Meet the EduPunks

Radical self-educators challenge the “tyranny of credentials”

Meet the Edupunks Image

Peter O. Zierlein /

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One night in 2008 at a Brooklyn bar, Jim Groom, a technologist at the University of Mary Washington, coined a term that is changing the way the world looks at education. The word is edupunk, and it speaks to the need for educational reform—reform that, to some extent, already has begun.

Ordinary people are taking education into their own hands using web-2.0 tools. And classrooms, lectures, and curriculums are changing. For Groom, it’s not the word that matters—it’s the movement. “I don’t know if the term itself will outlive the logic, but the logic is certainly alive and well and exciting to watch happen,” he says. People are forgoing conventional tools and using new devices like wikis, blogs, and open-source textbooks to learn what they want to learn.

“What we’re doing as edupunks is taking the ethos of the punk era and applying it to education,” says Steve Wheeler, a lecturer in education and information technology at the U.K.’s University of Plymouth. “We’re bypassing the educational systems that have been put in place by the corporations and institutions.”

It’s increasingly difficult to help students with academic programs, Wheeler explains. In the years between when they enter university and when they come out the other side, the world of work can change. Students are doing a lot of informal learning online. In the U.K., there is a new system called Accreditation of Prior and Experiential Learning to account for this type of knowledge.

For Brian Frank, a self-educator in London, Ontario, edupunk finally gave him a word for his approach to education. Since Frank began educating himself in 2002, his self-education hasn’t been well received by potential employers. “It ranges from incomprehension to being offended almost,” he says.

 But Frank is starting to see changes in workplace culture—a move away from what he calls the “tyranny of credentials.” Speaking engagements on digital media and democracy at London’s public library have added to his credibility. “[We need to] get back to a system where we actually trust the people we work with . . . and have more robust relationships with them,” he says.

Gardner Campbell, director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, believes this too. Employers ought to be hungry for people who aren’t going to simply do a set of assigned tasks, but who are going to invest themselves in the ongoing discovery necessary to fuel a business, he says. Campbell expects a new educational model to emerge.

David Hall, a former college instructor, imagines a system in which students are active participants in their education. In order for it to work, though, students need to be engaged. “There’s definitely a level of apathy,” he says. “You have a lot of people who . . . show up, pay their tuition, and go to class, and that’s it.”

The onus is not necessarily on students, according to Campbell. If universities of the future are to survive, he argues, they will have to capture their students’ imaginations. “The part [of edupunk] that resonates most with me is that learning has to start with the learner’s desire to learn, and until that’s awakened, you’re putting people on a conveyor belt,” he says.

“If that spirit is missing from the university, then the university has to find a way to recapture that spirit and to be a platform for it.”


Excerpted from The Tyee (March 20, 2010), an independent daily online magazine exploding with political and cultural analysis that is based in British Columbia.