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EduPunks Say School Yourself!

Their DIY movement is reinventing how, and why, we learn.

By Steve Howard, Nicole Veerman and Jim Saunders 20 Mar 2010 |

Steve Howard, Nicole Veerman and Jim Saunders are students in the masters of journalism program at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.

[Editor's note: The Tyee is proud to co-publish with a multi-part investigation of Maker Culture -- the do-it-yourself movement fast evolving in North America and beyond. This is episode ten of 11, running Fridays.]

One night in 2008 at a Brooklyn bar, a drunk Jim Groom coined a term that has changed the way the world looks at education.

The word is EduPunk and it sums up the need for educational reform -- reform that, to some extent, has already begun.

Ordinary people are taking their education into their own hands. Using Web 2.0 tools, they have a world of knowledge at their fingertips. And classrooms, lectures, and curriculums are changing, dramatically.

"What we're doing now as EduPunks is we're kind of taking the same concept, the same ethos of the punk era and we're applying it to education," says Steve Wheeler, a self-proclaimed EduPunk educator at the University of Plymouth. "We're doing it ourselves. We're using our own tools. We're bypassing the educational systems that have been put in place by the corporate companies and institutions. That's EduPunk."

What does that mean? It means people are coming up with their own ways of educating themselves. Ways that don't include conventional tools, but rather new devices like wikis, blogs, and open-source textbooks to learn what they want.           

"You try to do it cheap, you don't kind of overthink it. You don't necessarily need institutional buy-in. Anyone can do whatever they want in some way. All they need is a cheap web-hosting account to change the way they think about this stuff and then we're not tied to corporate entities to dictate what we do and how we do it," said Groom, an instructional technologist at the University of Mary Washington.

Define, please

Although many educators and students agree with the need for change and Groom's EduPunk approach to revolutionizing the education system, there is a debate around the term itself.

But for Groom, it's not the word that matters, it's the idea and spirit surrounding the movement.

"I don't know if the term itself will outlive the logic, but the logic is certainly alive and well and exciting to watch happen," he says.

Groom's friend and colleague, Gardner Campbell, supports the need for radical change in the education system, but feels the inclusion of the word 'punk' in EduPunk is encouraging the destruction of the system without a plan for reconstruction.

"There is a concern that I have, that the energy of the word punk can turn negative in ways that are not going to help us build... I just want be able to build something so that were not just looking at each other once everything is in pieces on the ground and saying 'well now what?'"

For Brian Frank, a self-educator in London, Ontario, the discovery of EduPunk finally gave him a word for his own approach to education.

"I've tried to figure out a word for years, but anything I've come up with is boring. EduPunk really resonates with people on a certain level and even if it's not perfectly accurate, it has the emotional appeal that a movement like this needs to build momentum," he explains. And build momentum it did. The word appeared all over the blogosphere since it was coined and doesn't seem to be disappearing. Now it's time for the rest of the world to catch up, especially the working world.

Since Frank began educating himself in 2002, he worked retail and customer service jobs to make ends meet. He says his self-education hasn't been well received by potential employers. "It ranges from incomprehension to being offended almost," he says. "I'll tell them I'm writing an essay about digital media, and people will say, well, 'what can you do with that?'"

Frank adds it's hard to account for everything he's doing when employers are programmed to look for academic credentials.

It's now 2009 and he is starting to see changes in workplace culture. He says he's on his way to accounting for his self-study. Public speaking engagements on digital media and democracy at London's public library and other local tech events are adding credibility. At the library talk, Frank drew parallels with times-past.

"Like in ancient Athens, we today are changing how we remember and learn things through new digital tools. The difference, though, is that with the Internet, the changes are happening a lot more rapidly because we are finally starting to take advantage of its capabilities."

Who needs credentials?

Frank also sees a move away from what he believes are the "tyranny of credentials."

"(We need to) get back to a system where we actually trust the people we work with and the people we go to school with. And we have more robust relationships with them," he says.

Gardner Campbell, director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning at Baylor University, believes this too. "You [will] come into a workplace and it's not just here's your workplace, here's your set of tasks, do them over and over until you find another job, you quit or you retire," he says. "It may be that the workplace becomes . . . another kind of learning community."

Campbell notes businesses will be hungry for people who aren't going to sit down and simply do a set of assigned tasks, but are going to invest themselves in the ongoing discovery that is necessary to fuel a business. But when are these businesses going to be ready?

Campbell couldn't be sure if it'd be a rapid change or an incremental one that will happen over the next five to 10 years. That doesn't offer much solace for Frank. However, Campbell expects a new educational model to emerge that could "eat everyone's lunch."

"Those people that are living through a very bad time right now will suddenly find the tables have turned," Campbell explains.

Steve Wheeler, of the University of Plymouth's education faculty in the U.K., says it's becoming increasingly difficult to help students with academic programs. He says three years after they've entered university and come out the other side, the world of work could have changed rapidly. "The students are coming out into a world of work, but they don't know what it's going to look like until they get there," he adds.

And just like Brian Frank, students are doing a lot of informal learning from the Internet, which in the long run can add up to a lot. That's why in the U.K., they've created a system called Accreditation of Prior and Experiential Learning. It's the beginning of a new way to account for this type of informal learning.

At the moment, Wheeler says employers still want university degrees, but admits that the world of employment is changing.

"We've got to accept that," he explains. "It's not just about qualifications anymore. It's about the whole life experience and what you can bring to a job. Who you are and not just what you know."

So with change due in the future, Frank also looked back, well past the punk era, for guidance and parallels from throughout history. He looked back 2,000 years. There he imagined classical thinkers sitting around maybe not discussing EduPunk, but having a similar discussion to the one Jim Groom had the night he coined EduPunk. 

'Wright brothers had no pilot's licence'

During his presentation on digital media, Frank explained that over a 100-year span, thinkers in classical times were coming to grips with new ways of organizing information. They decided to begin recording their history, to build schools and libraries. They invented history and politics, and organized information in a way that made it easier to learn.

Frank sees the same thing happening today. Not only are new technologies becoming part of how we learn, they are changing the way we communicate information. He sees the invention of hypertexts, Google and social media as turning points in the way we organize information.

In fact, Frank doesn't see EduPunk as a movement that's on the cutting edge. He sees it as the reinvention of an older method of learning.

In his presentation, he pointed out that at some point everything we take for granted as part of a standardized education was invented by someone.

"The Wright brothers didn't have a pilot license. The people who invented history and philosophy, they didn't go to school for it. I think we're in an anomaly right now. A historical anomaly where instead of just trusting people and being more adventurous, we're having to rely on paperwork to back up someone's qualifications."

If the idea of open information was around 2,000 years ago, when did it start to disappear?

"The industrial revolution, I guess," says Frank. "We use industrialization as a metaphor for how things should run. Harvard business school opened at the same time as the Ford assembly line started. Bit of a coincidence there."

Frank believes the financial system eventually swallowed up education. It's a view shared by Groom.

"I tend to think that our social system is really at the root of a lot of these issues. Even with EduPunk, people are, like, why don't you patent it? Why don't you try to make money out of it? People approach me with this. What's a better way to kill an idea then to co-opt it and to make it completely irrelevant? It's disgusting."

Groom believes financial institutions are at the heart of the problems with education. As evidenced by the story of Brian Frank, finding a solution to those problems is no simple task. Some educators believe the system needs to be torn down and completely rebuilt. Other critics, such as Gardner Campbell believe there is still a place for the institution of school, it just needs to be altered.

Client-driven education?

Somewhere in the middle lies a former college instructor from London, Ont., named David Hall.

"Probably for the past two years there has been this movement in health care, which is called client-driven care," explains Hall. "It's this thing about restructuring health care to the patient rather than the other way around. I think that's something education can benefit greatly from."

Hall imagines a system where the student is an active participant in their own education. In order for this system to work, though, students need to be engaged in their own education.  He says students don't realize how important education is when they're going through it.

"There's definitely a level of apathy," says Hall. "You have a lot of people who are so young going to school. They've come out of high school and they don't really know how to handle this new-found freedom. They just sort of show up, pay their tuition and go to class and that's kind of it."

Campbell doesn't believe the onus for change is necessarily on the students, though. He says if the universities of the future are to survive they will have to make the effort to capture the imagination of their students.

"The part that resonates most with me is that learning has to start with the learners desire to learn, and until and when that's awakened, you're putting people on a conveyor belt," says Campbell. "If that spirit is missing from the university, then the university has to find a way to recapture that and to be a platform for that."  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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