The (Online) Self-Educated: Doing What Colleges Can’t

Education is stuck at all levels. Increasingly so the older a student gets. College students not only face back-breaking debt, but also come out of their four-to-six year sojourns with little to no increase in their abilities or knowledge.

In one recent study, a group of students were asked to take a standardized test covering skills students are expected to garner from an undergraduate education, and 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college, while 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” at all over their four years of college.

Traditional models of education don’t deliver a quality education at a realistic or reliable scale – we would need thousands more teachers to appropriately educate everyone, and no one wants to be a teacher because they get paid like crap and are blamed for the dismal future of our kids and the next generation.

So when young people graduate college, the education they receive is mostly useless; we can all get the same education or better online. If we’re self-motivated.

“But how many people really have what it takes — the courage, the stamina, the native smarts, the willingness to admit mistakes without blaming others, the sheer and extreme initiative — to learn that way? The entrepreneurial gene is not widely distributed,” argues Alan Jacobs.

Indeed, MIT offers many of its computer science classes online, but many of us are not likely to start one, let alone finish it, despite any express desires to learn programming. Not to mention the field of computer science has a myriad of resources on the Internet, all of which are free, to teach yourself how to learn math, javascript, html, ruby, and so on and so forth.

And we really need programmers to fuel the next phase of innovation. I work for a start-up, and my company is looking to hire multiple engineers. At every tech meetup I attend, non-technical founders are practically begging to partner with developers. And those who do hold these elusive titles are often recruited with incentives and bonuses.

Seems like a bunch of us would want to jump on the self-education boat and get after this opportunity to become one of the most sought-after titles in the world. But most people don’t follow-through (even when they have the express goal to learn programming). There is still a dearth of developers, despite the wide availability of knowledge on the Internet.

Which begs the question, is web education really the future?

In real life, we idealistically view education as “a dynamic and interactive environment in which students have daily real-world encounters with faculty and with one another, encounters which, unlike Google searches, are not limited by what you already know to search for,” argues Jacobs. “In many cases, those schools also require you to take classes you would never choose on your own, to read books you’ve never heard of, to articulate thoughts about issues so challenging that left to your own devices you’d just go do something else.”

True. But while Jacobs ultimately concludes that DIY education is “parasitic on existing universities,” (he is a University professor, after all), web education will be a force to be reckoned with.

First, we need to come to terms that free education and distributed knowledge is largely useless. Yes, a small cohort of people will take up the cause to learn a new skill or dive deep into a topic of study, but the rest of us will watch TED videos contentedly in our cubicles as our educational fill for the day.

The availability of free information is not enough. It needs to be organized appropriately, with content that is delivered sequentially over time instead of all at once. Each lesson or module needs to build upon the last in a clear path of knowledge. The information needs to be available in different formats and platforms to accommodate different learning styles and technologies (i.e., videos, transcripts, mobile, tablet, etc.).

And web education has to go beyond exceptional content. It needs leaders with expertise and authority, as well as a passion to teach. It needs learners that can use comments or live chats to ask questions and throw out ideas to see what sticks. And those learners need the opportunity to speak individually to the teacher through group coaching calls or individual mentorship.

In essence, online education needs to mirror the best of real-world education. Can it be better than an in-person experience? By far, yes. You can watch video-based lectures over and over again. You can pace modules to your rhythm. And, teachers won’t speak from theory, but success and experience. Not to mention an amazing community that will want to learn with you.

Web education can do what colleges can’t – deliver knowledge at an impressive scale and at an affordable price to change the direction of knowledge for the better. Log on.