Independent Learners

One of the missions of this site is to help determine the nature of an independent learner, someone who can conceivably take advantage of MOOCs and other free-learning resources to do more than just take a course now and then.

Not that informal continuing education isn’t an important aspect of free learning (in my interview with edX President Anant Agarwal which airs tomorrow, he indicates that as many as half the enrollees in edX courses are of post-college age).  But I’m interested in finding out if someone pursuing a learning path resembling the Degree of Freedom curriculum (albeit spread out over a more normal time period) can get something equivalent to a full-blown college education.

You were introduced to two different types of independent learners this week.  Dale Stephans of Uncollege represents the kind of student getting lots of attention this year.  For rather than pursing a traditional college experience in which education takes place in a safe environment that supports the life-transitions taking place between 18-22, he’s decided to forgo brick-and-mortar entirely to see if he could create something as good or better than a traditional college program on his own.

Given that hundreds of people have applied for the Thiel “Don’t go to college and I’ll give you $100,000” Fellowship, and hundreds more have participated in Dale’s Hackademic camps or applied to his Gap Year program, the number of students interested in doing something other than going off to college during that period between late teens and early 20s is not zero.  And as more people participate in such programs, more mentors and evangelists will be created who can push the ideas of independent education further into the mainstream.

Scott Young represents a different category of independent learner.  For while he is also on the younger side (at least from my perspective), he already had the advantage of a college education and simply decided to use free-learning resources to replicate just the learning portion of that experience to study a different major.  And in the process, he discovered how efficiently one can learn a college curriculum (even one as difficult as an MIT computer science program) if learning is your one and only goal.

What both these learners have in common is that they both emerged in an era of high-tech entrepreneurship.

This environment provided them the tools they needed to pursue their projects (such as MOOCs, Open Courseware and the social networking tools needed to create and maintain independent learning communities).  But it also gave them an archetype to build their dreams around: that of the self-made entrepreneur for whom formal college was not the main ingredient for success.

No doubt Peter Thiel’s undergraduate degree (in philosophy!) and law degree from Stanford contributed to his fame and fortune.  But his own uncollege vision grew out of experiences forming successful companies where he likely realized that what you learn by creating and running your own enterprise can be more important (or at least different) than what you learn sitting at a desk being lectured to for four years.

Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, is even more outspoken on the benefits of newer forms of independent education.  And who can argue with someone whose own successful career represents the importance of acquiring skills in high-tech entrepreneurship (such as programming, product development, marketing and sales, management, etc.), ideally before you file the paperwork needed to start our own corporation.

While I have no objection to the importance of entrepreneurship as both a model and source of content for higher education, I would like to make the case that too much focus on business and technology runs the risk of turning a period that could be dedicated to intellectual exploration into one instead committed to vocational training.

This is not an issue specific to free-learning.  For within the traditional academy, the number one major in the US is currently business.  And while I wish I had studied more about finance, management and marketing before I started my own business many years ago, I don’t regret having dedicated my college years to “less practical” subjects such as chemistry, history and literature.

In fact, it was this exposure to the liberal arts that provided me the ideas and ways of thinking that were most important to my business career.  So as new forms of learning begin to supplement or even replace older ones, I’m hoping that at least one aspect of education (“forced” exposure to wide range of liberal arts) does not get lost along the way.

It’s become a lazy habit to invoke Steve Jobs and Apple whenever you want to provide an example of business done right.  For instance, in a recent interview someone pointed out that Jobs’ time in college allowed him to take or audit a range of classes in subjects like typography, implying that without such a college experience we would never have seen a Macintosh with multiple fonts.

But I would turn that around and say that the important thing about Jobs’ college life is that it provided him the chance to expose himself to subjects he might not have considered learning about if people teaching and studying these varied topics didn’t surround him on all sides.

So now that MOOC offerings are moving beyond their roots in computer science and beginning to surround any independent learner with the chance to expose themselves to literature, the arts, history, philosophy et al, wouldn’t it be great if a culture of independent learning emerged that embraced the liberal arts, rather than following trends we’re seeing in the brick-and-mortar world that are turning college into preparatory school for a life spent sitting in (or building) a cubical farm.

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