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:
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.”
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.