Edupunk, Technology, and Leadership

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.]


7 responses to “Edupunk, Technology, and Leadership”

  1. Rafael,
    You have no idea how wel­come a return to some of the ideas you sug­gest here is for me. I, like you, think it has kind of moved away from some very sim­ple and non-pre­scrip­tive approach­es to edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy, and by exten­sion, teach­ing and learn­ing more gen­er­al­ly. I real­ly enjoyed the con­ver­sa­tion I had with Gard­ner, although our dis­cus­sion did go far afield in some ways which any good dis­cus­sion should, but I can’t say as much about the SXSW pan­el. it was a huge dis­ap­point­ment for me, and I think it moved the whole con­cept to far big­ger issues like the very rel­e­vance of insti­tu­tions as they are–which while valid questions—I don;t think EDUPUNk as an idea is that far-sight­ed or all-encom­pass­ing. It is just a small sense of re-think­ing sys­tem and ways of doing things between peo­ple, not a soci­o­log­i­cal the­o­ry for re-imag­in­ing insti­tu­tions. And return­ing to some very sim­ple idea of re-imag­in­ing what we do as a space of cre­ativ­i­ty and playfulness—not pos­tur­ing and enmity—is real­ly when the whole idea is most fun for me, so I’m gonna take your advice and live there. It is so much eas­i­er on the ego and the emotions 😉

  2. Ed — I nev­er respond­ed to your point that “the end-users — teach­ers and learn­ers — [are] also (at least poten­tial­ly) part of what is going on.” Yes, this is the point, isn’t it? About Edupunk and lead­er­ship. It rais­es the ques­tion of how much and what kind of the lat­ter we real­ly need in aca­d­e­m­ic tech­nol­o­gy. I’m not an anar­chist in this regard, and hope­ful­ly that goes beyond my pro­fes­sion­al sur­vival instinct. But a more dis­trib­uted, Apache (as opposed to Aztec) style of man­age­ment would seem appro­pri­ate in this space.

  3. Actu­al­ly, upon reflec­tion, I am dis­ap­point­ed that I resort­ed to a term like ‘end-users’ which is only a few shades bet­ter than ‘cus­tomers.’ If there is an edupunk mod­el of the rela­tion­ship between teach­ers, learn­ers, and edtechs, it must sure­ly be one of the part­ner­ship of autonomous indi­vid­u­als who are engaged in a coop­er­a­tive enter­prise. There should be very lit­tle or noth­ing of author­i­ty, hier­ar­chy, or man­age­ment (beyond self-man­age­ment and col­lab­o­ra­tive orga­ni­za­tion). Every­one brings their own set of needs and skills to the col­lec­tive as well as indi­vid­ual task of learning.

    The extent to which this approach to edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy can be imple­ment­ed in real-world learn­ing sit­u­a­tions, how­ev­er insti­tu­tion­al­ized, is of course a sep­a­rate but very impor­tant ques­tion. The­o­ry with­out prac­tice is intel­lec­tu­al mas­tur­ba­tion, infer­tile. Edupunk seems to me to be about prax­is, the­o­ry and prac­tice inform­ing each oth­er and pro­gress­ing together.

    Lead­ers, then, are those who get on with it and share what they find. The Rev­erend set up UMW blogs and record­ed it all so the rest of us can learn. And oth­ers do the same. In this sense, then, edupunk is a very loose­ly orga­nized com­mu­ni­ty of prac­tice (or prax­is), in which lead­er­ship is a dif­fuse qual­i­ty adher­ing to whomev­er is exper­i­ment­ing and shar­ing the results. To that extent, it is a sci­en­tif­ic enter­prise. But think Fey­er­abend rather than Kuhn…

  4. If there is an edupunk mod­el of the rela­tion­ship between teach­ers, learn­ers, and edtechs, it must sure­ly be one of the part­ner­ship of autonomous indi­vid­u­als who are engaged in a coop­er­a­tive enterprise.

    In this sense, then, edupunk is a very loose­ly orga­nized com­mu­ni­ty of prac­tice (or praxis).

    My response to your pre­ced­ing com­ment, which I extract above, is, first, Right On, but sec­ond, How is coop­er­a­tion pos­si­ble? What are the insti­tu­tion­al con­di­tions that have to be in place for gen­uine coop­er­a­tion not only to take place, but to flour­ish? I think there has to be a role for admin­is­tra­tive lead­er­ship in this kind of com­mu­ni­ty build­ing, if only to pro­vide job secu­ri­ty to the edutechs in this equa­tion 🙂 But I think this is pre­cise­ly the track we need to fol­low, and why Edupunk is such a fruit­ful­ly gen­er­a­tive idea (linked to its fuzzi­ness, as I think the Rev­erend point­ed out once, in a tweet …).

  5. I will take the bait and say that when lead­er­ship suc­ceeds it’s all about the vision thing, but that, unfor­tu­nate­ly, IT lead­ers rarely have time for that, being too con­cerned with secu­ri­ty, intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty, sus­tain­abil­i­ty, and keep­ing a place at the pres­i­den­t’s table. Iron­i­cal­ly, of course, what pres­i­dents want is pre­cise­ly vision …

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