A La Carte Education

Whenever I bring up the possibility of getting an education without going to school, I quickly get objections:

  • “Without credentials at the end, a university education is meaningless.”
  • “You can’t learn without guidance from instructors.”
  • “College is mostly about forming a network, not passing exams.”
  • “Self-education only works if you’re exceptionally bright or dedicated. Most students need school.”

It’s hard to argue with these objections because they’re all at least partially correct. The signalling benefit of credentials is a major reason to go to school. Access to instructors and peers facilitates learning.

What irks me isn’t that these objections don’t have a grain of truth, rather it’s the presumption that they matter. Formal education is a package including many useful elements. The assumption underlying these arguments is that by missing just one component of the college experience, any alternative is rendered invalid.

The current educational system is a fixed menu. You get the campus, classes and hefty bill at the end, whether or not you wanted all those things. The world doesn’t need a wholesale replacement of college, but à la carte options.

More Options, Not Perfect Substitutes

The North American system for education is an inherently elitist one. High tuition and extremely rigorous acceptance processes are filters designed to weed out people who can’t pay or perform.

This isn’t necessarily a flaw. Even if tuition prices continue to escalate to making college a questionable choice for some, it does have the advantage of allowing the brightest to excel. Nobody ever got fired for hiring Harvard grads.

The problem with an elitist system is when there’s only one option. Don’t fit the archetype the system was designed for? You’re out of luck.

The European system is more accessible, with some countries even completely subsidizing the cost of tuition. But while that may be attractive to some, it’s a distant economic and political reality for most of the world. What’s more, education reform doesn’t need to come from the top-down, it can grow from the bottom-up.

Could OpenCourseWare Be the A La Carte Solution?

MIT’s OCW has been around for over a decade. Yet we don’t see people touting courseware “diplomas” on their resume. Perhaps this is a sign that the objectors are correct, that self-education is missing some key ingredient which prevents it from competing.

I think that’s a hasty interpretation. While the technology to offer world-class education for free has developed quickly, cultural norms take much longer to shift. This is especially true of education, which is often entrenched in decades-old HR procedures and professional accreditation boards.

Instead, I see online education as quickly becoming a robust alternative to college, but it may take longer to change the cultural assumptions underlying what it means to be educated.

Why I’m Convinced Online Education is the Future

For me, I was convinced after only one class: Linear Algebra. This was one of the few classes I’ve done as part of my MIT Challenge which I had already studied in university.

What I discovered was that the MIT’s free course was better taught, more robustly supported and more entertaining than the course I had paid tuition for in school. Far from being an inferior option, MIT’s free version was unequivocally better.

One class doesn’t prove a generalization, but I want it to throw doubt on the common intuition that cheap inherently means lower quality. Wikipedia is completely free, but the scope (and possibly accuracy) is better than Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I may not have every resource an MIT student has. But I have quite a few, and often those resources are better than those from a less prestigious school.

What About Credentials?

The strongest argument I’ve heard against self-education is the lack of credentials it generates. Bryan Caplan presents an extreme version of the argument, which claims that the signalling benefits of education is almost all of its value.

I’m not persuaded by the cynical view that the knowledge in a degree doesn’t matter. But the inability to demonstrate knowledge you haven’t paid for is a major current weakness of self-education.

I stress current because I don’t believe it will always remain so. Already MITx and Stanford have begun offering certification for individual courses for free. Even lacking that, I’ve heavily documented my own MIT Challenge, suggesting that an educational portfolio of projects and exams might be a possible alternative.

Ultimately credentials have only the value we imbue them in a society. If a significant group starts to signal their intelligence, knowledge and skills in a different fashion, the world will adjust. I already know programmers who say their GitHub accounts are more important for their career than their formal credentials.

Nothing is Irreplaceable

Very few things in an undergraduate education couldn’t be replaced by a free courseware platform. Lectures? Recorded video. Networking with peers? Skype, online forums and local meet ups. Credentials? Free certification or educational portfolios.

I don’t think online self-education will replace college in its entirety. But it doesn’t have to. The world doesn’t need a perfect replica, but more choices. When Stanford offered its AI class free to the public, over 50,000 people signed up. This is just the start.

  • Dennis @ selfhelpURLs

    Great post!

    I’ve been to college and signed up for online courses too. Well both has its pros and cons. There’s no direct comparison between these two. However, if you want me to choose either one, I will pick online course at anytime. I tends to learn more and I have my own time to digest new learning materials. Besides, we “attend the class” whenever we are free – which means we are our mind is free and therefore, we will more focus.

    The best thing is, as what you said “A La Carte Education. I pick the courses I need, not have to 🙂

    Just my thought! 🙂


  • Pierre


    Traditional school provides credentials effectively, and think this will remain true. What’ll change is credentials become less important relative to what you’ve DONE. Formal education will still do things well, those things will just diminish in importance.

  • jk

    Nice post. Another important factor is economic trends. Two important trends are the transition to a service-based economy, and increasing personal job-turnover – even when the economy is good. Taken together, these mean that it’s more important – for the average person’s career – to continue learning and growing.

    Of course, a life of constant learning should speak for itself, but these sorts of trends do make sense of much of the a la carte education out there.

  • BV

    Interesting post.

    The one objection that stands out to me is the “credentials” – however, I think this falls apart when we know that many employers (at least in the UK) are often complaining that graduates even from top universities, do not have the skills required to work in the real world.

    If skills, work experience and extra curriculars are what matters more, why not stop paying thousands of pounds for a degree, go to the interview and say, “Well, I have the equivalent of an MIT degree, (using Scott’s example) and if you test me I can prove it..” AND it should be just as good!

    As we all know, it’s hard to object to that idea as all candidates for big companies *already* go through rigorous maths/english/verbal reasoning/group tests before they even get to the interview stage!

    Moreover, many people wouldn’t do it, making the candidates who do stand out. In the UK, at some universities you can get a 2:1 by working hard at the last minute. (A 2:1 is above average and the basic requirements for most jobs) BUT none of these guys actually learnt how to work consistently, or learnt how to do work that they don’t enjoy (which happens in a job) or have learnt a variety of teamwork or other skills. The logic can be that if you get your degree independently and you work on say 2 extra curriculars and your own part time job, you instantly can (in theory) become way more valuable to an employer, or at least, stand out.

    The real difficulty here is setting up those kinds of things – I seem to remember Scott has written about how it took time to get all the material together… and I am semi-confdient in saying that it’s even harder to do with humanities degrees. Perhaps if I was to graduate, then look up the resources I have acces to, find out the course modules for an MA in say history, I could easily do that on my own time, and at my own speed! [Might be a good way for single parents to also get their education.]

  • notmyrealnamereally

    I can see how this works for technical courses and courses in areas like economics, but what about philosophy for example? It’s hard enough to teach how to do philosophy well even within “real” universities.

    Personally, I’m a huge fan of knowledge and understanding in every form; I’ve spent a lot of time studying mathematics, linguistics and psychology (formal approaches to compositionality and generative grammars, if anyone cares) in my free time, and for those subjects I can see how this format would work. But in philosophy there isn’t any body of knowledge to teach the students. Sure, there is history and there is logic, and you can give examples of problems and walk people through the fundamental concepts, but a lot of the teaching would have to be based on how the students are doing, what they struggle with, what they want to focus on and so on.

  • Ben

    In my life, the most valuable education, lessons, learnings i’ve got that have served me and I have actually *used* have little to do with what i’ve learnt in a classroom. My own experience, learning from people who have more experience than me, going out and doing stuff and researching and studying on my own instead of being in a boring classroom have served me more.

    The problem with the education system is we are taught in a way at school that more disables us in life and not think for ourselves.

    If we can develop any skill that’s important, it is to think for ourselves, and take learning on for ourselves instead of sticking to a rigid criteria. I was never one for sticking exactly to something ‘rigid’ which is exactly how I have found much more effective ways of doing this in several areas of my life.


  • Thaifunn

    Hi, I’m from Germany. In Germany we have an university, that teaches via the Internet etc. It’s also supported by the state. You only have to visit the university to write the tests. I think that’s the manifestation of your idea.



  • Gleb

    Totally agree about online education. I’ve recently completed Stanford’s online course on databases, it was really useful and quite challenging. And yes, I’m definitely mentioning it on my CV 🙂

  • Shreen

    I do agree that online education is often overlooked for the reasons you’ve argued here. But I also think there are some things inherent to it that have prevented me from doing substantial online learning in the past that may explain some people’s reluctance to pursue it:

    1) Lack of organic discussions about the topic, face to face, with fellow students. OK you can network online, but it’s preferable to do this face to face for a lot of people. The social aspect to learning is important [to some people more than others] and perhaps online courses need to take that into account.

    2) Lack of practical experiments and hands on learning with teachers for support. OK you could do these on your own initiative, but you really do need other students and more experienced people there otherwise you could get stuck on something insignificant and fail to progress because you needed another perspective.

    I work with young people who have fallen out of the traditional education system here in the UK and, like myself, they struggle in classroom environments because they typical encourage a boring style of learning by memorisation with no emphasis on the sort of critical, independent thinking and hands on tinkering that make learning fun. University felt like that x 1,000,000.

    As you say there is no universal method of learning that suits everyone. The social value of online learning should be higher than it currently is so people who would benefit from it use it, but it doesn’t suit people like us at all. However, if money were a deal beaker then it’d be nice to know I could study online for cheap.

    BV – the smart employers use smarter methods for recruitment. The best interviews I’ve been to have been where I was tested on the spot to prove I had the knowledge I claimed I had on my CV, so some are already doing as you suggested. Alternatively you could learn through online learning and then evidence this by initiating your own project to demonstrate your newly found skills and knowledge. 🙂

  • BV

    Shreen – I think essentially, we’re saying the same thing 😀 It’s also nice to find another UK-er around. The funny thing is, your description of people you work with is quite similar to mine. Yay!

    What I find interesting is that you point out that online learning = less face to face interaction with other students for debate. I don’t know what it was like at your university, but at mine, only same 3-4 students ever spoke in class. This meant it could be an interesting debate, but always with the same people. I’m not sure that either online or university life can solve that problem. I tended to have the most interesting discussions with students from other departments or sciences.

  • Ashley

    Actually, I believe an online education is going to change the world. First, as have been mentioned, Universities don’t teach the skills you will need in the workforce. I dissappointedly found that out after I finished college. I believe the vast majority of education moving to an online format would be much better. I rarely got much quality face to face time at a university. I was a social security number on a scantron. Considering some undergraduate courses have hundreds of students in each class, the so called socialism and interaction you receive in them is limited. It seems like you would end up with a much better candidate in a field if that person learned the necessary material themselves and were motivated enough to conduct their own experiments and practical exercises than one that went with the flow of college. I was always told in high school that college = high salary as though they were one in the same. You don’t walk off the graduation deck and onto your first job. People taking advantage of the free course ware and learning what they need to advance in their field are ultimately going to make universities change their methods in a way that will be beneficial to the students. Our current system (at least the one in the USA) is not doing that and the next generation of adults are suffering.

  • Shreen

    Hmm, the most beneficial discussions I had at university were not usually during classes or lectures, but during informal group study times. Sometimes it only took a fresh perspective, a new way of wording a concept, to reach that “click” moment when something suddenly makes sense.

    And I studied engineering which you wouldn’t necessarily think lends itself to being discussed much. 🙂

    So perhaps that issue isn’t such a big deal after all, if the best discussions happen organically anyway then learning the basics online won’t really change that I imagine.

    Where do you work, BV, out of interest?

  • BV

    Shreen – I’d send you a private message, but as I refuse to use twitter and can’t find another way to communciate with you, I’ll use this! (Sorry, Scott!)

    I don’t “work” in the paid sense – I’m still at university in London. However, I spend my free time mentoring young people who are also at university or have just graduated. (Young = under 28 approx.)

  • Ben

    In my life, the most valuable education, lessons, learnings i’ve got that have served me and I have actually *used* have little to do with what i’ve learnt in a classroom. My own experience, learning from people who have more experience than me, going out and doing stuff and researching and studying on my own instead of being in a boring classroom have served me more.

    The problem with the education system is we are taught in a way at school that more disables us in life and not think for ourselves.

    If we can develop any skill that’s important, it is to think for ourselves, and take learning on for ourselves instead of sticking to a rigid criteria. I was never one for sticking exactly to something ‘rigid’ which is exactly how I have found much more effective ways of doing this in several areas of my life.


  • Adrian

    I listen to opencourseware a lot, and I think it’s great. But I don’t think it will change the world, for the simple reason that this has been around for ages. It’s just distance learning and without a forum to discuss the issues you aren’t getting much more than a video.

    What’s attractive here is that MIT, Stanford etc. have been giving away valuable educational resources for free. They won’t be able to continue doing this if people stop going to Uni, so make the most of it whilst it lasts.

    However, what is problematic with these approaches is that they don’t really support the kind of debate that is essential for developing critical and independent thought which is perhaps the main benefit of higher education. It’s ok for computer science, but if you think you can become a philosopher by memorising lectures then you’ve really not got the idea (see Kevin Kline in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’).

  • thanor

    Great post.

    I also think that credential is the bigger problem with this kind of learning. But I’m convincing that there are solutions. Probably unconventional one, like if you learn programing make a programing project to show what you can do. You learn entrepreneurship, or business, make your own company. You learn electronics use Arduino and do some cool project etc.

    When we do à la carte education is it critical to have a way to show employers what we have learned. This can affect the “freedom” of this learning in a way that it will be more difficult, take more time or we need complementary knowledge.

    On the other side, if employers have to choose between someone who just finish university, or someone who have a similar knowledge manage to directly put this knowledge into something meaningful. The latter will be probably be taken for the job.

  • Kim

    Interesting that you bring this up.

    “Without credentials at the end, a university education is meaningless.”

    And like you mentioned, it’s presented as a packaged deal: you’re pushed to get both the education and credentials. In my own experiences, opposers to self-education usually also stress the importance of the well-rounded university education and how a degree shows that. Yet that’s not always the case. If they place emphasis on the necessity of a university education, then I don’t understand why the lack of credentials makes it suddenly meaningless.

    What it all comes down to is how you use your education. It’s a pattern I’ve been seeing in some successful people, namely Bill Gates and Steve Martin. Bill Gates went to Harvard, but he didn’t have a set degree plan. He used the resources at school mainly to tinker and explore the underlying structures of computers. Steve Martin dabbled around until he finally settled with philosophy. He loved philosophy because he saw how learning logic can help him innovate his comedy routine. More so known amongst illustrators and entertainment artists, Jason Manley jumped around art schools in the US for six years to find what he needed. He was looking for schools that taught drawing and painting foundations as well as methods for creating imaginative works. However, he couldn’t find one school that taught all of this.

    (You can read about Jason Manley’s story here: http://conceptart.org/forums/s

    and here (though it’s more about art schools):

    All three of them dropped out of college. Yet somehow, they went on to do really big things. Although there may have been other factors contributing to their success, their ability to take education into their own hands is a considerable factor. However, not everyone knows what their own needs are yet in order to do this. They’ll probably need some structure initially in their education. So perhaps a hybrid between traditional methods and an a la carte structure might be a viable transition?

  • BV

    —Comment redacted at request of user—

  • Vipul

    I agree with Scott. My current role as an IT professional was mostly self taught. It was more of a combination of working on projects and learning through them rather than doing a formal course. However 1 thing which does have advantage in a formal education setup is it forces you to learn. How many would have the discipline and the dedication to start on a self learning program and see it through to the end.

  • Christa

    Why is it that people are so easily threatened by alternative education? Isn’t that what we all do anyway when we decide to pursue an interest? Plant our own garden, design our own website, restore an old hot rod… I agree with Scott, that kids are no different. They should be able to work with their parents or guardians to piece together the best educational experience they can, based on their interests, career goals, and future aspirations. See my blog post at http://www.noagendahomeschool….. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Scott!

  • Shreen

    err BV, what are you talking about? Have I missed something? I haven’t visited this site in a while and come back to a comment about frogs and monkeys.

  • Akinwale

    I share the same notion with Scott, I am sure education is already at the stage where a complete turn around would be based on the Idea to learn what you need to learn not be enforced to learn something you don’t want, moreover, having to pay huge bills for today formal education might soon be replaced with certifications like what is obtainable in the I.T profession today.

    I learnt most things I know today from outside the Ivory tower, I was simply discouraged by the system, when I gained admission I was motivated but I left without any motivation, It was just five years of confusion.

    I am saying this is a good article.

  • alissa

    I half way agree with you. Some of The most interesting people I know didn’t go to college. They’re self-educated which tells me they’re curious individuals inherently. They’re not educated because some professor told them what to do. Not everyone is an academic and we shouldn’t mold those types into academics. My opinion is that people shouldn’t go to college right after high school. Most 18 years don’t know enough to make a good choice about their future. Not to mention they don’t have a fully developed frontal lobe which is where executive function happens. Go out and get life experience before making big choices about your future. Then go to college and enjoy it. Look at it as a privilege instead of something parents make you do. It shouldn’t be drudgery.

    Internet education may work for some but it really depends on what kind of learner a person is. it also depends on what you’re studying. You can’t learn physical therapy online. You kind of need to do that in person.

    I took a few online courses in college and I can honestly say that I didn’t learn anything from them. Like most students, I read my notes as I did online exams etc – therefore the information really didn’t stick because I wasn’t forced to develop the neuronal networks necessary for retaining information. So, the information stayed in my short term memory then then went away.