The new homeschool

Edupreneurs apply a DIY ethic to education
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 31, 2010


This might not be what you want to read as you're settling into the new semester and shelling out hundreds of dollars for textbooks, but we're going to tell you anyway: The traditional model of higher education — the brick-and-mortar universities where tuition continues to skyrocket without much to show in the way of expansion of access or post-graduation success — is doomed.

An open-education movement, one that emphasizes personalized courses of study, shared resources, and above all, online technologies, is coming to campuses and computers everywhere. It'll transform the way we think about college and its alternatives. Hopefully, the results will be a smarter society that puts reasonable price on the right types of training. Less student-loan debt, for sure. Fewer four-year degrees, maybe. A more comprehensive view of teaching and learning — definitely.

In her book DIY U (Chelsea Green Publishing), which came out this year, Anya Kamenetz explores how the value of a four-year college degree is changing, and how parents, students, and anyone interested in learning can expect their educational options to expand in the future. She's frank about what it means for the existing behemoths:

"If you are a large university that's academically undistinguished . . . you should be worried by this new model because what's available online is already better in lots of ways than what you have to offer," she says on the phone from her home in New York City. "These online options should change the way we look at in-person colleges." (Even to have to make that "in-person" distinction indicates that the shift is already happening.)

While tech innovation plays a big role in these changes, the do-it-yourself education revolution is bigger than the Internet. It's a philosophical shift toward learner-centered flexibility. In the future, students will have more options — they'll log into open-source academic classrooms or supplement their classroom and professional experiences with online and real-world resources. This isn't necessarily about foregoing college. It's about changing the definition of what college is.

"The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore," Kamenetz writes in DIY U. "These changes are inevitable. They are happening now." She stresses on the phone that these initiatives hold the student as their central focus, which separates them from so-called online "diploma mills," a factor in the online-learning revolution that Kamenetz doesn't deeply explore — probably because while they do expand access, their for-profit financial models are quite different from the DIY aesthetic of other endeavors in the book.

Here are just a few pieces of what Kamenetz calls the "edupunk" revolution (they're not all tech-focused, though most are).

UNIVERSITY-AFFILIATED OPEN COURSEWARE — syllabi, academic lectures, readings, assignments, and videos from top universities.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare ( is the granddaddy of these. Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative ( and Yale University's Open Yale Courses ( each offer their own versions. Some offer assessments; others don't. None of them offer accreditation.

Increasingly, they're more than just repositories for lecture notes. Members of the national OpenCourseWare Consortium, which include those universities and many others, are benefiting from — and creating — software that allows for personalized tutoring, applications you can download onto your iPhone, and new platforms that let virtual peer groups connect around each topic.

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