‘…it’s better to burn out than to fade away’ – has higher education reached a punk moment?

Making connections, keeping connections, growing connections; all of these processes are fundamental to human interaction and social co-operation.   In music, connections are the small pieces of scaffold that inspire and encourage people to create, share and perform art and songs that mean something to them and to their audiences.  Some call it rock family trees, some call lineage.  Whatever you choose to call it, the Beatles were inspired by the music coming out of the US in the late 50s and early 60s.  Punk rebelled against the music of the time and took their inspirations from the blues, the sounds of Detroit or simply from each other.   However, at each of the centre of each of these often seismic shifts in culture was an inherent tension between the fringe and the mainstream.  Soul music, that amazing combination of Rhythm and Blues that came pouring out of the Motor City took issue, both directly and obliquely, with segregation and the lack of civil rights for African Americans, breaking down barriers between white and black music.  Grunge emerged mainly from the cold, wet cities in the Pacific Northwest of the US, where teen angst, disenchantment, unemployment and a DIY spirit all fused together to forge a scene of bands that would burn out (and sometimes fade away), but change the face of popular music in a way that lasts today (indie music anyone?)


None of these movements were single bands (although there were leaders and figureheads).  None of these movements could have had the impact they did without connections, music made as a tribute to their heroes, people making more music after hearing it from their heroes, and people finding something in hearing this music on the radio, on record, in zines or from the friends on mix-tapes.  Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was heavily influenced by bands like the Pixies, in fact, Smells Like Teen Spirit was his attempt to fuse the quiet/loud dynamic of the Pixies to the heavy sounds he loved.

Now, I hear you ask, what does all of this have to do with Higher Education? I was recently putting together a paper for the University of Greenwich Learning and Teaching conference called ‘Start an information riot!’ which focuses on a case study of student-led learning and how the students on the BAPP (Arts) programme at Middlesex University, could make and share content in order to learn.  However, as I was trying to position this paper in the literature and my findings, a single question kept popping into my brain…’is higher education having a punk moment?’

‘…(learners) communicate in a language that many academics don’t yet understand. It’s an ever-evolving language of interpretation and expression, an interactive approach to learning, creating, and responding to information through a complex montage of images, sound, and communication. Students are pushing learning into a new dimension; it’s a mistake to continue to try to teach them in time-worn ways. (Brown 2001)

We could fill this whole blog with opinions around the origin of punk rock.  But let’s keep it simple.  Punk happened in the late 70s.  And for whatever reason, sometimes facilitated by the artists and other times by the fans, three, perhaps disconnected things, happened…

  1.  What went before punk was often vilified, demonised, mashed up, diminished or ignored

See Alan Medhurst who said… ‘Punk erupted into my life in the autumn of 1977…  Swathes of my existing record collection had to be disavowed, [but]…  it was OK to have three Van Der Graaf Generator albums because Johnny Rotten said he liked their singer, Peter Hammil

2. What happened in the name of punk was often DIY, emancipatory, easy to access and consume and communal


3. What happened after faded away, burnt-out, got commercialised and then was vilified, demonised, mashed up, diminished or ignored by what came next

‘Punk degenerated from being a force for change, to becoming just another element in the grand media circus. Sold out, sanitised and strangled, punk had become just another social commodity, a burnt-out memory of how it might have been.’ Penny Rimbaud of Crass

I argue that e-learning has experienced these three things over its recent lifespan.  There is a claim made a number of intellectual theorists and futurists in higher education who argue that, at this time and at this juncture, technology will be the greatest instrument of change for higher education and that universities are facing the most significant challenges in their history as a result of the impact of technology on their learners and their way of learning (Brown 2001; Brown & Adler 2008; Garrison & Anderson 2003; Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes 2009; Kamenetz 2010; Keats & Schmidt 2007).  Yet, with all of this debate, research and dialogue, as Bascia and Hargreaves (2000) noted there is little evidence that wider, macro-level change arising directly or indirectly from technology and its impacts on pedagogy and learners has occurred within institutions.  There are thousands of individual projects, cross-institutional and even international looking at elements of the relationship between technology and higher education, but very little to suggest that e-learning and technology is the predominant pedagogical instrument in the modern university.  Why has this happened?


The clue is in what happened ‘after punk’.  The punk explosion pretty much died off after 1980 with the break-up of the Sex Pistols and the release of the Clash’s ‘London Calling’.  The movement splintered into a multitude of tiny shards; post punk, ska, new wave, dub, dance; all of which drew on punk and its own nascent influences.  Punk then influenced other, more popular movements like grunge and indie (for example).


E-learning has been experiencing the same deconstruction and fragmenting. We have stopped talking about the change in pedagogy that is required to adapt HE to the new wave of learners.  We have ceased thinking about what kind of attitudinal change needs to occur in faculty and community in order to effectively link technology to practice.  We are fighting smaller battles.  We are heralding new instruments, new platforms and new devices, for use in one classroom or with one group.  The growth of the VLE (such as Moodle or Blackboard) is a testament to this kind of thinking.  A VLE is defined by its role in the administration of University function and its ability to replicate the information dissemination and limited social interactions that often occur in our bricks and mortar classrooms.   The VLE is to the new pedagogy as the Sex Pistols and Crass are to Limp Bizkit and Korn – a poor imitation, popular, but empty of influence and lasting impact.


I believe that higher education has reached a punk moment, where what went before needs to be re-evaluated, re-thought, re-mixed, mashed up, re-purposed and redesigned for the next generation of learners and the community they will enter into.  The noted writer on fan culture, Dick Hebdige noted quite astutely that;


‘…in order to render a subculture non-threatening, it must be pulled into the mainstream and commodified’ (Hebdige 1979)


E-learning and technology in the modern university has become just that.  A VLE is eminently non-threatening, especially if we use it solely to hold the archive of our digital notes.  A podcast or a lecture capture is non-threatening if it’s just last year’s lectures uploaded without any consideration for the new medium or how it could be used.  YouTube is mainstream and commodified if it simply replaces those old VHS tapes we used to watch in class.  However, using all of this great data to argue for a fundamental change in the way we operate at the most base level, to argue for pedagogy 2.0 is far less safe.


Another small deviation into music history, if I can indulge you.  One of the small shards that speared off punk in the US landed in the Pacific Northwest (again).  As a response to the misogynistic, white, male punk rock scene that dominated the scene as punk was commercialised (‘early punk’ was far less male-centric with strong characters like Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits etc), a small group of female and male musicians coalesced together as the Riot Grrrl movement, a scene of bands from which third-wave feminism and female empowerment and expression came to the fore in lyrics, zines and other media (Rosenberg & Garafolo 1998; Schilt 2004)

‘BECAUSE we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy…BECAUSE we need to talk to each other. Communication/inclusion is the key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence…BECAUSE in every form of media we see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit’ Erika Reinstein, Riot Grrrl NYC #2, 1992


Riot Grrrl amongst other movements kicked the commercialized sounds and attitudes in music fairly and squarely towards something new.  They might be brief flares of rebellion, burning out quickly, but they left connections to other artists and scenes that last today. Higher education is at a point where it needs something like riot grrrl to shake it up, emancipate people to think differently and say what they need to say.  E-learning and technology can be the instruments that bring about the largest change in higher education in living memory.  They will not be the change, nor will they be the catalysts of change.  As guitars and drums are the instruments of punk, web 2.0 and devices are simply the tools of the trade.  The DIY spirit, the anger and passion (the filth and the fury!) and the dedication to creation and creativity is what made punk happen, what pushed riot grrrl to reposition the role of women in music and what made Motown fight against racism in the US.


We need e-learning 2.0, a new pedagogy that embraces the significant changes in the skills of learners, that prepares graduates for employment in industries and jobs that are nothing like the generation before experienced, that utilizes the amazing ability of the internet to aggregate, share, collaborate and construct and that ensures that University is not a dinosaur in a world moving at pace that far exceeds the speed at which the institution has been able to change in the past.  In no way am I arguing that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, nor I am advocating everything should be on-line, virtual and jacked-in.


Fritz: The printed page is obsolete. Information isn’t bound up any more. It’s an entity. The only reality is virtual. If you’re not jacked in, you’re not alive.

Ms. Calendar: Thank you, Fritz, for making us all sound like crazy people.

I Robot, You Jane – Buffy the Vampire Slayer



The modern University will not look the same as it does now.  The challenges and significant change that the digital age represents cannot afford to be reacted to by putting a new coat of paint on an old car.  The modern University will have to adapt a world that is looking for new ways to get from point A to point B, driven and navigated by learners and a community that are not necessarily constrained by roads or engines.  The challenge for the modern university is to make these changes on the larger scale; across the institution, through the entire provision and within a variety of linked or dislocated processes, so that they impact the very core of what it means to be a modern University in the digital age.


‘It is often very tempting first to draw a simplified picture of the role of the teacher in “traditional” or even “old-fashioned” education and then present contrasting visions of a new role in the future. In my opinion, there is too much easy and superficial talk about revolutions and paradigm shifts in education. Revolutions don’t happen that often… ‘  (Ljoså 1998)


If you are interested in this kind of debate, I am presenting a couple of papers at the University of Greenwich annual teaching and learning conference (Inspiring Teachers: learning and leading in academic practice) and the Academic Practice and Technology conference (Employer Engagement in a Digital Age) on the 3rd and 4th of July 2012.  Come along and join the debate.  As always, I would love to hear your opinions, ideas, views, angry ripostes or bouquets, just make a comment!

Also, I will shamelessly plug my Australian Music Podcast called Wide Open Road. It is based on this notion of connections, finding links between various eras of great Australian Indie music.  It will hopefully keep the dream alive so that the next wave of creativity can be influenced by what went before them, and it won’t all vanish into the quicksand of nostalgia.



Bascia, N. & Hargreaves, A. 2000, ‘Teaching and leading on the sharp edge of change’, in N. Bascia & A. Hargreaves (eds), The sharp edge of educational change, Routledge, London, pp. 3-28.

Brown, J.S. 2001, ‘Learning in the digital age’, The  Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, eds M. Devlin, R. Larson & J. Meyerson, EDUCAUSE, Boulder, CO, pp. 71-86.

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. 2008, ”Minds on fire’ : Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0′, Educause review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 16-20.

Garrison, D.R. & Anderson, T. 2003, E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice, Routledge.

Greenhow, C., Robelia, B. & Hughes, J.E. 2009, ‘Learning, Teaching, and Scholarship in a Digital Age’, Educational Researcher, vol. 38, no. 4, pp. 246-59.

Hebdige, D. 1979, Subculture: The meaning of style, Methuen.

Kamenetz, A. 2010, DIY U: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education, Chelsea Green Publishing.

Keats, D. & Schmidt, J.P. 2007, ‘The genesis and emergence of Education 3.0 in higher education and its potential for Africa’, First Monday, vol. 12, no. 3.

Ljoså, E. 1998, ‘The role of university teachers in a digital era’, paper presented to the EDEN Conference, Bologna, Italy, 26th June <http://www1.nks.no/eurodl/shoen/eden98/ljoså/htm>.

Rosenberg, J. & Garafolo, G. 1998, ‘Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from within’, Signs, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 809-41.

Schilt, K. 2004, ‘”Riot Grrrl Is…”: The Contestation over Meaning in a Music Scene’, in A. Bennett & R.A. Peterson (eds), Music Scenes: Local, Translocal and Virtual, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville.


4 thoughts on “‘…it’s better to burn out than to fade away’ – has higher education reached a punk moment?

  1. Interesting reading.

    I put to you that education punks also have been misunderstood by their parents and society (or the education establishment). I’m still amazed at how many professionals haven’t quite grasped the concept of student-centred learning, much less adapted to it.
    I also agree that technology is often considered as some sort of panacea to all of education’s current issues or inadequacies. Punk teaching and learning practice can just as easily be done with a whiteboard as it can be with youtube. (Incidentally, I was in a room with some pretty inspiring VET teachers, talking about teaching practice. Not a single other person had used a youtube journey as a teaching tool. Most used youtube clips regularly to illustrate a point in class, but noone had thought to allow students to suggest clips or search terms or to make decisions on what to watch when exploring a topic. Clearly they’re not punk enough or something.)

    As always, love yer work.

    1. and you my friend are one of the innovators. Who drove classroom learning by asking students to bring YouTube links to class and wove them into a complex and inter-connected curriculum, then instead of standing there telling them stuff, asked them to tell you things, lead by questioning. You live the new pedagogies, the social interaction and most importantly, the social construction of knowledge. thanks for the comment and clearly, you are more punk than me 😉

  2. Its super interesting to consider how the “information riot” and the “punks” can change education and we can’t help our selves but to try and reshape education by bringing the “information riot” and the “punks” into the establishment but in so doing we risk the very outcome of the Punk era – we neutralise it and make it safe.

    Can out institutions really accommodate the “punk” revolution in education?

    Maybe the “punk” revolution will result in something much more profound – de- institutionalisation and disintermediation of education.

    Have you read Graham Brown Matin’s – The Napsterfication of Education


    1. I think that is definitely the view of people like Anya Kamenetz, who argue that the internet has democratised information access to a point where there is a critical mass of people who have been able to not simply access information on-line, but to construct and develop their own learning pathway through that information. I had a discussion with a colleague about this very issue and the up shoot of it was, perhaps the realisation that institutions might have is not one of “new! better!! faster!!! cheaper!!!!” but more, where does the value actually lie in their operations. Is it the credential? or is it something that they are doing partially without thinking and often not very…the development and nurturing of social relationships, networks and connections? I look forward to having a read through that book. Thanks for the comment 🙂

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