School of Hard Knocks: Learning in The Information Age

Shortly after my dad passed away last year, I fell into depression. I felt like the only person who really, truly understood me had left me. I feared I would be defenseless against all the things that could bring me down. My dad was a good man who had a few demons with which he frequently struggled and I needed his guidance more than ever.

One thing that contributed to my sadness was the fact that I had not completed my degree before his passing. My dad had been a teacher and a damn good one and he valued a good education over all other accomplishments. He read and taught and learned all the way up to his passing and often discussed with me the importance of a good education. His walls were adorned with degrees, teaching awards and letters of commendation which were all echoes of the acts of a young, dedicated teacher. But even though I had not earned my degree he was very proud of what I had accomplished in my life and he never once implied that I was a lesser man for not having attained that document. I always felt that if I had gotten it though, I would have been better in his eyes. To me his approval meant everything.

I won’t go into the psychology behind this, but needless to say, some past experience was at work here that is a story for another time. What is notable is that I worked very hard even after his passing to attain a degree and finally “make” something of myself. After the completion of each course with an A I still never felt the sense of accomplishment I was searching for. Even worse, I never felt like I left a course feeling like I learned something important. At work, there were leaders who placed a degree high on the list of what makes you a successful employee and you cannot have hoped to travel too far without one listed on your resume. That said, I continued this path to a degree, even though I had no internal desire to complete it; none whatsoever.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very curious and strive to learn something new every day, but I do it my way. I love to learn new things. I read all the time and I am always trying to understand what makes things tick. My dad instilled in me a lifelong love of learning and I don’t think I will ever lose that. I still remember sitting in his apartment once with a dictionary in my hand volleying words back and forth between us, testing knowledge, exploring word roots, and laughing. I know it does not sound exciting, but he taught Latin and for some reason the root of many of the words we use being Latin-based was so interesting to me. What never clicked with me was the way you have to demonstrate knowledge in this country. Some of most ignorant people I know have degrees and it has not changed who they are. That is not to say that all people I know with degrees are ignorant. Many degree owners are brilliant and I envy the dedication to the structure, rigor and methodology of the learning path they chose to follow. I also know, however, that the typical university degree program does not work for everyone. So why do we insist that everyone follow that path to demonstrate their level of knowledge? Who are we leaving behind?

In the United States we have a system of education established over one hundred years ago and it’s hard to tell what if any part of the current process is not completely antiquated. Students are required to have various courses completed to ensure a well-rounded education, but some of it seems like a waste of time, unless you are interested in it of course. If I am looking to become a software developer, why do I need to take a geology course? Why must I read Moby Dick? When you think about it, it all seems so superfluous. There seems to be a need for checking a box for the sake of process and not adding to the quality of the education you are receiving. I do understand the need to have a general knowledge of all areas of leaning but must that consume so much of the learner’s career? In fact, as we continue to hold students accountable for general education requirements they will not retain knowledge from, other countries are eating our lunch by specifying more focused curriculums based on the actual subjects a student wants or needs to pursue. Additionally, some countries are changing what is introduced to children at a young age in an effort to maintain an edge in the world.

The increase in access to information now is unprecedented. In fact there is so much information available that we often don’t know what to do with it. There are even job roles created just to parse through all the information out there to get to specifically what is being searched for. Every person now has access to any and all information they could ever need via their phone and this fact makes general education requirements in college level curriculum even more archaic. In other words we need to get to the point and get there fast.

The education community too is beginning to see the writing on the wall with the advent of the MOOC or massive open online courses. Visit edX, Coursera or some of the other MOOC sites out there and you will see that there is not much you cannot find to learn about that you are interested in. In fact, you will find that there are “micro-degree” programs available for things like business intelligence, data analytics, machine learning and other learning frontiers that traditional institutions are still trying to catch up with. The irony of this is that the agile, up to date courses are being facilitated by some of the more well-known institutions out there. Have no chance of attending Stanford? Attend a machine learning course facilitated by that institution. Would love to have a credential from Yale? Go grab this set of courses from that institution.

You may be asking yourself why the country does not just go this route and accelerate our progress as a nation. The answer is money. There is a lot of money to be made by colleges and universities. There are jobs and egos and fees and government funding and so on that complicate the move to streamlined learning. That is a lot of baggage and it will take a while to change the course of a ship like that. What can be done in the short term is to bring more attention to other options available for gaining knowledge. If you couple that with the need to legitimize a degree or certificate earned through an MOOC versus a traditional institution of higher learning you will begin to see progress in education like never before. If one can earn a degree through a corporation like University of Phoenix and it be deemed acceptable to an employer, how does one not receive the same treatment for learning gained through a well-known, respected university or college, just on a smaller scale and online.

It’s time to level the playing field for those of us who have decided to learn in alternative ways and stop the practice of demanding a four year degree for entrance to many job roles, especially those in leadership. As for me, I have four years of military experience, over twenty years of hands-on experience and various experiences learning in certificate courses, online classes and books that have contributed to my education. My license plate frame reads “Alumni; School of Hard Knocks” and I am proud of that! I can lead, I can strategize and I can mentor just as well as the next person I don’t need a degree to prove it.

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