There's been much talk around the web regarding Anya Kamenetz's book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, which obviously connects with a conversation about the changing nature of higher education which is a long time topic here. Clearly I am interested in the potential of digital media to change education. I have often written about changes I see happening or think will happen. I write even more about the possibilities I see and interesting, productive ways to intervene in this situation. At the same time, I remain skeptical of the potential of a non-institutional educational system working as a substitute for higher education for the majority of students.
Put bluntly, if you were to take the average student I have taught and tell them "Here's the web; go get an education," the results would not be good. Is it hypothetically possible to create a society where such a system could operate in lieu of institutionalized education? I would say yes. Many, many things are hypothetically possible. Could this kind of approach work now for a small percentage of people? Probably, especially if they already have an extensive college education. (And it's only partly ironic that most of the people who argue for DIY education have impressive formal educations, without which they probably wouldn't be in a position to make the arguments they do.) But I digress.
The point I really want to make here is that all education is DIY. Maybe we've forgotten that, and maybe that's part of the problem we face. A student enters my composition class. I can't make her learn. The best I can do is create a context where she has a greater opportunity to learn about writing than if she wasn't in the course. The work I do with students in the classroom or in office hours and the communications I have with them online or through the assignments they do and the comments I give them are just a tiny portion of the learning process.
Really you have to do it yourself. And ultimately college is about putting people in a situation where they can become more independent learners. But we see how hard that is. Doctoral students go through years of graduate coursework to learn about their subject and become independent researchers, but it is common for doctoral students to struggle in the transition from the supervised work of a course to the more independent work of writing a dissertation. A good number never write that dissertation. And even among those who do write the dissertation, many struggle to continue researching, writing, and developing as a professional once they leave their doctoral institutions and start academic jobs.
Honestly there are all kinds of pitfalls in DIY education. The obvious one is making everything too easy on yourself. Who's going to set and uphold the standard? But equally perilous is being too hard or demanding of yourself. This is what happens to some grad students who are unwilling to believe they are ready to write their dissertations. I joke from time to time that the problem with higher ed is its mini-me pedagogy, where professors are always trying to turn students into versions of themselves. But maybe that's exactly what we need in a strange way. If students need to be become self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learners, then that's what professors should be able to model and reproduce because that's what we are.
I suppose my point is that higher education is DIY education or at least should be. It is a community of experts and learners (expert learners really) following a path of education that has been worked out collectively but that still leaves much space for independent thought. It's been a little obscured, in my view, with this heavy apparatus of general education and a kind of infantilizing of students through all these support systems we provide, but honestly it does seem like students are less prepared. I don't mean that they know less necessarily but rather that they seem to feel like they need more structure. Maybe also the turn toward professionalization has over-structured the four-year degree.
Ultimately though I look at the ethos of a DIY education as being at the heart of what the liberal arts are about.