Full text of Scott Young on Can you get an MIT education for $2,000? at TEDxEastsidePrep conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Can you get an MIT education for $2,000 by Scott Young at TEDxEastsidePrep
So if you’ve been watching the news lately, you have probably seen photographs like this. Students protesting because their government is cutting subsidies to education. And the big part of the reason for this, both the government cutting subsidies and the student outcry is that getting a college education just doesn’t cost what it used to.
So if you graduated more than 2 decades ago, you might be surprised to know that it now costs students over 2.5x as much as it did for you, and that’s in real dollars for any economists in the audience here.
And it’s not an easy problem. On one hand the cost is becoming harder for both students and governments to bear. But in the other hand employers are demanding an educated workforce. They want employees with complex analytical skills. The world now runs out of what we dig out of people’s brains not just what we dig out of the ground. So, that’s the problem.
Now what’s the fix? Well, let me be completely honest with you. I have no idea.
But what I do want to suggest is that maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place. We’ve been expecting change to come from schools and governments, but what if the change came from us.
I’d like to share my story and suggest that maybe an education doesn’t need to be expensive and what’s more, maybe we can learn better without it.
So in my case I was lucky. When I got accepted to college, I managed to narrow down my choice in major to two choices: Business and computer science. I was really interested in both. With one you get to build companies, with the other you get to build technologies. And these two are not mutually exclusive. After all Bill Gates was a hacker before he built an empire.
But in my school I could only major in one. So I did what any freshman would do, and did a careful rational cost-benefit analysis.
So business it was, and after graduating I have no regrets. I learned a lot and I had a great time.
But after finishing my education, I had this longing for the path not taken. I really wanted to learn computer science. But going back to school didn’t appeal to me, four more years of my life, acceptance boards, tuition bills, I didn’t want to postpone my life and rack up debt, just to pursue a curiosity. I wanted the education, not the school.
And then I remembered that Universities like MIT, Stanford and Harvard, had a habit of putting up classes online for free. I’ve done a few of these before and then a thought occurred to me. If you could learn a class, why not an entire degree. So that was the beginning of an experiment. Would it be possible to get an MIT education in computer science without ever going to MIT? So it’s an intriguing idea, but already you can probably notice some of the complexities and objections this might raise. So going to MIT is a lot more than just what you learn in the classroom.
So how can you possibly hope to replicate something which is such a multifaceted experience? So I like to think college is a lot like eating at a five star restaurant. You’re never paying for just the food. You get the wait staff, elegant decor, the fancy french wines. You’re paying for a complex and multifaceted experience.
And the same is true at college. You get networking with your intellectual peers, research opportunities and credentials from elite institutions. And like the fancy restaurant you get a big bill at the end.
And you know what, sometimes this system works, but just as you probably don’t want to go to a five star restaurant, every time you get hungry, you probably also don’t want to go back to school every time you want to learn something. I didn’t want the five course meal. I wanted my education “a la carte”.
So what mattered most to me, was being able to understand the big ideas of computer science; things like algorithms, artificial intelligence, encryption, and the Internet and being able to implement those ideas in computer programs.
So I decided to make my challenge simple. My goal will be to try to pass the exams an MIT student would do and to do the programming projects. I admit it is a simplification. It omits a lot of the MIT experiences. But for what I wanted to get out of it, it was a pretty good simplification. And what mattered more, it was a simplification that worked.
So I was able to build a curriculum of 33 classes, that with one or two minor exceptions was identical to the course list an MIT student would use. And I was able to build this using only MIT’s free online available information. The only cost was for a few text books which meant I could follow this entire program for under $2000.
Okay. So I have my goal and now I have the material.
Now for the hard part: actually learning MIT classes. I’m not kidding myself, MIT is a really hard school, it’s notoriously difficult even for bright students and what’s more, I’m not going to have the help of faculty, and professors, and classmates that I can easily get help from.
So in theory the project’s doable but would it just be too difficult in practice? And when I told my friends about this, that I was planning on doing an MIT degree on my own, they reinforced those doubts. They told me they couldn’t imagine trying to learn a MIT degree on your own. It’d be too difficult without the constant guidance and support of faculty members.
But that last point didn’t ring true for me, because when I went to college, I was in lecture halls like this one, where the professor would give a talk to an auditorium full of 300 students. Yeah, sure that if I had a question I could rise my hand, but if I really didn’t understand something it was up to me to learn it. So perhaps the doubts and worries over do-it-yourself degree, had more to do with it being unconventional, than it being genuinely more difficult than a formal program.
And as I started doing the first few classes, my results were even more surprising than that. I found I was able to learn faster using this approach than I ever had while in university. So far from being an obstacle, it turned out that not going to MIT had made my job a lot easier.
Okay, so that last bit deserves a little bit of an explanation. After all, an MIT student has access to everything I do, and much much more. How can I possibly have an advantage over a student when I have fewer resources? It defies common sense.
So in order to explain this, I need to do a little bit of a detour. I need to go into the geeky realm of personal productivity. So there is a tool called the TimeLog.
And here is how the TimeLog works. You jot down the starting and the stopping times for every activity you do. And I mean every activity, from when you wake up in the morning, to when you take out the garbage.
Now my guess is that most of you here have never done a TimeLog before. You can just imagine how irritating that is to do.
But if you do one, the results can be eye-opening. So here’s a recent Wall Street Journal article where the reporter did just that. She writes: “I soon realized I’d been lying to myself about where the time was going. What I thought was a 60-hour workweek wasn’t even close. I would have guessed I spent hours doing dishes when in fact I spent minutes. I spent long stretches of time lost on the Internet or puttering around the house, unsure exactly what I was doing.”