Great conversation about the Edupunks’ Guide, Occupy Wall St and more with a great friend and colleague.

(crossposted from the Huffington Post)

Student loan debt has become a defining issue of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The nation’s cumulative student loan debt surpassed our cumulative credit card debt in 2010, and is heading north of $1 trillion; currently two-thirds of graduates take out loans, an average of $27,000 a head.

The growth of this particular kind of debt makes young people furious. It’s a betrayal of the American social contract that says if you work hard and invest in yourself through education, you’ll be able to build a better life. In my first book, Generation Debt, I explored how we got here and told stories about the emotional and cultural impacts of student loans; lately, with DIY U and the free Edupunks’ Guide, I’ve been focusing more on the underlying issue of soaring college tuition and innovations that might be able to cut the cost spiral–not to mention the growing world of free and open education.

These innovations are great, but they don’t help the graduates who are already saddled with so much debt. So here are some proposals to offer student borrowers relief that #OccupyWallSt could take up, ranked from the most radical to the more feasible.

1) Forgive all student loan debt. This idea has a Facebook page, a petition with 300,000 signatures, and it’s even been introduced in Congress. There are real fairness issues here because college graduates, even those with student loans are relatively more privileged with higher earning potential than non-college graduates. Still, if included as part of a radical call for bailing out the American people across the board — mortgages and credit card debt included– it has emotional resonance and could actually jumpstart the economy to boot.

1)a. You could help out those who most need it by canceling the student loan debt of non-graduates, defaulters, people who meet certain income requirements, or people who attended for-profits or other colleges with unacceptably low graduation rates (half of all student loan defaulters attend for-profits). See also: bankruptcy protection.

1)b. The radical direct action variation of this is for people to stage a debt revolt and simply stop paying their student loans. Advantage: Unlike with a mortgage or auto loan, they can’t repossess your brain. Disadvantage: You will never have credit again, and people in your life who have worked hard to pay off their own loans might see you as a deadbeat.

2)Rein in private student loans.
Private student loans, those offered by banks like Citibank and Wells Fargo, are growing three times faster than federal student loans. They are much more expensive, with higher fees and interest rates ranging up to 15%, varying by your creditworthiness.
Private student loans could be abolished outright, or they could be required to offer the same interest rates and repayment options as federal student loans, which would severely restrict their availability. If we don’t do something to tame the private student loan beast, it doesn’t much matter what happens with federal student loans–the volume of private loans is set to outpace the volume of public loans by 2025, according to Mark Kantrowitz of

3) Reinstate bankruptcy for student loans.
Student loans are unlike any other kind of debt in that they are almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy, barring permanent disability. For federal loans, the government can garnish your wages, seize your tax refund, your federal disaster relief payments, and even your Social Security. Even private, unsubsidized student loans, the ones with 10 and 15% interest rates, have been nondischargeable in bankruptcy since 2005.

Alan Collinge of Student Loan Justice has been organizing on this issue for several years. Bankruptcy protection has failed three times in Congress; there are currently bills in the House (sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen of TN) and Senate (sponsored by Sen. Durbin)
This is an issue of basic fairness. There’s no reason to treat student loan debt so differently from other types of debt, other than as a gift to the banks.

4) Expand Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
Depending on how much you make and how much you owe, you have the right to lower your monthly payments on FFELP and direct student loans through Income-Based Repayment. President Obama just announced that he’s accelerating access to the plan so that graduates can pay just 10% of their income, with all loans forgiven after 20 years. Meanwhile, people who work in the military, for the government, for nonprofits, police, firefighters, teachers, social workers, have the right to have loans completely forgiven after 10 years of repayments.
One issue with these programs is simply that they’re undersubscribed. Another is that you may end up paying more by stretching out the payments, and you’re harnessed to that payment for 20 years. But they’re a hell of a lot better than default, and in the absence of bankruptcy protection, they’re the least bad option for people currently facing unsupportable student loan debt.

DIY U at Educause

October 23, 2011
Diyu educause

Last week I gave my last big speech before the baby comes, at Educause, the ginormous ed-tech conference/trade show/organization. You can watch the video here. The previous Friday night at 8pm I spoke at the New School to about 12 people (with a new, speculative, not-so-ready-for-prime-time presentation), so it was really nice to go out with a large enthusiastic crowd. I got mostly positive feedback on this speech on Twitter and email, and I’ll also get a chance to look at people’s evaluation forms, which is cool.
Big news coming out of the conference, which I touched on in the Q&A, was the phenomenon of large for-profit education behemoths jumping on the “open” bandwagon.
Update: I have to link to Michael Feldstein‘s extremely thoughtful look at the details behind these announcements, and what they mean for openness.
Pearson is launching something called OpenClass, described as a cloud-based, self-service, learning management system (LMS), compatible with Google Apps for Education and available in the Google Apps store that is completely free to use–free of licensing, hardware or hosting fees.
Meanwhile Blackboard, which has a similar free cloud-based service, announced that it’s becoming Open-Educational-Resource-friendly, making it easier for educators who use this platform to publish the resources they create under Creative Commons license, and to allow universities to more easily grant access to their learning platforms to non-enrolled students.
Cable Green from Creative Commons asked what I thought about this in the Q&A, and I brought up David Wiley’s concept of “openwashing.”
On the one hand, it’s great that these large companies are recognizing the power of the concept of open and free sharing of educational resources to the future of education, collaborative, peer-based, puppies, kittens, blah blah blah. On the other hand, if you want to create a truly open learning institution, wouldn’t it be better to use an actually open-source LMS like Moodle or Sakai than a version created by Pearson, which mainly wants to sell you resources, or Blackboard, whose money comes from fees for services and license?
On the other, other hand, as I pointed out in the Q&A, it’s only rational that these companies are pursuing multiple strategies to remain sustainable in a rapidly changing market, both holding on to their old closed businesses (buy a printed, copyrighted textbook from Pearson here) and trying to get into the platform racket. And advocates of openness have to do the same thing to remain sustainable, either as profitable businesses or as nonprofits.

Sorry for the silence here, I’ve been busy with a mini-tour for The Edupunks’ Guide that took me to Maker Faire, the Smithsonian, the New School, and the Educause conference. I wanted to cross post two recent pieces I did for the Huffington Post about #OccupyWallSt. I’ve been tremendously impressed and inspired by what’s going on there.

Generation Debt At the Barricades (hat tip to Kevin Carey for the suggestion/title):

College is the centerpiece of the American dream. We tell our children that if you have both merit and gumption you’ll be handed the chance to prove yourself on a level playing field, with both financial and personal rewards. And so it’s our nation’s college students — the ones with an average age of 26, the ones who are burning through their youth with a cycle of part-time jobs and part-time classes — who are now raising their voices to tell us that the dream has gone hollow.

That’s what this movement is really about. That’s what makes it so hard to ignore. Millennials, like all young people throughout history, have been pilloried for their sense of entitlement and lack of perspective, but that’s exactly what gives them the moral high ground here. They feel entitled to a better future than what they’re facing. They believe, as they’ve been taught to believe, in an America of rising prospects and expanding opportunities. They’re not living in that America anymore.

#OccupyEverywhere: University of the Streets

one major way the occupations are functioning for the people involved: as a nationwide free school or teach-in, a university of the streets. I’m not just talking about when famous academics like Cornel West or Slavoj ZIzek stop by to give a lecture, but about the all-day seminars.
Take people out of their normal routines, put them together in a context of multiple issues of immediate concern, and they talk and exchange ideas and sometimes come up with solutions.

College debt has emerged as one of the major issues of this protest, and the young people involved are discovering two things: that education can be free, and that they can educate themselves and each other. Now Live!

October 3, 2011

For the past two months or so I’ve been working on translating my ebook, the Edupunks’ Guide, into an easy-to-navigate website. I’ve had the help of an all-woman team: the fantastic designer, Emma Welles, and developer, Ashley Holtgraver,  plus my tireless research assistant Molly who did the heavy lifting on the content entry.

And here it is!

This is my first time commissioning a website and I have to say I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. The idea was to translate the material in the guide into an attractive, easily searchable and navigable site. A relaunch is coming later this fall with commenting and annotating capabilities…in the meantime, I’m taking suggestions by email for new resources to add to the site, as well as bugs and edits of course!

Gates Foundation supported the development of the website, as well as hosting for one year (assuming moderate amounts of traffic). After September 2012, if it’s built up a decent audience and people seem to value it, I may look for some ads to continue to support it.

Video: DIY U: Designing Self Organized Education

On Sunday I had an awesome time presenting at Maker Faire NYC at the Queens Hall of Science.  Maker Faire is a worldwide network of events stemming loosely from the pages of Make magazine. It’s part science fair, part crafts fair, part place to show off your interactive Burning Man art project (my friend and one of my favorite artists, Kate Raudenbush, was there with her metal sculpture Braindrop). There were lots of people showing off their projects made with the tabletop Makerbot 3-D printers called Cupcakes, or their robots built with the open-source electronics platform Arduino. It’s 100% DIY and a spirit of infectious goofy optimism pervades the whole place.

Braindrop, by Kate Raudenbush (photo by Marc Whalen)

I spoke with Caroline Woolard of Trade School about self organized education and we got some great questions. Here’s a couple of insights that I learned from the questions:

1) Scalability. Does change in education happen on the level of MIT Open Courseware with 100 million users and Stanford’s AI course with 100,000 users or does it need to happen in small groups, face to face as with Caroline’s Trade School experiment?
My answer: Education has to evolve at both ends of the scale. The common thread is more options. I also think I’ve been guilty in the past of focusing too much on the technology. But the reality of the way things are developing is that you can use technology to create a platform, as Maker Faire has done and as Trade School has done, (TEDx another great example) to share resources, spread ideas quickly, and to create the sense of a global community. Then you enact those ideas and reinforce it through small scale self-propagating prototypes, because people really need that face to face experience.

2) How did YOU learn what you needed to know?
When someone asked me this, I realized that all the stuff I say about self directed learning really comes from my own life experience as a journalist–something I learned largely by doing it (I audited one class for half a semester in college). Joseph Campbell said “A journalist…enjoys a license to be educated in public.” What do journalists do? Form hypotheses, read, identify knowledgeable people through various heuristics, question them closely, question your own hypotheses, look for contrary points of view and interview them as well, state your ideas as clearly as possible, absorb feedback, repeat. Also, as a journalist I resist putting myself in a position of an expert. It’s far more important to have access to the right expertise from people in the field, which is always changing.

Afterwards, one audience member commented to me that the presentation seemed to define what Maker Faire was about–”It’s not just about technology or DIY or sustainability…it’s really all about a community learning together!” I took that as a huge compliment.

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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.

I’m proud to be partnering with Good Magazine to run a series of excerpts this week from The Edupunks’ Guide. Good also does these really cool contests where they invite readers to participate, and we’re doing one to ask people to visualize their personal learning journeys–how they got where they are today, and where they want to go.

Three-quarters of students don’t fit the traditional mold of straight-from-high-school-four-years-of-college-first-job. We want to see a real learning journey: online and real-world resources and communities you’ve found, classes, internships, conferences, jobs, dead ends or wrong turns, and the person or people who really made a difference in getting you where you are today (or where you hope to be).

Doodle a map of your most important learning experiences. Show us what it’s like to learn outside the traditional academic model.

Submit your entry here. We will accept submissions through Sunday, September 11. Check back on to see the slideshow and vote on your favorite. The winner will receive a GOOD T-shirt and see their infographic displayed on

I am so excited about this, you guys!
Starting August 30 there’s going to be an open course running on called “DIY U: Getting Started With Self Learning.” It’s based on the Edupunks’ Guide. I’ll be moderating with Alison Jean Cole of P2PU. The goal: create and share a personal learning plan and find others who can help you on your learning journey.

I am tremendously impressed with what P2PU has been doing over the past two years and so pleased that they saw the guide as a resource to expand their offerings to people who need help getting started on their platform. It’s exactly the kind of collaboration and hands-on application that I hoped the guide would juice.

We’re running an initial pilot for 10 weeks for a small group of people, an experiment to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We’d really like to get a mix of people including those who have little to no experience with technology, self-learning and online learning, but who have unfinished learning goals that they’d like to achieve. If this is you or someone you know, get in touch and email me at!

William Pannapacker has been dropping brilliant and harsh knowledge on the academy for quite some time now. My favorite part of this latest essay, which has generated quite the debate, was his conclusion:

“In order to reform higher education, many of us will have to leave it, perhaps temporarily, but with the conviction that the fields of human activity and values we care about—history, literature, philosophy, languages, religion, and the arts—will be more likely to flourish outside of academe than in it. As more and more people are learning, universities do not have a monopoly on the “life of the mind.”"

The academy is in trouble because its business model no longer works. Academics, particularly in the humanities, don’t like to talk or hear about the failed business model because they have invested in a separation of church and state, by which caring about business undermines their commitment to their discipline–even when the business at hand is their own economic exploitation and that of their students. Those of us who dare to talk about business models are maligned as “pro-business”–harsh words, Stephen Downes!

My hope for the future of the humanities rests on the bravery of those like Pannapacker who can get up and say “I care about the life of the mind AND I care about the business model that makes it possible.” The humanities are not flourishing within the old economic structures of the academy–they are increasingly marginalized and deprived of resources. We either create new structures to shelter the humanities and humanists, or we let them wither. Ignoring or disdaining the economic side of the matter is not an option.