School's Out: An Interview with Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz, a technology and innovation writer for Fast Company, has just published her second book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. In it, Kamenetz explores how technology is upsetting the traditional hierarchies and categories of education, putting students in the driver’s seat of the learning process – versus at the effect of it.

DIY U

“Increasingly,” she writes, “this means students will decide what they want to learn; when, where, and with whom; and they will learn by doing.” She urges young people to step up to the changes; to start planning how to bypass the aspects of today’s educational system that keep them from learning what they need to succeed and thrive economically. Kamenetz also argues passionately for new online educational models that will make it possible for “millions of kids now forced out of the system” to change it into a more inclusive, relevant, and collaborative experience.

I caught up with Kamenetz yesterday at her Fast Company desk, between deadlines. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

You were thinking for a long time about writing a book about problems regarding access to higher education, the cost of education and the relevance of it, but what finally convinced you to make this book happen?

It’s true. I found a groundswell of students who felt their degree wasn’t giving them the preparation they needed. But what really pushed me over the edge was realizing that I had a bead on some solutions. Working at Fast Company and covering the technology space, I have seen that there is a lot of destructive change happening in a lot of different areas. But in the education space, it’s been increasingly clear that it’s a domain where people are asking this question a lot: Why hasn’t technology transformed education as it has so many other institutions and industries?

So why hasn’t it, in your view?

I had been delving into education’s 1,000-year history to try to answer that question, and I found that education has been the institution of institutions, particularly as our society started to get more organized in the 20th century. During the post-WW2 era in America, every institution got larger and had a bigger impact in people’s lives — and universities generated the experts that made these institutions possible. So universities sort of gained in power, as did the federal government and large corporations and the military, and science. And so educational institutions, especially, are very locked up and locked down. They are “the complex.” They hold the keys in terms of money and prestige and many different kinds of social proof in our society, and so to disrupt that model requires disrupting a lot of different apple carts.

What’s got to fall before some new approaches to education, radical innovation, can occur more broadly, and how painful do you think it’s going to be in the transition?

It’s scary, obviously, to talk about the collateral damage. But okay, one way of looking at it is that college now provides three main functions for most students and those are: content — instructional content and knowledge; socialization, or human development and also initiating people into networks of peers and teachers and professionals, and finally, accreditation. That’s the social proof, that piece of paper that says you’re good to go. Content has been exploded in the last 10 years. Full suites and complements of academic materials have become free and open commodities on the Web. Socialization [over the Web] is transforming young people.

It was college students who had created things like Facebook, and young people tell me that the way they relate to each other and find communities is continuing to change because of the Web. We are all changing the ways we communicate, so the socialization factors of the traditional educational experience can now be provided over the Web in very interesting ways through social media. So what’s really still missing from that picture is accreditation – but it may be surprisingly easy [to provide that on the Web, too.] What is required for that to happen is for people to get better at recognizing that people can now use the Web to acquire knowledge and socialization skills directly, bypassing the institutional middleman. Once this becomes more apparent, that people are doing this, you will start to see a lot of new [educational] value being released.

You wrote something recently about Startl, a first-of-its-kind social innovation hub for education that’s being backed by some of the best-known foundations, including Gates, Hewlett, and MacArthur. You quoted Startl founder Phoenix Wang as saying that today’s new generations of kids don’t want to be told what to learn but “expect they should be able to have control over how they learn, what they learn and where they do it, as co-collaborators.” That triggered a lot of responses from people. There’s a lot of discomfort here.

It’s a revolution. There is potential to do a lot of new things. I think technology tools can go both ways; just because you have technology doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have democracy or, conversely, anarchy. But I’ll give you a good example of the discomfort from another domain. I was speaking to a [college] architecture student yesterday who talked to me about how she’s done a lot of work at her school to try to get a joint program going between the architecture school and the [environmental] sustainability, or forestry program. But it didn’t really work out because there was no support from this faculty. It was very much a situation where there was a generational divide and all of this young woman’s fellow architecture students understood that they needed to be thinking about sustainability in every project that they made. But none of their professors understood that, and they didn’t really know how to do it. They didn’t have the content or the domain knowledge to do it. And when they set up this joint program, it became really clear that the forestry teachers didn’t necessarily know how to teach architecture students, either – or that they didn’t have the wherewithal to collaborate across these two domains as flexibly as the students would have liked them to do.

I think that you see this kind of thing happening a lot across a lot of different areas where young people are coming up, and they are not necessarily respecting the old disciplines and hierarchies. They’re sort of taking for granted the fact that teaching on these topics has to become more fluid and also that new solutions have to be created all the time to solve the challenges that are facing us as a society. It’s this type of transformation in education that existing institutions are not well set up to do. These new and evolving organizations on the Web are.

New media thinker Mark Pesce predicted at last spring’s Personal Democracy Forum that the rise of Web-wired, self-organized groups won’t necessarily topple existing institutions but will be abrasively reshaping them, “like sand against limestone.” Is this, in your view, a good description of what’s happening with regard to online communities and social networks and traditional colleges and universities?

I’m going to offer you a counter metaphor. Last year, I was in the MIT Media Lab, and I was interviewing a young scientist [it’s impossible to describe what she does without a lot of hyphens.] This person, Neri Oxman, showed me in the basement of MIT — a pretty traditional institution — that there is a 3-D printer that uses sand and it prints buildings. At this point, it prints small buildings. But at some point, it will be able to print entire buildings. And the assumption that we make about what is permanent and what kinds of investments in resources does it take to create an institution like MIT might be totally changed by something like that. And in fact, at MIT, they are changing. In the virtual world, they have created a courseware site where many of their courses are being offered online, for free, and something like 93 million people have accessed them, so who’s an MIT student and who isn’t? How much more influence is MIT having on the world because of this? [Editor’s note: Watch Neri Oxman’s 2009 PopTech talk for more on her work.]

What would you tell a student, or someone who is just entering high school or college, how to compensate for what traditional institutions today aren’t able to deliver?

The last chapter of the book is sort of written as a guide for students in that position. As a student, you have to start by changing your own whole mental model, right? A lot of students, especially really good students, have gone through the whole [educational] system by having an external locus of control. In other words, they are well attuned to what institutions or parents think about them and what their work is all about. But they are not as good at learning on their own. They are not as good at following their own curiosity and they may not have an internalized idea of what they’re good at or what it is that they really want to do. These are skills they really need to work on.

If I had an 18-year-old kid going off to college, I’d encourage him or her to spend the summer in some sort of self-discovery process, where they are taking lot of responsibility for their own existence and are getting lots of insights into who they are and what they want. That, really, has to be a starting point for any education. Maybe that sounds a little bit woolly or vague, but what I’m saying is that you have to forget what the institution wants from you and you have to start thinking about [education] in terms of what is my goal? And what are the resources I can assemble to make that goal happen? I think people today need to assume it won’t be one institution, and it won’t be one kind of experience, and it won’t just be online, and it won’t just be a person. It won’t be a workplace experience or travel and it won’t be just coursework. It won’t just be research, nor experimentation, either. What you’re going to want to do is combine as many of these as possible into a plan, always with your own goal in mind but not simply the goal of getting a diploma.

It’s kind of like what’s happening in health care – the move by many patients to take control of their own health amid a broken system.

I think a lot of people would agree that the health care system is broken but we have to be really careful here, because a major reason I wrote this book is that the education system is broken – not just for our children or for me as the child that I was, but for the millions and millions of kids forced out of the system who are not getting the education they need and can’t afford to get a decent degree that will translate into a decent job. That’s the major reason why education has to change, not just to make things better for kids at MIT.

Has technology, during this evolution we’re talking about, given us too much information/knowledge too fast? Is both the amount of information and the speed at which it can be shared overwhelming us — not only with the reality of how much more there is to know but how inadequate our institutions have been in delivering it to more people?

I think that our [educational] institutions are too slow to keep pace with digital technologies but I also think we are evolving new types of institutions. You know, Jefferson talked about how the human store of knowledge must be growing and enlarging, advancing accumulating until the end of time – if not infinitely then indefinitely. And he lived in a time when he was broadly thought to be a person that was an actual Renaissance Man; he had top-level knowledge in every major domain of life in that time, whether it was botany or astronomy or cooking or politics. I don’t think anyone would argue that today, very few people have the ability to have the knowledge that Jefferson had, and so I think that in general, [the rapid evolution of the Web] is a good thing and change is speeding up. The fact that it’s speeding up is a good thing and the fact that there is more information than ever before is a really good thing.

We just need to start being very creative about how we deal with the acceleration. I want to be a friend of change. I think there’s been a little bit of a debate already about the book coming out. I get asked, Are you a Pandora opening up Pandora’s Box, or are you a Cassandra, declaiming that things are doomed and that other things are coming up in their place? I kind of don’t want to take responsibility for either of these [viewpoints]. I think we are all imagining a different kind of future and I want to be on the side of the future and not on the side of the past.

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