Just got finished reading Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U. On the whole, I found it a worthy read, sloppy in places, but also usefully provocative. Its main value, I think, is in the early chapters, where Kamenetz traces out the causes of skyrocketing tuition costs. The upshot: a broken system of state/federal aid and loans plus the costs of “bundled” services that have nothing to do with learning. I agree that both of these things need to be fixed.
Where things get dicey is when Kamenetz starts offering recommendations. She believes that technology will save us all, both by creating more efficiencies at the institutional level and by allowing people to go all “edupunk” by bypassing institutional middle-men and going straight to all the juicy knowledge available online. Inside Higher Ed‘s “Dean Dad” has done a nice job opening up — and critiquing — Kamenetz’s brand of myopic anti-institutionalism.
My main concerns with the book have more to do with pedagogy. Kamenetz too often mistakes the delivery of static content with “learning.” Yes, there are moments when she breaks out of this pattern and advocates for “personal learning networks,” but for the most part DIY U is a love letter to things like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which collects materials from courses taught at MIT. I’ve got nothing against OCW, but access to course materials is not the same as taking a course. As I wrote in an earlier post, bad pedagogy is bad pedagogy, whether it’s in a classroom or online. The worst f2f college courses involve a professor standing in front of a large lecture hall, monotonously reading from yellowing notes that haven’t been revised in decades, and then providing no opportunity to discuss or practice what’s being “taught.” Having online access to course materials is like having access to those lecture notes, and it would be generous to call that “learning.”
I’m also skeptical of Kamenetz’s claims that technology can help increase efficiency and reduce costs for institutions. Like many who make this claim, she doesn’t ever say exactly how this will happen. What she implies, I think, is that by collecting and making accessible static course content, the need for faculty expertise is reduced. That is, an expert in a field like math or physics needs to develop a course only once, and then lower-paid instructors can then “teach” online courses using those materials. There are at least two things wrong with this assembly-line vision of college education. For starters, it’ll deepen rather than solve adjunct labor issues in the academy. More worrisome is the fact that it views course development as an “inefficiency,” rather than a core value of the university. Good teaching is responsive; it changes over time. It responds both to changes in knowledge about a particular subject, and to the uptake by students. A good teacher revises, retools, and reinvents a course each time it’s taught.
And even if we could somehow reduce the need for faculty labor in course development, technological infrastructure and support come with their own costs. Computers aren’t free, and they also don’t age very well. The more dependent a school is on them, the more it has to commit to continually replace technology over time. Software licenses aren’t cheap, either, and have a nasty habit of needing to be renewed. Moreover, all those machines don’t run themselves. Campus IT departments have to hire enough technicians to keep them going, and also enough people to provide technical support for all the teachers and students who run into problems (as they always do). I worry already about the effects of having instructional technology in the hands of technocrats who know relatively little about teaching and learning. Pedagogical and curricular decisions should always be faculty-driven.
I’m not saying that colleges shouldn’t take more of their teaching mission online, only that it’s probably a mistake to think that we’ll save much money by doing so. Instead, we should do it because it enables learning, both of specific subjects and, more generally, of digital literacies. In other words, I agree with Kamenetz when she says
forget about giving [a] guy a fish, or teaching him how to fish, either. Teach him how to teach himself, and he’ll always be able to acquire the skills he needs to find food, skills you haven’t even thought of yet for things you didn’t know you could eat (134).
The problem is that DIY U doesn’t really focus on teaching someone how to learn, but rather on encouraging people who are already basically auto-didacts. For everyone else (and that’s most people), institutions still represent our best chance to provide opportunities to develop effective learning habits. The future of learning will increasingly involve technology, but not, I think, in the way Kamenetz describes.