I chose not to get a college degree. I’m grateful my parents didn’t insist I get one. Instead, I was excited to join the working world with confidence that doors would open to help me continue my own learning. Maybe that would include a degree track at some point but it certainly didn’t feel right to start out on one.
There were a lot of the kinds of reactions one might expect. Most people asked me questions like these:
“What are you planning to do instead?”
“Don’t you care about your future?”
My answer was exactly the same, no more or less risky, as the average bear leaving for college with no idea why or for what end:
I’ll figure it out.
The challenges that had plagued me my whole academic career, that stuff about being “wired differently” (I was born with hyperlexia), the neurodiversity I’d been working so hard to mask all my life was about to emerge in earnest, beyond my control, and power me forward in ways I wish I would have accepted and believed in sooner.
My perspective at the time was this: I wasn’t afraid to work, there seemed to be an awful lot of jobs in service industries to get started in, I was already no stranger to ambiguity, and having moved around a lot had hardened me up for change, plus I was sure I’d find a way to continue to create my own learning in the wild world.
Most of my peers disagreed. They didn’t like that idea, the idea of having to work or pay rent, fuel, food and/or any of the costs that come along with living and supporting oneself in the real world. I got the impression they were all mostly going to try and put all that off for as long as possible.
I felt differently. Seemed to me that the sooner I learned to carry that weight, the lighter it would feel, faster, and I wasn’t afraid to fail by trying things until I succeeded. How else would I discover what worked if I didn’t try lots and lots of things that didn’t?
That approach seemed like a much better set of odds than going to college to do – what, exactly? To trade a bunch of money for no great level of clarity and exactly zero opportunities to risk real world failure?
I’d already been in school for what felt like forever. The insulation from failure of that milieu of it was confining. I already knew what that felt like. Why would I want to pay to wait 4 or more years before getting to the real, grown-up game? That made no sense at all.
As the choices we each made began to unfold, the courses of study my pals were engaged in seemed far too narrow to hold my interest for long. As I audited courses in everything from mathematics, anthropology, and biological science at several colleges and universities over the next several years, it was clear that even if I could decide what I wanted to focus on, I couldn’t have justified the cost to risk ratio.
It all seemed like a very bad business decision, spending all that time and money on something I may or may not be able to apply by the time I was granted a credential proving my efforts. What if I changed my mind after studying something for 3 years?
If anything, a General Education degree seemed to make the most sense but the vast majority of guidance counselors at the time were pretty consistent in saying there wasn’t much value in those “generic” degrees.
It was a pretty confusing culture to navigate as a young person. There were exactly zero other voices offering any balance or alternatives. I reminded my parents, half-jokingly, that they’d always said, “If your friends jump off a bridge would you jump, too?” They laughed. They were actually supportive of any decision I made and I did not take that for granted. Everywhere else, however, there was only a single point of view: go to college. Odd, I thought.
I don’t recall any of my friends or peers knowing exactly what they wanted to be. That fact alone made the college shill seem like a giant and expensive risk compared to my idea. By all indications, that still seems true today. Sure, if any of us wanted to be a doctor, lawyer or something like that, we would have to bend our will to the program.
Luckily, I had no idea what I wanted to be, either.
OPEN LEARNING CULTURE
Unfortunately, at the time, such terms as “open learning platforms” didn’t exist, much less formalized cultures of same. While there were pockets of undergrad and grad students, even professors, engaged in these types of activities in the far-flung corners of libraries and pubs, they weren’t easy to find and/or finagle one’s way into.
Fortunately, however, the ideas, philosophies and basic frameworks behind open source learning have always existed, and even today don’t all exist within online communities. Open source learning and sharing is really more of a mindset and for it I am very grateful. It is responsible for the vast majority of my own learning paths that began to produce clues almost immediately, in turn connecting me with others dedicated to similar goals, therein leading to other doors being opened and, ultimately, the discovery and continuous refinement of tools that to this day help me achieve my own humble success in whatever I choose to set my mind to.
Before the advent of the Internet, and still even now, these subcultures thrived offline and, well, finding these small but highly engaged pockets of activity required due diligence and a whole lot of the trial-and-error sort of sleuthing. Since then, it’s gotten much friendlier to find online groups. Arguably as easy as applying a mere modicum of attention akin to finding a pebble in the street. A “shared learning resource” can be almost anything today and are widely available to anyone with access to the Internet. Some quick examples include YouTube, Kahn Academy, Coursera and more.
Actually, the entire Internet is an open learning resource.
Want to learn how to change spark plugs in a DT80?
Wanna learn how to make a soufflé?
It doesn’t stop there.
I suppose then, we need schools to force everyone to be motivated to learn? Do we have to make most of them do it? Why? If we make everyone do the stuff of learning as a chore, well, then how will we prevent all the muscles, all the sensations of learning from becoming associated with being a chore?
Keep in mind there are major differences to open learning cultures. The team dedicated to Linux, for example is strictly online. There are very few real-life, in person, physical interactions involved in the support and evolution of Linux, aside from the occasional meeting of the minds at conferences, etc.
In some ways, that makes it even more astounding but it also makes sense, given the type of product the collective is working on. This sort of open learning culture would not work if we were trying to collectively build, say, a boat. We would still need the same rules for capturing the experience, logging our efforts, what worked, what didn’t etc, but in a physical context we’d need to work together in person, hands-on, using tools similar to these solely for archiving our learning.
What’s interesting to look at though is the difference between formal learning atmospheres like current college courses and open learning environments.
This is the primary difference between private learning environments and open learning ones:
No one has to be there. Everyone wants to be there.
Can you imagine the difference in the outcomes?
From a pedagogy perspective alone, the advantages are tough to quantify.
From an experience perspective, pound-for-pound, the learning can be exponentially more meaningful, even as it goes on to be applied in new, seemingly unrelated ways.
That’s the thing: once we learn how to learn the way we learn best in these scenarios, it doesn’t matter what the subject is. By then we have developed a toolset we can apply in any context at any point in time, even unlearning what is no longer relevant.
How can colleges and universities better apply how open learning cultures foster interest and success?
THE IMPACT OF LINUX
Linux may very well be the best example of this. The current Linux kernel is one of the largest collaborative projects ever attempted, with more than 20 million lines of code and more than 12,000 contributors so far. Additionally, an average of 185 changes are accepted into the kernel every day — nearly 1,300 per week — and Linus Torvalds, the project leader, ultimately has the final say on what code is accepted.
Distributions have all been forked from three different branches, which have led to droves of thriving projects, all with different philosophies and value systems.
Some of these values include an emphases on software remaining *free*, support for many hardware platforms, automated hardware configuration, while others focus on offering a wide choice of software, regular releases, a consistent user experience or commercial support. Other goals may include highly optimized and frequently updated software, or package managers capable of resolving dependencies, automatically downloading and installing all necessary packages to simplify system administration. Others prefer a highly customizable distribution that stresses reliability over cutting-edge software and automated tools.
Though each of these are unique in their own right, being branches or “forks” from one of the three primary distributions connects them all as each is an important part of the same collective body of work. It is something to behold.
Without the collective works of the original three, none of the resulting distributions would have been realized. Without Debian, we would have no Knoppix, no Ubuntu. Without Linux, our garage doors openers, automotive computing systems, onboard flight controls, kitchen appliances, all manner of small and large systems requiring embedded operating systems, would not exist.
From a purely selfish perspective, without Slackware, one of the three original branches, I would not be writing or even thinking about any of this right now. In addition to not understanding technology with much depth, more importantly, I may not have learned nearly as well how to learn through the guiding principles of an open source community.
Thanks in large part to Slackware and its early contributors for suggesting it, I learned first hand the advantages of working within a community committed to solving a problem that is part of something larger than themselves. Though it is generally considered a distribution for advanced users, Slackware is also, arguably, the best place to learn about the inner workings of an operating system, the foundations of which are fundamental and relevant across other complex systems, large and small.
Here’s an important insight I had back then that may sound silly but isn’t:
Learning to learn how we learn is more important than whatever it is we are trying to learn.
The best part of this? If I can do it, so can everyone else. It doesn’t take any special gifts, only some time and consideration. Once we figure it out, though, the rest sure seems to come a whole lot easier.
While I may have a lot of experience compared to the average bear in these cultures, my experience with successful open learning environments is limited. Doing it well takes intention. It is a delicate dance to be able to create and nurture these cultures so that they flourish in a way that offers the greatest value to the collective, primarily as a safe and secure atmosphere within which to work, where questions of all kinds are valued, explored and accepted into healthy debates wherein sensitive feelings aren’t hurt and hungry intellects are fed.
A tall order? Yes.
Conversations with others, past and present, including students in the current college/university systems as well as corporate learning and training professionals, confirm that, in cultures where open learning culture is formalized in online environments, this is quite often not the case. From many perspectives, frameworks are not established early enough in these efforts to protect the learning the collective generates. Ideas, thoughts, debates, even entire bodies of work can be taken down, disputes over domain ownership can ensue, leading to greater and greater entropy of a collective’s practice.
It happens all the time.
To solve for this, if open learning groups hope to achieve their maximum value in online settings, they can benefit from answering a few important questions right off the bat:
1. Who will be responsible for controlling/posting/maintaining resources, such as Wiki/Website, domain (URL), social channels, media repositories, auxiliary/connected platforms, etc?
2. Should and can the content generated by the collective be shared freely through a well-defined, agreed upon and permissible license?
3. When the collective transitions, will there be a succession plan in place to ensure the health and maintenance of the project?
4. Should the project, it’s structure, or the group dissolve, is there an agreement and/or are there protocols and frameworks in place to help unwind the project gracefully in order to preserve its integrity and keep channels open for ongoing reflection?
Well-defined, agreed upon and permissible licenses are key. In this paradigm, motivated members can “fork” the project (a la git), including cumulative contributions and breathe new life into a new iteration. More than simply renaming and rebirthing the project, this “forking” adds unseen value to projects that may have had limited genesis or resources to start, offering them deferred opportunities for growth while retaining original authors’ names and license terms.
Certainly, many forks die. Others, however, go on to make significant contributions and without these collective learning platforms and tools, would never have seen the light of day.
There are kids right now facing the same decision as I did. As you did. Maybe as you are right now. Who’s to say the chances of learning what matters most on their own terms is riskier than taking on massive amounts of debt and trusting in a system to return value when that system has become more of an industry than an institution dedicated to any real principles, aside from bankrupting the middle class by raising tuition unsustainably, while hedging bets on investments and future revenues?
What would I do if I were in the same position today? With the sheer amount of open learning resources available, it seems far less risky than when I faced it. Still a tough debate for most parents, teachers and administrators, though.
Can there be a happy medium? Can we un-design the chored learning cultures we’ve created? What would they look like instead?
In addition to creating these opportunities for young learners, open learning collaborations have tremendous, often unseen, value: past, present and future, for everyone, everywhere.
It’s up to each individual project creator/leader to determine that culture, preserve its value through establishing well-defined license agreements and through choosing tools and philosophies that meet the needs and goals of contributors while optimizing and sharing that value with everyone who might benefit from the effort.
No way to know who that might be, what it might inspire them to do with it and where those ideas may lead.