[iDC] Discussion: The Edupunks' Guide

Stephen Downes stephen at downes.ca
Tue Aug 9 00:08:21 UTC 2011

Hiya Everyone,

I have now had the chance to read the Edupunks' Guide 
http://www.scribd.com/doc/60954896/EdupunksGuide and can now form some 
opinions based on what I've seen. And if I were forced to summarize my 
critique in a nutshell, it would be this. Edupunk, as described by the 
putative subculture, is the idea of 'learning by doing it yourself'. The 
Edupunks' Guide, however, describes 'do-it-yourself learning'. The 
failure to appreciate the difference is a significant weakness of the 

Let me explain. Suppose a person wanted to learn Thai cooking. Following 
the Edupunks' Guide, she would find some recipes using Google, perhaps 
find a Khan-style course, and if very lucky, a Thai cooking Google 
group. I would recommend the Vegan Black Metal Chef series - good tunes, 
and good food. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeZlih4DDNg

By contract, the edupunk way is to cook Thai food, and in so doing, 
learn how to be a good chef. There's no right or wrong way to go about 
it - the main thing is to get one's hands dirty and actually learn from 
the experience. In so doing, a person might take a course, search for 
recipes, ask for help, or - in the style of the underrated film 'The 
Raman Girl' or that overrated film 'The Karate Kid' - find a mentor to 
show you how to steam noodles.

Now based on the discussion that has already taken place in this iDC 
forum, I would expect Anya Kamemetz's first response to be comething 
along the lines of "I know that; I do encourage learning by doing." And 
no doubt that's what was intended, but that is not in fact what the 
booklet does. The structure and focus of the booklet is entirely toward 
the 'do-it-yourself learning' model. Here's Anya Kamenetz on learning to 

    A simple example is learning to make pizza. A few years ago, you may
    have had to take a class or at least buy a cookbook. Today you can
    put "how to make a pizza" into YouTube and within minutes, you're
    watching a video that shows you how to fling the dough! (p. 2)

But watching a video instead of watching a person (or taking a class) 
isn't what makes something edupunk. It's the act of taking matters into 
your own hands, and making pizza for yourself, instead of buying frozen 
or ordering delivery. And it's more than that: it's growing your own 
wheat, grinding your own flower, growing mushrooms and peppers, and 
grinding your own pepperoni. None of this is suggested anywhere in thge 
guide. Which is unfortunate, because it's misrepresenting what has 
overall been a pretty good movement.

Kamenetz has what may only be described as a very naive understanding of 
education (including online education). Here's her representation:

What DO we mean by education, exactly? There are three big buckets of 
benefit that an educational institution, like a college, historically 
- Content - the skills and knowledge. The subjects, the majors. You 
could think of this as the "what" of education.
- Socialization - learning about yourself, developing your potential, 
forming relationships with peers and mentors. The "how."
- Accreditation - earning that diploma or other proof that will allow 
you to signal your achievement to the world, and with luck get a better 
job. The "why." (p.3)

Notice how 'what we mean' by an education becomes the 'three big buckets 
of benefit' provided by educational institutions. The idea here is that 
if you can just provide these benefits for yourself, you'll be educated. 
And that, in turn, is what defines the overall structure of the booklet 
- section A focuses on the content, skills and knowledge; section B 
focuses on degrees and credentials; and section C focuses on networks, 
peers and mentors. And preceeding these, the 'DIY Educational Manual' 
offers seven 'how-to' guides to learning online.

The section of the book that comes closest to what we are discussing 
here, and what could have been the most valuable contribution, is the 
section on what the DIY movement is, exactly. This, for example, is great:

    DIY, or Do-It-Yourself, is a movement about self-reliance and
    empowerment. DIY communities help each other get the knowledge and
    tools they need to solve problems and accomplish goals on their own
    without being told how to act or being forced to spend a lot of
    money. That can mean growing your own food, fixing your own car,
    publishing your own writing or putting on your own rock show. (p.3)

That's very good. Not perfect, but very good. I wouldn't say the reason 
people embrace DIY is to save money. Often, doing things yourself can 
end up being a lot more expensive - just ask anyone who has built his 
own car. And it's not about not being told how to act. Most DIYers will 
take direction willingly, if it accords with what they are trying to do. 
But DIY is about self-reliance and empowerment, and more, it is about a 
passion for the thing, a desire to know, a desire to create or to 
control, a desire to get behind the surface appearance of things.

That's why it is so disappointing to read this:

    In the case of DIY education, it means getting the knowledge you
    need at the time you need it, with enough guidance so you don't get
    lost, but without unnecessary restrictions. DIY doesn't mean that
    you do it all alone. It means that the resources are in your hands
    and you're driving the process. (p.3)

Kamenetz simply doesn't understand what 'the process' is, which is why 
she is so mistaken about what it means to say 'you're driving the 
process'. Education isn't about 'getting the knowledge'. It's not about 
'getting' anything, except maybe a degree (about which we'll talk 
below). It's about becoming something - whether that something is a 
painter, carpenter, computer programmer or physicist. And becoming 
something is so much more than getting the 'big buckets of benefits' 
from educational institutions.

Now if your interest is in DIY education - that is, an interest in the 
educational process itself - then the logical next step is to do what 
edupunks have in fact done: to create and experiment with the design of 
courses online, to create their own courses. This is what Jim Groom (who 
coined the term, 'edupunk') has done with digital storytelling (ds106) - 
he has taken the idea of a traditional university course, disassembled 
it, and then inserted his students into the story telling process. His 
second version of the course - the 'summer of Oblivion' - had his 
student weave narratives in and around the narrative about 'Dr. 
Oblivion' he created to teach the course.

And this is what George Siemens, Rita Kop, Dave Cormier and I have done 
over a series of six or so Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) since 
2008. Again, we have disassembled the educational process, put the tools 
into the hands of the course participants, and then invited them to 
recreate the course along 'connectivist' principles. In offering 
learning this way we are *being* edupunk, as are the course participants 
who created Second Life environments, Google groups, concept maps and 
illustrations, Twitter hashtags, online forums, in-person meetings, and 
more. We in these courses don't learn by reading, we don't learn by 
accessing course materials or watching videos, we learn by doing, by 
actually *creating* the distributed network that eventually became these 

Now of course, not everybody wants to learn storytelling or how to 
create an online course. People are interested in every discipline under 
the sun, and the way of approaching and learning in each discipline is 
unique to that discipline. People interested in carpentry build spice 
racks, then bookshelves, then cabins, and learn about mitre joints and 
toe-rails as they go along. People who want to be philosophers read a 
lot, and try tentative arguments in fan forums, gradually over time 
finding out about and being admitted to the insider circles where Fodor 
and Searle and Pylyshyn (for example) play.

It's *hard* to learn this way; in fact, it's *harder* than going to 
college. The educational system as it is currently structured is 
intended to offer a set of short cuts - access to qualified 
practitioners, creation of custom peer networks, guided and scaffolded 
practice - for a certain price. The system isn't (as suggested in 
Kamenetz's booklet) about imposing sets of restrictions and making 
things more expensive. It's about offering the greatest reach in the 
shortest time. It allows those willing and able to invest themselves 
full-time to master the basics of a discipline relatively quickly, so 
they can obtain employment and begin the real learning they will need to 
undertake in order to become expert.

And this is what Kamenetz simply misunderstands about traditional 
learning - that the greatest of the 'bucket of benefits' isn't provided 
by the college at all, but by the student. It is this full-time 
*immersion* into a discipline that helps someone *become* the sort of 
person who can, over time, be an expert in that discipline. You can't 
just get the 'benefits' offered by a college and somehow 'acquire' an 
education without that commitment, without that immersion, without that 
dedication. Kamenetz's version of DIY education depicts it as a quick 
and inexpensive short-cut -- the exact opposite of what it actually is.

Oh, and how. The seven how-to guides are each capsule examples of what I 
have been saying.

Take the first section, how to "do research online" (p.7). It becomes 
pretty apparent from the advice (which begins "start with Google" and 
continues through search terms and hashtags) that by "research" Kamenetz 
means something like "find stuff." As a guide to web-search, the page 
might offer reasonable novice-level instruction (which would be quickly 
superseded by practice). As a guide to "research" it is dangerously 

What is research, anyways? An education in the disciplines that actually 
do research (which is, in fact, most of them) would suggest that it a 
structured method employed in order to identify causes or offer 
explanations of things. The historical researcher isn't interested 
simply in the fact that Napoleon invaded Russia in 1807, she wants to 
know *why* he launched such a dangerous undertaking, what happened, what 
were the causes of its failure, and what the experience teaches us about 
the French, the Russians, and the nature of empires in general. And that 
is why Tolstoy's War and Peace is such a remarkable work. He doesn't 
just tell a story, he offers a thesis about the great events of the 
time, a thesis that has been expounded and studies by researchers of 

Where is any of this in Kamenetz's guide? Where is the understanding 
that research needs to have a plan and a method, that it needs to ask 
questions, and set criteria for what would constitute answers to those 
questions? Where is the distinction between different types of research, 
such as experimental research, say, and literature reviews? Shouldn't 
Kamenetz have advised people who want to research online to first learn 
how to research, and maybe suggested some examples of successful 
research, and places where people could practice their own research? No, 
instead we get "A successful online research session will leave you with 
20 open tabs or windows at the top of your screen." (p.7) That's not 
advice; that's a travesty of advice.

Or consider the second how-to section, "write a personal learning plan." 
Having a plan is good; having several is even better (I cannot count the 
number of times my back-up plan has become my plan!). What we are given 
here are not plans. Consider these "goals" offered as examples:

"I want steady professional employment in the field of sustainability."
"I want to start a business that feeds my love of jewelry."
"I want to combine teaching English with travel." (p.8)

These barely - if at all - count as goals. Kamenetz may as well have 
quoted six-year olds and given as examples "I want to ride a rocket 
ship" or "I want to be a fireman." A goal is something concrete, with a 
clear indicator of success, typically with a time frame, and described 
in terms of the effort being undertaken.

Attempting to clarify the first of the three goals given above would 
reveal, for example, that there is no such thing as 'the field of 
sustainability'. It would be necessary to describe employment as an 
environmental scientist, climate researcher, alternative energy 
engineer, or some such thing. So we would expect a goal to read 
something like "I want to qualify and obtain employment as a solar power 
designer by 2020."

Ah, but don't take my advice here. There's a lot of good material on 
identifying and setting goals, both online and off. This guide refers to 
none of it. It's as though Kamenetz is just making this up as she goes 
along. Or maybe depending on people like Weezie Yancey-Siegel, whose 
'learning goal' Kamenetz cites as follows:

To try out more of a self-designed, experiential approach to learning. 
Along the way, I hope to create something new and spark further social 
change in the area of education, social media, global citizenship, and 
general do-gooding. (p. 10)

Her 'plan' consists of watching TED videos, reading some books, 
meditatating, watching 'fictional films', and the like. We don't know 
why, for example, she supposes reading 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle 
Maintenance' will help here, except that it was (maybe) recommended by 
Amazon. We don't know why she recommends viewing Nathan Myhrvold on 
shooting mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers. Her 'plan' is what most 
of us would call 'a year off'.

And in fact, she is taking a year off her very traditional studies as a 
sophomore undergrad at Pitzer College in Southern California, majoring 
in International/Intercultural Studies. And her *actual* plan is to 
"create a new popular resource that I have realized does not exist at 
the moment. My hope is that my book and the varied profiles of bold 
'eduventurists' will inspire other young people like myself to take 
their own leap into the unknown world of experiential, alternative 
learning." http://eduventurist.org/the-eduventurist-project/

Should I go on? How how 'how-to' number three, "teach yourself online", 
where step number 1 and step number 4 are both "ask a question", step 
number 3 is "do some serious reading", and step number 2 is "zero in on 
unfamiliar words, phrases, symbols or expressions." Yes, there's a 
sidebar that says "the process wouldn't be complete until he tried to do 
ithimself" - but there's no sense of learning from example, learning 
from experience, iterative and scaffolded practice, experimentation, 
documentation and note-taking - all the usual accoutrements of 
do-it-yourself learning.

Take a popular do-it-yourself instance, for example, learning to program 
online. Thousands - maybe millions - of people has taught themselves how 
to write software. The way *they* learned (the way *I* learned) does not 
in any way resemble the advice Kamenetz gives. Aspiring programmersd 
look at what other programmers have done and read the explanations (at 
this point Kamanetz should gave Google-searched for 'worked examples', 
but she didn't). They experiment with the code, changing variables, 
adding functions, to lerarn how what they do creates new outcomes. They 
start with something simple (print "Hello world") move on to something 
more complex ("bubble sort") and engaging ("game of life") long before 
they, say, write their own word processor or database software.

They begin as apprentices, debugging and proposing fizes on other open 
source projects, forking and extending when they get their legs, always 
trying out and sharing their work in the public forum, critiquing and 
accepting criticism. This doesn't just teach them programming, it 
teaches them how to think like a programmer, how to measure success, how 
to define the optimal. None of this is in the programming books - it's 
what Polanyi would call 'tacit knowledge' or Kuhn would call 'knowing 
how to solve the problems at the end of the chapter'. All of which 
Kamenetz would know, if she had *researched* instead of just performing 
some Google searches.

It's as though Kamentetz has read *about* do-it-yourself learning, 
online or otherwise, but has never *done* it, much less tried to 
facilitate it. The remaining how-to guides (there's no need to 
deconstruct them all) are equally superficial and misleading.

Defending her work in the iDC discussion list, Kamenetz has turned to a 
general defense of the idea of DIY learning, and suggested that her 
critics are entrenched academics with their own interests to protect.

"So who's really uncomfortable with what I'm saying and how I'm saying 
it?" she asks. "A small subset of academics. People whose paychecks are 
currently signed by the academy. People for whom the transformation of 
education is a matter of academic interest in the narrow sense--you may 
be interested in informal, uncodable and untranslatable forms of 
self-learning, Marco, but there is no indication on RateMyProfessor.com 
that you refuse to give grades or credits." 

Of the names I have cited above - Groom, Cormier, Siemens, Kop - only 
one (Groom) is employed as a university professor. The rest of us - 
myself included - are employed in other endeavours (and yes, we are 
employed - there's no law saying edupunks have to be penniless bums). 
And of the other people I could cite in the same context, some are 
professors but the majority are practitioners of one sort or another - 
technologists, designers, consultants, researchers, programmers, etc. It 
is ironic - and typical - that Kamenetz would join an academics' mailing 
list, and then complain that all the members are academics.

But let's look more seriously at what she is describing in these posts 
as edupunk. It appears to be, "how to get a degree quickly." The 'why' 
from above. She writes (ibid), "For a large proportion of people right 
now--as for a large proportion, if not the entirety, of the people on 
this list--that journey will include earning a credential from a 
recognized institution." She observes "the American Association of State 
Colleges and Universities,
and some people in the Department of Ed, and not a few community college 
leaders across the country, have been quite friendly to what I'm 
saying." And "Government cuts to higher education are the reality of the 
world we live in, and DIY approaches can help maximize the resources 
that remain."

She is free to hold he views, but that's not edupunk - it's not punk of 
any sort. It's establishment thinking combined with a good dose of 
offloading costs. Maybe it's good educational advice (it's not... but I 
digress) but it is definitely not edupunk. It's not even a good - or 
particularly informed - discussion of learning in the 21st century.

I don't want to conclude by recommending my own work, but I will, 
because Kamenetz is obviously not familiar with any of the ideas and 
trends characterizing edupunk, do-it-yourself, informal, online, or 
community-based learning. Accordingly, I offer 'The Future of Online 
Learning - Ten Years On' as a comprehensive summary and insight into the 
technologies and trends she is trying to describe.

-- Stephen


	Stephen Downes
Research Officer, National Research Council Canada
100 rue des Aboiteaux, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada E1A 7R1
Website: http://www.downes.ca ~ Email: stephen at downes.ca 
<mailto:stephen at downes.ca>

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