Why take classes (when you can just learn everything from the internet or books)?
September 2019 (perspective of an assistant professor)
Why bother taking classes when all the information in those classes already exists for free on the internet? Nine reasons: accountability, deadlines, practice, community, curation, context, enthusiasm, mentoring, and equity.
I make a living teaching university classes, so it's in my self-interest to say that classes are good! But I also understand that nowadays anyone with a computer or phone can, in theory, learn anything they want from the internet or by ordering a few books. No access to a computer or relevant books? Then go to your local public library to browse the internet and learn from books for free. So why should anyone take formal classes anymore? All the knowledge is out there just waiting for you to learn it.
While self-teaching works well for some people some of the time, here are benefits that classes provide over learning on your own:
I know not every class lives up to these ideals; we all remember many that were boring or seemingly useless. But I truly believe that even moderately well-designed classes are better than self-teaching for most people, since very few of us are autodidacts who can motivate ourselves to learn complex topics on our own and stick with it for months even when things get tough. And the best classes (which I admit are rare) are far and away better than self-teaching since their instructors deploy research-based teaching methods to foster active learning, deliberate practice, targeted feedback, and metacognition. These books give details on some of those methods, which might be useful even if you're self-teaching:
Appendix: Audio/video version of this article
Here's me writing the first draft of this article in a single 45-minute session, sped up 4X so it's only 11 minutes long. My audio narration gives a complementary perspective on this article's text.
Appendix B: random notes
Here's a relevant excerpt from my private work notes on 2018-03-20, which was 1.5 years before I wrote this article ...
i've also been reflecting a bit on my role as a teacher+advisor+mentor, etc. in this age of unlimited information online that everyone can learn for free. i think my main roles are to: - teach fundamental principles that don't change nearly as fast as specific technologies - help students FILTER the abundance of materials that's out there for learning and doing, so that they can cut through all of the noise - provide opportunities for students to do something interesting/noteworthy, whether it's for a research project or even something in class; give them connections and recommendations for future jobs - inspire students to learn more by themselves or to do SOMETHING, to take some action; to serve as a forcing function in a good way - providing SPACE, TIME, PERMISSION, CREDIT (e.g., course credit, research authorship credit, etc.), and maybe FUNDING as enablers for people to do interesting stuff