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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

The Quandary of Self Education (Part II)

What is the most effective way to learn? I figured out that just absorbing static knowledge is a terrible approach because I can’t prioritize lessons properly and it doesn’t make optimal use of my time. That means that I need to combine the best elements of the in-classroom social experience with the flexibility of personal education. As I stated before in Part I, my user case is:

I want a low cost way to leverage the brightest professors in the world through a self-directed but vetted curriculum and to reinforce my learning by using a community of real people combined with personal projects for skills validation.

Luckily, my need is not unique and has been recognized by a variety of institutions. The ability to disrupt traditional delivery channels is a specialty of the Internet, and this is certainly true here as well. Online, typically for-profit, universities (like the University of Phoenix) are certainly nothing new, but they haven’t exactly been top tier bastions of academic rigor. A handful of startups are looking to address the shortfall in quality by partnering with top-tier universities who have recognized the seismic shift in traditional educational methodologies towards serving cost-sensitive and geographically-dispersed individuals.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare, while not a startup, was really the first time a world-class institution had lifted the hood on their courses and offered them online as videos. They either recognized that it would not dilute their physical offering to distribute their courseware, that their mission was actually to educate and not just collect tuition, or some combination of the two. Either way, the world didn’t end when they opened their online doors and so other universities have ever so slowly become interested in similar approaches.

The new education startups target a variety of different users. ShowMe allows teachers, typically K-12, to easily create and upload lessons. StraighterLine and Minerva provide more general education courses (i.e. “Your freshman year classes for only $1,000″). 2Tor has partnered with USC, Georgetown, and UNC to offer full degree programs while Coursera has partnered with Stanford, Princeton, Penn, and the University of Michigan for similar offerings, though without giving course credits. More specialized products have also emerged, like Udacity, the computer science brainchild of a Stanford Professor or like Grockit, the test prep web-ware powered by peer-to-peer learning. General offerings like Khan Academy or Lynda have also emerged to teach an almost infinite variety of specific skills. My personal favorite, Udemy, offers both free and paid full video courses for professional development.

The melding of university curricula and private online education platforms has raised a host of bigger issues, like whether universities should be trying to make money by retaining physical students or dispersing their knowledge free across the web and also whether the programs should be accredited or simply offer certificates. I’ll leave those for other forums. The fact is, I don’t really care about those issues as a user seeking professional education; I just want the knowledge in my brain and I don’t care if it comes with a certificate or degree.

So do these online solutions solve my problems? Kind of. They have become particularly effective at the optimization part of learning ““ or “How can I learn a given skill the most efficiently and effectively?” Video lectures combined with peer-to-peer approaches seem to be quite effective. Unfortunately, they still lack the other major component ““ strategic planning. I still haven’t found a satisfactory solution for the question, “If I want to be a iPad Game Developer or Social Media Web Designer or Database Developer for Web Apps then what are ALL the courses I need to take to build to that level of professional ability?”

My solution to that shortfall is to take a shower, open the blinds, and get outside to meet actual people. The internet is an endless bounty of information and, given enough time, you could probably learn it all or take every course out there and eventually hit all the right points. But increase learning density and most of all efficiency means talking to real humanoids to fill in the gaps of strategy and context that the internet can’t solve. Luckily, for every given subject there are professional organizations and meetups where members are typically more than happy to provide some light-touch mentorship to someone asking the right questions. Some of the most productive learning experiences I have ever had involved engaging someone into a discussion of why they do what they do and how they do it.

In the beginning, I wasn’t educating myself very efficiently. Thanks to some critical thinking and the application of a more scientific approach, I’m now pointed in a much more fruitful direction. I’ll be working harder to leverage professional networks to help answer the big contextual questions that will allow me to fine-tune my curriculum. To learn specific skills, I will utilize some of the products I mentioned above and various other online tools that allow the combination of lecture and peer-to-peer engagement. Finally, if there aren’t any real people or interactive products available, I guess I’ll just have to dust of the textbook again and have a go with it.

For some reason, that feels like going back to using slide rules and telegraphs.