Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Why take classes (when you can just learn everything from the internet or books)?

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:

  • Accountability – If classes count for something – a grade, a certificate, progress toward a degree – that makes you more accountable to complete it. Also, if you (or your parents) are paying for a class, then that adds additional accountability.

  • Deadlines – Deadlines are a way to use time to impose accountability. By forcing you to do certain tasks by set times (e.g., turn in an assignment, study for an exam), that encourages you to make concrete progress. If you're learning on your own, it can be hard to set deadlines for yourself and actually stick to them (especially when the material gets more challenging) since you're not accountable to anyone other than yourself.

  • Practice – Classes provide opportunities to get hands-on practice and feedback related to the topics you're learning. While in theory you could find assignments to work on when learning on your own, it can be hard to stay motivated when nobody is there to hold you accountable or to set deadlines (see the two points above). And just passively reading or watching videos isn't going to help you retain much of what you learn, even though you may feel productive doing so.

  • Community – In a class you're immersed in a community of peers who are trying to learn the same thing at the same time. You can work together on homework, commiserate about how hard it is, complain in unison about how the professor is sooo boring (not me, right?), celebrate victories when your class project reaches an important milestone, and make friends who will stick with you long after the class is over. It's no surprise that many lifelong friendships and business partnerships (e.g., partners who start companies together) form between peers who met in high school or college. It doesn't really matter what they learned (or didn't learn) in those classes; it matters more that they went through a shared experience together.

  • Curation – In theory all the information about a given topic is out there somewhere on the internet or buried inside some set of books. But where do you even start looking for it? Which sources are good, and which are bad? In what order should you read? After you read about sub-topic X, what's the next sub-topic you should read about? How do you navigate the nearly-infinite amount of free information to learn best? What a (good!) class provides for you is the instructor's expertise in selecting, filtering, and distilling knowledge about a topic into a coherent set of lessons. The instructor didn't invent that knowledge; it was already out there. But they're using their know-how to curate it into an easily digestible sequence.

  • Context – A good instructor will also convey the context surrounding the given topic. For instance, why is it significant? How does it fit within the space of related topics? In what ways can it be applied (or mis-applied!) in practice? If you try to learn by yourself from the internet or books, oftentimes what you end up reading is lots of specific low-level details but not the higher-level context surrounding the subject matter.

  • Enthusiasm – An instructor who is truly passionate about a topic will naturally convey that enthusiasm to students. That could motivate some students to get excited and stick with the topic. I know that not all instructors are so passionate (e.g., some must teach routine courses that they might not love to teach), but I still think it's better than trying to learn on your own where you can't directly tap into anyone else's enthusiasm.

  • Mentoring – The instructor and teaching assistants can serve as informal mentors on areas that aren't directly covered by this specific class. By talking to them after lectures, during their office hours, or via the online discussion forum, you can often get advice on topics beyond this class, including career prep tips and ideas for related topics to learn on your own. And if you show a great deal of enthusiasm or excel in this class, they may remember you and be able to help out even after it's over.

  • Equity – This one is more of a benefit to society than to you individually: Classes can be more equitable than self-teaching. Why? Because everyone in a certain setting (e.g., enrolled in a public high school) can take that class. When a class is required (like basic math or writing), that makes things even more equitable because everyone sees that material. Otherwise it's well-documented that only certain students voluntarily enroll because they feel more self-confident in their abilities in an area. And when a topic isn't offered in a class, then only those who are the most self-motivated and “in the know” get to learn it informally from their well-resourced peers, even though that information exists somewhere online. Of course, many classes cost money, which reduces equity, but the solution there is to work toward reducing costs for those who need it most.

Parting Thoughts

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
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Created: 2019-09-22
Last modified: 2019-09-22
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