Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Review: The Edupunks' Guide, by Anya Kamenetz

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 09, 2011

I have now had the chance to read The Edupunks' Guide and can now form some opinions based on what I've seen. And if I were forced to summarize my critique in a nutshell, it would be this. Edupunk, as described by the putative subculture, is the idea of 'learning by doing it yourself'. The Edupunks' Guide, however, describes 'do-it-yourself learning'. The failure to appreciate the difference is a significant weakness of the booklet.

Let me explain. Suppose a person wanted to learn Thai cooking. Following the Edupunks' Guide, she would find some recipes using Google, perhaps find a Khan-style course, and if very lucky, a Thai cooking Google group. I would recommend the Vegan Black Metal Chef series - good tunes, and good food.

By contrast, the edupunk way is to cook Thai food, and in so doing, learn how to be a good chef. There's no right or wrong way to go about it - the main thing is to get one's hands dirty and actually learn from the experience. In so doing, a person might take a course, search for recipes, ask for help, or - in the style of the underrated film 'The Raman Girl' or that overrated film 'The Karate Kid' - find a mentor to show you how to steam noodles.

Now based on the discussion that has already taken place in this iDC forum, I would expect Anya Kamemetz's first response to be something along the lines of "I know that; I do encourage learning by doing." And no doubt that's what was intended, but that is not in fact what the booklet does. The structure and focus of the booklet is entirely toward the 'do-it-yourself learning' model. Here's Anya Kamenetz on learning to cook:

A simple example is learning to make pizza. A few years ago, you may have had to take a class or at least buy a cookbook. Today you can put “how to make a pizza” into YouTube and within minutes, you’re watching a video that shows you how to fling the dough! (p. 2)
But watching a video instead of watching a person (or taking a class) isn't what makes something edupunk. It's the act of taking matters into your own hands, and making pizza for yourself, instead of buying frozen or ordering delivery. And it's more than that: it's growing your own wheat, grinding your own flower, growing mushrooms and peppers, and grinding your own pepperoni. None of this is suggested anywhere in thge guide. Which is unfortunate, because it's misrepresenting what has overall been a pretty good movement.

Kamenetz has what may only be described as a very naive understanding of education (including online education). Here's her representation:

What DO we mean by education, exactly? There are three big buckets of benefit that an educational institution, like a college, historically provides.

- Content - the skills and knowledge. The subjects, the majors. You could think of this as the “what” of education.

- Socialization - learning about yourself, developing your potential, forming relationships with peers and mentors. The “how.”

- Accreditation - earning that diploma or other proof that will allow you to signal your achievement to the world, and with luck get a better job. The “why.” (p.3)
Notice how 'what we mean' by an education becomes the 'three big buckets of benefit' provided by educational institutions. The idea here is that if you can just provide these benefits for yourself, you'll be educated. And that, in turn, is what defines the overall structure of the booklet - section A focuses on the content, skills and knowledge; section B focuses on degrees and credentials; and section C focuses on networks, peers and mentors. And preceding these, the 'DIY Educational Manual' offers seven 'how-to' guides to learning online.

The section of the book that comes closest to what we are discussing here, and what could have been the most valuable contribution, is the section on what the DIY movement is, exactly. This, for example, is great:

DIY, or Do-It-Yourself, is a movement about self-reliance and empowerment. DIY communities help each other get the knowledge and tools they need to solve problems and accomplish goals on their own without being told how to act or being forced to spend a lot of money. That can mean growing your own food, fixing your own car, publishing your own writing or putting on your own rock show. (p.3)
That's very good. Not perfect, but very good. I wouldn't say the reason people embrace DIY is to save money. Often, doing things yourself can end up being a lot more expensive - just ask anyone who has built his own car. And it's not about not being told how to act. Most DIYers will take direction willingly, if it accords with what they are trying to do. But DIY is about self-reliance and empowerment, and more, it is about a passion for the thing, a desire to know, a desire to create or to control, a desire to get behind the surface appearance of things.

That's why it is so disappointing to read this:

In the case of DIY education, it means getting the knowledge you need at the time you need it, with enough guidance so you don’t get lost, but without unnecessary restrictions. DIY doesn’t mean that you do it all alone. It means that the resources are in your hands and you’re driving the process. (p.3)
Kamenetz simply doesn't understand what 'the process' is, which is why she is so mistaken about what it means to say 'you’re driving the process'. Education isn't about 'getting the knowledge'. It's not about 'getting' anything, except maybe a degree (about which we'll talk below). It's about becoming something - whether that something is a painter, carpenter, computer programmer or physicist. And becoming something is so much more than getting the 'big buckets of benefits' from educational institutions.

Now if your interest is in DIY education - that is, an interest in the educational process itself - then the logical next step is to do what edupunks have in fact done: to create and experiment with the design of courses online, to create their own courses. This is what Jim Groom (who coined the term, 'edupunk') has done with digital storytelling (ds106) - he has taken the idea of a traditional university course, disassembled it, and then inserted his students into the story telling process. His second version of the course - the 'summer of Oblivion' - had his student weave narratives in and around the narrative about 'Dr. Oblivion' he created to teach the course.

And this is what George Siemens, Rita Kop, Dave Cormier and I have done over a series of six or so Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) since 2008. Again, we have disassembled the educational process, put the tools into the hands of the course participants, and then invited them to recreate the course along 'connectivist' principles. In offering learning this way we are *being* edupunk, as are the course participants who created Second Life environments, Google groups, concept maps and illustrations, Twitter hashtags, online forums, in-person meetings, and more. We in these courses don't learn by reading, we don't learn by accessing course materials or watching videos, we learn by doing, by actually *creating* the distributed network that eventually became these courses.

Now of course, not everybody wants to learn storytelling or how to create an online course. People are interested in every discipline under the sun, and the way of approaching and learning in each discipline is unique to that discipline. People interested in carpentry build spice racks, then bookshelves, then cabins, and learn about mitre joints and toe-rails as they go along. People who want to be philosophers read a lot, and try tentative arguments in fan forums, gradually over time finding out about and being admitted to the insider circles where Fodor and Searle and Pylyshyn (for example) play.

It's *hard* to learn this way; in fact, it's *harder* than going to college. The educational system as it is currently structured is intended to offer a set of short cuts - access to qualified practitioners, creation of custom peer networks, guided and scaffolded practice - for a certain price. The system isn't (as suggested in Kamenetz's booklet) about imposing sets of restrictions and making things more expensive. It's about offering the greatest reach in the shortest time. It allows those willing and able to invest themselves full-time to master the basics of a discipline relatively quickly, so they can obtain employment and begin the real learning they will need to undertake in order to become expert.

And this is what Kamenetz simply misunderstands about traditional learning - that the greatest of the 'bucket of benefits' isn't provided by the college at all, but by the student. It is this full-time *immersion* into a discipline that helps someone *become* the sort of person who can, over time, be an expert in that discipline. You can't just get the 'benefits' offered by a college and somehow 'acquire' an education without that commitment, without that immersion, without that dedication. Kamenetz's version of DIY education depicts it as a quick and inexpensive short-cut -- the exact opposite of what it actually is.

Oh, and how. The seven how-to guides are each capsule examples of what I have been saying.

Take the first section, how to "do research online" (p.7). It becomes pretty apparent from the advice (which begins "start with Google" and continues through search terms and hashtags) that by "research" Kamenetz means something like "find stuff." As a guide to web-search, the page might offer reasonable novice-level instruction (which would be quickly superseded by practice). As a guide to "research" it is dangerously misleading.

What is research, anyways? An education in the disciplines that actually do research (which is, in fact, most of them) would suggest that it a structured method employed in order to identify causes or offer explanations of things. The historical researcher isn't interested simply in the fact that Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, she wants to know *why* he launched such a dangerous undertaking, what happened, what were the causes of its failure, and what the experience teaches us about the French, the Russians, and the nature of empires in general. And that is why Tolstoy's War and Peace is such a remarkable work. He doesn't just tell a story, he offers a thesis about the great events of the time, a thesis that has been expounded and studied by researchers of literature.

Where is any of this in Kamenetz's guide? Where is the understanding that research needs to have a plan and a method, that it needs to ask questions, and set criteria for what would constitute answers to those questions? Where is the distinction between different types of research, such as experimental research, say, and literature reviews? Shouldn't Kamenetz have advised people who want to research online to first learn how to research, and maybe suggested some examples of successful research, and places where people could practice their own research? No, instead we get "A successful online research session will leave you with 20 open tabs or windows at the top of your screen." (p.7) That's not advice; that's a travesty of advice.

Or consider the second how-to section, "write a personal learning plan." Having a plan is good; having several is even better (I cannot count the number of times my back-up plan has become my plan!). What we are given here are not plans. Consider these "goals" offered as examples:

“I want steady professional employment in the field of sustainability.”

“I want to start a business that feeds my love of jewellery.”

“I want to combine teaching English with travel.” (p.8)
These barely - if at all - count as goals. Kamenetz may as well have quoted six-year olds and given as examples "I want to ride a rocket ship" or "I want to be a fireman." A goal is something concrete, with a clear indicator of success, typically with a time frame, and described in terms of the effort being undertaken.

Attempting to clarify the first of the three goals given above would reveal, for example, that there is no such thing as 'the field of sustainability'. It would be necessary to describe employment as an environmental scientist, climate researcher, alternative energy engineer, or some such thing. So we would expect a goal to read something like "I want to qualify and obtain employment as a solar power designer by 2020."

Ah, but don't take my advice here. There's a lot of good material on identifying and setting goals, both online and off. This guide refers to none of it. It's as though Kamenetz is just making this up as she goes along. Or maybe depending on people like Weezie Yancey-Siegel, whose 'learning goal' Kamenetz cites as follows:

To try out more of a self-designed, experiential approach to learning. Along the way, I hope to create something new and spark further social change in the area of education, social media, global citizenship, and general do-gooding. (p. 10)
Her 'plan' consists of watching TED videos, reading some books, meditating, watching 'fictional films', and the like. We don't know why, for example, she supposes reading 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' will help here, except that it was (maybe) recommended by Amazon. We don't know why she recommends viewing Nathan Myhrvold on shooting mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers. Her 'plan' is what most of us would call 'a year off'.

And in fact, she is taking a year off her very traditional studies as a sophomore undergrad at Pitzer College in Southern California, majoring in International/Intercultural Studies. And her *actual* plan is to "create a new popular resource that I have realized does not exist at the moment. My hope is that my book and the varied profiles of bold 'eduventurists' will inspire other young people like myself to take their own leap into the unknown world of experiential, alternative learning."

Should I go on? How about 'how-to' number three, "teach yourself online", where step number 1 and step number 4 are both "ask a question", step number 3 is "do some serious reading", and step number 2 is "zero in on unfamiliar words, phrases, symbols or expressions." Yes, there's a sidebar that says "the process wouldn’t be complete until he tried to do it himself" - but there's no sense of learning from example, learning from experience, iterative and scaffolded practice, experimentation, documentation and note-taking - all the usual accoutrements of do-it-yourself learning.

Take a popular do-it-yourself instance, for example, learning to program online. Thousands - maybe millions - of people has taught themselves how to write software. The way *they* learned (the way *I* learned) does not in any way resemble the advice Kamenetz gives. Aspiring programmers look at what other programmers have done and read the explanations (at this point Kamanetz should gave Google-searched for 'worked examples', but she didn't). They experiment with the code, changing variables, adding functions, to learn how what they do creates new outcomes. They start with something simple (print "Hello world") move on to something more complex ("bubble sort") and engaging ("game of life") long before they, say, write their own word processor or database software.

They begin as apprentices, debugging and proposing fixes on other open source projects, forking and extending when they get their legs, always trying out and sharing their work in the public forum, critiquing and accepting criticism. This doesn't just teach them programming, it teaches them how to think like a programmer, how to measure success, how to define the optimal. None of this is in the programming books - it's what Polanyi would call 'tacit knowledge' or Kuhn would call 'knowing how to solve the problems at the end of the chapter'. All of which Kamenetz would know, if she had *researched* instead of just performing some Google searches.

It's as though Kamentetz has read *about* do-it-yourself learning, online or otherwise, but has never *done* it, much less tried to facilitate it. The remaining how-to guides (there's no need to deconstruct them all) are equally superficial and misleading.

Defending her work in the iDC discussion list, Kamenetz has turned to a general defense of the idea of DIY learning, and suggested that her critics are entrenched academics with their own interests to protect.

"So who's really uncomfortable with what I'm saying and how I'm saying it?" she asks. "A small subset of academics. People whose paychecks are currently signed by the academy. People for whom the transformation of education is a matter of academic interest in the narrow sense--you may be interested in informal, uncodable and untranslatable forms of self-learning, Marco, but there is no indication on that you refuse to give grades or credits."

Of the names I have cited above - Groom, Cormier, Siemens, Kop - only one (Groom) is employed as a university professor. The rest of us - myself included - are employed in other endeavours (and yes, we are employed - there's no law saying edupunks have to be penniless bums). And of the other people I could cite in the same context, some are professors but the majority are practitioners of one sort or another - technologists, designers, consultants, researchers, programmers, etc. It is ironic - and typical - that Kamenetz would join an academics' mailing list, and then complain that all the members are academics.

But let's look more seriously at what she is describing in these posts as edupunk. It appears to be, "how to get a degree quickly." The 'why' from above. She writes (ibid), "For a large proportion of people right now--as for a large proportion, if not the entirety, of the people on this list--that journey will include earning a credential from a recognized institution." She observes "the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and some people in the Department of Ed, and not a few community college leaders across the country, have been quite friendly to what I'm saying." And "Government cuts to higher education are the reality of the world we live in, and DIY approaches can help maximize the resources that remain."

She is free to hold her views, but that's not edupunk - it's not punk of any sort. It's establishment thinking combined with a good dose of offloading costs. Maybe it's good educational advice (it's not... but I digress) but it is definitely not edupunk. It's not even a good - or particularly informed - discussion of learning in the 21st century.

I don't want to conclude by recommending my own work, but I will, because Kamenetz is obviously not familiar with any of the ideas and trends characterizing edupunk, do-it-yourself, informal, online, or community-based learning. Accordingly, I offer 'The Future of Online Learning - Ten Years On' as a comprehensive summary and insight into the technologies and trends she is trying to describe.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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