The Reason I’m Done With My Formal Education

May 18, 2014

4 years and hundreds of all-nighters later, I’ll soon be looking into a piece of paper which classifies me as educated.  Yes, I’ll soon be looking at a computer science degree that everyone values so much. Without any doubt, it’s been an incredible journey. Although I’ve enjoyed the 4 years I’ve spent at McGill, university education made me question the value of formal education.

My decision is clear: I’m never going to pursue another degree at any university. No masters nor PhD. I’ve spent enough time and money on formal education, and I don’t think it’s worth it. Learning is definitely a lifelong process, and there are much better ways to do it.

Now, I’m putting together these thoughts of mine that have been shaped within past 4 years.

Let’s take a look at my past to see how my thoughts have evolved. I was a pretty successful kid, if you look back at my elementary school and high school record. In fact, I’ve graduated as the valedictorian from both. I had a pretty good learning experience prior to starting university. Being classified as the smartest kid in the class, I got a lot of personal attention which gave me unlimited access to my teachers and my school’s resources. It wasn’t just me though, pretty much everyone was happy because we had really good teachers who were there every time we needed them. They loved it because they were educated to be teachers. More than being knowledgeable, they knew how to communicate knowledge well. Then I started university. And everything about the teachers and the educational system has changed. Not that you only had to chase your professors to learn stuff, there was a great deal of them who openly hated teaching and showed no passion communicating knowledge. University was a different place where you had to be absolutely self-motivated to make it further. I will now discuss the main problems with formal education, specifically focusing on university level education which has lead me to this decision. That is what the labor market cares about anyways – anything before university is not valued much for highly skilled labor market.

1. Teaching vs. Research

I will always remember my first year calculus teachers during my undergrad. I was unfortunate to had had Professor X (won’t call out his name) 3 semesters in a row. Sadly, these were all math classes, which used to be my favorite subject prior to starting university. And Professor X made me hate it. He was a 60+ year old genius math professor with a long white beard who had reached a certain amount of recognition in his field thanks to his publications. He has also been teaching for years, despite the terrible course evaluations he had received at the end of every year. The university had to keep him. Because he was a recognized math genius whose publications helped the university’s research rankings. Now, I do respect Professor X’s extreme success in his field, but he was terrible at teaching. He was unable to communicate, constantly speaking to the blackboard and crunching numbers on his own. Every time I took a course he was teaching, I figured it’s not an efficient use of my time to attend his lectures. I’d rather study from a textbook or online lectures, and understand what he was trying to teach the whole class in 10 minutes.

Professor X is not an exception. I had Professor X’s every year, in different subjects throughout the university. So did all my friends in university.

The fact that I was studying at a university ranked top-20 worldwide which I’ve spent quite an effort to be admitted, but some kid in an unaccredited college in a small town had much better calculus education than I did hurt me a lot. Because that kid’s teachers were educators. They were obviously not genius researchers, but they knew how to communicate knowledge well.

At undergrad level, universities should differentiate between teaching professors and research professors. Not everyone who is a great researcher can communicate their knowledge. In the example above, Professor X makes a great research professor but a terrible teaching professor. So he should only do his research. Teaching professors on the other hand should be natural communicators who have gone through some pedagogical training. They should also be proven to have certain level of knowledge in order to teach in a university. My experience shows that some young masters students who end up becoming TAs make good teachers. These people should be able to be a teaching professor. A professor can be both a research and teaching professor, but in order to do so, they should satisfy both criteria.

2. Building Robots for Pre-defined Skillsets

An important reason that affected my decision to be done with my formal education was the strictness of universities. You need to complete X number of credits, and complete all these courses they have chosen for you. Naturally, I’m a hustler, so I was lucky to have had several exceptions during my undergrad at McGill. Taking a technological entrepreneurship minor which wasn’t offered to science students (after getting letters from deans of 3 faculties!) and making a relevant course outside of my degree program make count for my degree program are a few examples.

The real problem isn’t that though. It is the fact that degree programs are designed to build robots for pre-defined skill sets. It all makes sense if you think universities serve the labor market. However, there are lots of high level skill sets that can lead to great innovations those degree programs can’t just teach you. Why can’t I be a computer scientist who also specializes in anthropology? Do I really need a masters degree to make a connection between two skill sets? Let me create my own skill set and my own persona with a course plan I will create. But no, employers don’t want that. Wait, who said that? The #1 brand in the world, Apple, used to be a place where people from various backgrounds used to work to build the revolutionary Macintosh.

In an interview for the 1996 PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds, Steve Jobs said, “Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

Although some schools like McGill have done a bit to change this with programs like Arts & Science where you can take any courses from both disciplines, many universities are still strict about what kind of skill set you’d like to graduate with. An article in Psychology Today mentions that, “Students can improve learning by designing the course and materials”. This is another interesting idea to think about. Also, I’d like to pitch an idea that might sound far-fetched but if you think about it, it’s quite possible: Imagine that each semester-long course is divided into weekly components. Say I am interested in intersection of computer science and anthropology. How could would it be if I can join the discrete math class for a week (or several weeks) where graph theory is discussed, and get a credit for the components I’ve completed? I think we should think along those lines in order to allow creative individuals with varying skill sets to come out of universities.

3. Efficiency

When I talk about efficiency, it’s mostly about time and cost. How efficient is classroom learning? It used to be really good in elementary and high school where my classes were max 25 people and everyone received enough personal attention. The time was worth it. Most of my high school buddies won’t believe this because of my academic success back then, but I don’t recall myself opening a single textbook to review any subject in high school after an efficient 8-hour school day (I did most of my homework though). I didn’t need to review because the education I got was very efficient. 90% of the learning was happening in the classroom (10% while doing homework). Then came the university life, and even though I had relatively small classes in my senior year, 90% of the learning wasn’t happening in the classroom. So I ended up spending ridiculous amounts of time trying to learn the material on my own. Lectures became useless after understanding this “efficiency” factor, and I started skipping classes. Not supposed to happen in an ideal world, right?

What about the cost? Well, you’d think I cannot complain because thanks to my scholarships, I had a free ride through most of my education. That changed when after first year of university, my full-tuition entrance scholarship wasn’t matching the increased tuition anymore. From my freshman year to my senior year, my tuition increased about $6,500. That is about what a Canadian citizen pays to McGill and I had to pay that difference by working full-time every summer (part-time during winters). So I found myself questioning the international tuition rate of about $2,500 per course on average. Thinking about our favorite Professor X’s, it really wasn’t worth it.

These days, a big trend is massive open online courses (MOOCs). Coursera and Udacity are good examples. Basically, these are online education platforms that has all the learning tools and lecture videos which lets you learn at your own pace. Most of them are taught by great educators (teaching professor types) from top universities.You can even get a certification after completing those courses (if you care). You’d think it would cost some good money to get an on-demand education from world’s top universities. It’s all free! Most of the time, I found myself looking at these resources in my 90% time trying to understand the material after useless lectures. The good part is, you can stop it and watch the parts you don’t understand over and over again. You do the exercises to learn more. Okay, I hear you, it lacks interaction, right? But if you really want to go the extra mile, there are local study groups in your city for those free online courses! So really, there isn’t much of a downside about MOOCs and they are very efficient.

The Future of Education as I See It

In order to maintain universities as the premier learning institutions, I think the future of higher education must be flexible, student-oriented and multi-faceted. I still don’t think there is any good replacement for the social experience of university. The experience you get working in student clubs, your social interactions with people and the freedom to do whatever you want are all great when everyone finally treats you as an adult. In fact, some people claim that rather than education, most universities sell their social experience. But the education part? I think it lacks efficiency, personality and care.

Some elementary schools in Canada have already started to use this method, and I hope it will soon come to universities as well: Your professor lets you watch the recorded lecture videos during class. If you don’t understand, you go back and watch again. If you don’t understand, you do the exercises again. Meanwhile, your professor tracks the progress of entire class through the same software. He sees that you are having trouble understanding a certain topic. He then approaches you to help you understand the problem you’re having trouble with. Now, this will result in better overall performance, but most likely the smart kids will receive less attention than they usually do because they will have less trouble with each topic. So the teacher won’t interact with them as much. Now, there are workarounds this to ensure everyone receives attention. I know this is a controversial topic, but my thought is that you can group smarter students into a class and give them one teacher whereas another class with more average kids might have 2 or 3 teachers in order to ensure everyone receives enough attention. Now, this model does not isolate average kids as many people think because they can still have interactions with their smarter counterparts and be motivated. This model transforms the classroom into a personal experience, so social interactions are most likely to happen outside anyways. I think the future of higher education should be along these lines.

How I Will Continue My Lifelong Learning Process

After two periods of drop-out intentions during my undergrad, I ended up staying in because of immigration reasons. Since my early childhood, my ideal has been to immerse myself into high-tech sector and build something valuable that solves an important problem of humanity. I wouldn’t be able to stay in this part of the world that leads the high-tech sector because if it wasn’t for my education, they would kick my ass out of the country! So I resisted my mental breakdowns and temptations to drop out every time and stayed in. The day has come now. I’m done with my formal education, but learning is a lifelong process and by all means, I will pursue learning new things. For all the above reasons, I will seek different methods of learning. For now, MOOCs like Coursera give me the flexibility I seek. I can learn any subject, whatever I want, whenever I want. For free. Also, everyone has a different learning style. I’m an autodidact. Having taught myself programming at the age of 12, I think figuring out and experimenting with things work the best for me.

Thanks to the internet, today, we have better tools for self-education. In fact, given these tools, I think most of us are now capable of self-education. You don’t need to fit in the pre-defined shapes higher learning institutions want you to fit in. You can create your own blend of skill sets and personas that will lead to much more variety and innovation in our society.

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