The MIT Challenge

Imagine my surprise when, a few weeks after launching this Degree of Freedom One Year BA project, people were reaching out to tell me I had to talk to Scott Young – a guy who apparently did the same thing a year ago.

Given the newness of the MOOC phenomenon, and the limited number of courses available until recently, I was intrigued to find out what Scott had done and how he’d done it.

Apparently, Scott’s project (called the MIT Challenge) was an attempt to learn everything you’d get from an MIT degree in computer science in twelve months.  And rather than turn to formal MOOCs for his course material (which were few and far between when he started in 2011), he instead turned to the material available via MIT’s Open Courseware Initiative.

Open Courseware is a hugely ambitious project to make all of MIT’s course materials, including syllabi, reading lists, lectures (or at least lecture notes), assignments and examinations, available online for free.   So a student interested in “taking” an MIT course without being enrolled in MIT can have access to the same instructional material (and, if they so desire, put themselves through the same assignments and exams) as a student enrolled in the famous university.

While video lectures are available for some classes, most of the material in the Open Courseware library is written (meaning students need to reconstruct what is taught in class through review of lecture notes and following along with the syllabus).

I’ve been interested in seeing how this material (especially homework and exams) could be leveraged for those interested in supplementing lecture-only classes from places like iTunes or Great Courses.  But Scott decided to use this content as his primary learning source, turning to assigned textbooks and readings, course notes and other materials to teach himself four years of MIT-level computer science in twelve months.

He had to lay out his own set of rules for completing a class, which involved passing the final exam for the course under the same time constraints as actual MIT student enrolled in the same class.  And because many of his courses were in computer science, he also decided to add completion of programming assignments associated with these classes to his heavy year-long workload.

Like Dale Stephens, the independent learner I described yesterday, Scott Young demonstrates how far you can propel your own learning when you combine (1) self-motivation and drive; (2) the availability of free high-quality learning resources; and (3) an interest in learning vs. credentializing.

His experience also helps turn one of the most frequent criticisms of alternatives to traditional college on its head.

For whenever I’ve introduced people (particularly educators) to my own One Year BA project, the first thing they ask is whether the type of self-propelled learning can ever replace the experience of going to college which, in addition to an education, offers a safe environment to transition to adulthood, interaction with teachers and fellow students, socializing and networking opportunities, and – yes – a credential recognized and values in the marketplace.

And while I’ve pointed out that close to half of college students are already doing something other than living on campus between the ages of 18-22 (such as attending two-year, commuter or online colleges, or going to school at a different point their lives), it’s hard to argue that an independent learning program can replace all of the valuable components of a traditional college experience.

But what if you, like Scott Young (and me), already have an undergraduate degree and want to learn more?

The socially normalized next step would be to go to graduate school and study what you learned as an undergraduate in more depth.  Ah, but what if you’re not interested in this level of specialization?  Or what if you realize after your original college experience that you’d like to repeat that same type of learning experience, but focus on a different major this time around?

Scott had to choose between Business and Computer Science majors when he first attended college in Canada and he made the choice to get a degree in Business.  Similarly, I majored in chemistry back when I went to college, and while I have absolutely no regrets in my choice of study (even though I’ve never worked in the field), in the years since then I’ve developed different interests (including my current interest in philosophy).

For folks like Scott and myself, an independent BA project is not just possible but the most practical way to follow the path (and take the courses) not taken.

After all, most colleges are not looking for people who already have college degrees in their undergraduate admissions pools.  And even if they did, who wants to spend that kind of money for a second degree when learning (not socializing or networking) is our primary purpose for going back to school?

And as Scott’s intense effort demonstrates, when you strip away everything from college but the learning, you can move very far through the curriculum very well and very fast.

I’ll be talking with Scott later this week and hope to post a recording of our conversation as part of the upcoming interview series that will start at Degree of Freedom this week.  And one of the things I hope we’ll get to is how this second dip into the undergraduate learning pool might be packaged and mainstreamed, potentially making it a new socially acceptable aspect of higher education.

2 Responses to The MIT Challenge

  1. Gaston May 20, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    I completely agree with you. I’m a 42 years old biochemical researcher (my degree is in biology and I have a PhD in molecular biology) and I cannot go to the university to take courses in what I’m interested or I think that will be helpful in research. The option are to start reading a book on the subject which takes a longer times and books usually go deeper that I want to. On line courses are perfect, they are time flexible, you can decide waht units like to take, they are basic, so If you want to go deeper you a have a base and, on top of that, they are free.

  2. barani September 25, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    I want to study mit

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