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Can You MOOC Your Way to a Career? – Q&A With Kio Stark, Author of “Don’t Go Back to School”

Kio Stark has spent the last year interviewing over a hundred people who opt out of school but don’t opt out of education. The self-directed learners she profiles in her new book Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything direct their passions down alternative paths that eventually lead them to satisfying careers. Kio’s book also translates those experiences into a handbook for the independent learner.

Many of those paths included online learning resources, and Kio was kind enough to talk with me about how she sees self-directed learners using MOOCs in the future.

Kio is also director of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Learning project, a teacher at New York University’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and a “proud dropout” from graduate school. Don’t Go Back to School is available through her website and on Amazon.

McGuire

Tell us a little bit more about the philosophy of Don’t Go Back to School.

Stark

The title is a little bit of a provocation, but in fact it is about considering independent education as an alternative and giving models for how people have been doing that. As a culture we need to start taking independent education more seriously by providing more resources for people who are learning outside of school and by considering their experiences and their work as legitimate.

McGuire

What did you find about how people learn independently?

Stark

One important thing to know is it’s a messy process, and it’s not easier than school necessarily. It doesn’t cost you as much, and at this point what’s important is just that it’s possible. I don’t think until recently anyone was taking seriously the idea that you could get an education outside of school that would have any rigor to it.

In my interviews, one of the most constant things I heard was that learning is a very social process, and independent learning doesn’t mean learning by yourself. MOOCs are not yet designed with that social aspect of learning in mind. They have discussion forums, but they’re a free-for-all of whatever people are actually participating on a regular basis and that’s too vague of a community to feel like it’s a community. There needs to be more attention to that aspect because it’s so important to learning.

McGuire

You’ve said before, “I don’t want to fix school; I want to change culture.” A lot of people are wound up about how MOOCs will impact college, but when I’m inside the MOOC space and encountering students it seems like college is beside the point. It’s really about education in a more fundamental way.

Stark

Education reform is very difficult, and it’s not my role. I’m much more interested in thinking about it from the outside. What are the alternatives?

The way education is happening is being challenged by the existence of MOOCs, and the possibility of making education more democratically available is certainly out there, but MOOCs have a lot of work to do toward making that useful.

What I don’t like about most MOOCs is that they’re basically a school-like experience focused on scaling up teaching rather than scaling up learning. The stated goal of most MOOCs is getting the teaching out there – broadcasting the teaching with a louder megaphone. I don’t yet see a lot of attention to thinking about the way people learn.

McGuire

You’re also touching on the difference between what teachers have in mind and what students have in mind for themselves. The analytics are showing students have their own goals and take their own trajectories through the material.

Stark

They don’t have the same agenda as the teacher, and people don’t always learn the same way. For some people it’s more effective to skip around and even to be taking two things that are related to each other and going back and forth between them rather than following the straight trajectory.

McGuire

What are some ways people who self-direct their own learning sneak into careers we assume need a degree but don’t necessarily?

Stark

They employ a little bit of subterfuge and a lot of chutzpa, walking in and saying, “I know how to do this.” Believing in yourself but also believing in your ability to figure it out as you go along. Being an independent learner can actually be a job asset, because you are very equipped to learn quickly and to understand how to learn. Nobody has to hand you a set of instructions.

The first interview was with Quinn Norton, who’s a journalist who got kicked out of high school and did a lot of sneaking into lectures at UCLA. Her first job was as a furniture restorer, and she talks about learning a very important lesson, which is, “Listen to what people want, say you can do it and then go figure out how, even if that feels like a scramble.” That’s the “fake it till you make it” approach.

With her journalism, when she wants to interview somebody about their neuroscience, she goes back and learns as much as she can about their work and has informed questions rather than just saying, “Well can you explain your work to me?”

McGuire

It’s interesting you use the example of journalism, because that’s exactly the example I used on a piece about how we might be able to return to a point where autodidacticism is respected and has a chance in the marketplace. A couple of generations ago, most journalists didn’t have a college degree. They were often the black sheep who got kicked out of school.

Stark

Yes, journalism was a working-class intellectual job until it became professionalized.

McGuire

Deflating that credentialing bubble I think is one of the most exciting things about this new possibility for self-directing your learning.

Stark

I absolutely agree, yes.

by Thomas Leuthard via Flicrk

by Thomas Leuthard via Flicrk

McGuire

You’ve also said, “Let’s take the auto out of autodidact,” meaning that for these opportunities to be really authentic and as productive as they could be, they shouldn’t be isolated.

Stark

I sat in on a human-computer interaction class, and in the discussion forums I found people saying, “I don’t feel the need to do this on the same schedule. I’m doing it to learn stuff that will help me at my job. So I want to do it on my own time and when I can.” It would have been great for those people to try to connect so they could do some peer evaluation on an ad hoc basis.

The other thing I’ve heard people doing is taking a MOOC together, so they have their own little study group and feedback.

McGuire

Like a book club.

Stark

Kind of like a book club, yes. That’s something I’ve heard a lot of people talk about. Molly Danielson, a self-taught sanitation engineer I interviewed, started a salon for people interested in sanitation that she called Talking Shit.

McGuire

There’s a MOOC coming up in September about sanitation engineering. You’ll have to alert her to that one, though she could probably teach it now.

Stark

That’s one of the ways she felt like she had gotten a really firm grasp of her field was when she was able to teach it. I heard that from a lot of people. Teaching is part of their way of learning. Let’s say you’re taking a mythology class as a MOOC. If you’re getting together and talking about it and bringing whatever outside expertise you might have, then that’s a kind of teaching.

McGuire

One of the limitations of online learning is anything that requires hands on the material, like a laboratory, workshop or a studio. Have you seen examples where people are self-directing their learning by combining online resources with physical space resources?

Stark

Finding physical resources like that is hard if you’re outside the university. If you’re interested in biology or chemistry, there are starting to be citizen hacker spaces in a few cities where you could have access to a centrifuge, test tubes and all of that stuff. That’s not available to everybody, but it’s the beginning of a trend that I think is really wonderful and promising.

McGuire

I was talking to a friend involved with running a co-op maker space, and I was thinking to myself, what if people were taking a MOOC together and then using the maker space together to complete the circle of the education?

Stark

I think that’s one of the ways that this has to go, connecting physical resources that are shared with some kind of online education. One of the resources in my book points to a list of hacker spaces. I think those are really on the forefront of how people are sharing tools, time and space.

McGuire

You talk about the need to build self-assessment into your process if you’re really serious. How are some people doing that?

Stark

One way is teaching. Even as a teacher, sometimes for me the answer to someone’s question is, “Let me go look up the answer or talk to some people and see what I can find.” Having a community is another way. If you’re learning and talking to other people about it then you’re getting some real feedback on what you’re doing.

It’s important to learn to evaluate your sources, particularly in aworld of promiscuous information. Quinn has a good game she plays with high school students taking multiple sources on the same topic and really giving close attention to what their background is and what kind of material they have to support them.

Anybody who’s doing independent education should get a grasp of basic statistics so they can read a scientific article and be able to tell simple things like what kind of sample was used and whether that affects the conclusions – to not just read an article about a study but to actually look up the study.

McGuire

A lot of people finishing college or high school in the next couple weeks may be looking at different MOOC providers and thinking about signing up. What advice would you have for them?

Stark

The first thing is that it’s fine to take something just because you’re dabbling and curious, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to finish. You shouldn’t be obligated to do quizzes if those aren’t helping you learn. You should take what’s there that’s useful for you and forget about the rest of it.

People who are motivated learn better, and I don’t just mean people who are good at meeting deadlines. I mean that they have a reason for learning something. If you have a project you want to do that requires you learn how to do a particular thing, then you’re going to be much better at getting out of a MOOC whatever is there that can help you.

A project doesn’t have to be building something. It can be “I want to get enough basic physics so that I can read a particular book.” Or “I’m really fascinated with dark matter and I want to be able to understand what’s being talked about when different scientific discoveries are being announced.” If you have something that feels like you need it, in addition to wanting it, that’s a really good way to approach it.

McGuire

My hunch is that the marketplace is going to respond more to having a finished product than a certificate. If I was an employer and someone said, “In this MOOC I did this mockup or this artifact,” that’s going to be more persuasive support for their application than a certificate.

Stark

That’s in all the interviews I did. Everybody who got a job without a degree had work to show. That’s a great thing to use a MOOC for, if it’s organized around a project. Let’s say you want a job in advertising. It’s kind of hard on your own to just come up with a fake campaign without somebody giving you some constraints and some strategy. Having a structure can help you produce those kinds of portfolio items.

McGuire

How do you think the marketplace is going to respond to students who build their education in MOOCs?

Stark

That’s going to change massively in the next five years. I do see more employers at this point who are starting to take seriously people who have taught themselves. In five years that’s going to be a necessity because so many more people are going to be doing this. An employer who isn’t looking at candidates who don’t have degrees is going to be leaving out some of the best people. The concept of having the ability to learn on the job being essential is really important, and being an independent learner is a de facto qualification for that.

McGuire

I don’t want to downplay the importance of college, but self-directed learners are conceivably going to be better off than if they go to a noncompetitive college where the degree by itself has less signaling value. Especially if you don’t really use the time well, putting in the time without anything to show for it. Those students right now are not doing well in the marketplace. This ability for people to direct their own learning exposes everybody. Everybody’s going to need to step up their game.

Stark

I think that’s absolutely true. Everything we’ve said about independent education applies to people who are in school as well. I did go to college, and I liked it. I took a lot of independent study, because I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t have autonomy over what I was learning. I started several classes where I felt like I already knew what was being taught, so I went to the professor and I said, “Can I do something else? I really like this topic, but I feel like what I’m getting out of this isn’t challenging.” And they responded with absolute delight and set me up with an independent study.

If you’re focused on being an independent learner, you’re going to get more out of school. If you’re just doing your time, you’ve got a piece of paper, but it doesn’t really prove anything in the end, and it also doesn’t mean that you personally got that much out of your experience. It’s important to own it, even if you’re in school.

 

Learn more about Don’t Go Back to School at Kio’s website and on Amazon.

Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.