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Independent Learners

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I've started a series of interviews on the Degree of Freedom site which so far have included discussions with the President of edX, one of the co-founders of Coursera, and this week's discussion with Scott Young, a man who did his own One-Year-BA program without the benefit of MOOCs (or other full-blown online courses).

His project, called the MIT Challenge, involved learning the equivalent of what he'd get from being enrolled in a four year Computer Science program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And for his learning material, he turned to class content MIT makes free to everyone via their Open Learning Initiative.

While Scott (like me) began this project after he had already obtained a BA in a different subject (Business), a new generation of independent learners is building their own alternatives to a four-year (high-priced) "official" college degree.

Dale Stephans, founder of a program called Uncollege, both rejected formal higher education for himself, and is now offering options to other young people who seek a different path to life preparation than the typical four-year degree programs most of us went through.

A recipient of a Thiel Fellowship (which pays students $100,000 if they agree to not go to college), Stephans created his Uncollege organization which offers Hackademic camps and his own Gap Year program designed to teach students the skills needed to become independent learners ready for their own self-propelled education based on anything from MOOCs to immediate live experiences (such as travel or startup creation).

What both Dale and Scott have in common is that they both emerged in an era of high-tech entrepreneurship.

This environment provided them the tools they needed to pursue their projects (such as MOOCs, Open Courseware and the social networking tools needed to create and maintain independent learning communities). But it also gave them an archetype to build their dreams around: that of the self-made entrepreneur for whom formal college was not the main ingredient for success.

No doubt Peter Thiel's undergraduate degree (in philosophy!) and law degree from Stanford contributed to his fame and fortune. But his own uncollege vision grew out of experiences forming successful companies where he likely realized that what you learn by creating and running your own enterprise can be more important (or at least different) than what you learn sitting at a desk being lectured to for four years.

Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, is even more outspoken on the benefits of newer forms of independent education. And who can argue with someone whose own successful career represents the importance of acquiring skills in high-tech entrepreneurship (such as programming, product development, marketing and sales, management, etc.), ideally before you file the paperwork needed to start our own corporation.

While I have no objection to the importance of entrepreneurship as both a model and source of content for higher education, I would like to make the case that too much focus on business and technology runs the risk of turning a period that could be dedicated to intellectual exploration into one instead committed to vocational training.

This is not an issue specific to free-learning. For within the traditional academy, the number one major in the U.S. is currently business. And while I wish I had studied more about finance, management and marketing before I started my own business many years ago, I don't regret having dedicated my college years to "less practical" subjects such as chemistry, history and literature.

In fact, it was this exposure to the liberal arts that provided me the ideas and ways of thinking that were most important to my business career. So as new forms of learning begin to supplement or even replace older ones, I'm hoping that at least one aspect of education ("forced" exposure to wide range of liberal arts) does not get lost along the way.

It's become a lazy habit to invoke Steve Jobs and Apple whenever you want to provide an example of business done right. For instance, in a recent interview someone pointed out that Jobs's time in college allowed him to take or audit a range of classes in subjects like typography, implying that without such a college experience we would never have seen a Macintosh with multiple fonts.

But I would turn that around and say that the important thing about Jobs' college life is that it provided him the chance to expose himself to subjects he might not have considered learning about if people teaching and studying these varied topics didn't surround him on all sides.

So now that MOOC offerings are moving beyond their roots in computer science and beginning to surround any independent learner with the chance to expose themselves to literature, the arts, history, philosophy et al, wouldn't it be great if a culture of independent learning emerged that embraced the liberal arts, rather than following trends we're seeing in the brick-and-mortar world that are turning college into preparatory school for a life spent sitting in (or building) a cubical farm.