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Learning

The world of traditional education is about to get disrupted.

The disruption started a long time ago, with Wikipedia and MIT Open Courseware. By now, the amount of online learning materials that has accumulated on the internet over the years has become staggering. Equally impressive is the number of people that spend their time answering questions on forums, mailing lists, Stack Exchange sites, or Quora. Today, there's nary a technical subject that cannot be learned by a committed, resourceful individual.

And therein lies a problem. Learning is a difficult process, and it is, for most people, a social process. By providing video-recorded lectures and a stack of problem sets, we are giving thousands of people access to knowledge they would have had trouble acquiring otherwise. But we are missing hundreds of thousands or even millions others, who would like to learn, but need extra help, or extra motivation, or a more structured environment.

We need to build a community of instructors and students passionate about teaching and learning in the new online landscape. This work is already well under way. Sal Khan and the founders of KnowLabs are some of the people reshaping the world of online education, and I fully believe that they will succeed.

Ever since finishing my Ph.D. I've been following courses online. For the first time in years, I am learning just for myself, without trying to impress anyone, and it is incredibly liberating.

I have gone through the following courses in their entirety:

Here's what I will be doing in the next few months:

And here's what's next in queue:

Why is this so important? After all, online education is anything but novel.

The importance comes from the fact that learning is a fundamental aspect of our lives that has yet to find an adequate online outlet. Indeed, from birth well into the old age, our brains are busily rewiring themselves as we acquire new skills. Crawling, walking, riding a bicycle, talking, writing, swimming, blogging – we all had to learn this once. Learning is an essential part of being human.

It is such a basic life necessity that not liking to learn is akin to not liking to walk. One might not enjoy slogging through mud on a rainy day, but taking a stroll around Point Reyes on a clear California morning brings visceral joy at the beauty and majesty of existence.

Likewise, we might not enjoy the things we are expected to learn, or pressured to learn, or otherwise come to believe we must learn. But we take great pleasure in learning a dance move, a skateboard trick, a new guitar song, a new programming language, or to cook a new dish. We delight in taking up a new skill – drawing, knitting, making a blog, or in practicing an old one – our tennis serve, our golf swing, our French. In short, everyone wants to learn, in the same way that everyone wants to socialize or to get information. Yet, the world of online learning can be compared to the Web before Google, or to social networks before Facebook and Twitter.

Traditional education needs to be disrupted

Years ago I came to the realization that to lead a satisfactory life, I must continuously learn new things, and to teach others. This was a key consideration in my deciding to pursue a Ph.D. I cannot stand the thought of being in an environment where I don't constantly have to learn.

I am now older and wiser, with a stack of publications, presentations, and a few more degrees to my name. To be sure, I learned a lot. But I also came to the conclusion that the traditional learning environment is fundamentally flawed. Both at Stanford and at Princeton, in undergrad and during my Ph.D., both for myself and my peers, I have witnessed learning becoming secondary to assessment. Even in graduate school, where grades don't really matter, the problem persists: you are under a constant pressure to impress your advisor, the funding agencies, that bigshot prof that will be instrumental in your postdoc or faculty search. In short, most people are spending time in school solving a complex optimization problem, with their career, status, and earning potential as the objective function. Learning just becomes a positively-correlated side effect of this process. We get reminded of this reality every now and then – when a cheating scandal hits our department, or when someone writes an exposé of the unsavory practices in the for-profit education industry. The problem, however, is endemic in traditional education.

But the traditional education is about to get disrupted. Check back in five years to see the result.