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We've all heard it: "I'm just taking this class to get 'that piece of paper.'" Or, "It will sure be worth it when I get 'that piece of paper.'" As a graduate student, I can attest first hand that much of university life is little more than a 'degree mill.' And that is where DIY U starts off: with a problem. How, the author asks, can we justify our faith in college education when there is little or no evidence that the ever-increasing price is worth the ever-diminishing returns?

First, this charge of college being a "credential mill" is not new with Kamenetz. William James alluded to it in the early 1900's in his essay "The PhD Octopus." More recently, Charles Sykes wrote Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education in frustration over it. Now DIY U. The first half of the book is Kamenetz's explanation of the history, sociology, and economics of our "college for all" hopes and how they've (ironically) led to a very tiered system. What started with the intention of getting more folks to college via Pell Grants, the GI Bill and other government subsidies has led to, at once, a work force that was 'graduate' hungry, and at the same time, rising prices in college costs. What does that spell? A situation where making money demands going to college which fewer and fewer can afford to do. Put differently, a college degree is more or less of value today not because of the education it provides, but the fact that one MUST go through it to stay competitive with others. And so the cycle continues.

But is it financially worth it? Inevitably, there comes a point where prices get high enough to render 'keeping apace' a not-good-enough return. And, says Kamenetz, we are long past that point. She details several studies which show (as Sykes had years ago) that the price of college and the debt it generally leads to is not matched by the economic gains one can expect. As she puts it, the trade-off is only worth it if one is of the means to do it without incurring huge debt, which most aren't. IF debt must be incurred, maybe there are other options.

And there are. This is the point of the book's second half. Community college, tech schools, online universities, etc, etc. All of these are looked on with disdain by the ivory tower academy (I've had many a discussion with professors of precisely this inclination). But, we are past the point where we need to ask: aren't there a whole lot of professions that simply don't require a four year degree? (A strange ally here is Charles Murray, whose book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality makes this point very elegantly. But I am betting that Kamenetz and Murray are in different political camps.) Kamenetz points out that, in this day and age, it is also becoming easier to learn on one's own using tools like google books, itunes university, youtube/edu, and many, many other sources.

Here, though, is where I find major fault with the author's analyses. While I am very much in favor of 'non-traditonal' avenues of education like online universities, tech schools, etc, Open Source education (of the kind also favored by John Taylor Gatto in Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling) is a bit premature for several reasons. First, we are absolutely ignoring the value of having an external instructor that has more expertise in the field than the learner. Learning is only partly about access to materials; it is also about how those materials are packaged, filtered, etc; services which render instructors much more valuable than 'go it your own way.' Put directly, one need not only get hold of information, but know what kind of order to process it in, have it presented and represented in different ways, and know what information is of use and what information is not. Individuals left to their own devices may not always be the best at doing this, particularly in fields they are not familiar with already.

Secondly, there is a problem our author doesn't address: "that piece of paper" serves a function as a type of endorsement by the university that the holder of it has mastered certain things (bluntly, "jumped through certain hoops.") Were one to engage in Open Source education, how will future employers be able to tell that candidates for, say, a job in engineering have mastered certain engineering tasks? With a degree, there is (at least reasonable) assurance that the candidate has learned the relevant things. With Open Source education, this type of gauging becomes a lot more time consuming, costly, and just plain problematic.

Lastly, I think the author gets a bit hung up on the "information wants to be free" paradigm, so aptly argued against by recent detractor Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto). To apply Lanier's argument, it all comes down to quality control that, in the world of "free," does not necessarily exist. When information is available for free, it generally means that it is not done by someone making money or a career from the product, which may often mean that it is an amateurish work. Yes, I know how snobby this sounds, but it is also true. (And when it is not, such as public domain books, or videos of lectures given by professors on itunes, these are only professional BECAUSE their 'freeness' is a byproduct of them having done it for a profit elsewhere or at another time.) Long and short: the author seems to get hung up on the idea that, thanks to the internet, we can get information much more freely than before. Lanier would simply add to that that this does not in any way guarantee that the quality is as good as before.

So, there we go: three stars. Kamenetz brings up some great points, like the fact that we simply have to be open to new models of higher education because the ones we have aren't necessarily doing the job. Where she fails to convince me is on the idea of Open Source education as a viable model to replace or even supplement the university. Perhaps a full-length argument on this will be a sequel to this otherwise engaging and stimulating read.
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on April 26, 2010
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Everyone says they want a college education but fewer people in the US have a real chance of getting one. And why do young people want that college degree? Because they've been repeatedly told they need it in order to get a good-paying job. They've been fed the numbers that show that average earnings are highest for those with with advanced degrees, followed by four-year degrees, some college, and lower pay for only high school or no high school diploma. In the United States, there is a profound belief, seemingly upheld by these numbers, that a college degree is the ticket to the American Dream.

But the reality, told so eloquently in this small book by Anya Kamenetz, is that many find themselves priced out of going to college and those who go find themselves drowning in debt and more than half who start never get a degree. Because college has become so expensive, there is concern among students about the monetary value of their degree. Will it really pay off in terms of their salary over their working years? Is it worth taking out all those student loans? Should parents mortgage their house (oops, with the mortgage crisis, probably not an option), spend their retirement savings, or take out commercial loans to send their kids to college?

Is that even the right way to think about higher education? Is it just all about money? Whatever happened to the intrinsic value of an education? As it turns out, there have never been more options for learning, if we stop thinking about learning as only happening in classrooms in ivy-covered buildings on rolling green campuses. In this book, Kamenetz takes us on a tour of the smorgasbord of learning opportunities. Many of these are rooted in technology that can bring together teacher and student over any distance, can offer instant information on any subject. The internet has truly been the disruptive technology of our age. Many colleges now offer internet classes, but some newer approaches have used the technology to basically change the way information is delivered. What the author calls "the sage on the stage" - the lecture system - is being replaced with online learning that adapts to each person's learning style.

A new batch of "for profit" colleges (think University of Phoenix or Kaplan University) are experimenting with more approaches that attract and keep students. The traditional university gets its prestige, not from graduating students, but from its research activities and its exclusivity (the number of students it turns down). It is not focused on imparting students with knowledge, but on building up its "brand" and its image through its distinguished professors, who may spend little time with actual students. The for-profits have turned that around and concentrate on students. I found it a bit disheartening to hear that the profit motive is driving innovation in education. Shouldn't we as a society, through public education, be providing the means for every person to develop their skills and make a contribution? Have our institutions of higher learning let us down in a massive way?

I found the information in this book energizing, provocative and truly transforming in its potential. Since I confess to having been born just after World War II ended, I know I am not the generation that the author wants to reach with this book. But I have long thought the use of a college degree to screen out job applicants has been a poor policy on the part of employers. When I worked for a Fortune 500 company, part of my job was preparing presentations for managers. I remember one presentation that touted the fact that they planned to hire "Ivy-League MBAs" without any reference to what these hires would be doing; it was all about the prestige. Another time I saw this company lose an amazingly talented young man who was working as a contractor, but who they would not hire because he lacked a college degree. Shouldn't hiring decisions be made on the basis of who can best do the job, not on whether or not they have an MBA from Yale?

Speaking of my generation, older people are also attracted to these new options for learning. The January-Feruary issue of the AARP Bulletin had an article called "Free E-Learning." It listed a bunch of websites that offer learning in many subjects, and the article began with the news that all of MIT's academic courses are available online. I visited all the sites listed and added many to my bookmarks. Since I am retired from full-time work, I do not care about gaining an academic credential, but I do care about the chance to learn and these are wonderful resources!

For people like my 25-year old daughter, who does not have a college degree, what Kamenetz tells us about new ways to showcase your abilities and basically compete with the "degree as credential" is relevant. My daughter's talents are artistic and she has taken lots of classes, but her friends in the creative arts tell her that a college degree is generally not worth the cost, and that creating/doing something that shows ability is a more compelling path to opportunities. Kamenetz gives us examples of people who have used the educational resources out there to learn what they needed to know, then just started using it to make a lving doing what they do best and want to do. Perhaps as time goes on and more people take this route, companies will begin to look at people in terms of their skills and talent, not just their college credentials.

There have always been people who educate themselves for what it is they want to do with their lives. Others seize an opportunity outside college that may not present itself again. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard because he knew the time was right for small personal computers to take over some of what had been only possible with mainframes. Instead of taking classes, he dropped out and spent his time writing a version of the BASIC language for the Altair computer, which enabled it to do real work, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sure overall, college graduates earn more, but maybe it's time to think about a diversity of ways people can find their future, and about ways our institutions of higher learning can adapt to new realities of economics and technology... and better serve the American people.

I really loved this book, with its vision of a new and improved educational environment, in which self-education flourishes! Thank you, Anya Kamenetz for writing it.
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on March 29, 2010
I enjoyed the book and took away many new ideas and links/resources to followup for my personal learning network. It is a fast read (couple days) and I would encourage all educators to pick it up - well worth the time. In fact, I intend to pass a copy on to my President, Vice-President, and Dean.

As an educator always trying to innovate and try new methods for opening the classroom, the book's content resonated with my philosophy and experiences. For the past 16-years I've been a librarian and teacher in both high schools and community colleges. I love that the community college experience is highlighted in the book. Currently I teach an online class on social media and all the content is available on the open web - no restrictions! Though most of the book was familiar territory for me, I particularly found the history of education chapter to be useful to provide perspective on our current state of education.

Will continue to reflect on these themes.
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on April 12, 2010
[Disclosure: Anya sent me a reviewer's copy. Thanks!]

For me, the mark of an outstanding book is this: the moment I've read the last page, I get the overwhelming urge to loan it to somebody and ask them what they think of it. By that standard -- and by many others -- this is an outstanding book.

The first half of DIY U is an exposé on the high costs and other obstacles students face in their quest for education. As the author of Generation Debt, Kamenetz is well qualified to write that story. Over the first few chapters, she takes the reader on a safari of the institutional dysfunctions that haunt the American education system. How did we come to have a higher education system that virtually all high school graduates expect to use, but only a third earn degrees from? Why do so many young people leave college with a crushing burden of debt, a burden which impoverishes their lives and constrains their future careers? If we want a broadly educated populace, why is the perceived quality of a school so much a function of the number of students it keeps out?

There are glimmers of hope along the way. Kamenetz gives us a whirlwind tour of BYU-Idaho, showing us the steps one school has taken to deliver quality education while keeping prices affordable. But the real message of hope comes in the second half of the book.

Academic institutions are entrenched and often difficult to change. But in the battle of four hundred year-old institution vs. the Internet, always bet on the Internet. The revolution that will transform education and redefine our understanding of learning hasn't yet cohered into a single, unified picture, but in DIY U, we get a snapshot of several components of a do-it-yourself education:

* Open content, which focuses on creating high quality textbooks, then releasing them under a license that allows students and institutions to copy, adapt, and remix the material.

* Adaptive testing frameworks, which help teachers recognize where a student is struggling.

* Educational videos and video tutorials.

* Social networking systems that allow peer tutoring and greater access to experts.

Individually, each could be a useful tool. Put them together, and it's clear that something truly groundbreaking will emerge.

This book is a call to arms for educators, a shoppers guide for parents and students who are getting ready to search for a college, and a sneak preview of a coming revolution in technology-enabled learning. A+++++++++ would read again.
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on January 11, 2012
Kamenetz hits the nail on the head as far as the problems that higher education is currently facing and will be facing in the next twenty years. In an era where you can watch really smart people on YouTube, what is the value of paying to see a graduate student lecture in a room of 300 people? Is there a value to the degree? The price rises far faster than inflation, yet the cost of delivering content is going down. Kamenetz presents some very interesting approaches to higher education for the future, but it is a future which meets with both a great deal of entrenched resistance and is a good ways off. I have spent my adult life in higher education, and I am very much encouraged by this book.
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on February 20, 2016
This book is so cool. As a college student it really made me question the education system and critically assess our countries priorities. A great read, especially for teens and young adults, or older people who are considering furthering their education.
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on December 7, 2012
In DIY U, Ms. Kamenetz gives an excellent overview of the development of online education and its effect on the brick and mortar universities and colleges. The book covers the history and development of the present-day university. Ms. Kamenetz also discusses the problem of high college tuition and the possibilities that online education offers as a less costly avenue to a good education. DIY U is an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in furthering his or her education without paying a lot of money or incurring huge student loan debt. The book provides a list of resources for the reader interested in online education. The resource list alone is worth the price of the book.
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HALL OF FAMEon April 11, 2010
Kanemetz provides some good ideas and helpful information to those concerned about reducing college costs. My one criticism is that she accepts that value of going to college for all - not realistic when almost 50% drop out and half of those graduating take positions that don't require a college education. (Still, I liked her point that the latter is the last legal bastion of discrimination - skimming off the top of the talent pool.)

Almost 90% of American high school seniors say they want to go to college, and student loan debt averaged $23,200/graduating senior in 2008 were two of the important facts reported in DIY U. Continuing, we learn that in 1975, 57% of teaching staff were full-time, and either tenured or tenure-track, and 30% were part-time. By 2003 nearly half were part-time and 35% tenured or tenure-track.

"Too many think the solution to budget problems is more money" - excellent point.

Kanemetz recommends 'open content' course material, such as MIT has provided on the Internet, along with easily-updated e-books as ways to reduce college costs.

The book also provides resources for those attempting a DIY education.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon September 20, 2011
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have procrastinated about writing this review for too long. I don't enjoy writing negative reviews hence my avoidance of writing this. This review was at risk of being thousands of words long as I sought to justify my opinions with quotes from the book. I have decided to put aside my rambling writing ways and just get down to brass tacks.

My first issue with Kamenetz's book is she has an idea of what she's like to see happen (increased use of community college and online schools) but the real world is not in alignment with her. Thus if a student follows this advice they may get the shaft when they try to seek employment as they will not have done what mainstream America feels is right or best.

Ask me how I know this: I am a non-traditional college graduate and faced challenges in my career despite a strong track record with my job experience (proven with stellar performance evaluations and recommendations by managers) but I didn't have a degree from the "right places" and was told so to my face. Instead, they hired inexperienced workers from outside who had the degree from the "right places", and other times, promoted up existing employees with the right degrees. They may say that X kind of degree is a job prerequisite but what it will never say in writing is that not all college degrees are equal.

My second major issue with the book is the author's snarky attitude which I feel was more in alignment with a young person's personal blog posts rather than being the more professional type writing I am accustomed to reading in nonfiction trade paperback books. Kamenetz was outright rude and insulting sometimes, the accusation that Republican politicians are racist I found to be outrageous (due to the way some voted on a budgetary item). Her personal bias is apparent; she is not a neutral journalist at all! Later she slams Democrats, so at least the book was not completely skewed toward the left. Her style reads as the mud-slinging type to me which I find a turn off.

There are tons of references to statistics so we can see the author is not making this stuff up off the top of her head but she has a definite opinion she is trying to talk the reader into converting over to. The margins of my book are filled with notes and I wonder about the omissions. If she says that opinion about that statistic why is she not asking that question also, and so forth.

My biggest issue with the book is that I felt the author was trying to simplify something that is actually very complex. There is no easy solution to the problems outlined in the book. I honestly would like to see what she has to say about trying to reform the public education system in this country. There is another complex problem that has failed numerous reform efforts.

For the record I embrace alternative education as I am most concerned with actual learning not just seeking ranks or degrees as end goals. Proof of this is I'm in the minority in America, I homeschool my kids. Depending on the statistic, my kids are either 1-3% of the children in the USA (and there are 75.6 million kids per the childstats.gov website, so we're really, really in the minority). Despite living in towns with supposedly "great" public school systems and also being able to (most years) afford a private school tuition I rejected both options to homeschool my kids so they get what I think is a quality education. With that said there comes a point where my kid's alternative education stops and doing what mainstream America embraces is necessary, so my kids will hopefully attend a decent four year university as a traditional college student when their homeschool high school is finished. The cost of being alternative with one's college education is too risky. It didn't pay off for me with my alternative college education so I worry about doing the same with my kids, just so my husband and I and our kids can save some tuition costs.

I ordered this book thinking it would be right in alignment with my alternative education views but I didn't like the book at all.
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on January 17, 2011
I knew something was wrong back in the 1980s, when I was in college. A friend and I were discussing how the professors never taught us anything that wasn't in the textbooks. "What are we paying five grand a year for?" he asked. "I could learn as much reading on my own!"

He was right. I've long since realized that I could have gotten the same knowledge from a set of books that would fit on a single shelf. Countless others have told me similar stories.

As the author points out, education has become a sacred cow in our society. At the same time the college degree has become the universally accepted measure of how much a person knows. These factors have given school administrators nearly unlimited ability to gouge students, parents and the government, raising tuition at a pace far higher than justified by inflation.

The winners in this multi-trillion dollar scheme are the schools, which have been turned into resorts complete with swimming pools, climbing walls and saunas. The losers are students, especially the economically challenged ones who have trouble paying the ever rising costs.

Fortunately this dismal situation is changing. The author shows how technology is doing an end run around the greedy elitists who have profited from the status quo. Online coursework, self-directed learning, community colleges, and free distribution of textbooks and lectures are all making the dream of higher education available to anyone with the desire and self-discipline to do the necessary work.

As the book points out, the traditional problem with this approach has been the challenge with assessing how much the self-learner actually knows. But this barrier is dissolving, due to alternative methods of proving one's learning such as CLEP tests, professional certifications and acedemic protfolios. The only ones unhappy with these developments are professors and university presidents, who are watching their control over millions of lives and billions of dollars slip away.

The author does a splendid job of showing how this revolution in education is bringing unprecedented opportunities to people of all ages, regardless of their financial status. She also tells the readers how they may access these resources for themselves. Her writing style is decidedly non-elitist, and the information in this book could help virtually anyone to acquire new skills and increase their economic well-being. This work gets my highest recommendation.
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