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.