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Colleges vs. the Edupunks: Who Will Come Out on Top?

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Edupunk. The term was coined by technology specialist and educator Jim Groom on his blog on May 25, 2008, and it appeared in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece less than a week later.

Edupunk is a rather broad term that’s used as a both a verb and a noun. It’s a do-it-yourself approach to education: taking advantage of free online courses, using the online mega-encyclopedia Wikipedia as a tutoring tool, and nearly any other means that “teach” outside of a formal classroom setting.

In some instances, edupunks are more knowledgeable than their professors about certain topics. Colleges have noticed the trend, and they’re wondering what they need to do about it.

2010 TIAA-CREF Higher Education Leadership Conference

This past Monday, invited college leaders assembled for the TIAA-CREF Institute’s annual Higher Education Leadership Conference. TIAA-CREF, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund, is one of the largest financial services companies in the United States. It offers retirement plans, mutual funds and life insurance to employees of educational, medical, research and cultural institutions; the TIAA-CREF Institute is a respected source of knowledge in the business of higher education.

The consensus of Monday’s meeting? College leaders don’t yet know how to credential the knowledge students are gaining on their own. Several conference panelists alluded to the possibility that if colleges don’t change the way they do business, students will change the way colleges do business.

Inside Higher Ed provided information about the meeting’s discussions. “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,” were the thoughts of Mark David Milliron, deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He believes that colleges need to prepare for that reality.

Edupunks are Bored at College

The idea of a self-educated population of young people bypassing the traditional system of higher education may have sounded unbelievable as recently as a few years ago, but things are changing quickly and colleges are noticing—particularly those colleges that are not incredibly technologically advanced.

“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, Oregon. She then added that current students are pretty bored with what the school has to offer.

Fast Company Magazine profiled the edupunk epidemic over a year ago. “The advent of the Web brings the ability to disseminate high-quality materials at almost no cost, leveling the playing field,” said Cathy Casserly, a senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “We’re changing the culture of how we think about knowledge and how it should be shared and who are the owners of knowledge.”

College Costs Can and Should be Lowered

Fast Company even spoke with Jim Groom, the King Edupunk himself. “Colleges have become outrageously expensive, yet there remains a general refusal to acknowledge the implications of new technologies,” he said. The cost of a college education has increased more than the price any other good or service since 1990, and it’s somehow possible to imagine a new model of education using online resources to serve more students, cheaper than ever before.

“If universities can’t find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them,” professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written, “universities will be irrelevant by 2020.”

Wiley feels that incorporating these edupunk-preferred information sources into colleges can lower costs while keeping students interested enough to attend. Even though OpenCourseWare places free college courses online, it can be difficult to navigate. “If you didn’t need human interaction and someone to answer your questions, then the library would never have evolved into the university,” Wiley says. “We all realize that content is just the first step.”

Colleges Should Add Popular Student Habits into the Mix

Teresa Sullivan, the new president of the University of Virginia, spoke up at Monday’s conference. “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,” she said.

Her school is incorporating current student habits into its programs. The university is experimenting with “flash seminars” which alert students to an edgy topic that will be discussed in a professor’s living room. To raise the level of excitement around the event, 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.”


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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