Ideas for a Home University

There seems to be a recent trend towards home-schooling. The failures of the default school system in most countries are quite apparent and the violence alone is enough of a reason to keep children away from high-schools, even without the education (or lack therof).

I have previously written about University degrees and whether they are needed [1].

The university I attended (which I won’t name in this context) did an OK job of teaching students. The main thing that struck me was that you would learn as much as you wished at university. It was possible to get really good marks without learning much (I have seen that demonstrated many times) or learn lots of interesting things while getting marks that are OK (which is what I did). So I have been considering whether it’s possible to learn as much as you would learn at university without attending one, and if so how to go about it.

Here are the ways I learned useful things at university:

  1. I spent a lot of time reading man pages and playing with the various Unix systems in the computer labs. It turned out that sys-admin work was one of my areas of interest (not really surprising given my history of running Fidonet BBS systems). It was unfortunate that my university (like almost all other universities) had no course on system-administration and therefore I was not able to get a sys-admin job until several years after graduating.
  2. I read lots of good text books (university libraries are well stocked).
  3. There were some good lectures that covered interesting material that I would not have otherwise learned (there were also some awful lectures that I could have missed – like the one which briefly covered computer security and mentioned NOTHING other than covert channels – probably the least useful thing that they could cover).
  4. I used to hang out with the staff who were both intelligent and friendly (of which there were unfortunately a small number). If I noticed some students hanging out in the office of one of the staff in question I would join them. Then we would have group discussions about many topics (most of which were related to computers and some of which were related to the subjects that we were taking), this would continue until the staff member decided that he had some work to do and kicked us out. Hanging out with smart students was also good.
  5. I did part-time work teaching at university. Teaching a class forces you to learn more about the subject than is needed to basically complete an assignment. This isn’t something that most people can do.

I expect that Children who don’t attend high-school will have more difficulty in getting admitted to a university (the entrance process is designed for the results of high-school). Also if you are going to avoid the public education system then it seems useful to try and avoid it for all education instead of just the worst part. Even for people who weren’t home-schooled I think that there are still potential benefits in some sort of home-university system.

Now a home-university system would not be anything like an Open University. One example of an Open University is Open Universities Australia [2], another is the UK Open University [3]. These are both merely correspondence systems for a regular university degree. So it gives a university degree without the benefit of hanging out with smart people. While they do give some good opportunities for people who can only study part-time, in general I don’t think that they are a good thing (although I have to note that there are some really good documentaries on BBC that came from Open University).

Now I am wondering how people could gain the same benefits without attending university. Here are my ideas of how the four main benefits that I believe are derived from university can be achieved without one (for a Computer Science degreee anyway):

  1. Computers are cheap, every OS that you would ever want to use (Linux, BSD, HURD, OpenSolaris, Minix, etc) is free. It is quite easy to install a selection of OSs with full source code and manuals and learn as much about them as you desire.
  2. University libraries tend not to require student ID to enter the building. While you can’t borrow books unless you are a student or staff member it is quite easy to walk in and read a book. It may be possible to arrange an inter-library loan of a book that interests you via your local library. Also if a friend is a university student then they can borrow books from the university library and lend them to you.
  3. There are videos of many great lectures available on the net. A recent resource that has been added is Youtube lectures from the University of California Berkely [4] (I haven’t viewed any of the lectures yet but I expect them to be of better than average quality). Some other sources for video lectures are Talks At Google [5] and TED – Ideas Worth Spreading [6].
  4. To provide the benefits of hanging out with smart people you would have to form your own group. Maybe a group of people from a LUG could meet regularly (EG twice a week or more) to discuss computers etc. Of course it would require that the members of such a group have a lot more drive and ambition than is typical of university students. Such a group could invite experts to give lectures for their members. I would be very interested in giving a talk about SE Linux (or anything else that I work on) to such a group of people who are in a convenient location.
  5. The benefits of teaching others can be obtained by giving presentations at LUG meetings and other forums. Also if a group was formed as suggested in my previous point then at every meeting one or more members could give a presentation on something interesting that they had recently learned.

The end result of such a process should be learning more than you would typically learn at university while having more flexible hours (whatever you can convince a group of like-minded people to agree to for the meetings) that will interfere less with full-time employment (if you want to work while studying). In Australia university degrees don’t seem to be highly regarded so convincing a potential employer that your home-university learning is better than a degree should not be that difficult.

If you do this and it works out then please write a blog post about it and link to this post.

StraighterLine offers as much tuition as you can handle over the Internet for $99 per month [7]. That sounds really good, but it does miss the benefits of meeting other people to discuss the work. Maybe if a group of friends signed up to StraighterLine [8] at the same time it would give the best result.

10 comments to Ideas for a Home University

  • I am certain that I do not fully follow all the methods you are suggesting here, there is also an inherent laziness which I sometime have to overcome, along with the raising of a child, and the constant generation of excuses, however I attend a University through an online program. I do agree that it is useful towards getting a degree and it is hard to hang out with smart people. Sometimes I feel like I am the smartest person in the class, which is a scary proposition. So I attend meetings by my local LUG, including several regular workshops put on by the group. I also participate in the Local Community Team for Ubuntu, which helps to raise the number of people who are interested in computers in my immediate surrounding. However, as I live in New York city, which has been paranoid to begin with about security, it is impossible to get into any of the University Library without student ID. So I do have to go to extra effort to find smart people to hang out with, and most of my solutions have been through IRC, mailing list and being able to annoy people by leaving comments on their blog.

  • Felipe Sateler

    I think one of the most important things of university is the chance you get to be around skilled _professors_. Getting the opportunity to ask anything to the professor, and to get a good answer to it (since the professor is skilled) is great. I don’t think you could replace that with LUG meetings. The format of most classes is good for asking questions (since you can’t possibly teach everything from the pulpit).
    In general, I find that self teaching has several drawbacks when compared to assisted teaching: you don’ get to have someone telling you why your approach is wrong, why it is important to do something else, what parts of knowledge are you missing that could be useful/interesting, and (very important) to tell you what you should know before trying to learn some other topic. While this might be done in home schooling, I don’t think it is feasible in home-universiting.
    On the other hand, if you don’t have good teachers, you’re screwed.

  • etbe

    Nathan: It seems that you are implementing some of my ideas, not as a replacement for a university degree but as a supplement. As for NYC and paranoia, maybe you should consider moving to another country as part of your long-term plans.

    Felipe: The problem is that most professors are not that skilled! My observation is that when you compare the people who answer questions at LUG meetings to university professors the professors look bad.

    As for not having anyone tell you why your approach is wrong, if you give an answer on a mailing list that is wrong there will be no shortage of people to tell you – and many of them will be more skilled than a typical professor.

    For telling you what you should know, there are some efforts to develop free university curriculum. I’ll have to investigate them and provide a link to one of the better ones.

    I don’t think that you are screwed if you have bad teachers. In fact I think that most teachers are not that good and university students seem to do OK anyway.

  • um, well, we’ve been working on that whole new country thing- takes a little time to convince people to let us into their country. “What an American, no thanks we have enough of those.” :P

  • Felipe Sateler

    Hmm, my experience is that teachers are most of the time, skilled (of course this varies from university to university). The advantage of teachers is that they require you to show them what you know, so your chances of thinking you’re right but actually be wrong are diminished.
    Also, (at least here in Chile), a university diploma is _very_ important. Most people won’t even look at you if you don’t have a diploma from the right universities.

  • etbe

    Felipe: If your university is like the one I attended then “show them what you know” means “completing assignments” which are often not overly difficult.

    The advantage of Computer Science over many other subjects is that there are objective criteria for being right. If a program doesn’t compile or gives a SEGV then it’s not a matter of opinion whether the program is buggy or not. Fooling a professor with bad code is MUCH easier than fooling a compiler!

    As for the need for a degree in Chile, that probably means that the IT sector is not doing well and there aren’t many jobs open. If there are many open positions and few candidates then recruiters will be a little less fussy. Are there any other countries that you can easily migrate to which have a more successful computer industry?

  • Felipe Sateler

    etbe: It seems you are not talking about universities as a concept, but as its current implementation. I partly agree with you there: sometimes the execution is not optimal, but I think that as a concept, they have a huge potential.
    As for the IT sector in Chile, you are right, it is not doing well: most companies see IT as a cost, not an investment. This means they will try to avoid spending money in IT as much as possible, which reduces the job offer.
    Plus, computer science is not actually the degree you want: you need a diploma Civil Engineering with a Computing mention. For some strange reason, this gets you a better pay, but it also reduces the job offer (this is probably associated with the fact that you had to go 6 years to the university instead of 4 or 5).

  • etbe

    Felipe: The concept of a university staffed by people paid a moderate (not great) salary by the government who (in Australia) gain little respect in society and have few other benefits is not a great one. The concept of university staff having little incentive for doing new and exciting things once they gain tenure and for doing nothing to upset people before they gain tenure is not great either.

    Probably the best strategy for Chileans who are interested in technology is to do as much free-software work as possible and blog about it in English. Then it’s only a matter of time before Google recruiters contact you!

  • Felipe Sateler

    In Chile most universities are private (although some receive a subsidy from the state). In mine, at least, most teachers have a Master or a PhD. Sometimes you get people who are graduate students themselves, where the field of their investigation is the same (or at least, tightly related) to the course.

    As for having incentives to do stuff… I don’t really know: there are numerous labs, and people who are doing active research on several subjects. I understand it is “encouraged” (ie: an unwritten section of the contract) to do active research, measured in mix of number of published papers, and references from third parties to papers they participated in. Of course, all papers must be published to a relevant magazine.

    I agree that this is a good strategy (of course assuming you do a great work on free software), but that doesn’t really fit with me, as I currently don’t see myself working on the technical side of things (ie: not a programmer, sysadmin, etc).

  • etbe

    The above URL with significant recorded speeches could be used when devising a free university curriculum.