Crystal Alberts, Department of English, University of North Dakota
Edupunk: an approach to teaching and learning practices that result from a do it yourself (DIY) attitude.
When Bill sent me the link to EDUPUNK Battle Royale-Part 1 (see here for all 5) and asked me to comment on it, even before finding out what it is, I jokingly said that he should be careful as I might adopt Edupunk as a teaching philosophy. All kidding aside, as it turns out, I’ve been Edupunk for years.
University of Mary Washington Instructional Technologist Jim Groom coined the term “edupunk” on May 25, 2008 in his bavatuesdays blog entry “The Glass Bees.”. In what has been described as a rant, Groom asserts that Blackboard and other Learning Management Systems (LMS) “tak[e] the experiments and innovations of thousands of people and re-packag[e] them as their own, unique contribution to the educational world of Web 2.0.” Groom goes on to state that these companies are not only motivated by money, but that they also supply a means for institutions to monitor faculty and students. After his post, the term took on a life of its own. The Chronicle for Higher Education discussed it on May 30, 2008 and the New York Times added to the conversation in October 17, 2008, defining it 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. ethos of ’70s bands like the Clash to the classroom.”
Groom raises the issue of the cost of Blackboard and their proprietary equivalents. I have not been able to track down exact numbers for UND, but this year Ball State (enrollment approximately 18,000) paid $101,000 ((http://media.www.bsudailynews.com/media/storage/paper849/news/2008/09/16/News/Blackboard.Costs.Bsu.101000-3432621.shtml). Meanwhile, Northern Arizona State with roughly the same enrollment as Ball State paid $160,100 (https://confluence.nau.edu/display/ITSACAD/Blackboard+License). To avoid this price tag, many institutions are thinking about Moodle, an open source (read free) LMS that appears to be more popular among faculty and students alike. As an extra bonus, Moodle also seems to have inspired less ire in the hacker world. Step-by-step hacks for Blackboard and WebCT are all over the Internet. All one has to do is follow the technical documentation. I’ve contacted CILT about this and security updates are installed regularly to protect against hacks. I also learned that UND is looking into Moodle (if you have an opinion on such things, my guess is now would be a good time to share it). That said, I want to thank CILT for answering my questions on these issues.
Leaving the financial issue aside (if one can in this economy), as well as that of information security, I’ll return to the term itself. While the multi-part Battle Royale spends some time focusing on the “punk” portion of the term (and whether “hippie” or some other cultural label would be better), the core discussion revolves around the surprisingly strong reactions that Groom’s post evoked. For the sake of time, I’ll summarize the arguments in the most basic way. In one camp are academics that find Blackboard to be an indispensable tool (even with its quirks) to manage large classes. Closely affiliated to this position are those who assert they don’t have time to “reinvent the wheel” or learn new technology. Still others claim that edupunks are just doing what they did fourteen or so years ago. Finally, there are tech savvy individuals (or those willing to become so) who either feel limited by Blackboard, outright despise the LMS (for various reason), or both.
I will admit (rather proudly) that I do not use Blackboard or any LMS. I should also add I avoid Powerpoint as much as is humanly possible. However, I have watched colleagues, who are very much tech savvy, struggle with the Blackboard software every semester. This battle of human versus LMS frequently ends in innumerable invectives against the inventors of the interface. Rather than subject myself to such frustration, I very happily maintain my own course web site.
To be fair to other viewpoints, I understand that I am lucky enough to have small classes and therefore do not have to track over 200 students each semester. I also realize that I am at an advantage because I can create a web page anytime I feel so moved. But I am perplexed by those who will take the time to be trained in Blackboard, then assert they don’t have an hour to create a web page using a wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) composer. Likewise, I am confused by the “we already did this fourteen years ago” position. We acknowledge that we build upon what these tech pioneers did, but we also recognize, to quote that wise twentieth-century pop philosopher Ferris Bueller, that “things move pretty fast.”
While I’ve used a fair amount of space focusing on Blackboard and LMS alternatives, this isn’t really what edupunk is about. It’s not necessarily about dismantling authority, but rather, as Groom states, about “people thinking and working together.” It’s an appeal to academics be active, not apathetic; to be creative and collaborative, not automatic and isolated. It’s about discovering new ways of doing things and learning along the way, rather than waiting for information to revealed to you by someone else.
I guess its clear by now where I fall in the debate. Perhaps edupunk resonates with me because I have worked in corporate America. I laugh uncontrollably at Office Space, mostly because I escaped, what was for me, intellectual confinement, and because I wish that I had taken a power drill to my cubicle. I fled that world to what I thought was the safety of academe, only to discover that institutions of higher learning are increasingly being run as businesses.
But I’ve learned my lesson. I’m a DIY kind of woman. While I can’t build a house from the ground up like my DIY Northern Minnesota family and neighbors, with my pedagogical power drill (my MacBook Pro) in my tool belt and the assistance of students, as well as like-minded colleagues around campus (and the world), I can certainly roll up my sleeves and construct a scholarly knowledge site that we can all point to and say “I helped do that.” I can arrange a field trip to Special Collections and show my students that a little book dust never hurt anyone. I can take my class to the Writers Conference where they can interact with the authors whose works they are reading. Like I said, none of these things are particularly revolutionary and all are available for free on campus, but they all keep things interesting. Perhaps more importantly these outside of the classroom adventures pose interesting questions and challenges not only for me, but also for my students. Because while I can teach them about digital humanities, guide them through a close read of a literary passage, and explain critical theory, the only way I know to spark a true passion for the material and my discipline is by example.
So, call me edupunk. And if you are too, please let me know who you are and why. I’d love to find more of my fellow travelers.