Higher Education

Are we there yet? Or have we been edupunked?

So the term "edupunk" is making the rounds right now. Read a good synopsis here on Blogher. Basically though it’s what you would think it is: "corporate rock (I’m mean education) sucks." Much of this focuses on educational technology, particularly the Blackboard bogey-man. However it’s not all about that.

I suppose you could say Socrates was edupunk. If the death of Socrates is simultaneously the cornerstone heroic and cautionary tale of pedagogy, then the role of teacher as outsider, as critic, has a deep history. Certainly in English Studies this is reinforced by the Arnoldian positioning of literature as a salve for the ills of industrial culture. But I digress.

On the other hand, I can imagine that the average person would chortle at the idea of teacher as punk. About the only thing most teachers share with punks is that both have a tendency to look like they got dressed in the dark.

Still, I think there’s an interesting question here about how pedagogues position themselves in relation to institutionally-approved technologies and in the marketplace and commons of the larger techno-mediascape.

Personally, I would eschew the term "edupunk." Rhetorically, it just strikes me as trying too hard. However, I will say this about my techno-pedagogical practice:

  • I make little or no use of my college’s CMS (sometimes I use the gradebook and assignment submission elements).
  • I do use a wide range of commercial (though free), non-institutional applications–from g-mail and google docs to blogs, wikis, Second Life, delicious, youtube, etc., etc. I have not compunction about cobbling together disparate apps. Perhaps that’s a kind of punk aesthetic, but it isn’t strictly punk.
  • I also make use of some non-commercial, open source applications, but I haven’t made it my political/ethical mission to use such tech.
  • I make that choice to keep my work as separate as possible from the college. I do this because I do not want to give the impression of "speaking for" the institution (or get that kind of backlash). I also want to insulate myself from any policy decisions the institution might make.
  • I also do this because the institution almost uniformly makes decisions that are bad for me. Maybe they work for the average faculty. Not my department. Occasionally I will get a little support for an independent project, like buying a Second Life island, and I appreciate that. However if the college wants to create a see of users working on Dell Windows OS computers, composing in MS-Office, and uploading their essays to Blackboard/Web CT, those are not choices I would make for myself. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

This also has me thinking of Gardner Campbell’s keynote at the SUNY Conference on Instructional Technologies from which I just returned. His talk, and the theme of the conference, asked the question, "Are we there yet?" (Of course part of the problem is not knowing where "there" is).

What was really interesting to me about Gardner’s presentation was his clear articulation of the historical connections between inscriptional technologies, learning, and investigations of thinking, the mind, consciousness, etc. It’s a history that goes "all the way" back (something I discuss in my book) ;). But even if we just look at the immediate ancestors of the computer–Bush’s memex, Turing’s universal machine, Kay and Goldberg’s dynabook–we can see very explicit connections between these machines and learning, specifically learning about our own thought processes.

Gardner then went on to talk about educational challenges. It’s a serious mess as we know. And the day before I had sparked a rather heated discussion following my presentation with the off-hand remark that I would give colleges another 20-30 years–basically b/c I don’t believe the institution can bend enough. At the end of his presentation, Gardner presented a fairly bold and specific proposal to shape undergraduate education around the construction of a "personal learning environment." Basically, students would be given a broad set of tools to compose, document, and curate their education. They’d take some instructional courses in that first year as well (perhaps a revamped composition?).

It’s an interesting suggestion of how we might put education more in the hands of learners while also asking them to see their experience in a more holistic way. The one question I raised at the keynote was thinking about how students might use such a space in relation to other spaces, Facebook being the obvious example. Thinking about this in terms of edupunk though, it is important to consider that some of us–students and faculty–will want to get away from the institutional tools, no matter what they are, simply out of mistrust of the institution. Not distrust mind you, just mistrust. I don’t think they’re evil. In fact, I’ve never met any "evil" people at my college. However, I think it’s unwise to not diversify one’s portfolio of networked presence. Diversity keeps you strong and secure. It encourages you to try new things. And I think it gives you a better sense of the networked market/commons (whichever metaphor you prefer there).

The flipside of this though is getting edu-punked. Moving beyond the walled gardens and corporate relations of institutional-instructional technology is about more than style. The emo teen can’t just dump his/her paycheck at hot topic and emerge with a new identity. That’s the emperor’s new clothes effect of web 2.0.

Something to watch for.

#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(461px,auto, auto,461px);}