Extreme independent learning through OCW

Scott Young may never earn a brass rat, but it’s hard to begrudge him some bragging rights. This past September, using MIT OpenCourseWare, he managed to complete the virtual equivalent of a four-year MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science degree in only one year. Now, lest any disgruntled real MIT grads consider lynching him for blasphemy, Scott is the first to admit that his exploit, which he calls the MIT Challenge, doesn’t equal a true MIT education. “The whole idea comes from the enormous amount of respect I have for the Institute. Obviously, a lot more happens at MIT than just watching lectures and taking exams, but I think it’s fair to say that I’ve gone through some portion of what MIT students experience.”

Indeed, as Scott talks about the 33 courses he followed in 52 weeks, his comments sound eerily similar to actual MIT students. “I just got used to feeling constantly overwhelmed,” he says about the experience, “Anytime I didn’t feel overwhelmed, it was a pleasant surprise. I think that kind of attitude really helped me get through it.”

Scott is a professional blogger (www.scotthyoung.com/blog) who earns his living by writing articles about techniques for becoming a better learner by improving personal productivity. He began his blog seven years ago as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, where he graduated near the top of his class. At the time, Scott was experimenting with different memorization and speed-reading methods, and started sharing his thoughts online. His no-nonsense advice attracted a following, and he has since expanded the blog to include eBooks and online courses.

As he describes it in a recent TEDx talk, the whole idea for the “MIT Challenge” came to him while ruminating over his decision to pursue a Business major instead of Computer Science. “I’ve always been interested in computers,” he said, “But I just couldn’t see myself going back for another four years. I wanted the education but not the school.”

Scott was already familiar with OCW through Walter Lewin’s Classical Mechanics lectures, which he had watched a few years earlier. He carefully mapped MIT’s Course 6 requirements to the corresponding OCW courses, swapping similar courses whenever insufficient course material or lack of a final exam made another unsuitable, and creating a set of baseline rules for what constituted completion of a course. “I really wanted this to be a measurable, good faith approximation of a real MIT curriculum.”

After investing two thousand dollars on the recommended textbooks, Scott began his experiment in September 2011. He approached it with an athletic rigor, following a strict schedule and working from about 6AM to 6PM with a small break for lunch. At first, he took each OCW course in succession, one per week, but discovered that this method left no time for overcoming unforeseen obstacles, so he switched to taking four parallel courses each month. By Christmas, he had completed his “freshman year” and felt completely burnt out, so he took two weeks off to recharge. For the remainder of the year he posted his results weekly, publicly offering every completed exam or problem set for review by skeptics. Scott finally completed his 33rd course in late summer 2012.

“Obviously, most people are not going to want to pursue a full degree the way I did it. But I wanted to push the idea of open education to its logical extreme—creating a virtual MIT curriculum—in order to motivate and inspire other people to start looking at their own education differently. And in that sense, it’s worked. I’ve heard from lots of people in the past few months who have decided to start building their own personal curriculum.”

When asked whether he was tempted by the recent explosion of MOOC’s like those offered by edX, Scott confessed that he did feel a bit like a “kid in a candy store,” but that he was deliberately holding back from taking too many courses, in order to keep his schedule open for his next big challenge. While he won’t divulge the full details, he admits that it will involve languages. Watch out Rosetta Stone!

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