I recently finished up a 5-week course online, Health for all through Primary Care, on Coursera. I took it for a number of reasons. With all the changes to the healthcare on the horizon, I want to make sure I’m healthy. Secondly, I work for the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians and the information is directly relevant to my position. Lastly…I was curious and it was free. I took away a better understanding and appreciation for family medicine and the doctors who tirelessly work to make sure we are healthy.

I was told about Coursera from a coworker who is taking a class in a programming language called R. I honestly have never heard of it before and when I asked him about Coursera it sounded almost to good to be true. A company that partners with top university professors from around the world to teach online classes on a variety of subjects, for free. I was blown away. Having taken a few classes online for college credit, I found that Coursera was extremely user friendly and actually quite encouraging. So, yes, I am a big fan of Coursera.

But this blog post isn’t about Coursera, it’s about education. In the US, there is a pattern for most young adults. This pattern is a societal pressure. You are expected to finish high school and go to college. For decades, many young Americans followed this path, this one size fits all system of education. In the last couple of years, the ignorance bubble burst around higher education costs and benefits and many young Americans are dealing with massive amounts of debt, a shrinking job market and being forced to move back home with parents and take any job they can get. Tuition has risen to the point of absurdity and value of your school investment vs. education is in question (particularly for for-profit schools). It is a precarious mess. On one hand, you have officials and analysts telling students they made poor choices choosing their field and college they wanted to attend and on the other hand, you have schools and advisors pushing students to various schools and programs that they are trying to sell you on. For most high school seniors, navigating the world of higher education, financial assistance and market place climate is just too much to take in and not go insane. It’s a system setup for failure on the word go.

The emphasis on education has been lost. Many people assume that school means education, and that education means jobs, and that jobs mean careers, and careers mean the American dream. But how many of us know people who got a job solely based on their connections? How many of us know that the majority of our classes in college have no real world application? How many of us have seen people graduate from one program and end up working in an entirely different field?

Education is different from job training. The overlap, yes, but they are two different animals. Many people who go to college really are going for job training. They have a clear, definite goal in mind and they are shooting for a particular end result. Lawyers, Doctors, Engineers are typically viewed as high level careers that college provided them with knowledge and job training. Technical schools are considered the model job training facilities. They are lower in price to attend and you learn more trades, be it a mechanic, carpenter, electrician, HVAC repair, and even though I hate to admit it, Graphic Design. Now true education can train you for a job, there is no doubt in that, but true education rounds out a persons knowledge then just more then knowing how to do a specific job. This is where you art appreciation and history classes come into play, your philosophy classes, your music and cultural studies classes. Most of these areas of focus won’t help you create business plan, design a new pharmaceuticals, or change an alternator. These courses enhance you as a person.

I have a good friend who is a an avid video game player (voracious maybe more apt) and he is extremely knowledgable about the game industry and what technologies are used to make successful mods and games. I listen to him talk about various aspects of the industry and lecture on game engine mechanics. If it wasn’t for his lack of connections in that field, I wholly believe it would be Valve right now working on a brand new Half Life mod.

He never went to college. His voracity for video games lead him to read tons of articles on video game design, concept art, story boarding, programing interactions and many how-to’s for virtually every aspect of the production of full fledged PC and Xbox games. I asked him why he never went to college, and his answer was always the same…

“I’d like to, but it’s so damn expensive, even with financial aid. And I wouldn’t know what to take, I don’t want to take classes for a field that I might end up not working in. There should be an alternate way to learn what I want, whether I apply it to a career or just for me my own curiosity.”

Right now, higher education in the US is in such a mess, that alternate attitudes are emerging. Some colleges are starting to offer online courses for free through Itunes. The spike in independent online learning resources has also jumped dramatically. Programming and Web Development in particular has taken the lead in free online learning centers. Sites like Codepen, Treehouse and WebPlatform.org have given designers (like me) and other interested people a way to learn new skills applicable for our livelihoods. Membership sites exist in this same vien, most notably being Lynda.com. These are educational sites are direct skills training resources. Sites like Coursera and OpenCulture, on the other, offer courses that are enriching and cultural along with skills that are directly applied to your job. These sites haven’t been created as a response to the college problems, but they have been created to help people learn about they they never could before, either on their own or in college.

When I finished college, I went re-enrolled back into a local community college to learn web development. I had a few great instructors and a few I wouldn’t mind never seeing again. Some of the classes are great, and others…extremely lackluster. I was motivated to learn web development, and what I couldn’t get from class, I discovered either on Lynda or through W3 Schools. My appetite for learning, both job skills and in topics that interest me has made me into a much more interesting, well rounded individual. You hear that well rounded term a lot, and all it really means is that you have a basic knowledge and understanding about a variety of topics that affect people, which just makes you a better informed person on different subjects. Nothing bad has ever come that.

My appetite for learning has diminished since graduating from college. I found college helpful to learn the skills and knowledge about being a creative, but I also so learned so much more by my own research, through internships and talking with people. A real education provides all of that, the job skills and the experience and interest that makes you a better person.

As far as our current climate with student debt and higher education, I wouldn’t let it discourage you too much. College is still a great opportunity, but don’t feel it’s the only solution for education. You can learn anything through tenacity and will, and the power to act.

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February 25, 2013

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