How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education

Is a college education really like a string quartet? Back in 1966, that was the assertion of economists William Bowen, later president of Princeton, and William Baumol. In a seminal study, Bowen and Baumol used the analogy to show why universities can’t easily improve efficiency.

If you want to perform a proper string quartet, they noted, you can’t cut out the cellist nor can you squeeze in more performances by playing the music faster. But that was then — before MP3s and iPods proved just how freely music could flow. Before Google scanned and digitized 7 million books and Wikipedia users created the world’s largest encyclopedia. Before YouTube Edu and iTunes U made video and audio lectures by the best professors in the country available for free, and before college students built Facebook into the world’s largest social network, changing the way we all share information. Suddenly, it is possible to imagine a new model of education using online resources to serve more students, more cheaply than ever before.

But higher education remains, on the whole, a string quartet. MIT’s courseware may be free, yet an MIT degree still costs upward of $189,000. College tuition has gone up more than any other good or service since 1990, and our nation’s students and graduates hold a staggering $714 billion in outstanding student-loan debt. Once the world’s most educated country, the United States today ranks 10th globally in the percentage of young people with postsecondary degrees. “Colleges have become outrageously expensive, yet there remains a general refusal to acknowledge the implications of new technologies,” says Jim Groom, an “instructional technologist” at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington and a prominent voice in the blogosphere for blowing up college as we know it. Groom, a chain-smoker with an ever-present five days’ growth of beard, coined the term “edupunk” to describe the growing movement toward high-tech do-it-yourself education. “Edupunk,” he 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.”

The edupunks are on the march. From VC-funded startups to the ivied walls of Harvard, new experiments and business models are springing up from entrepreneurs, professors, and students alike. Want a class that’s structured like a role-playing game? An accredited bachelor’s degree for a few thousand dollars? A free, peer-to-peer Wiki university? These all exist today, the overture to a complete educational remix.

The architects of education 2.0 predict that traditional universities that cling to the string-quartet model will find themselves on the wrong side of history, alongside newspaper chains and record stores. “If universities can’t find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them,” professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written, “universities will be irrelevant by 2020.”

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Christopher Wofford is Digital Media Producer and host of WebSeries at eCornell.
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