Sam DeSota

Online education can't replace college, yet.

22 Apr 2019 »

The internet is, at the risk of being unoriginal, the largest connected repository of information ever. From an information perspective there’s no knowledge you can get at college that you can’t get online. But here’s the thing: That’s been the case since the invention of the public library, there’s no information you can get at college “you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library” as Matt Damon put in Good Will Hunting in 1997.

So why are kids vying to go $30,000 into debt on average, to listen to a well-educated individual spout book knowledge and a piece of paper? Of course, that piece of paper happens to very difficult to properly forge and serves as accredited proof that and the individual at least put in a little effort to become an expert in their field. However, what else serves as proof to an employer that you know your shit?

To make a for short, non-exhaustive list:

  • Recommendations
  • Work experience
  • Orignal content
  • Portfolio projects

In most fields, the above is far more important than the college experience, even employers which require college use it as simple checkmark unless the individual graduated from something like MIT or Harvard.

Software engineering, in my own experience, is probably among the easiest high paying jobs to break into without a college background. As a somewhat awkward but confident individual with 3 - 4 years of freelance experience and nothing else, I landed a six-figure salary when I was 17 at my second interview for a salaried position ever, no college required.

I have non-traditional but not totally rare experience: I was homeschooled so I had the freedom to allocate more time to the things I was passionate about, like many kids I loved computers. Eventually I found a course from Microsoft on some beginner Turtle-based-programming environment when I was 10, learned programming on and off, and I started working near full time around 14. I worked for about 3 years on personal projects and freelance, then was hired when I was at a great employer in Boston, MA.

Here’s the thing though: the value college provides is, of course, not at all knowledge, and I’d argue only very little accreditation. College provides motivation and connections. It’s a very simple system, requiring little self-direction or independent motivation: You are taught some core principals with a group of people often very similar to yourself, given some content to understand, tested based on your retention and understanding of the content and you pass or fail. Now you have a college transcript employers can look at to tell if how smart you are, friends and connections that you can use to get into interviews and if you’re a little more ambitious start business with. Oh, and probably tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt you probably didn’t realize would siphon your paycheck for the next couple decades when you signed the papers at 17.

Okay, so now we have the 3 big pieces of value college provides:

  • Cultural and accreditation value, college graduates can often get into better positions just due to resume filters and are perceived as more accomplished
  • Motivational value, they give you structure to accomplish things even if you have little motivation for independent education
  • Connection value, they provide a group of individuals you can work and live life with, and network to access the people that can help you achieve your goals.

I’d also like to note here, one thing I haven’t addressed is the value that universities in particular contribute back to society in the form of research. I haven’t done enough research to speak confidently on this matter, but from my understanding most university research isn’t directly funded by undergraduate research at all. Personally, I’d much rather fund research directly via crowd-funding than paying for it through my tuition costs, but this is a subject for another article.

So, how can we replace college?

With gamification and structure, online education has partially solved the structure and motivation problem, and perhaps in some areas even improved upon it, but we’ve taken a huge step back in connection value, and as society we’re not ready to provide the same accreditation value to online education.

Even from a motivation perspective, there’s so many aspects of learning skills beyond consuming knowledge that become far easier to learn in person. Here’s an example: e-commerce. Online advertising is still a relatively new industry, so there’s still huge opportunity to tap into the pipeline of online purchases, there’s been an explosion of online resources on how to sell products online and turn a profit. Now, imagine two individuals, one who joins a 3-week online course with how to build their Shopify store, and one who joins a group of people who already have successful online stores and meet once a week to share what the’ve learned and how they’ve had success, who’s more likely to actually follow through achieve the goal?

We’ve focused on solving the problem of how to get information in peoples head, but I’d argue it’s far more important to meet other people who are pursuing the goals you are. All the sudden when other people are expecting you to do something, it becomes about an order of magnitude harder to stop pursuing your goals. The knowledge is easy part, but it does you no good if you don’t take action.

Okay. So, opinion over. I’m still developing my thoughts on this, but wanted to share and gather feedback. What am I missing? I never went to college, so while I might be a good source for how to get some success in my industry without college, I might not be the best source for what college provides.

How can we use the internet, and go beyond the internet, to provide educational experiences that also let us build the things in life that really make a difference: friends, relationships and business partners?

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