Are Edupunks The Cure To The College Cost Crisis?

"'Edupunk,' [Jim Groom] tells me in the opening notes of his first email, 'is about the utter irresponsibility and lethargy of educational institutions and the means by which they are financially cannibalizing their own mission.'"

Are Edupunks The Cure To The College Cost Crisis?

Ben Stechschulte" />

Jim Groom is ""instructional technologist" at Virginia's University of Mary Washington and a prominent voice in the blogosphere for blowing up college as we know it," and one of the featured innovators in "Who Needs Harvard?" Fast Company's exploration of the changing nature of higher education.

All the people and ideas discussed in the Anya Kamenetz's article converge on one idea: our model for higher education needs to change and adapt to continue to be relevant. This is a powerful message, especially now as the United States educational rankings are sliding (the article states we've slid to tenth most educated nation, down from number one) and the average cost of a college education is spiraling out of control.

But can moving to an open-source model of education work and still provide the type of structure and benefits of a traditional school setting? A few of the interview subjects decided to directly tackle that question:

In 2005, [Neeru Paharia, now a PhD student at Harvard Business School] started AcaWiki, a crowdsourced compilation of free summaries of academic papers. Now, she says, she wants to address "all the other things that a university does for you: It provides you a clear path from A to B, provides social infrastructure of teachers and other students, and accreditation so you actually get credit for what you do. So the question becomes, Is there a way of hacking something like this together?"

At a conference in Croatia last year, Paharia met Jan Philipp Schmidt, a German computer scientist working on open courseware in South Africa; together with a Canadian and an Australian, they started Peer2Peer University, which has become one of the most buzzed-about initiatives in open education. Would-be students can use the Web site to convene and schedule classes, meet online, and tutor one another; a volunteer facilitator for each course helps the process along. Peer2Peer got a $70,000 seed grant from the Hewlett Foundation to launch its first 10 pilot courses, in topics from behavioral economics to Wikipedia visualization — content areas that already have online audiences of self-motivated learners.

Other educators are decided to solve one of the problems that leads to the devaluation of college degrees in the workplace - difficulties measure competence, not just coursework:

If open courseware is about applying technology to sharing knowledge, and Peer2Peer is about social networking for teaching and learning, Bob Mendenhall, president of the online Western Governors University, is proudest of his college's innovation in the third, hardest-to-crack dimension of education: accreditation and assessment. WGU was formed in the late 1990s, when the governors of 19 western states decided to take advantage of the newfangled Internet and create an online university to expand access to students in rural communities across their region. Today, it's an all-online university with 12,000 students in all 50 states. It's a private not-for-profit, like Harvard; the only state money was an initial $100,000 stake from each founding state. WGU runs entirely on tuition: $2,890 for a six-month term.

"We said, 'Let's create a university that actually measures learning,' " Mendenhall says. "We do not have credit hours, we do not have grades. We simply have a series of assessments that measure competencies, and on that basis, award the degree."

WGU began by convening a national advisory board of employers, including Google and Tenet Healthcare. "We asked them, 'What is it the graduates you're hiring can't do that you wish they could?' We've never had a silence after that question." Then assessments were created to measure each competency area. Mendenhall recalls one student who had been self-employed in IT for 15 years but never earned a degree; he passed all the required assessments in six months and took home his bachelor's without taking a course.

I have to admit, all this discussion appeals to me. As a someone who read The Teenage Liberation Handbook at a formative age, adopted some of the key principles of the unschooling movement, and subsequently dropped out of college when I couldn't reconcile the cost with the benefit, I can really get behind a lot of these initiatives, particularly for those of us with a strong focus or who, for reasons of temperament or ability, cannot gel with the current system of education.

In addition, I think that looking at educational alternatives would help to reset the value of a college degree. I had an argument with a former boss once, over the required schooling needed to do the job I was leaving. In agreeing to help her write the job description, I noticed she had slipped in a "college degree required" line.

When I asked why, pointing out that I had done the job well without a degree (because really, the job only required reading comprehension and basic communication skills) she said "well, that's just to keep the riff-raff out."

Excuse me?

"By your standards, I'm uneducated," I pointed out.

She waved off my concerns, but I - having fought with the employment market for over a decade at that point - knew that the lack of a degree resulted in an instant disqualification for many jobs. And many of those jobs were compensating at under $12 an hour, which strikes me a bit unreasonable. It's one thing to require a degree for an entry-level, stepping stone job, but for a job you acknowledge is dead end? Where is the logic in that decision? It just cheapens the overall value of earning a degree.

However, the price of going without a college degree is a high one to pay, and life is much much harder. However, with many college-qualified students choosing to opt-out due to costs and other factors, perhaps it is time to examine alternate methods of education.

Kamenetz agrees, noting:

Paharia's idea of "hacking" education — putting something together on the fly — is important. All of these projects are still very much works in progress. Not even the most starry-eyed geeks are claiming that an LCD monitor can and should replace the richest, most fully textured college experience out there (at least not yet). But it could certainly represent an upgrade in opportunity for those who can't afford college, or for the half of American college students who attend community colleges, or even the 80% who attend nonselective universities.

Ultimately what interests Paharia is proving the model, demonstrating that there's a way to provide education cheaply or even for free to all who are qualified. "I ride the Boston T around and I see these ads for schools, and it bothers me that so much hope is rested on having an education, and yet at the end of the day you end up with $100,000 in debt. What are you paying for? And is this the best way of setting up the system?"

Peer2Peer is not the only attempt to bridge the gap between free material and cheap education. The online University of the People, founded by Shai Reshef, who made his fortune in for-profit education, signed up its first class this fall — 300 students from nearly 100 countries. While it has yet to get accreditation, the not-for-profit plans to offer bachelor's degrees in business and computer science using open courseware and volunteer faculty; fees would add up to about $4,000 for a full four-year degree.

Perhaps it is time to start restructuring our ideas of what constitutes an education. In the process of explaining why our educational model functions the way it does, Kamenetz explains:

The university as we know it was born around AD 1100, when communities formed in Bologna, Italy; Oxford, England; and Paris around a scarce, precious information technology: the handwritten book. Illuminated manuscripts of the period show a professor at a podium lecturing from a revered volume while rows of students sit with paper and quill — the same basic format that most classes take 1,000 years later.

Today, we've gone from scarcity of knowledge to unimaginable abundance. It's only natural that these new, rapidly evolving information technologies would convene new communities of scholars, both inside and outside existing institutions.

We do benefit from a glut of information, and only lack a way to effectively organize and quantify learning outside of a university system. But even if these new online systems give rise to less expensive options for college, will our existing digital divide continue to perpetuate the same set of problems?

Who Needs Harvard? How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education
[Fast Company]
Cost of higher education gets more pricey [USA Today]
The Teenage Liberation Handbook
Unschooling [Wikipedia]
Misperceptions and Unexpected Barriers Deter Some of The Nation's Brightest Students From Attending College [IHEP]
Digital Divide [Wikipedia]

(Image of Neeru Paharia| Photograph by Ben Stechschulte)