I have lots of thoughts about education, especially higher education. The theme that keeps popping up in my head though is that school isn’t too far removed from teaching yourself. Honestly, let’s look at the learning process:
- Encounter a “problem” that needs to be solved.
- Do background research and look at past examples of how it was solved.
- Apply your newly gained knowledge to the problem at hand.
- If a new problem arises that is not encompassed by the recently acquired wisdom, go back to step 2.
- Report on your findings to others.
Doesn’t this sound like work? Or studying on your own? Or doing a hobby project? How is this any different?
Since I’ve had this debate with friends before I can tell you what others say. They say that the classroom environment and being shown some of the methods before doing the problem is helpful. That having the theory explained directly helps the brain to acquire the necessary knowledge. That being able to step into the professor or teacher’s office and ask a question is a nice luxury to have. But does this always happen? I know I’ve had teachers I don’t understand (or very much disliked), notes that didn’t make any sense upon second reading and semesters where I’ve taught myself completely out of a textbook (and of course it happened to be the worst textbook of all my classes that semester).
Furthermore, there are resources today that allow individuals to continue learning on their own. Video resources like MIT Open Course Ware (OCW) can replace or augment self learning on particular topics. Message boards can provide a forum to interface with experts and to keep up on recent developments in your industry. The prices of equipment have nosedived in the past 10-15 years, allowing many more people to have a “lab section” in their house. And things like hackerspaces allow for social interactions and places to flesh out more advanced ideas.
So what’s really left? Motivation. When you’re paying $30,000 a year or are spending every Tuesday and Thursday in a classroom somewhere, you’re going to make the most of your time there. You’re going to do the homework and go get the help you need to figure out the subject matter because you aren’t allowed to put it off a month or a year. You’re going to be motivated by the piece of paper you receive at the end of your degree program saying that you completed all of the necessary requirements and did so while meeting or exceeding the expectations of your institution. Or you might even want to just prove you can do it. All of them really are valid reasons, they just don’t exist when you’re teaching yourself at home. External motivation is needed for many people (myself included) to pick up a book on a subject. In fact “motivation, momentary lapse of” is how this post came about. I was reading about active filters for a side project (where the motivation is showing off the side project and becoming “internet famous”) and I started thinking about how similar my current situation is to my former schooling. And all of the self-teaching and gained experiences are occurring without paying the $31,000 a year (yes, you read that right, tuition went up just since the last time I listed the number).
Do I hate higher education? No, I think there are some factors that make it invaluable to those that pursue it (and many more that benefit from the output). I may still try to get back to grad school myself some day. I love that there are institutions dedicated to research that might never get done otherwise. I’m glad that there are institutions that stress the rigor of the scientific method. I love that there are places where learning and advancing knowledge is the main purpose and task of those that attend. But all I’m saying is sometimes this happens in basements and bedrooms too.
Is learning at home without the structure of schools possible, especially in higher education? Does anyone ever teach themselves at home and why do you do it? What problems do you have with it? People currently enrolled in a University, do you find any fault with this thought?
John Boxall says
What an excellent conversation starter Chris. Personally I have self-taught myself everything in my electronics knowledge so far; unfortunately in my region the opportunity to be taught professionally is very rare (lack of trade schools, night courses and so on) and there are very limited places at the university here. Although I have studied other fields at university in the past – chasing that A4 piece of paper – self-teaching can work well, especially if you have a group of people to bounce your knowledge off, [or a blog open to public scrutiny!]. Furthermore, after reviewing the first two years of course work for a local electrical engineering degree here, I have taught myself the same amount in eight months. The only problems I have sometimes are the lack of expensive equipment (however the local university gave me an analogue CRO, benchtop multimeter and function generator), and the ability to ask a professor or tutor something – but again, answers can be found by educated members of the public in other ways. Furthermore, one must be experienced in learning – so having studied anything in the past is a bonus. Learning how to learn is a skill to master in itself.
At the end of the day for me, intrinsic motivation forces me to learn through my own means, and through them I am exceeding my personal learning goals.
Chris Gammell says
That’s a great point of having studied other things in the past. In fact the conversations I mention with friends in the article often turned that way; that a Master’s degree truly signifies the ability to learn more than anything.
John, I think you’re a great example of this kind of mindset. You really seemed to have dove in to learning about everything and the fact that you make tutorials to showcase this knowledge to others is admirable.
John Dowdell says
Ahah! Great points! a favorite discussion topic.
Every time work looks at getting another tech or production hand, i try to encourage those doing the screening/interviews to try to find someone who is interested and does stuff with electronics at home because I get the feeling that those that get curious with electronics at home will be curious with new stuff at work and want to understand it.
I’m an Electrical Engineering university dropout because of two things. 1. subjects like mechanical and civil engineering that i wasn’t interested in but were compulsory. And 2. Because most of the other subjects were firehoses of information you obviously needed to know but were never associated with any use contexts.
Which brings me to your 1st point of “Encounter a problem that needs to be solved”. I think this is how I learn. Without some sort of context that i can apply the information/theory to, i’m not really engaged.
So i went to technical college which has smaller classes with approachable teachers who worked in the industry fairly recently. Theory and pracitcle labs were well balanced. At the end, you don’t walk away with a complete set of engineering skills. So, i’ve done the same sort of thing as yourselves and others by complimenting it with hands on projects and experiments at home, many of them being purely academic exercises.
I’ll also take on “foreign orders” – favours or small electronics projects for no labor or parts cost or otherwise at “mates rates” – beer economy kind of stuff. The costs to me running into hundreds and I’m sure in one case, over a grand. In the end it’s the experience for me that has value for me. Of course i can’t do too much of that, otherwise i’d go broke.
However, i think possibly the biggest share of my “homeschooling” has actually been at work. Over time, I’ve taken and have been granted limited liberty to “learn on the job” and am able to take some time to research and learn concepts for new solutions/products. It helps that my work situation allows me to work on what i think is a broad range of electronics. Luckily where new knowledge and skills are required, i’ll know enough of the keywords to let google point me to the appropriate resources.
I’ve got plenty of books because the internet was not pervasive yet when i started learning but kudos to the greybeards that learnt and retained all that stuff in the pre-internet days.
I wonder if it’s possible to learn everything in electronics? If you cram a jar of VHDL learning into one end of the knowledge cupboard will a tin of network analysis skills get pushed off the other end? How many other professions, hobbies and pastimes include the same sort of endless technical minutia that one can find in the wide world of electronics? Yeah i know.. someones going to reply with “well, actually there are quite a few”
Just a few thoughts, probably not worthy of the well constructed and verbose comments before mine.
I think you are right on the money, having done both structured schooling to “get the paper” and “homeschooling”, for more there is no comparison:
However, this may be because when I am truly interested in something there is a threshold where I want to learn everything possible about it. When that strikes I find I’m immersing myself learning every second I can (when I’m not working the 9-to-5-to-pay-the-bills-job).
Part of enjoying the self paced nature, is learning when I want, what I want and at the pace I want. Google the web for 12 hours straight on my schedule or turning to the same textbooks that are used in a traditional setting. I think that the intense desire to learn needs the instant gratification that we are used to. I don’t have the time or patience for the slower paced classroom setting. I do admit that I have toyed with the idea of taking a few electronics course at my local technical college just to gauge the experience of taking a class to learn something I really want to vs a class I have to (to get that [next] piece of paper).
To follow your previous post, I found that when hiring (computer) technicians, the ones that were open about their non-work projects were far more skilled than the ones that were ‘paper strong’ and experience week. That passion that a “Maker” has more often that not translates into a very high performing employee. However this isn’t often as true when sourcing skills for someone that has to engineer an enterprise scale infrastructure for a global Fortune 100 company. Someone may have the passion for the technology, but often self taught skills don’t scale to the global level.
However, my engineers that perform at that level do have the common thread – passion. That is what drives the self motivation to learn, learn, learn no matter when or where – for us “makers” it’s in the basement lab at 3am on a Saturday morning. Incidentally at that same time my high end engineers are still working on their global systems, in a corporate lab, not because that have to – but because the are (self) driven to…
I am at a university getting an advanced engineering degree. In my field, it would be very difficult to get the hands-on experience needed to educate yourself because the equipment is so expensive that it is basically limited to universities. You could certainly learn a lot from textbooks, but at some point the theory needs to be applied to practice, and that work mainly happens at universities. Another benefit to the university setting is the connections you make. The internet can also be good for making connections, but it’s helpful to have a respected member of the field be able to personally vouch for your knowledge.
Chris Gammell says
Yup, those are some of the best reasons. When you step back and think about it though, they’re quite ridiculous. So if you had cheaper equipment (hello china) and some kind of gathering where you could talk about it, you’d be able to. In fact, it’d be very similar to the time when Einstein and all his physics buddies got together and talked shop on Friday nights in the parlor. Awesome thought, you know?
I am all for educating yourself and classroom education certainly isn’t necessary in all situations, but I think there are some areas where a university structure is needed. I work with a $1 million mass spectrometer and I don’t think China will be mass producing them any time soon. And what about the large hadron collider or an astronomy observatory? There are a lot of things than an individual can do on his or her own, but some things require an institutional structure.
Just trying to give some perspective from up in the ivory tower. 🙂
Chris Gammell says
Thanks Elaine, it’s good to get perspective.
I am almost done my undergrad engineering degree. I must say I am glad I decided to do it. Unlike self study you are forced in some way to study a specific range of subjects, you may not realize the importance of these and then avoid them if you were going it alone.
“Encounter a problem that needs to be solved” well it might not seem like a worthy problem to you at first but some know better.
That said, I am constantly learning at home at the same time. Fortunately basic electronics equipment is reasonably affordable and so I have a fairly well equipped space (nothing special). I think that the most important thing that university has taught me is how to learn. Much of the other stuff has been either forgotten if I do not use it frequently or it is only applicable in the academic/research environment.
Guess what I am saying is you can have both. So if you get the opportunity then go for it. If not then by all means “Let the Google guide you.”-DJP
Also on the subject of where skills are in electronics today. I know people that are going to finish with me and will need help to identify a voltage divider in a circuit. Fast talkers that I have been beaten by in the jobs race a couple of times (You are the president of what? Okay you are hired then!).
I hop the world of HR gets more realistic quick. The kids that have been bitten by “the bug” are the ones that should be hired not the ones that can ace the online aptitude tests. You still need a good work ethos of course. These kids are going to keep developing themselves and sharing their knowledge.
Anyway, sorry it turned into a bit of a rant there hope you get to do the grad school thing some time too Chris you will regret it only in the few days before exams.