Ten years ago, I finished a personal project to try to learn MIT’s computer science curriculum on my own. Strangely enough, the project was both a resounding success and an abject failure.
The project was successful as I largely did what I set out to do. I managed to hew closely to the content in MIT’s undergraduate computer science curriculum. And I managed to pass most of the final exams for the courses. While there’s plenty of room for critiquing aspects of my self-grading or workarounds for missing materials, there’s no question I learned a lot.
However, the project was a complete failure in terms of what I imagined would come from it. At the time I took on the project, I genuinely believed the coming wave of free online courses would transform higher education. After all, if someone can acquire the skills taught in a degree program for a fraction of the cost and with far greater flexibility, that’s a competitive alternative to college.
Despite that, I only know of a handful of people who have completed something broadly similar. Why?
What Explains the Lack of Follow-Up to the MIT Challenge?
Why have we not seen an explosion of online education substituting for on-campus credentials in the ten years since this project finished? Let’s look at a few possibilities…
1. The MIT Challenge is unrealistically hard for most people.
Most of the attention I got for the challenge was my decision to do it in twelve months. This choice branded me as a studying whiz, but it wasn’t the central motivation for the challenge. Instead, I found it compelling that I could learn the entire CS curriculum from one of the best engineering and technology schools on the planet without leaving my bedroom.
The kind of self-paced, online education I pursued during the MIT Challenge is more flexible than traditional schooling, not less. Thus, while I accelerated the pace to push myself, I could always slow it down if I wanted to.
Finally, I don’t buy that I’m particularly brilliant for succeeding with my project. I’m not more clever than the average MIT student, for instance. Going through the curriculum faster was only possible because of the enhanced flexibility the online format offered. I would have struggled to do the same in a brick-and-mortar institution.
Thus, even though this is the part most people fixate on, I don’t think the perceived difficulty of the MIT Challenge has much to do with why it isn’t more popular.
2. Online education doesn’t work as well as in-class learning.
The world got an unexpected test of online learning when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Schools were shuttered. Classes ran on Zoom. Harried parents juggled working from home and trying to keep kids on task. The lesson many have drawn from this experience that there’s something important missing in online education that can only take place in a physical classroom.
I’m deeply skeptical of this explanation.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a good experiment for online learning. Most teachers were ill-prepared to transition to an online-only environment. As a result, Zoom classes combine the inefficiencies of sitting through lectures in an auditorium with the lack of supervision of at-home studying.
While it’s certainly possible that group discussions, feedback from teachers, accountability on deadlines and a physical change of environment have positive impacts on learning, none of these were impossible to implement in online learning. After all, if online self-education really did provide a meaningful substitute for an academic degree, why wouldn’t we see local study groups or on-demand tutors offering their services?
3. Education is Mostly Signaling, and Students (Rightfully) Shouldn’t Care Much About Learning.
Another explanation is that the primary value of school is signaling—it shows that you have the smarts, work ethic and conformity to do well—rather than building useful skills.
Bryan Caplan has made a spirited defense of school as signaling in his book, The Case Against Education. He argues that what is taught in school isn’t particularly useful on the job. Instead, schooling provides a mechanism for figuring out who has the talent, ambition and obedience to learn on the job successfully.
There’s likely some truth to the signaling hypothesis. And the effect of signaling is likely much higher for prestigious institutions. Having an MIT degree is probably more valuable than having an MIT education.
However, this explanation can be taken too far. While I do suspect the Harvard history major who eventually becomes a CEO is likely not drawing directly upon academic skills to run a company, it seems a much weaker case to argue that a computer science education is irrelevant for success in professional programming.
Programming is also an outlier because the need for credentials is weaker than in many other technical professions. Lawyers, architects, doctors, and accountants are all required to submit to regulatory authorities to practice their craft. On the other hand, coders, web designers and data scientists have largely been spared the trend of making credentials a prerequisite to practice.
I agree with Caplan that signaling probably plays a significant role in education. Yet, I think the case for signaling is weaker with technical skills that match their professional application and for professions without onerous licensing requirements that make self-education impossible.
Why I’m Still an Online Education Optimist
Ultimately, the real explanation for the slow adoption of alternatives to higher education may not be so different from the adoption of any new technology. Multiple criteria must be fulfilled for any technology to become broadly popular.
For online learning, I believe there’s a few:
- Better materials. Right now, online education is dominated by 1) material from brick-and-mortar institutions (which isn’t well-designed for the online format and can make taking classes difficult) and 2) edutainment courses which are flashy and exciting but often lack rigor.
- Better credentials. My MIT Challenge was lax in proving I learned what I said I did. I self-administered and graded exams and programming projects. At the time, I felt like I was on the frontier, that institutions themselves would do this within a few years both to ensure exacting standards and prevent cheating. While there is a crop of new online degrees and certificates, it remains to be seen whether they measure up.
- More job-relevant skills. Elite education is purposely impractical. As I wrote immediately after the MIT Challenge, I wouldn’t have followed that exact course if my short-term goal had been to get a programming job. Too much focus on theory, too little focus on application. Yet, a decade later, I rarely write any code, but I use a lot of the foundational ideas taught in the MIT coursework to understand other fields. Thus, while I think online education providers need to offer people more immediately practical skills, I’m still grateful for the benefits of a deeper education.
Thus, while critics of online education specifically, and education generally, make some compelling points, I’m still an optimist about the possibilities. Learning anything, anywhere, for the cost of an internet connection is still an idea worth believing in.
I’m probably never going to do another project like the MIT Challenge. I’m busier and less bold than I was a decade ago. Yet, I still make a point of refreshing through MIT’s OpenCourseWare catalog every few months to see if there are any new courses to watch. Perhaps the slower, less boastful approach I follow today won’t get me as many new subscribers, but I’m enjoying it all the same.