I’m one of those strange birds (is it really so strange?) who loved not just learning but school itself. I’m sure a large part of this were the schools I got to go to – a small private elementary school in Nairobi with kids from all walks of life, an equally small high school in the middle of some coffee fields on the outskirts of Nairobi, and my alma mater where I made most of my life long friendships. When I hear people say they “hated school” or “couldn’t wait to be done” it makes me a bit sad… most of my memories are developing friendships, the fun of learning and lots or arguments about how to solve the worlds problems.
My Grad School Sob Story
I always thought I’d go to graduate school. I would go as far as to say it was an assumption until the logistics of life made their mark on my trajectory. The first logistic was money: I had none and in fact graduated with debt that I eventually paid back. The second was immigration: even after I was able to finish paying for undergrad, as a foreign worker my immigration status was tied to an H1 visa status provided by my employer and I had to keep my job if I intended to stay legally. If I stopped working I would have had to switch back to student status and in order to do that you have to prove logistic number one: that you have money. The final part of the puzzle I lacked was direction; as an accounting graduate the most logical step would be an MBA but I was much more inclined toward math or computer science, which would require me to double up my bachelors with prerequisites.
I haven’t quite given up on a traditional graduate education but what would have broken inertia in my early 20s has grown exponentially and the prospect of being on the downhill side of 30, with a family and a mortgage taking on several tens of thousands of dollars in expenses seems, to put it mildly, counterintuitive although a fair assessment is probably along the lines of irresponsible.
But not only is my story fairly common (to the extent that it is being priced out of further education), it is also leading to one of the most exciting things developing on the internet: the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). MOOCs are online courses but unlike the websites that simply provide materials or lecture videos, the ones I’ve participated in are taught be some of the best professors and include elements of traditional course work like quizzes and assignments. Perhaps the most prominent MOOC There are three larger providers for MOOCs now online: Coursera, Edx, and Udacity. All of the courses are free and the affiliated universities of these programs are for the most part recognizable. Because the courses are online, they are also loosely scheduled; you can take them whenever you want but there are some dates associated with courses beginning and ending as well as deadlines for assignments that need to be handed in for credit and grading.
I signed up for a few courses from Coursera, Principles of Functional Programming in Scala taught by Martin Odersky (the language designer of Scala, professor at EPFL) and Computational Investing, taught by Tucker Balch of Georgia Tech. The first helps me fill the gap of not having a degree in Computer Science even though the school of hard knocks has propelled me into a career as a software engineer. The second is related to an area of growing interest, investing and quantitative finance.
Thus far the experience has been good. I learned that in order to get credit you need to pay attention to the dates of the offering otherwise there is no one to grade assignments. I have also been reminded that although it is lots of fun to watch videos and learn things, being held accountable by assignments is what requires the real commitment. The material is very academic and fits really well into what I was hoping; for example in Odersky’s Scala class lectures on function evaluation, recursion and currying are where I feel I fill the gap of being a software engineer without the classical CS background. Perhaps this is the difference between education and training: education is much more broad and theoretical where training is specific – I plan to write more about it at length but Pluralsight, whose courses I have watched and learned a lot from, focuses on more practical training for developers rather than education.
The Death of the University
When people talk about “the death of XYZ” I usually find myself skeptical; a bit too sensational, a bit too attention grabbing. In this case it’s sincere; I am in complete agreement with a lot of the assessments of traditional university education and how it must change. Mark Cuban recently wrote a blog post intimating as much, comparing Higher Education to the Newspaper industry. The signs are out there for all to see – try this chart  which shows the costs of a university education since 1985.
If costs inflation of more than 500% are not enough, my problem of not having enough money is pretty common. But the difference between me and my American peers who went to grad school is that they got loans – lots of loans. The current amount of student loan debt is approaching $1 trillion. Combine that much debt with the tremendous inflation in cost and the system is unsustainable.
I don’t think that MOOCs will kill off higher education, but there are a few things that we can look toward:
1. The rise of the autodidact who has enough discipline to stick through online courses and build a learning portfolio
2. The prestige of the professor, not the institution.
3. Innovation around the accountability and mentorship models of online learning.
4. Diminished interest in masters programs as the pick and choose model of further education allows people to tailor their post graduate learning toward their professional situation.
The development of MOOCs is pretty exciting. They represent, for me, an evolution toward that dream of further education that I always hoped I’d get. It won’t be in the hallowed halls of a prestigious institution but I will have their professors; who would have thought an African kid from Nairobi would learn Scala as a direct tutor from the likes of Martin Odersky? Beyond that, and more importantly, they make me hopeful that I will be able to help my son with his education: supplementing his formative years and perhaps changing how he goes to university.
 I don’t think it’s all that strange to be a lifelong learner. A lot of feelings of alienation come from hanging out with people who don’t value similar things.
 I used to venerate well known schools a little too much. The value of some of these schools is the amount of money they have for things like research but for getting the basics I’ve started to put a lot more emphasis on the student, not the school.
 Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, from the article Why Tuition Has Skyrocketed at State Schools on NYT.
 40% of people under 30 have outstanding student loans, and the average outstanding debt is $23,300. 10% of those owe north of $54,000 and 3% owe more than $100,000. Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York cited in the article Fed Study of Student Debt Outlines a Growing Burden on NYT.