Autodidacticism and the future of the world

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Why do so many people pay so much money for further education, and executive education? Indeed, why do we need a formal education ‘system’ – why don’t we just teach ourselves what we need to know, with the same books used in education establishments?

Higher education courses are often based on published texts and “blackboard” teaching (or other medium: whiteboard, projector, beamer, etc.). Yet most of this ‘knowledge’ is available to purchase directly (without much of the indirect overhead of education establishments), or even, in some cases, free online, including recorded videos of whole semesters of classes.

Why do we insist on engaging (and paying) others so much to help us learn? Are there other benefits that make it worthwhile?


‘Self-help’ books, for which a dedicated category exists in many bookstores, tend to cover topics which one is willing to teach oneself, or more to the point, which one might not be entirely comfortable opening up to someone else to teach them (psychology, depression, confidence,  etc.).

That said ultimately all books, indeed all reading (ie, including newspapers magazines, blogs and websites), is a form of education, but it’s only when the reading is done with a view to development (either the ability to later recall, use, or further develop the knowledge), not just temporary enjoyment, that I would consider it to be ‘learning’.


It’s only upon developing this post that I read that there is even a term for such self-learning: ‘Autodidacticism‘. The Wikipedia page for Autodidacticism mentions:

Autodidactism is only one facet of learning, and is usually complemented by learning in formal and informal spaces: from classrooms to other social settings. Many autodidacts seek instruction and guidance from experts, friends, teachers, parents, siblings, and community. Inquiry into autodidacticism has implications for learning theory, educational research, educational philosophy, and educational psychology.

Why is education so heavily dominated by formal education establishments?

I set out here three possible reasons / benefits, creating the desire/need for a ‘formal’ education:

(i) ‘Motivation‘:

  • the existence of scheduled classes, external parties, grades (made public) provide an element of commitment, and pride (and shame) which help force people to turn-up and ‘do the work’ …
  • … but is this really what we pay so much money for and/or force ourselves to put up with an available local education (at whatever quality and syllabus that provides whether it fits our needs or not)? Why don’t we just knuckle-down and tailor our own learning to what we need, at the right quality? After all, Online lectures allow us to (often freely) access the teachings of some of the very best teachers in the profession, whether they be in the same city or on the other side of the world.
(ii) ‘Certification‘:
  • A classroom education, and certificate of completion attests to completion of certain level of ‘knowledge’ and comprehension (although it doesn’t necessarily translate to the ‘best’) – employers often use education certificates from reputable establishments as a way to short-cut their own investigations as to whether a recruitment candidate might have the appropriate skills (at the same time assuming that someone without such certification is unemployable) …
  • Given that formal education has dominated education in the past, there is almost certainly a high correlation between grades and competence (albeit an inefficient way to determine this) – this fails to give credit to many students who might learn ‘differently’, and the ability to achieve grades doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will be capable for a specific vocational role.
(iii) ‘Networking and teaming’:
  • No doubt, potential for networking and teaming exists in formal education (and is marketed as a key element of some establishments, especially MBA schools), but networking is by no means limited to formal education – can’t people network at any time, if the desire exists?

What’s needed to grasp the benefits of more self-learning?

Three things:

1) A change in attitude (individuals):

  • It is not someone else’s responsibility to teach us, but our own – we need to (a) want to learn, and (b) to recognize that it is often both more efficient, and more effective to teach ourselves
  • Changing cultural views and expectations is always difficult, but I believe the changes happening in the economic environment will be a driver in changing attitudes, as more people grasp opportunities to determine their own futures, overcoming attitudes, and rewarding those who find the motivation to self-learn

2) A change in attitude (employers):

  • Employers need to recognize that self-educated people (or home-schooled children) might have better skills/knowledge
  • In particular, they might be able to tailor education to more specific topics, which could be relevant to the employer, better reward creativity, problem solving and enthusiasm (instead of ability to pass a test), and help identify strong candidates who are passionate/enthusiastic but might otherwise not fit the formal learning system (eg, pace / style of learning)

3) Collaboration (students):

  • There are some elements of education that are better done in teams / groups than alone – this can help overcome mental blocks and comprehension issues (to see something from the perspective of someone else), share knowledge and experiences, and make learning more fun or more social (some people work better in the company of others, while others work better alone)
  • To achieve this I’d suggest that we develop better ‘forums’ for online communication and collaboration – if you have two (or more) willing parties, all you need to do is bring them together, and given them the tools to communicate appropriately. This also helps build the ‘network’ that education establishments help offer

The above ‘changes’ are connected – if more employers give credit to self-taught skills/knowledge, then more people’s attitudes will change, and more people will get together to collaboratively work together. On the other hand, if people get together to improve their self-taught skills, then maybe employers’ attitudes will change – it’s a “chicken and egg” situation (which came first?!).

So who should make the first move?

Well, actually it’s already happening, thanks to new technology, a difficult economy and the increasing cost of education, and a slow ‘recovery’ in jobs/employment, partly driven by developers of new technology, in particular online offerings, which provide the opportunity for enhanced self-learning and collaborative learning:

  • Online education sites, such as Kahn Academy, Codecademy, Apple’s iTunes U, Open Culture, etc. are springing up, to allow those who want to learn enough to dedicate the time, to learn off-line
  • The World Wide Web, as a general source of knowledge (Google, Wikipedia, etc. and the knowledge (and points of view) of specific websites, blogs, etc.) and communication/collaboration (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  • Collaboration tools already exist in abundance, many at no cost: web ‘forums’, audio/video conferencing (Skype, etc.), supported also by hardware developments (tablet computers such as iPad, webcams, increasing internet connectivity and bandwidth, increaseing PC penetration, etc.).

In effect many of the benefits of formal MBA schools (full-time, or part-time) can be achieved on-line (books, classes and networking), and would not require an expensive overhead to bring together students who have a common goal of learning and networking.

 The industrial evolution produced new educational tools used in schools, universities and outside academic circles to create a post-modern era that gave birth to the World Wide Web and encyclopaedic data banks such as Wikipedia. [Wipedia, Autodidacticism]

I expect that over time such forms of education will eventually grab a sizeable share of the education ‘space’. There will however still be a role for formal learning in future, but as self-learning increases, formal learning will be forced to focus on the benefits that it delivers, and become more efficient.

Furthermore, as this takes off, ‘higher education’ won’t any longer be considered a phase of one’s life, near the end of ‘youth’, but something that one can continue to develop by oneself throughout life, at their own pace and scheduling.

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