I want to give my two cents on Edupunk, a wildy successful term coined by Jim Groom (Mary Washington) to describe a style of academic technology support that (1) eschews Central IT and its dependency on scalable but clunky and ultimately boring and possibly evil applications, such as Blackboard, and (2) instead favors helping faculty use more open, flexible, elegant, interesting, and available technologies from the open source and Web 2.0 spaces, such as WordPress. In coining the term, Jim gave meaning and focus to a real trend and tension that has been with us for some time, but which remained uncatalyzed for being unnamed. Naming is powerful magic and we would do well to pay attention to it when it succeeds as well as it has in this case.
A lot has already been said about Edupunk and the range of ideas it connotes. In addition to the press that followed the coining of the term (including the New York Times), Jim has produced a playful but serious Battle Royale video series in which Jim and his former colleague Gardner Campbell (now at Baylor) debate the appropriateness and effectiveness of the term to advance goals they both share. (The topic was also the subject of a recent panel at SXSW 2009, but I have not listened to that yet.) After listening to these clips, though, I can’t help but think that the core idea has been weighed down by the considerable semantic load of the term “punk,” for better and for worse. So I thought I would take a stab at rescuing the idea from the word, if that’s at all possible. (I have no idea if this is cool with Jim.) Not that the debate between Gardner and Jim is reducible to mere semantics; they do have important differences of opinion on educational technology that go beyond the debate in question.
So, the core meaning of the term Edupunk derives from a rather straighforward analogy Jim draws between this style of academic technology and the late 1970s punk movement in music associated with groups like the Clash (his example). Just as the Clash had a raw freshness and energy in contrast to the bloated, formulaic, and empty music of Billboard 100 bands at the time, apps like WordPress and Drupal stand in contrast to the bloated and mind-numbing software that we often (but not always) get from the corporate sector, at least in the case of educational technology. The analogy works at a literal level since the success of bands like the Clash had a lot to do with their avoidance of Big Music production studios and producers in favor of cheaper technologies in available spaces like garages and basements. [Update: garage music is an example of the long tail of production being enabled by the commodification of the means of music production that took place in the 1970s.]
When you look at the analogy in this way, the term garage band, or some variant of it, turns out to be a better analogy than punk proper for what Jim is getting at. As a Clash song goes, they were a “garage band” from “garage land.” The image of a garage band — and think of early Devo or the Modern Lovers here — evokes the DIY ethos Jim refers to while avoiding analogies to bands like the Sex Pistols, who were cynically manufactured and marketed from the start. I have a hard time thinking of Drupal, for example, in the same space as the Sex Pistols. I have a less hard time comparing the software to the sound of, say, Joy Division. There is an elegant simplicity to both that, presumably, derives from their being developed without the encumbrances of a beauracracy and Big Leadership.
The analogy to the garage band music rather than punk per se avoids Gardner Campbell’s apt criticism about punk in the strict sense, that it was a divisive and cyncial movement without any real concern for change (one thinks of the Ramone’s I’m Against It or Richard Hell and the Voidoid’s Blank Generation), and therefore serves as a bad model for the hard work of crafting a transformational academic technology practice. But I suppose the norman “garage” does not lend itself to phrase coining the way the saxon-sounding “punk” does.
And the word “punk” does have an important connection to the open source software culture that Jim valorizes: there is a direct bloodline of descent that goes from punk (music) to cyberpunk (literature) to the hackerdom (technology) that produced Perl, Linux, and PHP. It’s a connection that is evident from the aesthetics of open source software before it became successful and co-opted (not necessarily for worse) by the web-inflated software industry. Just look at the covers ot 2600 and The Perl Journal from 1990s.
So, although I think Gardner is correct about not wanting to salute this particular flag because of its guilt by association with the Johnny Rotten school of anti-leadership, I think Jim was (is) onto something very important that needs further unpacking, even after the hype curve subsides. Ironically, I think the set of issues he catalyzed with the term have precisely to do with leadership and its connection to teaching and technology, where Gardner rightly shifts the debate. But more on that later.
[Upate 11/05/2011: I realize that a more authentic term for what Edupunk strives for is Open Source Education, where Open Source refers not only to software but to the very practices and other resources involved in education itself.]