“There is a season, and a time to every purpose, under heaven”: How we learn today…

So go the lyrics from the Byrd’s classic song “Turn, Turn, Turn”. The group was referring to the fact that there is a time and a place for everything. In my mind, this phrase also applies to the options we all have today to learn what we want to or what we need to.

The opportunity to learn today for those who want to is amazing…in addition to the traditional learning venues, there are so many quality options of online material and classes to digest, with many different delivery methodologies and structures. You can learn virtually anything you want to today, from Quantum Mechanics to web coding to how to fix a shower head.

The Byrds

The Byrds

I am a firm believer in the formalized education process, but I also recognize that there are times when the right levels of skills or knowledge mean more than the experience or even the credentialing. There are situations where timing of the need may be a significant factor in the decision. In a professional setting, the modern “corporation-of-one” economy supports this need, as in many fields, the knowledge base changes rather quickly and the need may well be urgent. As indicated in the Byrd’s lyric above, there may be times (seasons) of our life where some choices make more sense than others.

The hard part of a learning choice is knowing what selections are credible and which must be taken with a grain of salt. So let’s look at a few of the options available and some of the pros and cons in today’s world:

The on campus setting, either full or part time:

This is still a valuable educational opportunity and should be undertaken by all at some point, if possible. The positive and lasting impacts of the socialization of ideas, exposure to other thoughts and cultures, the formation of relationships that will last outside the classroom and the educational experience, the spontaneous exchange of ideas are all factors that are hard to quantify, but are still very important.

English Classroom
The main issue with on campus is one of time, place and (potentially) financial factors. A real world classroom experience by nature is structured, is often in a place that may be outside of your normal scope of travel, and may present a financial burden, both in absolute cost and opportunity (time) cost. Being realistic, another factor is that some people do not enjoy or at least flourish in the classroom learning experience.

Because of these factors, the emergence of the internet a couple decades back was a boon. This led to a variety of options that have developed and evolved over time, including:

Online University and Trade School based learning:

A (very) little bit of history…

For me personally, the availability of usable information on the early internet provided the ability to conduct research for projects without having to go to a library. I could also learn more about topics that interested me on the side, and best of all, the internet was open for business 24/7.

Initially there was not as much content as we would have liked, and what was published on the net was often not as well verified as it should have been. By the early 2000’s, the depth of online content was rapidly growing, but was still often suspect. Self-verification on the part of the user was an absolute requirement. (Today, the vast array of material online does provide the ability to seek second and third sources for verification purposes.

Unfortunately, that is something many users do not do, as discussed in an article I shared last week from The Guardian and Katharine Viner …but that is another story, as you will see if you read the article. It also adds to the ability to disseminate inaccurate information in multiple sources.)

The need to introduce credibility and verification into some of the information accessed on the web led to some of the early stages of formalized online education. Formalized courses were being tested and conducted by major, credible universities with material that rivaled or exceeded the information available in the traditional classroom. For example, one of my partners at the time (~2003ish) was developing online continuing education for Stern at NYU. The offerings at this time were generally isolated classes that could count toward a degree, but still required a class room experience for part of the degree or certificate. However, it would only be a few years before fully online degrees and certificate programs would emerge, such as the one I participated in at West Virginia University (Go, Mountaineers!).

In these early days, many of these programs were viewed as less rigorous than traditional classroom setting degrees, but the strength of the players behind the trend forced this perception to change rather quickly, at least in some fields. It was soon realized that these courses were also rigorous, just different.

Simultaneously, several other highly regarded institutions started posting portions of their actual class material online for those who could not afford more formalized education, or could not make the time commitment to a full program, but needed the knowledge, if not the credentials. Around 2005 or 2006, I started sampling content from the MIT OpenCourseWare site, which contained lecture notes, assignments and lists of outside readings, and worked through a couple of their posted courses.

I will always be grateful to these schools for this breakthrough, as they started a movement that is driving full force today, namely the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). For a great list of the options and delivery modes available, I suggest visiting this site: The 37 Best Websites to Learn Something New. I have personally taken several edX and Coursera offerings hosted by some amazing universities, but there are all types of topics (from the esoteric to the very practical), as well as delivery and timing methods listed in these links.

Other Online Options:

There are also classes offered by profit based organizations, especially around training for specific certifications and skill sets. Some of these require payment, and some do not. I have used some of these to fill in learning gaps of knowledge for specific projects.
Private companies are also offering classes on the intranet or the internet by companies for the training and education of their teams. A great example of this was training online that emerged during my time at Lowe’s that was either created by us or licensed from a third party.

So what is right for you?
Softwarecontest - classroom

As mentioned above, on campus classroom settings are still great for the very best interactions and development of personal bonds. But they may not be the best overall learning options.

Formalized online classes can offer great depth to the learning experience, and potentially greater personalization. Interaction has the ability to be strong, as the context is like chat rooms that are more structured, reasoned and focused. You will meet some amazing people who are taking online classes aimed at a degree or certification, and they are frequently from all parts of the country, and possibly the globe. They are also hosted by credible entities, the depth is often intense, and can the information can be taken to be relatively unbiased.

Perhaps the biggest con for some students may be that most are still structured to be completed in a specific period of time, even if they are considered “asynchronous”. (For example, most have benchmark achievements that happen on a weekly cycle). This is great for those of us that need that discipline to make it through (similar to a conventional classroom) but could be problematic if your life is going through an erratic stage. These classes have the potential to provide the greatest grasp of knowledge on a specific topic.

MOOCs are great for learning, you can typically choose to pursue any topic you wish, and these courses will provide jumping off points from reliable sources (in some cases, some of the best people in their fields) for further study.

Flexibility of timing of MOOCs is also a strong point. Even if you are pursuing the certificate, there is usually the flexibility to speed up or slowdown your participation in most instances. (As mentioned above, this is not something that is possible in classroom settings or the more structured online degree or certificate programs). So if your life tends to be erratic, this could be a good path for you.

Personally, I use these courses as either supplements or refreshers (examples include Marketing Analytics, Science of Thinking, Game Theory) to remain in touch with my current professional needs. I also use these courses to branch out in to fields I have only been briefly exposed to or know little about, and have taken courses that run from geopolitics to philosophy to music theory, and will likely soon take a Spanish class.

Verification of taking the course is usually (but not always available) for a minor fee…generally $49 to $79 US. While that is not currently my motivation, it may be important for you…some people create “mirror” degrees from MOOC courses (no degree, but proof of success in the topic). You can also make donations if you close, whether you want the certification or not.

The biggest drawback of the MOOCs is that the discussion boards are not highly interactive, even when the course is actually live and in session. Popular courses may have some level of discussion board interaction, even in the archival version, but it does not match a structured online program.

Non university settings:
These learning environments are typically hosted by trade associations or private firms. I have taken several webinars, min-courses and training sessions from professional organizations. So if I am taking a course from the National Kitchen and Bath Association or the Direct Marketing Association or the Mobile Marketing Association, the hope is that its intent is fairly objective.

But there is a gray line here, as many of these educational sessions may be sponsored or conducted by a commercial organization. So I may be picking up marketing knowledge from a trade association, but the instructor is a key representative of a big data company, or a CRM provider or someone who is employed by a beacon provider.

I am not saying that these educational opportunities are not valuable, when offered under the context of a nonprofit, or even if offered directly by commercial organizations…in point of fact, they are typically quite valuable if you have the context to evaluate what is being presented. As way of example, I consistently engage in a number of webinars sponsored by IBM, Google, etc. and have taken some amazingly informative classes from Shaw and Pella in the past.

The advantages of these more commercially oriented educational or training materials is that they are often available in numerous places (YouTube, website, trade associations) and you can access this material in a number of ways. The topics are also generally shorter and more focused to a specific need.

The option remains that you could do this on your own. As I indicated, I have done this and continue to do this. From a consumer perspective you can learn almost anything in small doses on YouTube or sites owned by marketers or blogs. But it is easier when you have some help on the information gathering side, where the thought has likely been vetted.

So, in closing, the choices are seemingly endless. Ongoing learning is essential, so find what best matches your “season” and go for it… Happy learning.

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