Anarchy in the U, eh? (DIY U book review)

Graduation season is upon us, and that means colleges and universities across the nation are trotting out celebrities, writers, thinkers, journalists and public intellectuals to deliver commencement addresses to the newest crop of graduates-to-be.

DIY U, by Anya Kamenetz
DIY U, by Anya Kamenetz
One writer who won’t be called upon to dispense wisdom from the commencement platform this spring is Anya Kamenetz. That would be a little bit like inviting John Lydon to address graduates at the Julliard School. Even though Lydon — aka Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the punk band the Sex Pistols — became famous for creating music, his style doesn’t really fit the mold of the prestigious performing arts conservatory.

Likewise, the message of Kamenetz’s new book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, probably comes across as nails on the chalkboard for many college administrators.

DIY U is a timely call for our nation’s higher education system to embrace the power of technology to expand access. Even though college campuses were among the first institutions in the world to embrace Internet technology, when it comes to using it effectively as an educational tool, we’re behind the curve.

Kamenetz envisions an alternate university. What if students, rather than following the traditional path of higher education (four-year bachelor’s degrees, hour-long lectures), were able instead to cobble together their own learning path from course materials readily available online? This kind of “do-it-yourself” approach is gaining ground among a growing number of “edupunks” and “edupreneurs” who see technology as the answer to the rising costs and inefficiencies associated with traditional college.

Those who know a little bit about my affinity for all things punk — the music as well as the ethos* — know that I could never resist picking up a book with “DIY” in the title and “punks” in the subtitle. As soon as I heard about Kamenetz’s book (thank you, Mark Greenfield), I ordered it. And while I wasn’t completely satisfied with the book’s conclusions, I’ve got to give DIY U high marks for stimulating thought and discussion about the state of higher education today.

First of all, despite the book’s title and punk-inspired cover art (a clenched fist holding a pencil), Kamenetz isn’t exactly Johnny Rotten. She has an Ivy League pedigree (Yale, class of 2002) and a steady gig as a journalist at a respectable business magazine, Fast Company. DIY U is her second book; it’s a logical follow-up to her first, Generation Debt, which discusses the crushing student loan debt load modern-day college grads take on.

Kamenetz’s journalistic technique shines in DIY U. She expertly weaves together seemingly disparate data points into a solid narrative that places today’s higher ed challenges in historical contextg. DIY U is very well researched, as evidenced by the detailed end notes. (This is a plus, in my opinion.) It’s also a quick read. Take away the end notes, bibliography, index and resource guide (an outline for pursuing a do-it-yourself education beyond the walls of the academy, complete with web links and other information), and the book comes in at a mere 135 pages — more monograph than academic tome. That’s probably for the best, because even with its exhaustive annotation, anything beyond the book’s six chapters, resource guide and back matter would be filler.

Kamenetz lays out her book in six terse chapters. Part One of the book — “How We Got Here” — opens with “History,” a survey of how the American university came to be and how the notion of “college for all” became interwoven into the American Dream. From there, Part One moves on to “Sociology” and “Economics.” Part Two — “How We Get There” (“There” being the technology-transformed university of the future) — begins with “Computer Science” (a discussion of technology’s advantages) and moves on to “Independent Study” and “Commencement.” (Kamenetz offers chapter 6, Commencement, on her DIY U blog.) Once you walk across that stage at the end of chapter 6, instead of a diploma you get Kamenetz’s resource guide.

Along the way, you pick up some interesting tidbits of knowledge, or re-learn some things you may have forgotten over the years. For example: the idea that higher education should be open and accessible is as much a myth as the American Dream itself. Despite expansion over the years, college is still beyond the reach of many Americans. At the same time, due to the loss of manufacturing jobs and the decline of labor unions over the past 20-30 years, more young Americans are looking to college as a means to a better life. High school graduates who in the past may have gone to work at the local auto plant are now looking to enroll in community college or one of those for-profit private universities that spend big bucks to market their services. To afford the cost, they take on unmanageable debt — betting on a future that doesn’t look so rosy.

“Traditional colleges are trapped in an unsustainable cost spiral,” she writes in chapter 3 (“Economics”). While college tuition rose more slowly than household income in the 1940s and 1950s and at about the same rate from the ’50s through 1980, the cost of going to college “leaped 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, after inflation.”

But, Kamenetz argues, college could be made more affordable and accessible if only traditional public and private campuses would leverage technology — offering more coursework online and allowing students to customize their learning plans. She discusses the work of a radical monk named Ivan Illich, whose book Deschooling Society forms the foundation of some edupunks’ alt-education ideas, and presents examples of how edupunks and edupreneurs are incorporating DIY techniques in traditional universities and non-traditional programs.

“The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore,” Kamenetz writes in her “Commencement” address. But, she adds, “these changes will not automatically become pervasive. Many existing institutions, especially those with the greatest reserves of wealth and reputation, will manage to remain outwardly, physically the same for decades, and to charge ever-higher tuition, even as enrollment shifts more and more toward the for-profits and community colleges and other places that adopt these changes.”

So, for Kamenetz, the future of education may lie with innovative for-profit schools like Grand Canyon University and the University of Phoenix. (Interestingly, both Phoenix and Grand Canyon were prominently featured, not too favorably, in the recent PBS Frontline special, College, Inc. The program was billed as an investigative report on “how Wall Street and a new breed of for-profit universities are transforming the way we think about college in America.”) She doesn’t rule out traditional colleges from innovation, but points out that change will be more difficult for them, and that the lower-tiered private schools will have it toughest of all. She picks on Hofstra University in particular, noting that it “happens to be in the worst value-for-money quadrant in higher education: private, yet nonelite.”

There is, of course
, a difference between information and knowledge. In the Internet age, information is plentiful. But sifting through it all and developing a plan for true education will require a little more than a do-it-yourself approach — that is, if you want to attain an education for some tangible purpose, rather than for the love of learning itself.

That is the other issue with the DIY approach. Anyone with an Internet connection can learn about just about anything. But will that learning be certified? If students are after some sort of legitimate certification, then “legitimate” institutions, degreed instructors, accreditation agencies, etc., will still be needed.

DIY U is an important book for anyone in the higher ed business to read. As a commenter mentioned in one of my recent Seth Godin posts, “Higher education is at a crossroads. It does need to think differently.”

Recently, the University of California System announced plans to expand its online education program, due to its fiscal crisis. Kamenetz talks about California in the early portion of her book, describing how the university’s ambitious California Master Plan for Higher Education broadened access to more students in the 1960s. Perhaps the California system’s new effort will lend legitimacy to virtual education and make it acceptable for other institutions to follow suit.

Hey, it worked for punk rock.

* * *

* I’m aware of the contradictory nature of my typical consumerist lifestyle with the true DIY ethos many punks embrace. But it is as the Clash put it in “Death or Glory” (YouTube), “Now every cheap hood strikes a bargain with the world.” I’ve struck my bargain with the world, thank you very much.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

12 thoughts on “Anarchy in the U, eh? (DIY U book review)”

  1. Good review. I have it here and I’ve skimmed it because it’s so easily made for that, but haven’t really poured into it well enough yet to have a strong assessment of thoughts on it. At least any I’m willing to vocalize yet anyway. :)

  2. I’m in the middle of reading this book right now, and I find it sharp, but imperfect.

    While the diploma or professional certification could be made cheaper, sometimes I wonder what we might be missing if the entire higher education system was “rethought.” I work at an elite university, and yes, I believe our tuition (which we heavily subsidize) is worth the cost. Our school does a lot more than just teach students…. it offers our students the opportunity to do research, to attend free lectures where there is free food, to be in an incubator with other smart, driven students. I have not spent much time in higher ed, but if anything, I find that the demand for improved non-academic services exceeds the demand for lower tuition.

    But I guess Kamenetz isn’t addressing schools like Yale and such: she’s talking more about the other schools in the higher education landscape, in which cases I agree with her wholeheartedly. It disappoints me to see students pay good money for degrees in fields that they could have entered with a high school diploma and relevant experience and excelled in with some kind of certification (i.e. hospitality management, emergency management, parks and recreation). Even worse are the career colleges, where students pay thousands of dollars to enter at minimum-wage jobs. Is the “college for all” attitude to blame for this “degree inflation?”

    Anyway, when we rethink higher ed, we have to remember that there are many different kinds of institutions serving many different needs, some of them more legitimately than others.

  3. Nice wrap-up. I’m still reading DIY U, but there are several questions or objections I have that your post seems to hint on:

    1. Would Anya be able to accomplish what she’s accomplished without a college degree? Without it, would doors of publishing, journalism, and thought leadership be open?

    2. Even if one cobbles together an education, is it recognized as such? In hiring, education often comes with a translation into experience (MBA, or 5-7 years experience). I suspect that hiring managers would rather hire those with practical experience and less education than applicants who took some courses here and there but don’t have the sheepskin from an accredited degree institution.

    3. The book is very much focused outside the elite segments, and it raised my eyebrows when I learned that half of all college students are at community colleges. What this tells me is that education is very important, but one of the significant problems is the reliance on a 4-year degree from a brand-name institution and a ridiculous amount of student debt.

  4. I agree with the premise that students are becoming burdened with too much debt for the salary they may eventually make, and that our higher ed system needs some serious review.

    However (there’s always a however), I have a couple of concerns with the premise that students right out of high school can “cobble” together a meaningful education. A very motivated student possibly could, but I have my doubts when it comes to an average college student. We handhold them through orientation and class scheduling, advising, first year experience, etc. Can they really create an education on their own? I think age plays a big role, the average age of a University of Phoenix student is between 33 and 36, not 18.

    And would a cobbled together education meet the demands of business and industry to compete in a global market? I worked in radio for a number of years without a degree, then went to a local university night program at age 29 to get a degree. And I would say that’s what I got, a degree, not an education. Sure, I got some out of it, but research on my own is how I’ve moved up the ladder. The colleagues that I feel are best positioned are the ones who went the traditional route, had a great college experience filled with interships, etc., and learned at college what it’s like in the business world.

  5. Good thoughts, all.

    Ron – Yes, the book is easy to skim. But it’s worth digging into. I read a chapter at a time, then set it down to ponder, then skimmed that same chapter to make notes before moving on.

    AE – You bring up a good point when you write, “I find that the demand for improved non-academic services exceeds the demand for lower tuition.” I failed to note that Kamenetz addresses this issue in her book, too, and it’s not unimportant. Campuses are pouring big bucks into physical plant upgrades that may contribute to the “student experience” but aren’t core to the academic mission. Rock-climbing walls are nice, but not always necessary.

    Chas – My response to your three points:

    1. I’m sure Anya’s degree (and her Ivy League background) opened doors for her. Any degree ought to be a ticket into some door or other. This book would perhaps be more authentic had the author been some self-educated journalist, but such a person would have a tough time finding a publisher. It helps to start out with a regular gig writing for the Village Voice (that’s where “Generation Debt,” the column, began) and be able to parlay that into a book deal. From there, more doors open.

    2. At this stage in the game, a cobbled-together education without certification (i.e., that coveted sheepskin) is not worth much. Apprenticeships would be nice.

    3. [O]ne of the significant problems is the reliance on a 4-year degree from a brand-name institution and a ridiculous amount of student debt. Indeed.

  6. Superb review of a good book. I just finished reading it and much of the factual/reference content matches what was covered in my master’s degree program in higher ed administration. Could I have “learned” the material by reading her book and the online commentary about it? Yes. Could I have understood it in the same way without a seminar setting in which a dozen people passionate about the topic, approaching it from different angles and experiences, all discussed it, argued, pointed out alternative interpretations, additional resources and contrary arguments, under the watchful facilitation of a researcher with a professional background? No. At least…I don’t think so.

    I think the comments above in some cases miss a major point that I read between the lines in Kamenetz’s book. That is, saying “but the system is a certain way!” is the reason it’s a mess. Nobody seems willing to endure the unstable, unsettling, glass-breaking transitional period that will be necessary if we’re to replace traditional standards with revised ones.

    For example:

    Yes, students require a lot of handholding, orientation, advising. How will we build a system where they can self-direct without testing and valuing a “system” that does NOT hold their hands?

    Yes, students are at a disadvantage if they don’t hold a traditional degree (or other certification) from some accredited place that “everyone” agrees is a “good” school. How can we validate the self-educated DIY U student if we don’t willingly decrease the value we attribute to traditional paths, accreditations and degrees?

    [Disclaimers: On the one hand, I graduated from an Ivy League school, on the other, I homeschooled my daughter after age 8.]

    Thanks for generating this discussion Andrew!

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