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Getting Nontraditional Education

CAP Event Explores The Edupunks’ Guide

Panelists at a recent CAP event discussed alternative ways for students to access higher education.

Traditional universities are no longer the only way to get an education, and they are no longer the only gateway to a job and a successful future. At a Center for American Progress event on October 4, Anya Kamenetz discussed her new e-book, The Edupunks’ Guide, which explores these new and exciting educational opportunities. Edupunks are people who are educating themselves outside of traditional academic universities.

In her introductory speech, Suzanne Walsh, senior program officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, credited Kamenetz and her book with “providing those critical alternative pathways to possibility” for students—pathways outside of a university environment.

In her address, Kamenetz defined edupunks as people “who have the ability to benefit from higher education, but for material reasons or technical reasons don’t have the resources.” Most people, she said, “do not fit the old college mold,” and these people, through being labeled edupunks, can be seen as positively “challenging the system” rather than as not being able to “measure up” to it.

And so edupunks, Kamenetz said, “are going to create and constitute our future, and if the existing systems can’t accommodate them, that potential’s going to be lost.” She said that she wrote The Edupunks’ Guide “to create a breadcrumb trail from the existing world of free content, open resources, open platforms for interaction,” such as information and forums available on the Internet, to accreditation services, such as credit earned through exam, portfolio, and badge systems.

People can take exams based on what they have learned elsewhere—through a prior job experience, for example—and earn credits for many colleges in the United States. They can compile a documented portfolio of experience and training to earn that credit. And institutions and organizations that can be said to teach people can award those people badges. These would show officially that people have certain skills, and they would also be able to be kept updated. Kamenetz referred to badges as “a kind of portable accreditation system that people can take with them throughout their lives.”

A panel discussion followed Kamenetz’s presentation. Moderated by CAP Policy Analyst Julie Margetta Morgan, the panel included Kamenetz, as well as Peter Smith, senior vice president of academic strategies and development for Kaplan Higher Education; Michael Edson, director of web and new media strategy for the Smithsonian Institution; and Philip Auerswald, associate professor for the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.

Panelists discussed the changing face of education and how this change affects students and universities, as well as potential employees and employers. Auerswald talked about employers’ ability to find the best employees whether those people hold a traditional academic degree or not.

He gave the example of Infosys, a company in India that makes employees earn a “mini-degree” through a months-long company course. This allows Infosys’s “assessment of peoples’ capabilities,” which is necessary because of India’s high rate of degree fraud.

Auerswald said that while having different means to education is a positive for students, they are not necessarily a positive for universities. While the special Ivy League environment will be even more in demand, other universities will suffer for a time because they are not the only option for education and accreditation.

Auerswald also discussed the students burdened with large amounts of debt after going to a traditional university. He said that it is “a societal imperative” to help them find other ways to achieve education.

Smith did, however, express some concern that those students coming from low-income backgrounds may need more assistance than their higher-income counterparts in turning their “edupunk-style” learning into something that helps them in the job market.

Smith also said that universities need to discover what they can add to the changing landscape of education. They need to see what can make and keep them a viable educational force.

Overall, the panelists agreed that both students and universities are experiencing change. The Edupunks’ Guide, Kamenetz said, attempts to help students assess their educational options.

For more on this event, see its event page.

More on The Edupunks’ Guide can be found here.

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