The Rise of Edupunk

In keeping with last week’s theme of educational infrastructure, I want to cover some recent paradigms in the world of pedagogy, particularly the “Edupunk” movement.

So what is ‘Edupunk’? Stephen Downes, a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada, offers ”… something like a definition …”edupunk is student-centered, resourceful, teacher- or community-created rather than corporate-sourced, and underwritten by a progressive political stance ….”

It appears to me that the term ‘Edupunk’ is in fact a retrofitted, albeit colorful and descriptive, heading for the employment of technology in constructing and disseminating creative new teaching paradigms, largely in line with the anarchic spirit of the opensource movements..

The philosophy is simple and powerful: teaching is a complex and ever evolving engineering problem that requires flexibility and adaptability, and our institutional bureaucracies are too inflexible and too constrained both socially and politically to make full use of the ever growing influx of new educational tools and ideas, and education suffers for it.

In addition to this, there is an undercurrent of motivations lurking near the surface of our educational infrastructure; a major goal is to train citizens to suitably fill the roles we are expected (by the corporate world) to fill, and many students latch on to the corporate mindset (much to the chagrin of passionate educators everywhere): they want a better job, and an education is simply a side effect. The challenge, then, is really multifaceted. We want the education process to be effective and efficient, but also a bit fun and easy; to simultaneously challenge the interested students and still allow the rest to work at their own pace.

To my mind, the most promising effort in this direction comes from an unlikely person; Salman Khan. An MIT graduate and ex-Wall Street analyst who created a non-profit web based service called the ‘Khan Academy’.

Khan Academy fits comfortably under the heading of ‘Edupunk’, and appears to be the most powerful instantiation of this new wave of decentralized pedagogical experiments. It was started by Khan initially as a way to help out his cousins with their school work, but his breadth of knowledge, crystal clear explications and penchant for using multicolored diagrams on a virtual blackboard have brought him to the cutting edge of pedagogy.

All you have to do is go to the page,, and start watching videos. There are literally hundreds, spanning such diverse areas as chemistry, calculus, finance, history and the Paulson fiscal plan. Every video is short, direct and most importantly, the exposition is clear and engaging. You can learn from each video at your own pace; pause, go back, jump ahead, what have you. On top of this, Khan has implemented a (still incomplete, including only problems for mathematics from pre-algebra to pre-calculus) game architecture for doing practice problems; when you solve 10 problems in a row, you get points and you get to move on to the ‘next level’, eventually progressing through all of the pre-college mathematics curricula.

Even more impactful than the educational access Khan gives the motivated individual, are the potential innovations that the Khan Academy can bring to classrooms around the world. Already Khan Academy is working with teachers in the Los Altos school district in California to devise new methods and software for working with students. Students first watch the lectures at home, at their own pace. The next day at school the students work on problems under the supervision of the teachers, and more interestingly, the more advanced students.

In this way, the classroom is inverted, and in the words of Khan “humanized”. The students have already been exposed to the lecture; the lecture was their homework. Now the teacher can be present while they’re trying to apply their knowledge to solve problems. If a student apprehends the subject rapidly, they go back and help their classmate. Khan notes that what is remarkable about this process is that it seems to erase the lines between the ‘gifted’ and ‘slow’ students; a student who gets stuck on one topic might receive help and then jump ahead of the others!

With these innovations, it appears that the educational infrastructure must adapt or perish under the weight of its own obsolescence. These accomplishments are poised to reshape our society if they are accepted and fostered rather than stifled or ignored. However; the path to such a hopeful future is not without its pitfalls, and surely there are those who stand to profit by staying with the current, outmoded paradigm.