This is the last missing piece of the puzzle to online learning. I always wondered why people are paying so much money for coding bootcamps. I’ve been able to easily find comprehensive tutorials, questions to common questions on sites like Quora and Stack Overflow, and even free textbooks on every coding topic imaginable by doing a simple google search. I think what most people are missing from self-directed learning is social accountability. Many online learning platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, Code Academy, and Udacity ignore the social aspect of online learning and that’s why I think they don’t work for most people (at least not by themselves).
In college, we have social accountability for our learning via our classmates and the college administrator who keeps tab on your learning progress. This kind of support and comfort of being a part of a learning community is not available for online learners…or is it?
Online learners are not self-learners. The internet provides the three key ingredients of a successful learning outcome. These are:
#1 Curriculum (What do I need to learn)
- In college, the professors develop the curriculum based on their experience. The problem is that their experience is mostly in academia and they lack the industry experience to develop a curriculum that helps you learn the skills you need to find a job outside of academia.
- How online learning is better in this area is that online learners have access to guidance provided by people from that industry they want to enter. That information is provided via their blogs online, the tutorials or books they write on the topic (Manning books), and their response to questions people ask on platforms such as Quora, StackOverflow, reddit, Medium on how to choose between different options (e.g., Play vs. Node for building a web application).
#2 Support (Am I doing it right?)
- In college, the professors and TAs help you assess your learning by assigning you homework and projects to work on and administer exams to test what you know against what you need to know. Maybe you’ve been a TA or a grader in college and know how time consuming and difficult it can be to provide good support and feedback to a student. The danger with exam and homework assignments is that it could discourage people from real learning and obtaining mastery in a topic. We’ve probably all been through the getting a bad grade on an exam and getting discouraged about the subject. If you learn just to do well on an exam, you’re not really learning. To obtain mastery, you need practice — lots of it. This is only possible if you are truly passionate about the subject and spend all your time thinking about it and working on it to get better.
- With online learning, there’s no artificial time constraint on your learning (e.g., semesters or trimesters of the college education system). You can get really deep into something that really interests you and totally ignore something that doesn’t inspire you to work very hard at it. But what about support? Communities like Github and Meetup groups connect experienced coders with inexperienced coders for mentorship/guidance and inexperienced coders to other inexperienced coders for mutual support on learning. If you are a beginner, you’ll find it easier to read a tutorial written by another beginner who recently figured out how something works, as opposed to an official documentation or a tutorial written by an advanced programmer that glosses over the small details too rudimentary to be pertinent for advanced programmers to explain in great detail in their tutorials. Beginners also benefit from the response to questions that other beginners already asked in the past (i.e., they can be found by googling and don’t need to ask the same question again and wait for a response).
#3 Social Accountability (What happens if I don’t learn?)
- In college, if you don’t learn, you fail the class. That’s accountability at its simplest. But that’s not a good motivation for people. We don’t enroll ourselves in college to go through 4 years of not failing. College has more to offer than a piece of paper. For many, the synergy of the classroom drives them to do the work. Social accountability takes the form of being a part of a group of people doing the same thing and forming relationships over the commonality. Recognition, reputation, and friendship can result from that.
- Many online learning platforms ignore the social aspect of online learning and that’s why I think they don’t work by themselves. You have to supplement that with something else. For example, you can form a meetup group with other people who also want to learn machine learning and you can gather every weekend to binge watch that week’s Coursera videos from the Stanford machine learning class and work on the assignment together. Github offers another accountability platform for people who care about how their Github page appears.
There’s another crucial ingredient to a successful learning outcome that you cannot easily find on the internet: Goal.
#4 Goal (Why do I want to learn?)
I think defining your goal up front really helps with streamlining your learning. If your goal for learning is to learn, then good for you! Most people don’t operate that way. They do things for a purpose. Let’s face it, learning is hard because it’s work and it’s exhausting, require lots of practice, patience, and persistence. Online learners also need to be resourceful in knowing how and where to find the information they need to advance their learning. You can easily get distracted from your learning objective and go down a rabbit hole, which creates further frustration and confusion.
How does college create goals? The goal for college is to obtain a degree in the major that you’ve picked for yourself (or other people, like your parents, pick for you, which I don’t recommend because that’s not as motivating for you). Your goal is to complete all the requirements stipulated by the college, follow your instructor’s curriculum and do exactly as you’re told and try to meet their expectations to obtain the degree.
What about online learning? The internet can’t issue degrees to people. Some online platforms provide certificates for people completing a set of courses but a certificate you get from online learning can’t compete with a certificate you get from a prestigious university in which you attend as a full time student. Even if an online learning certificate is as prestigious and telling about your abilities as a in-person college degree, it still does not address the problem with setting the goal for learning to the completion of a curriculum. What online learners need is a goal that aligns with their aspirations — whatever that aspiration may be but generally takes the form of making a living for themselves. Finding employment with a company or as a freelancer and building a startup are all good goals that both streamlines learning as well as motivate the learners to work on their skills every single day. As this article points out, getting good at something requires practice — lots of practice.