11/03/2013 11:40 GMT | Updated 10/05/2013 06:12 BST

Hacking Your Education

Londoners, brace yourselves! Dale Stephens is coming to town!

Dale who?

If many people in UK are still blissfully unaware of Stephens, and the UnCollege movement he founded, all that is about to change. With his first book due for UK release this week, and a public talk in London next Monday, the 21-year old 'edupreneur' is determined to shake things up here as much as he has done in the US.

Debate is already raging in the US about Stephens' book, Hacking Your Education, which was published there last week, ahead of the UK edition. His many fans laud him for daring to ask whether a university degree is a really a worthwhile investment, while his critics demonize him for encouraging impressionable young Americans to drop out of college.

Stephens himself dropped out of school was he was 12 and spent his teenage years "unschooling" himself - accessing free resources online, gate-crashing scientific conferences, forming study groups, and finding mentors. Now he has distilled his experience into a book that provides a hands-on how-to guide for aspiring 'hackademics'.

The emphasis on collaborative learning, on building networks of peers and mentors, is crucial. Too often, debates about how the proliferation of online resources will change higher education have been reduced to false dichotomies in which the rich social environment of college life is contrasted with a depressing image of a kid watching YouTube videos alone in his bedroom. Stephens argues that online lectures are just one element in the emerging ecosystem of resources available to independent learners.

To prove his point, he is now launching a gap-year program that will help aspiring hackademics construct their own portfolio of learning experiences. With only a dozen or so students in each cohort, the program will be much more personal than a traditional college education. The year will begin with an intensive three-month residential component, to be followed by an internship, some months working abroad, and an in-depth project. The first gap-year program is due to kick off in San Francisco in August, but there are plans to develop a similar program in London next year.

The gap year will cost $12,000 (about £8,000), which of course opens UnCollege up to the same question that Stephens asks about university - is it worth it? Given that the average American student graduates with $27,000 of debt, the price tag doesn't look that bad. And then you have to consider what you actually get from each alternative - and university no longer looks as good on this front as it used to. As many recent graduates are discovering, nobody in a high-performing industry is going to be impressed if all you have managed to do with your life so far is get good grades at university. These days, companies want to know what you have created. Or, as Stephens puts it in the book, "What have you accomplished that you're most proud of?"

It remains to be seen whether people in the UK will be as receptive to Stephens as his fellow Americans. People are more conservative here, and the culture less meritocratic. One leading education correspondent at a major British Sunday newspaper decided not to run a story about UnCollege this week because, in her words, "Saying that kids should drop out of university and hack their education won't go down very well with the middle class parents who read our paper".

But that is to misunderstand what UnCollege is about. As Stephens says himself, "Hacking Your Education is not a book about dropping out, but rather about becoming empowered to make your own decisions."