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.


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