What Do Students Know?

There is a lot of excitement about MOOCs these days, as well as conjecture about how higher education might look in the future. MIT is considering a more ala carte approach to structuring their programs.

I think the increasing access to sources of learning is fabulous and has no drawbacks of any significance whatsoever. However…

There’s a huge difference in what you learn in self-directed study as opposed to studying a complex topic under the tutelage of a professional or a curriculum designed by professionals. As a student coming in cold to a topic like computer science there are hundreds of directions your interests might take you, and there is also probably an online course or source of information that will help you along.

But I would contend that the learning-by-browsing model is not not an effective approach when applied to an entire field of knowledge. It works wonderfully for very directed, contained topics. But in my view the student doesn’t know enough to direct their own studies, at least until they’ve achieved a certain level of fluency with the basic material of the area.

And that, I think, is the difference between those who are self-educated and those who are educated via a curriculum; the self-educated have no way of being assured that they have a mastery of the breadth of the important material. Can the self-educated achieve such a mastery? Sure. But the mastery of a field like computer science involves training your mind how to think in abstractions while at the same time being aware of the minutest detail of the technology being used, and I don’t think it is easy, natural, or guaranteed that a course of self-study will get you there. You can be an absolute expert at Ruby and a horrible software engineer. (Replace “Ruby” by your technology of choice…)

So is college necessary in computer-science/programming/hacking? Not to master any particular bit of technology. But it is certainly the best path to ensuring a base level of knowledge from which to master such a huge and complex field of study. It may not even be necessary to secure a lucrative job or to start a company delivering software — but don’t be fooled. Monetary success does not mean you know what your doing.

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About jeffkotula

Software engineer, musician, and so on...
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