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Habitat for Humanity at the First Baptist Church in Nashville, from Flickr.

I’ve been neglecting my posting here in part because I’ve been busy with the P2PU Edupunks’ Guide course, my regular work at Fast Company, and of course getting ready for my first baby, who will arrive sometime in December. I’ve also been doing a lot of my thinking-out-loud in discussions on the IDC list, which I was invited to join in advance of the MobilityShifts conference at the New School in October. There’s a lot of really interesting people and perspectives on new forms and ways of learning.  I wanted to summarize and elaborate on some of my posts to the list about a very important question that I get all the time:

Do so-called “DIY” models of education serve the underserved?  Is all this talk of open digital content, unbundling, and personal learning networks and paths really a move toward commodification, privatization, and a consumerist model of higher education? Do underprepared community college students with lots of responsibilities and few resources really have what it takes to succeed at independent learning, even if it is free?

Bottom line: Will “DIY U” help or hurt poor kids ? And, am I, Anya Kamenetz, a tool of the corporations?

Here’s what I have to say about this:

Do so-called “DIY” models of education serve the underserved? I think non-DIY models of education are hurting the underserved. College is too expensive, and that is bad for poor kids.

Economics is the vector that drew me into thinking about education. One of the reasons mass higher education is on the rocks and on the rack is that tuition has grown more than any other major good or service since 1978. Mass higher education has grown through the development of a mass bureaucracy, and institutions spend more and more on administration while spending less (proportionately, not absolutely) on teaching.

There’s a logical relationship between the massification of higher education, the rising costs, and the withdrawal of public support, which is playing out swiftly in the UK. When Oxbridge was for <5% of the population, no problem, it was free. When higher education is for 40-50% of the population, free is a far more expensive proposition.

And so as public support for this expensive project is exhausted (maybe because of creeping Philistinism, and maybe because the coffers are bare and we have other public priorities that rightfully take precedence like roads and ambulances and police officers) students carry more and more of the burden, which keeps poor kids out of college in larger and larger numbers since the 1970s.

Bottom line, I believe that breaking the tuition spiral through disruptive innovation in forms and models of higher ed is the only way to make college accessible to the underserved.

Is all this talk of digital content, unbundling, and personal learning networks and paths a step toward commodification, privatization, and a consumerist model of higher education?

Again, I think commodification, privatization, and an increasingly consumerist model of higher ed are happening independently of the movement toward DIY. Surely a major reason that students and their families are more and more inclined to think of their education as a product is that it’s become a huge monetary investment.

On the other hand, one of the most powerful moves you can make as an anti-consumerist and anti-commodification activist is to give stuff away for free. The free sharing of educational content and participation by educators and peers on open learning networks changes the conversation about the value and purpose of education: from expensive to priceless, and from a four-year to a lifelong experience.

Do underprepared community college students with lots of responsibilities and few resources really have what it takes to succeed at independent learning, even if it is free or affordable?

This is probably the toughest question of all.

Most people can readily agree that there is an elite group of superstars for whom the traditional structures of education are simply holding them back. Dale Stephens, a Thiel Fellow, probably best represents this flavor of DIYers with his Uncollege site/movement. They are part of the movement to change education, because people pay a lot of attention when kids drop out of Harvard to pursue their own learning and become very successful. Rock on.

The Edupunks’ Guide was written on the premise that there are a lot more people out there who find college both too expensive and inaccessible for other reasons, such as family and work responsibilities, who could benefit from accessing both free resources and communities, as well as more flexible courses and assessment programs that allow them to take a more active role in designing and navigating their education. It’s a less elite, but much much larger group.

An overwhelming majority of students and potential students, regardless of whether they are inherently, as a character trait, independent, are, practically speaking, on their own when it comes to negotiating college. 85% of college students do not fit the image that most four-year institutions are set up to provide for: 18-22 year olds living on campus. Around two-thirds of students graduate with more than one institution on their transcript. As compared to the 41 million students with a BA,there are 44 million Americans with some college and no degree. Again, these are students and potential students that the system is not very well set up to deal with.

Of necessity, that means these people are out there doing it for themselves. They are pursuing personal learning pathways that are idiosyncratic and sometimes meandering, that include workplace and sundry life experiences, lost credits and dead ends. Going straight through and following a preset plan of courses at a particular institution that an expert decided on is not the best or most efficient option for them.

I believe that a learner-centered model, with proper support, would do better by students like these than the mass higher ed model has done, and I believe that putting a DIY frame on that learner-centered model is empowering and highlights the strengths that this nontraditional majority brings to the table. It’s kind of like Habitat for Humanity. With a ton of support and scaffolding all around you, you pick up a hammer and you help build your own house. You could say, oh, that is patronizing, it would be faster to let the pros do it for you. And you could say, if we really want to help people, don’t be a cheapskate and just give them lumber and tools, give them a damn house to live in! But of course, when it comes to education, the need for DIY is even stronger than it is with a house, because learners need to take charge of their own learning process and relate it to the real world.

I look forward to discussing this topic at the Seattle Public Library on 10/11 at 6 pm, where I’ll be joined by Stephen Reder of LearnerWeb, which is pretty close to a Habitat for Humanity for education.

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