It’s amazing to see the resources we now have online for self education. The possibilities are virtually endless. I still remember how difficult it was before the Internet came. At that time, my best hope was the library, and I had no good one near me. Even in the early years of the Internet, there were only limited resources available.
These days though, you can learn just about anything online. Mention a subject and chance is you will find enough materials to fill months or even years of learning. In most cases, the availability of resources is no longer a problem.
Given such a situation, I believe these two principles apply to self education:
- Your curiosity is the limit
Since there are more than enough resources out there, what limits you is no longer resource availability. Instead, what limits you is your own curiosity. It’s like someone who explore an open land without any border in sight. How far she goes doesn’t depend on the size of the land but on the amount of fuel she had. Your curiosity is the fuel. The more you have it, the further you will go.
- Your ability to prioritize becomes increasingly important
While the resources are virtually unlimited, your time is not. So your ability to choose and prioritize what to learn becomes more important than ever. You should spend your limited time to learn the right subject and with the right depth. Not everything is worth your time, and for those that do, each deserves different amount of your time.
With those two principles in mind, a good model for self education is what I call the V model. In essence, it means that you should give low learning commitment to a lot of different subjects, and then increasingly more commitment to gradually fewer number of subjects. If you make a chart of them, the shape will look like a “V” which is why I call it the V model.
Based on the V model, here are a few steps to educate yourself online:
1. Read selectively on a wide range of subjects
The first level of the model deals with the widest range of subjects. Here you need to follow many different fields so that you know what’s going on out there. To do that without consuming too much time, you need to be selective in what you read.
I apply this by following a number of web sites through my RSS reader. Together, those sites produce a lot of articles every day. There is no way I can read them all. So what I do instead is I scan the titles quickly and then mark the ones that I’d like to read. Even if I mark an article, I will read it just enough to get the idea. As I said above, the key here is to be selective.
The nice thing about this method is that even just reading the titles can give you some understanding of what’s going on in a field.
2. Dig deeper into promising subjects
By doing the first step, you will notice a few things that seem promising. They could be an emerging trend, a new tool, a new market, or whatever it is that can take your work or life to the next level.
When you find such a thing, you may want to spend more time to learn about it. Here are a few things that you can do:
- Read the Wikipedia articles
This is a good place to start because Wikipedia gives you the definition and the background. It also shows you related topics that you can explore further. If the concept is complicated, you might want to use the Simple English version instead of the normal English version of Wikipedia.
- Watch the YouTube videos
Often what is difficult to understand by reading will become clear once you watch a tutorial or a presentation of it. For me, this is a good way to learn new tools and techniques.
- Read people’s opinions at social media sites
To really understand something new, it’s helpful to read other people’s opinion on it. The comment section of social media sites is a good place to do that. Reddit’s subreddits might meet your needs. Or you might want to visit Q&A sites like Stack Exchange.
Doing these should give you enough understanding of the subject. In many cases, you can stop here. But if you want more, you can go to the next step.
3. Take an online course
When I got interested in iOS app business, this is what I did. I took an online course on iOS app development. I watched all the videos and did all the exercises. Taking an online course takes a lot of time though, so you should do this only for a few selected subjects.
Two big aggregators of online courses are iTunes U and YouTube EDU. There you can find courses on many subjects from different institutions.
Recently, you can also take a course together with an online learning community. Here there is a due date for all the assignments and the assignments will be graded. Two places that offer such courses are Udacity and Coursera.
4. Create a real-world project
This is the deepest level of the V model and, in my opinion, a necessary step to really master something. Taking a course is good, but nothing can substitute the learning experiences you will get from being in the real world.
So, if you want to master something, create something real. Write a book. Develop an app. Create and maintain a blog. Do whatever it is that’s applicable to your situation.
Learning is a lifelong process. We are fortunate to have all these resources and opportunities online. Don’t waste them; make the best use of them instead.