Anya Kamenetz writes about innovation, technology, sustainability and social entrepreneurship as a staff writer for Fast Company. At 24, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her Village Voice feature series and column Generation Debt, which led to a book of the same title that drew national attention. Generation Debt argues that student loans, credit card debt, the changing job market and fiscal irresponsibility imperil the future economic prospects of the current generation, which is the first American generation not to do better financially than their parents. Anya has been featured on programs including CNN's Larry King Live and ABC's The View, has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, Salon and The Nation, and has submitted testimony to Congressional committees and state legislatures about student debt and college affordability. Her new book DIY U (Do-It-Yourself University) talks about learner-centered education, encouraging people to forge their own curricula with the resources available to them and not counting on established institutions to tell them who they are. — J.D.M.
How did you become interested in the future of education?
After graduating from Yale in 2002, I started writing for The Village Voice, and that got me interested in writing about young people's economic situations, mainly about student loans. From there, I got into higher education, policy, and wrote for various kinds of progressive outlets about that, and did the book Generation Debt.
This was an interesting time, 2004 to 2005. The student loan bubble was growing, the consumer debt bubble was growing. It turned out this huge growth of consumer debt was actually a ticking time bomb and a disaster for the entire U.S. and world economy.
What is wrong with it, and how do we fix it?
I think we have a system that's no longer adapted to our changing times. It's in an unsustainable cost spiral, which affects access, all of which is detrimental to quality. The system no longer teaches people what they need to know. It's not adapted to a world where the jobs people find when they graduate may not have even existed when they entered college four years earlier.
Our system has never really been adapted to meet the promise we made as a society, which is that a higher education will be available to all those who qualify. That's something that about ten other countries are doing better than we are.
The promise of education—put in your four years of undergrad, maybe a few years of grad school, you'll get your degree and that will give you a good job—seems similar to the corporate promise: secure that job and it will take care of you for life. Neither one seems to be working out that way for a lot of people.
The post-war American dream of the house, the car, the kids, the dog, the fifty-year job and the gold watch, was really a short-term thing. And I don't think turning back to it is necessarily what we're looking for.
But be that as it may, we are experiencing kind of a hangover right now from that promise, and we don't necessarily have anything to replace it with. That's the legacy of post-war expansion, which may not ever be equaled again in history; that's what we're dealing with as a generation.
So, where do you see this going?
The tremendously exciting thing is that in the last ten years, technology has transformed the way we exchange information and collaborate.
These are the essential functions of education: finding the information you need and finding people to work with are exactly the two pieces you need to have in place in order to have a university.
In other words, technology now provides the tools and the scaffolding we need to build a new approach to education. The structures don't yet exist. But everything is in place for us to have a system of accessing higher education that's as lightweight, fast, portable and inexpensive to the end user as the ways we are now able to get our news, our music, and just about anything else that can be converted into ones and zeroes.
As with many businesses.
Right. The component of anything that consists of information has been totally transformed. This hasn't happened in education yet, for various reasons, but it doesn't mean that it can't happen, that it won't happen or shouldn't happen.
Education is like healthcare in that it tends to be rather slow to change, isn't it?
It's like healthcare in a lot of ways. It's something people consume more and more of as they get more money and more privilege.
It's something we don't really have a good distribution system for, nor can we really speak about rationing—although we do in fact ration them both, and not in the most rational way.
It's something that has both private and public payers, and therefore normal market functions don't really seem to work to keep down costs.
It's something where there are a lot of specialized circles of knowledge, which is why individuals who are consuming it don't feel empowered to make good decisions.
What is an edupunk, and what is an edupreneur?
Edupunks are basically educators who are interested in this idea of DIY [do-it-yourself] education. Their goal is to adapt mostly open-source, open-platform technologies to allow people to share, teach and apprentice each other outside the logic of traditional institutions.
Most of the edupunks are employed within traditional universities, but what they're doing within those perches is something that's a little bit Robin Hood–like: they're giving away the store.
They do things like opening up their classes to anyone on the Web who wants to take them, starting blogs and Wikis, Twitter feeds and hash tags that follow a symposium-style topic across various platforms, encouraging their students to publish their work online, creating a kind of an open portfolio where anyone can see what they're doing.
Essentially, they are building an open infrastructure not just for lots of different universities, but perhaps one big online university anyone can access at any time, joining the conversation and becoming part of this learning endeavor that people have been engaging in for thousands of years.
Classically, education was something you consumed while in your teens and twenties, and then you're done. What's the implication of the picture you're describing for people who are "past the university age"?
I think it's tremendous. People are a lot more comfortable with the idea of this sort of casual online learning happening outside the traditional college years.
If you know the right places to look right now, the Web is a totally amazing ongoing symposium on anything you could want to learn. It's certainly very, very exciting for people who are interested in lifelong learning.
This has great implications because we have such a complex society. We now live long lives with many stages where people are going to have to retrain many times over. And the Internet is
an absolutely amazing resource for doing that.
Might this kind of open source university serve not only as an answer to a crisis, but also to open up educational opportunities beyond anything we ever had before?
Oh, absolutely. It definitely has to. It's not just an ameliorative situation.
As our society becomes more and more complex, the need for education becomes greater and greater, and the demands we place on the institutions become higher and higher.
The system we have right now, which was built and last expanded in the 1970s, is perfectly adequate for educating 35 percent of the population. If we just want to educate young, white men, as we have sought to do for hundreds of years, it would be fine.
But now we have this bizarre idea that all around the world, every child is born with the inalienable right to access learning opportunities! That's what we really believe—and that's the promise we're trying to fulfill. And the requirements of fulfilling that promise are staggering.
It's almost as if this concept was going to be born, but it really couldn't be until we had the technology for it.
That's probably true. I write about this a little bit in DIY U. Chris Anderson, who does the Ted talks, has written movingly about this idea that while we face incredible challenges as a society, we also have this unbelievable ability we've never had before to tap the human resource of children growing up who before would have either died at a very young age or never learned to read, or never been able to access the Internet.
There might be some kid somewhere right now, who's got the solution to help us deal with something like the BP oil spill. And only the Internet can help us make that connection.
The Internet—coupled with the open-mind-edness to apply it that way.
Absolutely. That's a key component.
How do you picture higher learning twenty years from now? Do you see it taking place much less in ivy-covered brick halls and being vastly more decentralized?
I do. I imagine it being vastly more decentralized and more diverse. And that is ultimately a really good thing for human freedom, because the false image of a four-year degree for all has had the inevitable result of making people who don't make it through feel like failures, disempowering them and wasting their potential. Because whether or not you earn a degree, or where you manage to earn your degree, has much less than a linear correlation to your worth as a human being and your potential to do good and thrive in the world.
People develop at different points in their lives, have different kinds of intelligences and talents, and we have too diverse a society to really pin everything on a couple of letters after someone's name.
I think it's a good idea to celebrate different kinds of educational experiences and opportunities, no matter where you come from.
And I'm not just speaking here in a euphemistic way about the poor and the minorities who are currently left out of the system. I'm also talking about people who grew up in more privileged households, having the freedom to renounce formal education and get a trade, if that's what they really want to do.
That's what freedom's all about.