What is/was a university?...unbundle please!

We all know that universities have changed drastically over the past couple of decades, most notably in the cost of attending. Yet, that is but one small manner in which they have seemingly drifted from their roots. A redesign is necessary.

I was reading an article about D-Wave's new quantum computers today. Like any good internaute ('user of the internet' in French), I decided to click my way over to D-Wave's website and read a little about their executive team.  While reading the bio of the CTO, Dr. Geordie Rose, I found myself wondering what sort of background you needed to start such a company and whether I would ever be able to do the same. (Not that I have any intention of starting a quantum computing company, but I have just enough ego to believe that if Geordie could do it, so could I...give me a few more years.) Turns out, Geordie has a PhD in Theoretical Physics with his undergraduate in Engineering physics with a specialization in semiconductor engineering. That is when it hits me: 

If I wanted to learn everything I could about quantum computing, then I would go to a university. 

You might be thinking: 'Duh...OK back to Hacker News to search for something worthwhile reading!' However, that is an exceptional statement/thought. My natural inclination is to learn things on my own. Everything worthwhile that I have learned has been under my own initiative and outside of a classroom setting. Yet, I have to admit, if I wanted to learn about quantum computing I would start searching for a university to hang out in, which goes against everything that I believe in. Of course, that used to be what universities were all about and, I would argue, what they should return to.

I am an avid student of philosophy. In the past, philosophy was something that you went to university in order to immerse yourself in it. Young students would fight to get into packed lecture halls. Nowadays, it is difficult to find a venue that will host a philosophy event because so few people attend. Nowadays, we can access the thoughts of philosophers from around the globe via Google. I don't benefit at all from actually being there, despite what a philosophy professor would lead you to believe. The vast majority of fields are just like philosophy in this regard. I don't need to attend an MBA program to get access to great material and speakers. Just go to iTunesU or YouTube, set yourself a steady schedule and go at it.

In the past, universities were the ivory towers of information.

Professors were oracles who revealed the mysteries of the universe. If you wanted access to those mysteries, you had to physically go to where they were. That was the only choice. Those who were interested flocked to the oracles/professors to listen. And, the rest of the world just went on working in factories, selling consumer goods and forming relationships that would turn into business opportunities and lucrative ventures.

There are certain fields for which universities are still ivory towers. If I wanted to pick up semiconductor engineering or work with cutting edge cancer research, I would go to a university to get my feet wet. It seems rather difficult to learn such things independently at present. If you supply the will-power, universities are the de facto choice for beginning in these fields because they provide everything you really need: experts and equipment.

We wanted to change the world, instead we got a piece of paper.
— a bastardization of Peter Theil's infamous proclamation

Will someone please unbundle this mess?

Universities were never intended to be factories for the formation of young students. They were conceived as ivory towers which reach for the heavens and they should stay that way. This is a great example of a bundled business model that needs unbundling.

Both the market and organizations are better served by specializing in particular areas in which they are able to make demonstrable innovations/contributions; trying to provide a universal solution often leads to a weakening of the entire model (e.g. Alexander Osterwalder's study of the Swiss banking system).

Universities are still the ivory towers of certain fields and will likely remain so for at least the near future, though they will likely be fighting again for their position in society in another 3 or 4 decades. They should focus on these specialized areas. The problem is that they are incredibly bloated because there are no educational alternatives. Thus, they have been pinned by society as being responsible for shouldering the burden. Universities have become a strange mix of publisher, trade school, research institute, sports programs, etc. This bundling of many different specializations into one bureaucratic organization has resulted in sky-high tuition fees for everyone involved. At their heart, most universities were research institutes (i.e. gathering places for those who loved pushing knowledge forward and debating theoretical questions that were outside the scope of the average person's interests). Professors are still graded based upon the research they publish, regardless of their students' level of performance. Universities should stick to what they are good at, but first someone has to shoulder the burden that Universities have been forced into. 

We need a new apprenticeship model. Someone has to step up and provide alternative access to well-paying jobs in fields that don't require specialized research and equipment. As Avichal illustrated wonderfully in a blog post about education startups, the majority of society is more concerned with inexpensive access to education that leads to work rather than flocking to higher quality educational solutions that are thought provoking. Students enter college thinking that they are going to take on the world because that is what they see universities doing in magazines and news articles. Little do they realize that they will never get close to the ground-breaking research that is being conducted in universities. Instead, they will get a piece of paper and a lot of student debt. So, the question is simply: 

With all of the free, high-quality learning resources that are available, when is someone going to step up and build an effective and inexpensive apprenticeship program that funnels people into well paying jobs?  

Stop Lying...Learning is Hard

While scanning Twitter the other day, I came upon an article about learning vocabulary in a foreign language. As I am a language learning fanatic, I decided to take a look. This is what I saw...

NO...you don't need only 120 words!!

NO...you don't need only 120 words!!

Rather than read the article and pick up a few tips, I was immediately infuriated by the writer's ridiculous claim that you only need 120 words in a foreign language to 'get by'. To add fuel to the flame, the article is from the Telegraph, a UK paper of significant size. All I could think was...


The recent trend in the field of education has been to say that everything is easy. Before people tried to convince you that you only needed 1000 words to 'get by' in a language. Now, it is down to 120! In the past, one would hear that it took at least 90 days to loose significant weight. Now everyone wants to convince you that it takes only 10 days!

I understand that people are simply trying to be optimistic and encourage everyone that learning something new is within their reach. But, please, stop lying to us!!

The problem is the tiny little thing called failure. If we go into learning a new language or learning computer programming with the expectation that we need only 120 words to 'get by', we will be in for a harsh awaken.


We will go in with the wrong expectations and once we realize that we are in over our heads, we will decide that it is simply too difficult. In the end, it is us that are hurt not some misguided author trying to write a story. We feel like failure. We convince ourselves that it is our fault. We reason, 'if some big writer for a large newspaper could do it, then it must be possible. Thus, I must be stupid since I couldn't do it.' 

Learning is hard. That is exactly why it is worth it!

Everyone is trying to convince us that learning is easy, but it comes back to bite us in the ass because it is in fact difficult to learn something new. Maybe it is time to turn the tables and admit the truth:

Learning is a challenge but it is one worth every ounce of sweat.

Pain...seems to be unavoidable

When learning something new, it appears impossible to avoid a certain amount of pain and frustration. With experience, we can minimize the pain but we can't get rid of it all together.

Recently, I have been working on a programming framework called Ruby on Rails. Basic webpage design and construction is nothing compared to Rails. It is like moving from checkers to chess, like moving from Foosball to proper Football. The level of complexity increased dramatically and, thus, so did the pain. 

My initial foray into learning Ruby on Rails (or just Rails as it is referred to) has been quite positive because there are a number of very good tutorials that have helped me learn the basics. The nice thing about Ruby on Rails is that you can quickly produce what would be extremely complex and lengthy programming tasks in other web languages. As users of Facebook, YouTube and Gmail, we take for granted things like user accounts, access to friends, and messaging services. In fact, all of these features are extremely time-intensive to build and maintain. Rails makes common features of the web significantly easier to build.

Michael Hartl's now classic Ruby on Rails Tutorial

Michael Hartl's now classic Ruby on Rails Tutorial

Of course, the pros don't come without the cons. In this case, I immediately realized that Rails was a whole different level of complexity compared to what I have previously worked with (i.e. HTML, CSS, Javascript and jQuery). Many of the aspects that render Rails easy to user also mean that most of the details are hidden in the background. It is like seeing cars all day long and then someone walking your through the assembly process. You will learn a lot. However, you will still be lost if they then asked you to build a car from scratch. 

Producing cool things on a computer screen is one thing, really understanding what is going on is something completely different. In addition, it is clear that these tutorials were written for people who know what HTTP requests, PUT, and GET mean. I am not yet one of those people! It is all Greek to me!

The goal is to simply stick with it and little by little I know that it will start to sink in. To be honest, I don't really know what I am doing. But, I know that I will learn it step-by-step. The application that I started building with these tutorials is now rather meager but I am confident that it will blossom with time.

When I get bogged down with one thing and don't feel as though I am making progress, I move to something else that is a little easier. Learning human languages has helped me realize that learning should not be measure by one day's activity. We all have slow moments where things just aren't sinking in. Successful learning is measured by the amount of time you have spent involved in learning. Memorizing a set of facts is not learning. Investing time is what learning is all about. 

Inspiration...aka Copy-and-Paste

There is a funny thing about the word 'inspiration'. It is really a dignified way of saying that we are copying others. Should we be embarrassed? Is there something wrong with taking other's work and adapting it to our needs?

Absolutely not!

 Let's be clear, there is a big difference between stealing and being 'inspired'. Outright theft of someone else's design or idea is completely wrong. Some might say that there is a fine line. In reality, I think we each know full well when that line is being crossed and when someone has legitimately stolen a design or idea.   

Copy away!

We stand on the shoulders of giants and we always have. There is no reason to stop now. The idea that we are self-made or truly self-defined is ridiculous. Most would agree that the computer industry is the most innovative one at present. Software development has thrived by creating a sense a open sharing and encouraging people to build new things on the top of other's hard work. I find it hard to believe there is not a correlation between the copying that goes on in the world of computing and the constant stream of innovative products that change the way we experience life. Copying should be encouraged! When you copy others you are standing on the shoulders of giants. 

Finding things to copy

Find great things to copy aka be inspired!

Find great things to copy aka be inspired!

All of that is in order to say that I came upon this great website for designers called Dribble. It is like Pinterest for web designers and graphic artists. The work that you will find there is definitely 'inspiring'. I will absolutely copy it! 

In fact, one of the greatest exercises that I have found for practicing graphic design and improving my coding ability is by copying others and making small changes as I play around with different techniques. So, yes, I will definitely 'be inspired' by many of the awesome designs on Dribble!!

Leaping the Gap

One of the quirks that I have found very frustrating in learning computer languages is, in fact, the exact same problem that I found with learning human languages. I suspect that there are many other fields that are very similar.

Nothing is written for the intermediate learner!!

The only logically conclusion is that everyone else is smart and I'm an idiot, right? Sounds logical. Everyone but me must effortlessly leap the giant gap between beginner and advanced. The rest of the world must be able to rationalize all of the missing steps between these two stages while I am wandering lonely and forlorn in the wilderness of confusion. How else could there be nothing at all for people in between?


Of course, I am being very sarcastic. I don't think I'm alone. Yet, I am still shocked by the absence of intermediate material. Maybe that is why people have such trouble getting anywhere when learning new skills. Only those who fight through this barrier become the torch bearers of the skillful order of computer programmers. It is ridiculous.

This is one of the big barriers to learning anything new. You get the basics down but it is incredibly difficult to know how to go any further. Despite the internet connecting everyone in the world, it is nearly impossible to find material that will help me cross the gap from beginner to intermediate in computer programming. Of course, I could continue banging my head against the wall, get frustrated with more advanced material until it starts to make sense and slowly make progress. On the other hand, I think that spending the time to lay out a clear path forward is going to save a remarkable amount of time and brain cells.

If the path was clearly laid out in front of me, it would be easy.

I just have to keep making progress.