Monday, 30 January 2012

Go learn something

As an undergraduate at Imperial in the late 90s, I recall having a conversation with a professor asking why the university didn't put past exam papers and lecture material online. He informed me that the department was looking into the matter, but needed a way to ensure outsiders couldn't gain access to the material. He seemed oblivious to the irony of a seat of learning trying to keep education secret, out of the hands of those who couldn't pay or meet our entry standards. It seemed odd to my idealistic teenage ears, and it still seems odd to me now.

Fortunately, the world moved on from such medieval attitudes to learning. MIT led the way in 2002 with their open courseware initiative, and in the past decade we've seen huge growth in the availability of top quality course material online. Nowadays we've moved well beyond lecture notes to videos of the lectures themselves. All students can now have access to the best professors in the world. For those of you who spent time wrestling with the joys of linear algebra as a student, there’s a good chance you used Gilbert Strang’s Introducton to Linear Algebra. Now you can see the man himself lecture the topic, thanks to MIT OCW. Last year, Stanford opened up its AI course to the public, not only uploading recordings of lectures, but allowing interaction with the teachers, issuing and grading exams, and encouraging people to form remote study groups.

Nor is this wealth of material constrained to the technophile sciences. A quick look at iTunes University reveals lecture courses on all manner of subjects encompassing the humanities and social sciences. University courses as well as popular introductions to various topics abound. In the weeks leading up to a trip to China last year, I went through the episodes of Lazlo Montogmery’s China History Podcast series, covering China from its early mythical dynasties through to the modern day.

Understandably, not everyone may feel up to the challenge of doing an undergraduate level course in their spare time, but thanks to Khan Academy, you can now study topics from a primary school level upwards. Never understood how to do long division? Let Salman Khan teach you in the embarassment free environment of your living room.

No discussion of online education would be complete without mention of TED. At no other time in our history could one so easily access speeches and lectures given by the leading thinkers of our day in person. If you've not yet had the pleasure, go pick a list of top TED talks and watch one a day for the next month. It will be worth the investment of your time.

Education is not something that should stop at the age of 20, or worse still, even earlier. By this I’m not suggesting that we should all spend our time in full time study for longer. Rather I mean that education no longer has to take place only in universities, nor does it have to be done full time. But before we go all wide eyed at this upcoming age of enlightenment, let us be clear - listening to a podcast on Number Theory will not turn you into Karl Friedrich Gauss. Education still requires active participation. Technology can make opportunities available, but there's no substitute for the hard work it will take to master these topics.

We're repeatedly told that the driving force for all modern economies is a highly educated workforce. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, believes that talent rather than capital is our most important resource. Some in the US have suggested that education should be considered a national security issue. Everyone that has the ability to view this blog post has the ability to educate themselves online.

Whether you chose to avail yourself of these opportunities or not, I guarantee you this: on the other side of the world, in neighbourhoods you've never heard of, there are kids drinking from this firehose of knowledge. One or more of them will grow up to become the next Newton or Einstein.

Never has so much high quality knowledge been made available to so many at such little cost.

So what are you waiting for? Go learn something.