It had to happen

Stephen Downes’s recently wrote a post on the great rebranding of MOOCs, arguing “MOOCs were not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities. They were designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete.” It clearly struck a nerve with a lot of people I know, generating a remarkable amount of commentary from the likes of Jim Groom, David Kernohan, Martin Weller, Tony Hirst, David Wiley, D’Arcy Norman, Pat Lockley, Richard Hall, and undoubtedly others… The back-and-forth in the comments on Jim’s, David K’s, and D’Arcy’s blog posts are passionate, even angry, illustrating just how deeply these questions can cut.

My own contribution to this discourse will be somewhat trivial and self-centred in comparison to the discussion above, and I feel just a tiny bit guilty for that. I’m prompted by this post by Darren Draper:

To be clear, Stephen’s assertion of a great MOOC re-branding smacks of Edupunk (2008-2011, RIP). In spite of the first-sentence claim in the Edupunk Bible that this favorite movement died in 2011, Edupunk’s rebellious redolence and distaste for all things formal can still be felt throughout online conversations today. Yes, the Edupunk spirit lives on; promulgated by Stephen and obviously flourishing among those who enjoy life in the “Schools Are Broken” fringes of society. To me, there is very little difference between the “We can do things on our own, who needs institutions?!?” attitude of an Edupunk, and the “We can do things on our own, who needs everyone else?!?” attitude of most private schools. Both attitudes are elitist, and ultimately in both sibling camps, some people win while other people lose. Perhaps in the end, it really is a dog-eat-dog world, as the fight for an educated populace continues to be trounced from nearly every possible angle.

I think Darren’s post is astute and worthy for all sorts of reasons, but must protest the characterization of edupunk as “who needs institutions”? There may be people who identify as “edupunk” who feel that way, but that was not the initial intent. I can say a little about how edupunk was originally conceived, because (and I know I literally sound like the aging hipster who has lost his edge when I say this) because I was there. In fact, this may be the exact moment that edupunk was born:

Freddy’s #1 customer in action shared CC by Keira

Or maybe this was the moment.

Fine NYC host that he is, Jim had taken us to Freddy’s, and man, am I grateful that he did, because that bar was something special. But the location set a tone deeper than the ambiance, as Freddy’s was living out its last days, under a death sentence of gentrification. Maybe that set us off on a somewhat darker course, and when discussion turned to the day’s announcement that Blackboard had “gone social” by introducing some things they called “blogs”, “wikis” and “mashups” into their suite of reasonably priced learning management solutions, we couldn’t help but see the co-opting as a form of creative destruction similar to what was killing Freddy’s. As I recall, we worked ourselves into quite a lather of righteous doom-mongering fury. It was great fun.


We talked about how best to respond to what we saw as an attack on our beloved forms of DIY online media and our thoughts turned to an older DIY form, zine culture. We talked about an online resource that would detail how to run an ed tech operation without spending money on software, or exerting coercive force on its users. We would author it anonymously, so we could be brutally honest and so questions of authority could be undermined. In my mind I envisioned an applied comic manual something like Hackety Hack by the mysterious Why The Lucky Stiff, but with the aesthetics and pissed-off attitude of a punk zine. We had a blast talking about what we decided would be called edupunk that night, and I flew back to Vancouver excitedly thinking of ways we would build our secret project.

When I arrived home, I learned that Jim had decided to go public with his own, rather wonderful idea of EDUPUNK: “Corporations are selling us back our ideas, innovations, and visions for an exorbitant price. I want them all back, and I want them now!” A couple years later, we co-authored “Never Mind the Edupunks”, a piece that could hardly be described as suggesting “who needs institutions?”, even if it demanded more of them:

…although edupunk was first expressed in reaction against the blinkered and elitist academy (and the proprietary interests that all too often feast on institutional fear, uncertainty, and doubt), it ultimately depends on a common sense of purpose, cooperation, and action to shape a vision for the future. We dream of higher education that embraces its role as a guardian of knowledge, that energetically creates and zealously protects publicly-minded spaces promoting enlightenment and the exchange of ideas. We need green spaces for conviviality on the web. Institutions of higher education—and the open ed techs who work in them—are in a unique position to create and preserve these spaces.

I don’t know whether Jim still endorses those sentiments, he seems to be rethinking them. Fair enough.

I hadn’t noticed that the Wikipedia entry of Edupunk gives it a definite lifespan: (2008-2011). I think I know what killed it. Only a few days after Jim wrote his “Dear EDUPUNK” breakup letter, prompted by the announcement of a Gates Foundation-funded ebook, an anonymous user added the date of its passing in Wikipedia and it seems to have stuck.


These things have unpredictable effects. Just a couple months before edupunk was pronounced dead, I had the immense pleasure of attending ¿El Paréntesis de Gutenberg? and was blown away to learn that edupunk had resonated so powerfully with a group of students at the Universidad de Buenos Aires who were studying with professor Alejandro Piscitelli. Seeing how the idea pushed these brilliant young people to provoke and to push themselves was an unforgettable experience. It also resulted in some moments of genuine chaos during their “interventions” at the event.

While we are sort-of on the topic of the mysterious alteration of Wikipedia entries, Draper also notes: “Last November, Wikipedia user Kmasters0 (account no longer exists) removed the paragraph describing David [Wiley]’s efforts from the Wikipedia article on Massive open online courses.”




Time stands still shared CC by cid56

In part because of my new interim role, I met earlier this week with Lucille Gnanasihamany, Thompson Rivers University’s new Associate-Vice President of Marketing and Communications. I expected we would talk about university branding, or media buy strategies, and those things did come up. But Lucille seemed most keen to talk about her recent trip to visit TRU’s Williams Lake Open Learning Centre, which “is housed in the Gathering Place and provides First Nations communities in the surrounding area with access to hundreds of Open Learning courses and programs.” She shared some of the challenges students have in accessing online courses in remote areas, and strongly suggested that maybe this is something a Director of Innovation should be interested in… I hope to be visiting Williams Lake with her soon. But if this is where our marketing leader is putting her energies, I worry how successful we will be at achieving our elitist institutional ends.

45 thoughts on “Punked

  1. Why do dad, dad, dad, dad, dad, dad, dad, dad and dad always have to fight.

    I work for an institution. Truth is… i work hard for that institution. I’m the manager of COMMUNICATIONS and innovations… a hybrid role that includes responsibility for web marketing. My objectives are constantly in conflict…

    Most if not all of my dads here are employed by institutions that, in some way, are part of this broad game we are all playing. Your open learning project is the kind of thing that I think very few institutions can support, and I think the university is one of them. The thing I’m interested in subverting is the control structure that attaches profit as the only value to an endeavour, that favours factionalism and ideology over thoughtfulness and independence.

    I don’t think the university is always this. But it is sometimes. And that’s more than most places. And it makes it a place where I can both be in that fight… and still feed my kids.

    Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful thoughts.

    1. “The thing I’m interested in subverting is the control structure that attaches profit as the only value to an endeavour, that favours factionalism and ideology over thoughtfulness and independence.”

      Beautifully put. I shall be quoting this all over the place.

      Brian – great post… this debate was crying out for a historical perspective and you have given us that and a hell of a lot more.

    2. Dave — Thank you for stopping by. I think I might want to bug you soon for your take on how you handles your roles. Hope a conversation is possible, it’s been too long.

  2. Au contraire – whenever you begin a post with a self-deprecating notion as to the lack of significant contribution, I know that without fail I am in for a treat. Thanks for the nostalgia, and while I wouldn’t describe Jim’s post as a re-thinking, he is discovering the many angles and influences on higher ed that have reared their heads in interesting ways lately. Finally, thanks for the back-handedly hopeful ending!

    1. Andy – I felt a bit guilty indulging the nostalgia, so I’m glad you were OK with it. I hate to characterize what another person is thinking about, but as I posting this I hated the idea of speaking for somebody else when I hadn’t had a chance to talk to them. So I couched it. Whatever Jim is thinking or re-thinking, I am pretty sure it will result in things that I love.

  3. Never liked the term edupunk, guess it is a bit like elearning – what’s with all the prefixes taxonomy boy?

    Remember being at a keynote delivered by someone touting their edupunk book, published by some Murdochian imprint. Yeah, you don’t really get punk do you? (That was also the day I definitely coined the term “mortarboarding” which is the process of being tortured by a boring academic)

    There are mods and rockers on Brighton Beach, one of them never goes home.

  4. personally, I’m kind of fond of institutions. one of them pays my mortgage. institutions aren’t the problem. it’s the fixation on efficiency-of-everything-over-all and corporate solutioneering that are the problems. Institutions are only as radical or empowering as we create them to be. Unfortunately, most of them get stuck in “maximize return on investment and contribution to industry” rather than “give people a safe place and the resources to experiment and learn”. I’m hoping to get to do much more of the latter…

    1. I’m with you on creating space D’Arcy, and most of the things I am proud of accomplishing in higher ed are a variation on that… Of course, the problems with our institutions run a little deeper than ROI angles (as evidenced by a couple of the more critical but not unfounded comments below). One might argue that the fact they employ miscreants like us isn’t the best argument in their favour either…

  5. Brian – Thank you for telling the story of Edupunk. It was interesting to read your first-hand perspective. I should have been more careful in my blanket classification of edupunk school of thought, and agree that all might not want to abandon institutions.

    I also appreciate you picking up on the Audrey Watters’ tweets and accompanying thread of conspicuous Wikipedia edits. I know history is a funny thing – we rewrite it constantly as a society – but think there’s got to be a better mechanisms for recording and substantiating fact, than the Wikipedia commons now trusted by many.

    Personally, I blame the commercialization of MOOCs for this re-writing of history; because once money enters the game, players tend to react differently.

    1. RE: “I blame the commercialization of MOOCs for this re-writing of history”

      Agreed. Or, more precisely, the people looking to profit from this commercialization.

      The commercialization of MOOCs (and the subsequent rewriting of history) is a conscious decision made by people looking to make a profit. This isn’t just happening organically.

    2. I’m really interested in this “history” angle — the writing and re-writing of it. I’ve been complaining for a long time now that education technology entrepreneurs are incredibly ignorant of the history of education/ed-tech. So it’s striking that this history — as you present it here, as I’ve heard other related stories — is being re-crafted via Wikipedia.

      I plan on following up on this…

      Awesome post, Brian

      1. Darren, Bill, Audrey… I broke out a short follow-up on the Wikipedia angle in my next post. It is a fascinating topic. Audrey, I really hope you find a story in your investigations, I am definitely keen to see what you can make of this.

  6. I am so loathe to enter into this ongoing debate, it has depressed me even further than I already am, but I can’t help myself.

    I get that “public institutions” aren’t “for profit” corporations, but we seem to keep portraying them as if they don’t exist within a world in which learners, with limited resources, or else tax payers, also with limited resources, are still asked to PAY for learning (to pay for all of the salaries, infrastructure, etc.) So sure, that’s different than them paying a for-profit corporation who, in addition to paying for those infrastructures, salaries etc (and motivated to squeeze as much out of them as possible) wants to extract profit from this transaction. Agreed. And I also get that given the dominance of the neo-liberal push towards privitization and efficiencies, it feels like anything we might do that critiques a non-profit, public model is dangerous and plays right into the hands of those wanting to dismantle publicly funded institutions.

    But when framed as this sort of binary choice, all sorts of things that are clearly dysfunctional or problematic don’t get addressed

    – that over the last 30 years there has been a huge swing within institutions towards administrative costs, staff and systems, and away from faculty
    – the whole adjunct labour piece & dismantlement of the tenure system
    – the fact that in those thirty years, the world added another 3 billion people to an already staggering (and unsustainable, at “First World” conditions) 4 billion, many of whom are clamouring for education
    – even in the developed world, there have been few “no barrier to entry” formal institutions (though some did and do exist)
    – that the internet & global telecommunications networks happened, and with it lots of what sure looks to me like independent informal learning took off
    – that a great deal of what passes for education in 1st and even 2nd year courses, both online and off, is really pretty dismal, and we know it, but we try not to talk about it
    – that post-1970 (at last in North America) when funding models changed, research dollars became a whole lot more important to Universities who by and large have still never professionalized nor rewarded teaching in their institutions
    – that (as Mike Caulfield has eloquently pointed out) education is one of those fields that naturally seems to suffer from “cost disease” and as a result, has continued to increase the cost of tuition simply to keep up with naturally rising expenses because it doesn’t have the option of squeezing more efficiency out of them. My tuition was $1000/year in 1988. The same degree now costs $5000+ in Canada. This over a period when inflation never got past 2.6%. And yes, cutbacks were part of this, but not all. There’s a trajectory.
    – that we are producing lots of graduates (and I’m not picking on arts degrees here – think lawyers) for whom no jobs, now or in the foreseeable future, exist, whilst leaving them with large amounts of debt (a particular nasty situation in the US, which sadly drives a lot of this conversation, but increasingly so in Canada and the UK and elsewhere.)

    I could go on, and on. We can argue about whether some of the above are true or whether I’ve simply ceded the argument to the neo-liberal agenda by stating them. But I take them as mostly true and they’ve informed my own thinking and practice in engaging with “edupunk” and “open” and how these might help us have our institutional cakes and eat too.

    I take it that one of the main triggers in Downes’ piece is the word “undermines.” And I agree, it seems unnecessarily antagonistic. But you could phrase the whole thing differently – how about “do you object to an approach in which hundreds of thousands of people who previously did not have the opportunities currently afforded with the possession of a university degree were able to obtain these opportunities? Obtain them without enriching either corporate coffers or taxing existing institutional resources?” Or how about “do you disagree that formal, publicly-funded and credentialed education is not the only way in which people can learn what they need or want to know in order to obtain what they are seeking?”

    I’ve gone on far too long. What’s worse is I don’t think I disagree with most of the people linked to or commenting on this post. But I do share some of Jim’s sentiment that universities themselves need to own some of the pieces for how they got to where they are today, and some of Stephen’s that MOOCs (and I think he is referring quite clearly to the vision he’s tried to develop, not the co-opted Coursera/Udacity one) weren’t intended as a solution _for_ universities but for learners, especially those not served well by the current model, in part for some of the reasons above.


    1. Scott, I keep vowing not to write about “the great disruption” (or whatever the hell is happening now), and the ultimate emotional effect on me isn’t so different. But like you I can’t seem to help myself. Especially when so many of my favorite people keep sucking me in with interesting angles…

      I don’t disagree with the sentiment that universities need to look in the mirror, and own up to their role in where we have gotten to. I think most of the people on this thread have probably experienced frustration in the past trying to move necessary action forward, only to hit blithe and self-satisfied reaction. Now the decision-makers are responding in panic…

      I remain convinced that a move to what I’ve heard you describe as “permeable” institutions can play a vital role in supporting and amplifying formal and informal learning. I don’t blame pople for being critical, or feeling despair.

      Jim, I love you and am grateful you have held off on flaming me for shamelessly exploiting you in this narrative.

      1. Are you kidding me? After ll the support I have gotten from this network despite all my bullshit! I am lucky people are even talking to me. I’m trying to get to a healthier place with the web though, namely off it 🙂

  7. Just a thought from earlier today, related: Access can decrease as well as increase or remain stagnant. The great march of history does not happen on a one way street.

    As such, a lot of people are trying to preserve (and perhaps expand in small ways) the access that currently exists to these traditional programs, which far from being broken relics are actually artifacts from a more humane and enlightened era.

    At least, that’s how I feel about the U.S. state college system 4 days out of the week.

    I think a lot of people who attack institutions of higher education are maybe not aware of how much that access can mean, and how easily it can be lost.

    I just came back from our student research showcase. I was blown away. Students working on new methods to detect cancer, on discovering patterns in the repopulation of the Mt. Saint Helen’s ecosystem, looking at how the vocalizations of mice might teach us something about autism. These are not rich kids. They are often first generation college students. They were not the valedictorians of their high school class. A lot of them, frankly, came here because they had to drop out of somewhere else, and this was close to home and relatively cheap.

    But they have been changed by this experience. They have gone from interesting to inspiring.

    This is what people before us left us. It’s an amazing gift. It’s got so many problems right now, so many problems. And there’s a lot of room for improvement. But I think people should be really cognizant that we could lose it, and that that loss isn’t just Schumpeterian creative destruction for the kids that lose it. It’s tragic, and it’s a forsaking of our legacy as a nation and a planet. It’s tragic for them, and it’s tragic for the people with cancer they will not be able to help, for the autistic kids who will not benefit. For the student who will never have a sense of what they can accomplish.

    Some person with a Russian Literature degree wrote in Forbes today that education was the next cupcake bubble. She actually compared the expansion of higher education to the expansion of cupcake bakeries. And her idea was so edupunk — put together your own education, don’t play the game, don’t end up in debt to Dartmouth like me. I’m sorry she values her education so little. But I can’t help thinking that while our kids are trying to cure cancer (literally) she’s busy using her education to pull up the ladder behind her.

    Cheap, face-to-face public college was the norm during the greatest period of social compression, technological progress, and economic expansion history has known. Correlation is not a cause, but dig into it, and you’ll find it comes pretty close in this case.

    I want very much to expand access, and I think we can do it. But when you are at public institutions you realize it is a daily struggle just holding on to the access we got and trying to keep that experience transformative beyond simple certification. And the loss of that access will not be trivial for so many people.

    1. Actually, to say it more simply, ala Bruce Sterling. If you’re going to blow this whole thing up, fine. But take responsibility for what comes after. Take responsibility for who you hurt. Argue that what comes after is going to be better.

      We’re 13 years into the 21st century, and I’ve already had it with the ‘whocouddaknowed’s. This is serious stuff and it requires accountable people.

    2. As ever Mike, I am envious of your ability to make this argument so cogently and forcefully. Your blog is like a never-ending series of smash hits lately, it’s like Fleetwood Mac during their heyday…

      I too have had my orientation shifted from moving from an “elite” university to one with a more humble orientation. We had a Undergraduate Student Conference earlier this month and I had almost the exact same reaction you describe so well. And getting out of my old ed tech bubble has been enlightening for me as well. I’m spending a lot more time working with people who worry about student support, student health, etc… all that “soft stuff” I often see characterized as “institutional bloat” and it’s been a real eye-opener.

  8. Whole lot of the evil other going on isn’t there?

    Well we all need Unis degrees because…… So we need to keep Unis we work for so…. We don’t like like the commercialisation of MOOCs

    If we think of education is a public good – then the degree is one form of that? But if, as pointed out, you now need to pay to get the degree, then even the most public of public universities is now commercialised?

    We can argue that Coursera, operating out of tax-dodge-Delaware is some new evil? Because it makes a profit? Well I earn more than I need? Is that profit? Or does a company have a greater requirement to be provident that a person?

    I think it’s a bit convenient to outsource nastiness into nameless others and ignore what we need to do. Faceless commercial MOOCs seem a nice bogeyman because we don’t have to name names, just a weird other.

    Problem then is what’s stopping us from becoming the evil in some one else’s eyes?

    1. Pat, thanks for stopping by again, this place might not be standing right now if it wasn’t for you, so it makes me happy to see you making yourself at home.

      You raise some very deep issues (evil) and some issues that would require a lot of space for me to articulate (commercialism of public education). I’m just going to dodge those here, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have me thinking about them.

      I often wonder how much of my stance on public education is informed by the naked self interest you refer to… It’s a caveat every reader here should keep in mind, I suppose. In my feeble defense, I feel more or less the same way about for-profit health care, water supplies, and a whole lot of other things that have been privatized over my lifetime here in Canada.

      I don’t disagree that demonization (or “outsourcing nastiness”) can be a lazy habit of mind. I don’t mind being called on that from time to time…

      1. It wasn’t the blog, more the comments, open’s gone all vague, and commercial isn’t really the basis of a criticism. Hermes who was the god of commerce, was also the god of theft. Now unless we all go for full communism, then we’re all on the steal in some way. Let he who is without sin.

        It’s more a worry I have with people’s language these days. I think that “the cathedral and the bazaar” sums it up really. If people need money (the sort of job defence) then using “commercial” as a term of disdain seems a bit weak? I don’t have a problem with people working for Coursera, but I have a real problem with Coursera being based in a tax haven.

  9. Terrific post, Brian. And some fine comments. Scott Leslie, Michael Caulfield sa

    Coming to this late, I want to toss in a few thoughts.

    1. We did this to ourselves, in large measure: yes indeed. We – academia – are not holding ourselves accountable for adjunctification, for the grad school bubble, for the decline of the humanities. Too many of us buried ourselves in full Gothic frenzy within offline crypts, shunning the world… then complain that the world doesn’t get us.

    2. The decline of American government funding (state and fed) is a *huge* thing to overcome. It’s not entirely driven by evil causes, too. If you look into state budgets the biggest driver is medical costs – that sector is driving costs up like mad, and for all kinds of reasons. The medical world is a political superpower, from the killer elite of insurance company lobbyists to the average person’s not unreasonable desire to perhaps have access to health care from time to time. There’s also the rising cost of the war on drugs- sorry, the justice and penal systems; let’s see how much political stomach there is to fix that problem, shall we? Unless the US economy suddenly has a boom, we’ll have to address this first.

    3. Baumol’s cost disease is a real thing.

    4. Caulfield: “Cheap, face-to-face public college was the norm during the greatest period of social compression, technological progress, and economic expansion history has known. ” Yes. And there was a politics to do, an organized, persistent will to expand that access to learning. Where is that politics now, eh?

    All right. Enough numbers. I’ve had a rough week without enough blogging. I’m rethinking my career, and won’t flog that upon you guys – at least not here.

Leave a Reply to Michael CaulfieldCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.