What Is This Thing Called "Edupunk"?

A new sensation is sweeping the nation. English adjuncts with mohawks are rockin’ their classrooms, web 2.0-style! Scrappy science teachers are banging together online learning systems in their garages! Gothic literature professors are turning to Wikipedia for inspiration! It’s a new day…

OK, maybe it’s not that exciting. What’s really happening is that professors and teachers are getting fed up with the limitations and corporate-overlordness of commercial learning software like Blackboard and WebCampus — and in a web 2.0 world, there are plenty of options for the fed up. With a click of the mouse and a sweep of the browser, it’s easy as Pi to cobble together your own online learning system — one with far more to offer both students and faculty than the tools schools are laying out big bucks for.

The Chronicle brought the… movement? news? thingy? … to mainstream attention, but their contribution is just a fillip on the work of professors and teachers all over the nation who have been thinking long and hard about how to bring learning to the web — and in doing so, to their students.

Let me say right here, for the record, I don’t buy all this “digital generation” nonsense. We’ve got a way to go before that happens. When I no longer have to teach my students how to Google unfamiliar terms or how to add an attachment to an email, then I might well believe that they are comfortably native in the online world; for now, the most I can say is that what I see as an important set of tools, they seem to see as a big box of toys, toys they’re happy to play with as long as it’s the same toy everyone else has.

But that doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t important — in fact, I think it makes it more incumbent on us, as educators, to show the amazing power of the Internet for more than just gossiping about your friends and breaking up with your lovers.

So What IS It?!

OK, edupunk. Basically, what you’ve got is a nascent movement by educators inspired by the DIY-ness of punk music (and fashion, design, writing, etc.) to step outside the walled garden provided by their institutions. Some are turning to wikis, others to blogging, still others to user-generated content, Google maps, and all manner of mashups. The occasionally savage Michael Wesch is a good example, though I don’t know if he considers himself “edupunk” — but it’s nt particularly punk to worry about labels, so who cares?

Edupunk is also a political statement. Scratch that — it’s a collection of political statements, and sometimes isn’t a political statement at all. Stephen Downes sums it up nicely:

Edupunk, it seems, takes old-school Progressive educational tactics–hands-on learning that starts with the learner’s interests–and makes them relevant to today’s digital age, sometimes by forgoing digital technologies entirely.

My own entry into edupunk (though I didn’t think of it as such at the time, and if you don’t count Savage Minds, which seems animated by the same principles even if it’s not explicitly an instructional tool) came about last summer when I decided to implement blogging in my “Gender, Race, and Class” course. For years, I’d been requiring a weekly response paper, an ungraded assignment that asked students to record their thoughts on the readings. This has been by far my most successful assignment — I could easily forego tests and essays, if not for the fact that a class of ungraded assignments probably wouldn’t give much incentive to master the material. But it galled me that the conversation these papers represented was just between each individual student and myself. I wanted their fellow students to benefit from their wide range of experience, thinking, and opinion.

So what’s a professor to do? As any patient IT department employee will tell you, “WebCampus (or Blackboard) offers a variety of interactive features including bulletin boards to facilitate virtual conversations in the blah blah blah. ” I’m sure they offer a really swell product, but a) the commercial classroom management systems offer a standard that students will never use again after their graduation, and b) they exist behind the university’s paywall. If my students have something to say, they might as well be saying it to the world, not just to the students in their class whose registration bill is current.

As far as I’m concerned, teaching students to engage with the world around them is crucial, both morally and pedagogically. (And, you’ll say, “politically”. So be it.) WebCampus and Blackboard don’t offer that; they offer a way to standardize education and, by extension, students.

So I built a blog. On Drupal, if you must know. And I required students to post their responses for the world to see, and to comment on each other’s posts. That second requirement is, of course, my hat-tip to totalitarianist authority; I knew that organic conversation was unlikely to develop — because they’re not “digital natives”!

That summer session went great, and the blog played a big role in that. In the fall, I tried again, this time with two classes, one blog. It didn’t work as well. I couldn’t stay on top of it, posts got shorter and shorter and less and less thoughtful, interaction was forced, there were too many students talking at once. I’ll need to rethink it before I try again — but it was definitely worth the effort.

What’s the point?

A lot of professors are fed up. They’re fed up with the commodification of education, they’re fed up with being straight-jacketed in their teaching because the school paid good money for an expensive system and they’d damn well better use it, they’re fed up by the increasing emphasis on education as workplace training instead of citizen (or even human) training, and they’re fed up with the apparent inability of administrators to do anything with a positive educational effect.

And, frankly, we’re fed up with failing. No matter what grade you teach, whether that’s 3rd grade or upper-division uni, you’re getting classes, semester after semester, that are unprepared for grade-appropriate education. It’s a tough thing to decide how many of your students you’re never going to reach; a lot of us will try anything in the hopes that we can reduce that number to zero. Blogging, twittering, mashing up data, wiki-ing, and other web-enabled activities allow us to offer the kind of hands-on work that we know can have an effect — much more, anyway, than assigning a multiple-choice quiz through Blackboard!

I’m only skimming the surface here. bavatuesdays is doing a good job of keeping up to date on edupunk’s emergence (the link is to all posts tagged “edupunk”; pay special attention to The Glass Bees); a new Wikipedia entry will likely evolve as more is known about this newly discovered “tribe” of educators; and Leslie Madsen-Brooks offers a good overview of the meanings attached to “edupunk” so far at Blogher.

9 thoughts on “What Is This Thing Called "Edupunk"?

  1. I’m in the middle of convincing my department and college to adopt an edupunk approach to online learning. Here is a talk I gave (in Chinese) called “Google University.” And here is a page I have up (mostly in English right now) on Google Sites. I focus on Google because I think it is the easiest for the less Web 2.0 savvy teachers to grock.

  2. I don’t know if this is useful to you, but I interviewed six college students about their attitudes towards online learning. I think some of their responses give a good indication of where they stand in terms of online learning, and the ideas behind EDUPUNK.

    Here’s the post: http://arynna.umwblogs.org/2008/06/01/edupinions/

    As you say, it’s sometimes tough to reach students. Are we trying to use tools like blogs, mashups, and wikis to ‘hook’ students, or are we using them to supplement and expand learning that (hopefully) is already going on in the classroom?


  3. Oneman,
    Thanks for a great post. Now I can add Edupunk to my CV–thanks!

    I agree with you that very few of the supposedly “born digital” students are actually literate in new technologies beyond facebook. I too feel your frustration with Blackboard etc. Here at WSU we used to use WebCT–which was crude and very ugly, but I used it for one year. Then we were bought up by Blackboard and the system is ALWAYS down…I don’t know what this system is built in, but it is awful, just purely from a logistical standpoint, not to mention the other great points you make.

    This year I turned to blogs. I created blogs on wordpress.com using their many, many free templates and tweaking them only ever-so-slightly. I only use blackboard to post grades, b/c it protects students IDs. I use the class blog to post slides for lectures and discussion questions, assign homework and post and updates to class discussions. I haven’t yet made commenting mandatory, but plan on it for future classes.

    Instead I assigned students a final project of making their own blog. The class was Social Justice so instead of a final research project on a social justice issue of their choosing I had them start a blog the second week of class (I dedicated one full class period to showing them the how-to of wordpress and only had a few students who needed extra help). So instead of final papers (usually written in the last two weeks of the semester) they had to blog at least once a week on their topic + have pages on their blogs for more indepth info on their topic and they had to have links to stories, occasional video clips and images.

    For their last post I required them to create their own video making a visual argument about their topic. Many grumbled, but I suggested to them that part of being literate is being media literate which includes knowing some basics. The videos range in quality but they also had to turn in detailed storyboards so I knew *what* their intent was even if the video didn’t quite capture their meaning. Many of the videos are quite good.

    I got back my student evals and almost all students remarked that while they were apprehensive about creating a blog at first they learned a lot and enjoyed the process.

    The class blog is here (http://ces440.wordpress.com/) and you can check out the student blogs listed in the blogroll.

  4. My own small efforts toward a DIY classroom was prompted by a desire to foster online conversations about lecture and discussion topics and reading materials.

    As Oneman notes, the tools provided by Blackboard and WebCT are difficult to use, buried behind paywalls and passwords and toxic to anything resembling organic conversation. So I decided to take the conversation outside.

    I registered for a free blog. Personally, I find Blogger the easiest free blog to use and the most instantly customizable (though the more serious tech types prefer WordPress). I decided that this blog would be used primarily to a) elaborate on class discussions b) tie class topics to current news stories and c) make class announcements. This last ensured that students would at least glance at the blog once in awhile.

    Students still use WebCTboard to check grades, so I decided to put my blog where they would see it even if they weren’t inclined to bookmark it or the feed in their browsers. I used an RSS renderer to create Javascript code that could be used to display a feed of my blog on WebCT. Importantly, clicking one of the links would **take them off WebCT** and into the wild and lawless expanses of the Internet. (Here’s a “tutorial”:http://www.sitegeist.com/stories/2003/04/16/howToGetANewsFeedIntoYourWebctCourse.html, but unfortunately the link to the RSS renderer is dead.)

    Once I had spirited them away from the house of WebCT, I still had the challenge of getting students to speak to me and one another in substantive ways. Here I might have pursued a different communication structure, but because I was new to this blogging out of class thing and rather nervous about what might happen, I maintained strict authorial control over the blog, but strongly encouraged them to comment frequently.

    Fearing a high BS-to-quality content ratio, I did not require these comments of my students. Rather, I offered grade fluidity in the form of participation grades. Students who demonstrated participation in the course had their final letter grade bumped up. Blog commenting is a form of participation that appeals to those quiet thoughtful students who don’t always speak up in class, so it became popular with that crowd.

    I made some effort to incorporate the blog into classroom routine. When students asked questions that I couldn’t answer on the spot, I’d reply using the blog. then I’d pull up WebCT on my laptop, turn on the projector, and briefly discuss the post at the beginning of the next class. About one-third to one-half of the students were regular readers by the midterm, and nearly as many contributed regularly. Some students would even email posts to their parents and friends.

    I’d like to radicalize my use of blogs a little the next time I teach by making it more participatory, less “me talk, you respond.” I thought of making every student maintain a blog, but I don’t think I’m comfortable forcing students commit their words and thoughts to such a public space. I think instead I will grant any student who requests it administrative access, so they can co-author the blog with me. Giving up authority is a little scary and will likely result in headaches and messes. I disabled comments to one class blog after a student posted something along the lines of “LOL, Xians are stupid.” In retrospect, that was probably like dousing the garden with kerosene and setting it on fire when all it needed was a little regular weeding.

    (Sorry for the length of this. I should probably get a blog or something.)

  5. I’m feeling slightly uncomfortable about it being a bit out of the frying pan, into google.

  6. I’m really glad people are talking about this, and in such detail. On the one hand, it’s a little silly — yeah, we’re punk now. *lip curl* On the other hand, I think the limitations of “Learning Management Systems” (can I tell you how scared I am of LMSes doing what their name implies?!) are literally forcing professors who care about education outside the fold — and it’s up to some of the tech-savviest among us to lead the way.

    Ironically, I wrote this post just before sitting down to put together my summer Distance Ed course on Blackboard (I hadn’t realized that Bb bought WebCT/WebCampus, since all the material on our uni site still refer to WebCampus and I’ve not used the online stuff for a few years). Fortunately, I know HTML and CSS and basic principles of online information organization and presentation — I shudder to think of what I’d be limited to if I were a “stock” educator. I actually won’t be “edupunking” this course, since it’s the first time I’m teaching a full course online and I have to get a feel for what would work.

    I want to respond to one comment made by jfg above: “I don’t think I’m comfortable forcing students commit their words and thoughts to such a public space.” I grappled with this before deciding to create a blogging assignment. There are privacy issues, practical issues (teaching basic web skills, for example — not really in my mandate), and even psychological issues (the written version of stage fright, for example). However, I also believe that we’re preparing students for life in our society, and even — though it’s a little elitist — trying to give them an “edge”. More and more of our civil discourse takes place online — maybe even more and more of our society altogether takes place online. I required my students to voice themselves publicly for the same reason I used to require in-class presentations — they teach skills that students need to have to be effective citizens (and workers, of course — I guess I have to pay homage to reality here, though I like to kid myself that I’m teaching them skills they can use to build more fulfilling and maybe socially-conscious careers). That’s uncomfortable for many of them — but so is reading about the Sambia, or about women’s lifetime earning prospects compared to men’s, and so is writing papers and coming to class and…

    I do a lot in my classrooms to dissolve some of the power relations that shape instruction, but in the end, I also have a responsibility to push my students beyond what they’re comfortable with, to compel them when necessary. I think that the lessons learned by posting publicly are worth the cost of some student discomfort, and outweigh most of the other considerations. Plus, I have to say, I saw an immediate improvement in student writing the first session I required blogging in — I think there’s something about writing for the whole world to see that focuses students a bit more on grammar and style than writing for just ol’ Professor D does.

  7. @oneman: Oh, I agree with these points. Student discomfort about various activities (or topics) that impede learning should be respectfully considered but never avoided.

    One of my biggest concerns was that Google never forgets. Could I be setting students up to say things online that could come back to haunt them later–for instance, when employers search their names prior to the interview? Statements that seemed smart at age 20 might seem sophomoric, ill-conceived or just poorly written ten years on (speaking of which, I am relieved that the grammatical typo in the first sentence of my previous post will be attributed for all time to “jfg”).

    Some people will likely scoff at this, thinking no doubt that the content of the average undergrad’s Facebook account is more damning than anything they might blog about as a class assignment. An often overlooked part of this new civil discourse that oneman mentions, however, is consciousness and control of your own online presence. In fact, not having one’s words as an 18-to-22-year-old online for that student’s future colleagues and employers to see might prove to be an “edge” of sorts. On the other hand, I think of my students as adults who can ultimately make decisions about their own presentation of self in everyday life (online).

    In the case of class blogging, this issue is rather easy to address, of course, with some basic privacy measures. For example, I asked students to sign posts with the first two letters of the first and last names.

    None of this is to say that requiring students to blog is a bad idea. I’m just trying to elaborate on some of the anxieties I felt when I first started using blogs as a teaching tool.

    And thanks for this post, by the way. I knew something was wrong with classroom management systems, but I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with anyone.

  8. jfg: I think initialing is a creative way around the “Google posterity” problem. In my case, I let them use whatever screen name they wanted, and choose whether to make their profile public. I also discussed the issue of privacy several times throughout the course — again, not related to the “mandate” of the course topic, but information that I feel students need to have and think about that isn’t being provided anywhere else. It’s surprising — to us geeky types, anyway — how little the typical student seems to understand abouthow the Itnernet works and how employers and others use the Internet to collect data! Since this obviously isn’t bing covered anywhere else in teh curriculum, I felt ok sacrificing probably about 30 minutes out of the semester to the topic.

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