I never went to university.
Well I did – I went to Leeds to study music – but I dropped out after 3 months to go and join a metal band. And had a rip-roaring time of it too.
During most of my 20 years in tech, I’ve often regretted not sticking it out and getting a proper education with letters after my name and all the trimmings. But to be honest, it hasn’t really held me back – I’ve worked as a consultant for the likes of Sun Microsystems and BEA, I’ve run a couple of tech companies, taught programming and architecture at Oracle University (internationally) and spoken at several conferences.
The thing that has allowed me to do this has been the habit of learning all the time.
When I wanted to make the transition from teaching English to working in tech a couple of decades ago, I started a small web startup and bought Teach Yourself HTML and devoured it. On the train to work, at lunchtime, between lessons, on the train home, in bed…everywhere! And I’ve been learning constantly ever since.
This has not only opened up all sorts of doors for me in my career and taken me all over the world, but has made my life WAY more interesting.
The golden age of learning
The best universities have all got courses online for free, almost free or pretty cheap. What a time to be alive! This means that you’ve got access, right now, to a wealth of instruction from some of the best teachers in the world!
I’m a techie, so I’m going to focus here on how to get a great technical education, but the same applies across a lot of disciplines.
This is where it all started. In 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of technology published 50 of their courses online for free. Videos, slides, exercises. All for free.
Their Math for Computer Science course is taught in the same lecture theatre that you’ll have seen Richard Feynman teaching in. The lecturers are truly world-class, and everything that comes out of their mouths seems like the truest thing that’s ever been said.
There are incredible courses on most of the areas you’d expect to see on a top-notch computer science degree, plus all the maths and physics you could ever want.
This is the platform that really made MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courseware) household names.
Co-founded by AI Boffin and Stanford professor Andrew Ng, Coursera started off with courses from Stanford, and then blossomed to include courseware from several Ivy League Universities. Ng’s Machine Learning course is still one of the best introductions you can get to the field of AI.
What Coursera improves on, above what M.I.T. provides is that you have access to teaching assistants, a community of fellow students and graded exercises. Since the courses are run over a fixed time-frame (e.g. 11 weeks), you’re given a push to absorb a large amount of new information or skills in a short amount of time. And the fact that you need to complete both exercises and labs means that you end up understanding the material at a really deep level.
My favourite courses from this platform are:
- Ng’s Stanford Machine Learning Course
- Introduction to Astronomy from Duke
- Politics and Economics of International Energy (Sciences Po)
- Stanford’s Algorithms Speciality
- Gamification from the University of Pennsylvania
I don’t know where I’d be without Khan Academy.
It’s actually made for kids, but it’s saved my life, professionally.
Founder Sal Khan is one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever come across.
After getting two bachelors degrees in Maths and CS from MIT, and an MBA from Harvard, Sal worked in a hedge fund as an analyst for several years before starting to make videos to help his many nephews and nieces with maths. After seeing how popular they were with kids who were not related to him, he quit his job, postponed buying a house and dedicated a year to trying to get Khan Academy off the ground.
Now that it’s had investment from Bill Gates and other large charitable organisations, this not-for-profit foundation has created an amazing education platform to revolutionise the way that kids (and occasionally adults) are taught.
Take any maths or science subject that you’ve always struggled with, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll understand it deeply after completing the KA section on that subject. Do it now! 🙂
Plus it’s a case study in how to really do Gamification well. Check out this dashboard with unlock-your-next-avatar, points, and streak counters.
I do a lot of computer science courses in ML, AI and algorithms, and have to keep running back to KA to bone up on calculus, and the finer points of geometry and probability.
In a future blog, I’ll talk about some of the premium online education providers like Udacity and Stanford Centre for Professional Development. These providers charge a substantial fee, but offer qualifications from prestigious educational bodies for a fraction of the price of attending the actual universities.
In the meantime, why not carve out 6-8 hours a week for a couple of months and learn something brand new for fun and profit!