Anant Jain

We Need to Start Afresh with Online Education


Source: Etienne Boulanger

Learning should not stop once you graduate from high school or college. In fact, most of the skills required to be an effective producer today aren’t being taught in colleges — the world is changing at an ever-accelerating pace, and the skills needed on the job almost never make it to the college curriculum in time.

Colleges may still be an excellent place to learn a foundational base upon which more practical skills can be honed in. But is it even necessary to spend 4 of the most prime years of your life, and take on thousands of dollars of debt when this knowledge is freely accessible online through MOOCs? Do you even need to go to a college to learn the entire bundle? Instead, can’t you unbundle this, and learn only the parts you need when you need them?

Let’s look at the story of React, one of the most performant frontend web development frameworks that has been adopted in some of the biggest companies in the world including Netflix, Yahoo Mail, Khan Academy, the New York Times, and of course, Facebook where it originated. Sure, a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science (CS) sets you up to perform well as a productive software engineer. However,

The people on the React team learned more than what a typical Computer Science graduate knows, and they did this more efficiently, faster than their peers.

The Power of Continuous Learning

It’s not unfair to say that if you’re not learning continuously, you will be left behind in today’s world. Not too long ago, what you learned in college applied to your job for many years on, and over time, the nature of your job changed as you moved up the corporate ladder so you could get away with burying yourself in travel and meetings all day.

I know I’m oversimplifying here, but you’d agree that this is no longer the case, especially if you consider yourself an independent contributor. Our tools, our technology, and our world are changing at an incredible pace, and every couple years or so, whatever tools we had been working with go obsolete. Because tools are our leverage, and not using the best ones is imprudent, we have to re-learn our tools and skills every year.

This has, in part, necessitated to the rise of online education in the past decade or two.

But online education has a few problems of its own.

Problem 1: All or nothing?

Let’s look at the existing online education platforms. The likes of Coursera, Udacity, Springboard, etc. are career launching platforms. Most require you to commit to the tune of 25+ hours or money to the order of $200+ before they will teach you anything. And this is scary for someone who is not even sure whether they want are interested in a topic!

They do an excellent job at training a motivated person to switch careers, give that they have time and money. But they miss out on the majority of the population that does not. They are, loosely speaking, all or nothing platforms. There’s no sufficient middle ground where you can start learning and then decide whether you want to go through it all the way or not.

Problem 2: Effectiveness vs. efficiency

Effectiveness is not the same as efficiency. It’s the difference between velocity and speed. You not only want to go forth at lightning speed, but you also want to be heading in the correct direction — it’s more fruitful to be mindful of your velocity, not just speed.

Today’s learning platforms are designed to slow you down by making you meander around things that you may or may not want to know. Instead of innovating on new interactive formats that can be more effective at teaching a concept, most platforms take the college lectures model and translate it one-to-one to uploaded videos. In fact, at the start, Coursera was nothing but a repository of actual college lectures videos.

Is sitting in front of a 1-hour video lecture going to teach you more than reading a 10-minute brief tutorial that gets to the gist of what you need to know? Given the web technologies at our disposal, we should be seeing a lot more innovation in the format of a tutorial itself.

We should be spending more of our time learning by doing and not by sitting in front of video lectures. We should be shooting for effectiveness, not just efficiency. We should always be thinking of creative ways to get our students where they want to be with a high velocity.

Problem 3: Learning gets boring when done alone

We are social animals — communication is one of our most fundamental social needs, and going through a transformation together is what binds some of the well-knit communities together. Learning is one of those transformations, and we believe that the community aspect of education is mostly slapped on as an afterthought as a Discourse forum (if at all). I think this is a crucial missing ingredient, especially in free MOOC platforms which see as low as 4% average course completion rates.

Think about it: school was never about the information — it was always about the community of your peers who were interested in going through the same learning transformation as you. Online education lacks this, and we need to fix it. Imagine a place where you make new friends, discuss your problems, help each other out, and maybe even compete a bit. This competition forces the laggards to get started, and the overachievers to excel.

What would a new learning platform look like?

How do we solve these three problems?

Concise tutorials with mentorship on real-world projects

We need to build a platform for short, bite-sized tutorials where you can learn faster than your peers, learn the bare minimum you need to know to start getting your hands dirty with real, practical work that will stand for itself and shine through your CV or Portfolio or whatever your dream job requires.

High quality, but free (using wiki dynamics)

We need to acknowledge that most of the world doesn’t have the kind of money that quality education comes for. Is there a way that we can reduce the cost of creating high-quality content, so that the tutorials themselves are accessible to everyone, for free, forever?

This has been done before — a tiny percentage of the population had access to the world’s knowledge in the form of Encyclopedia Brittanica. Today, everyone, including someone with a weak 3G connection in an African village has access to the entire Wikipedia. Why can’t we can do this with courses as well?

What if each lesson is a wiki and anyone can come and edit it? It would not only improve as time passes, but it will also stay updated in this fast-moving world. Leveraging tools like wiki will help build a platform that has near-zero cost of content production. And since they’re publicly-sourced, these should be for everyone. High-quality content produced this way will remain free and open forever. Knowledge is power, it’s a huge multiplier, and it should be as accessible to the world as possible.

Learn by doing and getting feedback on it

While reading about a topic may be a great way to get familiar with it, real learning happens when we apply ourselves and build something tangible that we can show others. This is why quizzes, assignments, and projects are essential.

Besides, finding a mentor who can give you quality feedback on what you’re doing remains a challenge. Being able to get feedback on real-world projects from mentors working in the industry would be an excellent win for students, and would be an essential part of the learning platform of the future.

Learning for life

Education is the formal process, and it’s the thing we’ve mostly talked about in this post. I’d like to conclude this by zooming out and mentioning that the goal of an online education platform doesn’t necessarily have to be employability. It has to be learning. There’s a subtle difference between the two.

Learning something every day just for fun, because you enjoy seeing yourself get better at it and helps you see express yourself better is an essential goal in itself. Think of what is it that you’ve always wanted to learn. From calligraphy to music production, there are so many fields where excellence for excellence’s sake is the goal, seeing your skill rise is the reward. It’ll be great to have a free, high-quality platform that allows us to learn for fun, not only when we have a job we’re training for.

If some of these ideas resonated with you, please check out Commonlounge — a learning platform for the future that I’m working on. You’ll find many of the ideas above applied to it. I would love to hear your thoughts — you can leave a response below or talk to me on Twitter:

Anant Jain (@anantja_in) | Twitter
_Co-founder, Product person into startups, design, code, marathons, reading, writing…

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