Your Education Just Got Punk’d

When you hear the word “punk” you instantly think of rebellious teens in leather and safety pins banging their heads to The Clash’s “London Calling.”

While it might seem far-fetched for educators to use this anti-authority image to promote their vision for academia, the idea of “edupunk” has its roots in the punk attitude of using what you’ve got to make something new.

The New York Times defined edupunk as “an approach to teaching that avoids mainstream tools like PowerPoint and Blackboard, and instead aims to bring the rebellious attitude and D.I.Y [do-it-yourself] of ’70s bands like The Clash to the classroom.”

Instructional technology specialist, Jim Groom, who teaches at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, coined the term on his blog titled “bavatuesdays” in a post called “The Glass Bees” in May 2008.

“The concept is not new,” Groom said. “Edupunk just put a label on something that’s been going on for years and years.”

The jokingly self-proclaimed poster boy of the now movement, Groom explained that edupunk deviates from the “flavourless” and “uninspired” spaces in which students typically have to learn, discuss and post their work.

Thus, instructors like Brian Lamb, the manger of emerging technologies and digital content at the University of British Columbia, who Groom says co-authored the term with him, have created more unique opportunities like open blogs to display student work and facilitate an ongoing discussion between students and the community.

“It should be a fun, kind of, irreverent place to share this stuff,” Groom said.


Pork and Beans


Since before the word was coined, teachers and students worldwide adopted edupunk culture by casting aside traditional teaching tools and embracing the fringe model made possible by the explosion of social networking on the Internet through Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere.

Groom even gave the movement its own anthem, suggesting songs in the likeness of Weezer’s “Pork and Beans,” whose video garnered fame from casting YouTube celebrities and whose chorus proclaims, “I’mma do the things I wanna do/I ain’t got a thing to prove to you.”

The question is: What does D.I.Y. education look like in practice?

Students in North America are mainly conditioned to withstand three-hour lectures, 12-page essays and filling in the bubbles on final exams. Most universities nowadays have learning management systems such as Blackboard (WebCT), where information for courses is posted and distributed online to registered students.

But some educators are turning these standards on their head.

One such instructor is UBC’s Jon Beasley-Murray, an assistant professor in the department of French, Hispanic and Italian studies who uses Wikipedia as the platform for a major class project in his SPAN 312 course titled, "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: Latin American Literature in Translation.”

In 2008, the first year of the course, students were required to work in groups and become wiki editors by creating new articles or work on incomplete articles (called “stubs”) about assigned topics.

“Most of the times when students are in a class, they come to class, they write essays and the only person who ever reads their essay is the professor,” Beasley-Murray said.

In that way the interaction between student and educator is fairly “closed circuit,” he added.

He said Wikipedia allows his students to receive feedback and collaborate with hundreds of thousands of users who can also edit, correct and make comments.

Beasley-Murray simply became the co-ordinator of the project and the students’ peers and collaborators became their teachers, he said.

“It was a big experiment,” Beasley-Murray said. “None of them had really contributed to Wikipedia before.”

He compared the collaboration of aggregating public knowledge on Wikipedia to “the punks who put things together with safety pins.”

“This is kind of something anyone can do,” he said.

Groom himself is listed as the first testimonial on the project, quoting his praise for Beasley-Murray and his students.

“They’re doing something with a real, practical setting,” Groom said. “It’s absolutely brilliant.”

Beasley-Murray said edupunk practices are easy with platforms such as Wikipedia, which can be transformed into learning tools.

Learning management systems such as Blackboard cost thousands of dollars he said.

“You don’t need the sort of specialized education-oriented expensive programs. Do it yourself,” he said. “Stick a few things together. There’s something kind of fun and invigorating about that.”

While the credibility often comes into question with the user-created Wikipedia, the success Beasley-Murray’s students had with their project might be a testament to the possibilities of open-format education.

Three of the articles created by his students received featured article status in 2008, and eight received “Good Article” acknowledgement. According to the site, featured articles are reviewed for “accuracy, neutrality, completeness and style.” Featured articles account for just fewer than 9 per cent of the more than 3 million English articles currently on Wikipedia.

“At the end of it I think most of them were pretty proud of what they had done,” Beasley-Murray said of his students. “They’d come away with having contributed something to public knowledge.”


The future of academia


Edupunk has moved from its status as an underground manifesto to a popular movement. However, leading institutions were aspiring to open similar education concepts long before the movement started.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), their OpenCourseWare (OCW) site has been running since 2002, where it first housed 50 courses and has since expanded to more than 2,000 courses of compiled video lectures, course syllabi, exams and quizzes freely accessible to the public.

Following what media relations officer Steve Carson said was the academic gold rush for institutions to offer distance education for a profit, MIT set up a committee to address how they could expand their resources online in 2000.

After the committee of faculty members deduced that MIT was best at was hands-on classroom learning and the Internet was best at was the broad dissemination of information, they came up with a simple conclusion in their 10-page report.

“Give the materials we’re already creating away,” Carson said.

The site now boasts 900,000 unique monthly visitors and 1.5 million total monthly visitors from all over the world.

Carson said 43 per cent of users identify as “self-learners” not belonging to any formal educational institution. This number surprised OCW staff, he said, who weren’t expecting the large interest from the non-academic community.

While visitors can’t actually interact with MIT professors, or receive grades or diplomas, Carson said despite this, “there is a huge unmet desire among people to learn about things regardless of whether there was any kind of degree at the far end of it.”

While he said he doubts they fit the edupunk description, MIT, which spends $3.6 million on the site per year, is taking the institutional approach to open learning, and many other schools worldwide have followed suit. The OpenCourseWare Consortium, an umbrella for committed open-format institutions has members from Costa Rica to Afghanistan to Japan.

Groom said what MIT did with its site was revolutionary and “will be understood as a moment” in the evolution of open education.

Despite the buzz it’s received so far, Groom said the edupunk movement isn’t likely to overhaul traditional education.

“Punk didn’t change music,” Groom said. “But it did kind of impact it.”

Similarly, he said there is room in academia for schools to evolve as a result of edupunk notions.

“I don’t think edupunk as a concept can really deal with the largest questions of what is in store for the future of education,” he said. “I do think there is the possibility and potential for them to change,” he said about schools. “And for them to reimagine themselves.”

“We have the tools to do it ourselves.”