For me, university was a bit of a broken promise. Throughout school the assurance is that you study a broad range of things of varying appeal and interest in order to land in a university where you can study what appeals to you. Open days draw you in with modules that only surface in the closing stages of your degree, if at all. Those topics and modules that appear brightest and most appealing have all the joy sucked out of them by lecturers who find lecturing a waste of their time. Examinations in closed settings assess your ability to recall more often than your the depth of your understanding.
University wasn’t without moments of wonderful exploration of ideas and knowledge, but those moments were stifled by the inability to share and to collate that knowledge, through fear of academic fraudulence, of collusion. I can’t recall a single paper I read through my studies that had a single author, yet the majority of academic assessment is individual, isolated.
Perhaps learning outside of the university campus might have been a struggle prior to the world wide web, but in 2018 it’s a delight.
I’m extremely fortunate to be employed on a graduate scheme at an organisation where I’m expanding my software engineering skills through practical application and expert training. I work in an environment where the opportunity is afforded to explore emerging research and consider its relevance for application to current and future problems in products surrounding my work. I’m fortunate, but even if I wasn’t, opporunities for inquisitive exploration are plentiful.
Tech meet-ups provide a great opportunity to explore new topics or dive a little deeper into those unfamiliar. The desire to learn something is nurtured with invigorating debate accompanied by free snacks and refreshments. The isolation experienced at university gives way to the opportunity to network. It’s a nice opportunity to get a feeling for the broader tech community in your locale (for me that’s in Manchester far beyond the dozen or so walls of BBC North). Not only that but with some meet-ups courting the attention of those from those with backgrounds of interest rather than technical involvement, the chance to get a completely different perspective at times is valuable.
There’s almost been a new democratisation of knowledge through the web, too. Whether video tutorials on YouTube on a vast array of topics, from school curriculum science topics to emerging machine learning techniques, sites such as Duolingo offering specialist teaching on topics such as languages, or MOOCs lowering the barrier to entry for degree-level education for many, both in terms of price and convenience. At times it feels like the biggest barrier is focussing on a manageable set of subjects to engage with, option paralysis. Whatever it is one might seek to learn, there is always a relevant community to discuss and share knowledge. To reinforce existing understanding, and to greater expand one’s comprehension.
That democratisation of knowledge stretches to the cutting edge too. Increasingly companies are applying more effort to producing open source software. Strong communities of developers committing to an open source platform produce a stronger, more robust platform, with a greater knowledge pool, more vibrant ecosystem, and a more trusted and tested product. Academic research is increasingly published widely, on open access archives such as arXiv, the trend being towards an increasingly transparent research community, rather than a secretive one kept under lock and key by corporate stakeholders.
This trend is emerging to the point where some of industry’s most secretive organisations are having to let some light in to attract the best talent. Whether propelled by an increasing sense that some of the moral quandaries, borne of an explosion in systems that are increasingly impossible for humans to fully interpret, require the largest possible audience for appropriate discussion and understanding, or a more candid cultural change, the gates have been thrown open. The result being the liberation of the most substantial and impactful research. The opportunity for the curious to explore with far reduced restraint, to explore as a community.