Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Edupunks' Guide: There's More Than One Way to Get a Good Education

October 05, 2011

It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be a learner.

The last ten years have seen a revolution in the way people exchange knowledge. The universities, libraries, and museums of the world have begun to open their doors online, while social networks have transformed our opportunities for communicating with each other and even validating our knowledge and accomplishments to a community. Sharing information openly over the Internet can be cheaper than purchasing it in dead-tree format, and often the learning that happens this way is faster and more relevant to our immediate needs.

A simple example is learning to speak a language. A few years ago, you had to take a class or at least buy a phrasebook. Today you can type “how to speak Spanish” into YouTube and within minutes you’re watching three dozen videos that can have you at “Hola!”

At the same time, the traditional education system is having serious problems meeting demand. Tuition increases year after year, public funding drops, and to complicate matters, institutions are facing more and more students who don’t fit the old college mold:

  • 7 out of 10 Americans graduate high school. Almost four in 10 of those are not fully prepared for college-level work.
  • 3.7 out of 10 get any postsecondary degree.
  • 6 out of 10 Americans attend more than one college.
  • 1 in 4 take an online course.
  • 8 out of 10 do at least one internship.
  • 44 million Americans have some college - no degree - compared to 41 million with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Only 1.5 out of 10 truly fit the “old mold.”

Millions of Americans—and tens of millions of people around the world--are following their own idiosyncratic learning paths: stopping out, “swirling” among institutions, balancing learning with working, raising a family and other responsibilities, and vocational and experiential learning.

I call these students “edupunks.”

The open learning revolution has a great potential to serve their needs. It’s accessible and flexible. It offers multimedia resources to suit different learning styles. Peer learning, adaptive learning programs and games can supply endless enrichment opportunities for students who need extra help or catch-up time. A vanguard of independent learners is discovering these opportunities every day.

But between the edupunk and the brave new learning future, there’s a big gap.

Although they may be digital natives, these learners need bridges to connect them to the growing wealth of free and affordable resources that can catalyze their learning, whether they’re currently enrolled in an institution or not. They need guidance to create personal learning plans that can transform their life experiences and passions into credentials. And they need help getting credit for learning done at different institutions, in the workplace, online, in open communities, and at different times and places in their lives.

The future is not about creating one big new solution or institution that works for everybody—it’s about an increasing diversity of options that meet the diversity of learners where they are.

Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U and the Edupunks' Guide to a DIY Credential.

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