Breaking free from learning determinism

I have been watching with interest as education becomes disrupted by a wave of online innovations, startups and visionary individuals. In particular Code School and Treehouse have caught my eye. These services have attacked the problem of professional education with a user experience / web designers eye. Using creative course structures and themes (Code School in particular), video, audio, text and presentation slides, they bring to life pragmatic and relevant topics around web development and design.

But this is the cutting edge. The education system on the whole is, and remains, hierarchical, highly structured, rigid, and slow to evolve. To imagine that a UX type approach could come to mainstream K-12 education in the near future, is far from the mark, and by no means what I am advocating for. However we are seeing the development of purely online university courses at distinguished institutions, with enrollments in the hundreds of thousands, and this a giant leap forward. It is a natural reaction to an era of crushing university debt, living with parents or bankruptcy, simply because a decision made at age 18 didn’t turn out to be how you wanted to spend your working life (if you can believe that some people are so stupid, personally I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the age of 5!). It is no coincidence that cheaper, more fluid online alternatives are gaining traction. However there are competing business models and motives at work with these university courses. They are not motivated primarily by the need to expand education to those students who cannot afford the in-person version of their course. Instead they are fighting against becoming an anachronism, like studying Latin or the classics at Oxford. The result may seem to be the same, broader access to quality education, but it is still within a rigid university learning structure, and driven by a defensive rather than progressive posture.

It is time to break free of this learning determinism.

What services like Code School, Treehouse, Cousera and Khan Academy are doing is showing a new way to learn outside of these traditional education networks. It is about the pursuit of life-long learning in an age when evolutionary leaps forward in science and technology are happening multiple times a generation. The old model of learn until you are 18 or 22 then work until you retire is already looking, if you’ll pardon the pun, old skool. As a professional worker in today’s environment, to stop learning at 22 or even 24 / 5 following a Masters, is to doom yourself to a struggle for job security come middle-age. To stay relevant and more importantly engaged and motivated, you must stay on top of developments in technology, business, society and culture, and strive to understand the broader impact in your space. Be an admin clerk, market researcher or a project manager, if you do the minimum and don’t strive to keep learning, you will will wake up one day wondering where your job went.

But, learning is not a constant pursuit. It ebbs and flows. Your interest in subjects peaks, troughs and then levels out. It’s like a Gartner Hype Cycle for your brain.

Learning Hype Cycle

The Learning Hype Cycle

This is where the existing education system breaks down. To take a course at a college, apart from the expense, you also need to join at the beginning of a semester, and the course will be designed to run long enough to justify hiring a teacher and devoting classroom space and resources. The topic is molded to the needs of the educational structure. After bending to this structure, by say starting the months after the interest peaked, the student may then arrive at the end of the course unenthused, or perhaps realize it is not exactly what they thought. It will still be a valuable experience no doubt, but you committed a lot up front, in time and money, for a mixed bag of results at the end. Online services such as Treehouse show us the potential to dip your toe in to subjects, gather enough knowledge to see it’s relevance or otherwise, and understand if you want to dig in deeper. All for $20-30 a month and a few stolen lunch breaks or hours in the evening, starting whenever works best for you. The traditional structured learning can come in after this period if required.

I arrived at this conclusion after personally realizing how you can match or get beyond 80% of the population competing in your job market through the consistent reading of one good blog or magazine, or 2-3 good books a year. Even reading and understanding a full wikipedia entry, along with clicking a few links for context, can get you a long way down the path to a level of comprehension that is beyond a majority of your competition. But here’s what’s interesting. Whether you then immediately use that knowledge in your day-to-day job is not really the point. Learning opens the doors to serendipity and and increased perception of the world around you. Our brain does an excellent job of focusing on words and concepts we already know something about. We are constantly screening out more than we know. Through targeted, semi-deep learning, you are adding to that bank of knowledge just enough that your brain will now latch on to related concepts and phrases you hear which will in turn fire off more connections and thoughts related to other topics you know. This is when interesting ideas arise, and that’s where things get more fun. If you are excited by the result, you will naturally want to learn more. You can now take that idea, and do a little more research. Run down the rabbit hole and see what’s there. If that is achieved by taking a traditional classroom based course, then great, at least you are going in to it with your idea validated by earlier learning. The advent of true online education means you are free to follow that flow of interest and see where it leads with little financial or time repercussions should it be the wrong choice.

Online courses allow us to follow our natural rhythm of learning. For some it is a more constant pursuit. Others can choose to dip in and out sporadically. But most importantly, cost, structure and tradition no longer dictate when and how you want to learn.

API Documentation: Where to Begin

I just had my first post for the Braintree blog released today, check it out – https://www.braintreepayments.com/blog/api-where-to-begin

The first job I took on after joining Braintree was to help solidify, expand and generally make more comprehensible, the API documentation.  We have an awesome API at Braintree, but the learning curve can be a little steep, so I am starting off by working on a Quick Start and then some easy-to-follow tutorials.  I’ll update here as they are released.

Saying goodbye to the old world

The Christmas period saw me truly enter the tablet age, with the arrival of an iPad and a Kindle Touch to my stable of gadgets. I had been coveting an iPad since it arrived, but tried my best to stick to a “wait till the 3rd generation” rule with Apple products, however an opportunity arose to get one and I jumped at the chance. The Kindle was a little different, I wasn’t pining for it in the same way, but in the end I got an Amazon voucher so decided to take the plunge and help make my reading on the ‘L’ a little more comfortable.

I had a moment today however where I realized just how quickly and pervasive these new technology items are becoming in my life. It used to feel like it would take decades to go from launch to full adoption at a critical mass scale. But now, that consumer level adoption seems to happen so much quicker. The smart phone and tablet revolution is the best examples of this rapid adoption.

Here is what I realized today:

  • I read my news on the iPad (hooray for Flipboard, the most awesome app I have seen for the iPad)
  • Watch TV over the internet with the Roku (I’d cancel cable if it wasn’t for the Fox Soccer Channel that delivers my weekly dose of football)
  • Read books on a Kindle
  • Stay in touch with friends and family on Facebook
  • Make video phone calls with my parents in England by Skype

It is mind-blowing to me when I look at this list. It has the feeling of a seismic shift from an old world to a new world approach to life. So many of my day-to-day activities rely on very recent technology, and yet using and adopting that technology has become easier and easier. The Steve Jobs mantra of technology that “just works” is clearly setting the tone for new product development, and the old masters of usability, Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, must be thrilled to see the level at which interaction design is on the whole operating.

What is fascinating to me when I think about this trend, is that it is happening at the same time there is a “good enough” and lean approach to product development. More and more products hit the open market that are not fully finished, in the sense that some functions are a little rough around the edges, and they only arrive with a small, niche feature set. See the Amazon Fire as an example, it does a good job of playing movies, and reading books is bearable, but start using other features such as the web, and it quickly gets messy. But this approach counter-intuitively leads to a better product, as the early adopters use, abuse, and most-importantly feedback in to the product designer.  Therefore each version is configured to solve the pain-points of actual users, and the product develops in tandem with customer wants and real-life use cases, and due to technology improvements, release cycles are very quick, and on the whole getting quicker (too quick Mozilla if you ask me!).

Going back to my list of daily technology uses, I was thinking about which areas of my life are still loitering in the old world, and two items immediately come to mind.

1. Money
I still need to reach in to my pocket for a dollar bill or pay some vendors by check. I know people are working on this problem. PayPal are trying to set up a payment platform globally, and Square is an exciting new way to pay. I also hear that paying using your mobile phone, with some near field communication is on the horizon, but I think we are in limited test phase only. But this is significant area where technology really has not disrupted the conventions of the ages, and moved us in to line with many other areas of our lives.  In a slightly related point, I am on the waiting list for the Simple banking app, which looks awesome and is certainly a step in the right direction for money management in the Web 2.0 era.

2. Locks
I hadn’t really thought about this much until this blog post, but the old lock and key, is probably one of the most anachronistic item I use every day. Going to a hotel, or I hear being in Japan or Korea where key card locks are commonplace in  the cities, shows that we are already moving slowly away from the mechanical lock, but there must be a good opportunity here for mobile device integration with home security systems?

Overall I find it so exciting to live in a time where technology is accelerating so quickly, and consumer adoption and importantly appetite for these products is keeping pace and driving the change.  Bring on the devices of 2012 and beyond!