The Rise of the 'Edupunk'

November 5, 2010

NEW YORK -- The “Edupunks” will inherit the Earth … or at least some attention.

Those in higher education who continue hand-wringing over the relative merits of online learning and other technology-driven platforms will soon find themselves left in the dust of an up-and-coming generation of students who are seeking knowledge outside academe. Such was an emerging consensus view here Monday, as college leaders gathered for the TIAA-CREF Institute's 2010 Higher Education Leadership Conference.

“We're still trying to fit the Web into our educational paradigm.… I just don't think that's going to work,” said Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College, in Eugene, Ore.

Today's students are “pretty bored with what we do,” she added.

In a notable acknowledgment of the tail wagging the dog, several panelists alluded here to the possibility that if colleges don't change the way they do business, then students will change the way colleges do business.

College leaders don't yet know how to credential the knowledge students are gaining on their own, but they may soon have to, said Mark David Milliron, deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We are not far from the day when a student, finding unsatisfactory reviews of a faculty member on ratemyprofessors.com, will choose to take a class through open courseware online and then ask his home institution to assess him, Milliron said. Colleges need to prepare for that reality, he said.

While the concept of a self-educated citizenry circumventing the traditional system of higher education may have sounded far-fetched a decade ago, the fact that the likes of Spilde gave it more than lip service marks something of a shift. Indeed, there was more than a subtle suggestion across hours of sessions Monday that colleges are in for a new world, like it or not, where they may not be the winners.

Given its uncertainty, that world is at once scary and exciting, panelists said. As Tulane University President Scott S. Cowen put it, the conference offered the potential for a “group therapy session,” where some of higher education's most notable thinkers grappled with a pending paradigm shift. At the same time, however, there was a suggestion that all of the canaries in the coal mine -- the rapid and perhaps permanent decline of state appropriations, for instance -- are not eliciting substantive change.

Among those lamenting the lack of real action was William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and a national advocate for improving efficiencies in higher education. During a session covering the college completion goals set out by President Obama and others, Kirwan passionately questioned the “enormous disconnect” between the rhetoric coming from policy makers and the reality in states that are slashing budgets. Moreover, he asserted that concrete benchmarks have not been set for how the United States will achieve Obama's stated goal of returning to its historic summit as the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

“If we were serious about this, we would have it mapped out,” he said. There are indeed maps, but Kirwan's point suggests even policy wonks don't see clear benchmarks.

The seriousness of the budget realities, however, did not go unnoticed by Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York. Speaking like a man under the Sword of Damocles, Goldstein suggested state deficits in New York and elsewhere were the “next bubble.”

“Here's where the problem is really going to come and smack us right in the face,” Goldstein said.

“You don't hear the talking heads and you don't hear the politicians who are running for office saying how real this problem is,” he added.

Goldstein went further, asserting that the inability of states to meet obligations in higher education was a true “national security problem.”

“It's not that we're going to get bombed,” he said. “It's that our competitive position in world markets is going to be seriously compromised.”

So where are the bright spots? A continual refrain from panelists was the idea that “cutting to invest” is the only path forward. College leaders argue that the imperative to grow programs now invariably means the shedding of others.

“You may have to take money out of some other cherished project, but you've got to keep doing new things because that's what universities are about,” said Teresa Sullivan, the newly minted president of the University of Virginia.

In a bow to the “Edupunks,” Sullivan explained that Virginia is incorporating student habits into its pedagogy. For example, the university is experimenting with “flash seminars.” Just as “flash mobs” summon young people to engage in some simultaneous bizarre act in a specified place at a specified time, the “flash seminars” alert students to an edgy topic -- no examples of how edgy -- that will be discussed in a professor's living room. To raise the hype level, only the first 25 students who show up are allowed to participate in this non-credit-bearing activity.

“It's done for the sheer love of learning,” she said. “At least that's what the students think.”

In point of fact, Virginia is quite deliberately documenting what gets students fired up -- hoping to incorporate those subjects into the classroom.

As Sullivan described this melding of youth culture and old school academe, several audience members -- yes, Harvard, too -- were frantically jotting notes.

Edupunks are being heard. Whether that will translate into changes in higher ed remains to be seen.

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