run Secret School. I also went to Cooper with the Bruce High Quality Foundation University organizers. Last year, I put together a dinner with all of these organizers to discuss what works and what doesn’t.
Q. How did you get the idea for Ourgoods?
A. The team consists of myself, choreographer and arts administrator Jen Abrams, graphic designers Rich Watts and Louise Ma, and former Senior Site Engineer for ZipCar, Carl Tashian. As the 2008 financial crisis hit, OurGoods’ co-founders asked two questions:
1) How can we facilitate a stronger, more sustainable network of cultural producers?
2) How can we value cultural abundance in an economy driven by scarcity? OurGoods shifts the focus from “How can artists get more money?” to the deeper question, “How can artists get more resources?
The traditional foundation funding model is a zero-sum game – if you get a grant, I don’t get it. With a barter model, the higher the participation, the more resources are available for everyone, and the more value is created.
Q. How does the site work?
A. Users post “Needs” – what they need to get their creative projects done – as well as “Haves” – the skills, spaces and objects they have to offer. For example, performing artists can find video documentation, a visual artist can find a specialized tool, a musician can borrow a vehicle, a writer can get graphic design help, and an actor can find rehearsal space. A search engine connects users with matching “Haves” and “Needs.” Users work out the details of the barter on the site and then create a contract. Upon completion of the barter both users leave feedback, creating a trust rating. Users can decide who might make a good barter partner based on trust ratings, tenure on the site, number of completed barters, and their profile, which includes a bio and information on the projects they are working on.
Q. When did you launch? how have the responses been so far?
A. We have been open to the public since November, and we now have 1287 members. Most people are based in NYC because that’s where we live and that’s where we’ve been organizing events.
Q. What about Trade School? Where did you get the idea for that, and how did you get the space? What are some things going on at the school?

It all started because three of the five co-founders of OurGoods (Louise Ma, Rich Watts, and myself) were given an opportunity to work with GrandOpening, and we had a wild brainstorm session about many possible barter storefronts. We decided that “barter for instruction” had a lot of potential.

So, from February 25th to March 1st, 2010, we ran Trade School at GrandOpening in the Lower East Side. Over the course of 35 days, more than 800 people participated in 76 single session classes. Classes ran for 1, 2, or 3 hours and ranged from scrabble strategy to composting, from grant writing to ghost hunting. In exchange for instruction, teachers received everything from running shoes to mixed CDs, from letters to a stranger to cheddar cheese. We ran out of time slots for teachers to teach and classes filled up so quickly that we had to turn people away. This made us think, “we should keep doing this!”

We raised money on Kickstarter because most venues will not barter for storefront use for longer than a month. Last year, GrandOpening bartered design work from Rich Watts in exchange for use of the space, but they couldn’t do it for more than a month this year. We were approached by an old school in Nolita, so we used our Kickstarter money to secure that space from February 1st through April 17th, with an option to stay open longer.
See a list of current classes here:
Q. Why do you think there’s so much energy right now around sharing and barter and peer-to-peer practices?
A. The sharing explosion is related to a rough economy during an information revolution online: peer to peer technologies make the organizational headaches of sharing (the “coincidence of wants”) possible. But our site serves a specific community (creative workers), who have always produced work for reasons other than profit. We are motivated by curiosity, mastery of craft, and the need to share truth, produce beauty, and connect with a wider community. Exchange via barter can satisfy far more than practical needs.
Q. What are some resources (books, people, parties, websites, blogs) that inspire you around sharing and generosity?
A. This summer, I found out about an international movement: The Solidarity Economy. I am now working with the Solidarity Economy’s NY branch as the Community Outreach volunteer. Beyond that, I’m inspired by Community Economies and also list more here.

So after several months of negotiations I’m very excited to announce my next book.

The Edupunk’s Guide to a DIY Credential will be an e-book distributed free on the web in summer 2011.* The primary goal is to reach low-income students and potential students to help them find alternative paths to a credential using online and open resources.  The secondary goal is to reach educators and administrators interested in incorporating the latest technology, social media, and collaborative learning into their approaches in order to cut costs while improving learning, socialization, and accreditation both inside and outside the classroom.

I’m excited about doing something I didn’t get to do for DIY U, which is talk to learners. I’ve already interviewed about 35 learners from all walks of life, and plan to do over 100. In fact, earlier this week at Cal State-San Bernadino I met the mythical Patient Zero of online learning. Joseph is going to a state school to save money, majoring in Economics and getting perfect grades. He shows up to class only to take the tests, preferring to spend his time reading Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem novels and playing music. Instead he learns the material using MIT Open Courseware, TED Talks and Khan Academy. He even tutors and delights in pointing other students toward these open resources.

Here’s what I’d love to learn more about:
-Alternative higher ed programs, particularly for credentialing prior learning,  experiential learning, self-learning. I know about Excelsior. What else?

-Really smart HR people who are thinking about recruitment given the world of open learning.

-Really smart people I haven’t interviewed yet, who you think I should.

*For copyright nerds: I think I’m allowed to say here that this project is funded by the Gates Foundation. They will publish it © 2011 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. However I also get my own separate “non-exclusive, fully-paid up, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide license” to “make, copy, use, modify, distribute and display the Guide,”  which I plan to grant others as well via CC-BY-SA. As astute commenters have pointed out, my current license doesn’t necessarily include the rights to grant a CC license to others. This is still in negotiation. What I can promise is that the guide will be distributed for free, and I’ll endeavor to make it available online in a format that will allow others to easily excerpt, comment on, and annotate it.

(this post is part of the international Purpose/Ed campaign which I heard about from David Kernohan on Twitter).

I was very affected by John Dewey’s Experience & Education. In it, he basically posits education as the transmission of culture. Education is what allows us to continue to progress as a species because each new human is able to draw from a collective memory bank that gives us stories, tools, and customs to live by. Without it, you’ve got the Lord of the Flies.

This definition gets us down to first principles, but it is incomplete. It’s fundamentally conservative and only looks at the positive things that can be transmitted from the past through the order and structures of the present. It ignores the negative hangovers from the past, as well as the positive contributions of the future.

Yet right now there’s all kinds of reasons to question the past. We’re living in a time when the basic principles of Western civilization are under severe scrutiny: how we get our energy, how we make things, move around and feed ourselves, is very likely threatening our future as a species. When the ground under our feet is collapsing in that way, it’s no surprise we’re spotting serious flaws and cracks in the foundation at the level of politics, economics and social institutions. Education, of course, is among those institutions. So what we desperately need is a practice of education that allows us to draw on the past in a critical way, swiftly cast aside the parts of the past that don’t serve us, and at the same time to embrace the best of the future.

The more I think about it, the more I think that what’s key in that equation is the student voice. While educators continue to unearth and transmit the best of the past and current knowledge, students individually and collectively need to be empowered to question the structures in place and to be free to pursue their own passions. No decision of curriculum, grade, or whatever should be imposed from above without students taking responsibility for their own learning. This would drive diversity within the system as it adapts to a multiplicity of needs, freeing everyone from the yoke of standardization. And it would drive the system toward the future. I see this as more of a gut renovation than a demolition project.

What would the course book look like at your university if the freshmen wrote it?

If you watch this space you’ve probably heard me talk about the Learning, Freedom and the Web ebook that I’m producing with the support of the Mozilla Foundation in collaboration with the Mozilla Drumbeat Community.

If you’re interested in hearing more and you’d like to give feedback on the manuscript as it readies to go to the designer, please call in tomorrow (Thursday, Feb. 3) from 7-8 pm ET:
* Canada +1 416 848 3114 Ext. 92 Conference number 7600
* US or Intl. +1 650 903 0800 Ext. 92 Conference number 7600
* US Toll-Free +1 800 707 2533 Pwd: 369 Conference number 7600

I really appreciate everyone who’s left comments here, they’ve all been extremely helpful.
By the way, you can find the latest version of the text in editable Etherpads here:

(crossposted from FastCompany.com).


This month we asked a bakers dozen of contributors for fresh ideas on how to reinvent education. Now a coalition of ad industry heavy hitters from Wieden + Kennedy to BBDO has come out with a major campaign to promote creativity in education.

To be clear, they’re not just looking to promote creative solutions to well-known problems like poor math scores and low and falling graduation rates. They’re looking for approaches to promote creativity itself–arguing, in a really gorgeous slide presentation, that creativity is the no. 1 competitive edge in the 21st century, and the prime element that’s missing from our standardized test- and state standards-ridden school system. A patron saint of the effort, and judge on the panel, is Sir Ken Robinson, whose TED talk to this point is one of the most watched ever.

“What drives us is the possibility of a platform
where the creative industries put their differences aside for one week
out of the year to collaborate on something that is larger than
ourselves and our business goals,” says Viktor Venson of multimedia and interactive agency Stopp, a driving force behind the campaign. ” If adopted, this would be an annual challenge asking the creative industries to respond to a burning issue or cause.”

As part of Social Media Week 2011, next week in New York City, No Right Brain Left Behind is challenging industry teams (advertising, interactive, marketing, design, what-have-you) to come up with products and approaches that work within or outside the existing school system. These will be piloted by the end of 2011.

I’m torn. I absolutely love the idea of moving our schools away from a relentless focus on tests of basic skills and toward approaches that emphasize play, risk-taking, collaboration, and the other skills that make work worth doing and life worth living. The very structure of this campaign, moving swiftly from design brief to execution, has the elegance of the American creative spirit at its best.

On the other hand, the interaction of the ad industry with schools has produced some not-so-pretty effects in the past (Channel One, anybody?) And lots of the problems in our public schools are problems of urban poverty and inequality that need to be solved with boring old tax policy, not jazzy new logos and apps.

I guess in the end I’ll go with optimism that No Right Brain Left Behind produces some interesting new opportunities and turns on some new creative minds to the problems in our education system. The more eyeballs on this issue, the better.