Paying to Learn

Earlier this week, I was reading a friend’s blog post in which he argued that it’s silly to ever pay for education, given the vast number of free resources available online.

I disagreed. While I think it’s great that there are so many free resources – in fact, I’m trying to make this blog one of them – and I’m no fan of spending money when you don’t need to, I also know that sometimes you get what you pay for.

Sometimes the free resources really are the best. When I’m stuck with a technical problem, I search online to see how other people have solved it. If I want to know how a particular CSS property works, I again look it up online. I’m not sure I’ve ever spent a day at work where I didn’t use Google.

Reading On the other hand, when I’m trying to sit down and learn something, I usually turn to paid content. In particular, I like books. Yes, most technical books are providing the same information you can find with a Google search, but the author is providing an additional service: collecting what’s known about the topic, paring it down to what’s most relevant, and presenting it in a way that makes sense. (At least, if it’s a good book this will be the case.) Because there’s a financial incentive, someone who is an expert on the field can afford to spend a great deal of time sharing his or her expertise in a way that might not be possible on a free medium.

Similarly, while I know that many people have successfully learned material watching free videos on youtube, I haven’t been a fan of that method for two reasons: most videos on youtube don’t have subtitles (crappy automatically-generated subtitles don’t count) and if I’m trying to learn something, I’m presumably not knowledgeable enough about it to know which presenters actually know what they’re talking about. Lately, however, I’ve been trying Pluralsight, which has a ridiculous number of professionally produced videos, many with subtitles. Full disclosure: I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to trying them if I hadn’t gotten a free trial, as it’s hard to find enough time to justify the $25+/month – but now that I’ve tried it out I suspect I’ll want to continue once my trial runs out. Because I have limited free time, it’s worthwhile to me to spend money to increase my learning speed.

Of course, none of this is to say that you can’t do just fine with free resources, especially if you have more time than money. Although I’m no longer a starving student, I still feel the pull of getting something for cheap or free; just realize that you may be paying for those free materials with your time. Sometimes, spending money really is worthwhile.

College: Still not for everybody

I know I already ranted about why not everyone should go to college, but I was reminded today of my first year at CSU. The class I TA’s my first three semesters was called CS 110: Personal Computing; it was an introduction to computers for non-majors that covered how to use Windows and Microsoft Office.

Now, this is pretty much the easiest college class possible, because it’s divided into units (one for Windows, one for Word, etc) and you can opt out of a unit by getting 85% or higher on the pretest; then your pretest grade is your grade for that unit. A few people, but not many, take advantage of that, which is somewhat surprising considering that all of the pretest questions are available in advance.

So let’s review. There’s a pool of questions, which make up the pre- and post-tests,  that are available from the beginning of the semester for anyone who wants to go over as often as they want. There are three TAs and over a dozen lab assistants to help you figure out the answers if you get stuck when practicing for the pretest. This is a 100-level (freshman) class.

And yet…we have people who fail to graduate because they take the class senior year and don’t pass.

I would like to offer commentary on this, but seriously…words fail me.

If you’re an undergraduate reading this, I’d like you to take away two things:

  1. If you’re offered an easy way to learn the material while doing less work, take it! It’s less work for you, the instructor, and the TA.
  2. Don’t wait ’til the last minute to take required classes, especially required classes in an area you’re not particularly comfortable with. This is particularly true of classes that may not be offered every semester; you really don’t want to wait a whole ‘nother year to graduate!
  3. If you don’t understand what’s going on, ask for help! What’s particularly annoying about people failing this particular class is that there was almost always someone in the computer lab ready to explain how to do something; the class was pretty much designed to be difficult to fail. If your class has a TA, he almost certainly has office hours; use them!

Rant: Teacher Pay

So this afternoon I’ve been looking at job openings for community colleges in the Denver area. Not many places have full-time openings (and the ones that do have an annoying tendency to not answer their email in spite of requesting applications through email), but there tend to be a small number of adjunct positions open at each college.

So what leads to today’s rant? I was looking at the salary listings for one of the community colleges.  Lecture classes, like math, pay $609.00 per credit hour, which is disgustingly low; even if you taught a full 5 classes per semester, that’s only $18,270 per year for a job that requires a master’s degree! On the other hand, if you teach a PE class, that pays a somewhat more respectable $1,218.00 per credit hour. Seriously? Teaching someone to throw a ball is worth twice as much as teaching them to do algebra?

Anyway, suppose a class meets for only fifteen weeks each semester, twice per week for 75 minutes each time. A math class generally has homework due every week; assume that the instructor is pretty efficient and can finish grading the homework in four hours. That comes to a total of 6.5 hours of work each week, not counting office hours. A class that meets 2.5 hours per week would be three credit hours; 15 credit hours would thus work out to 32.5 hours per week, which is probably more than full time once you add in having to drive between three colleges to get that many classes. At that rate, the typical graduate student loan should be paid off in roughly…forever…

Going Back To School

With the economy the way it is, many people are considering going back to school to brush up on their skills and improve their prospects in the job market. If this describes you, here’s what you’ll need to know.

If you’re returning to school, we’ll assume you’ve been in the workforce for a while; if you’re going for an undergraduate degree, you may be able to receive credit for previous experience. Talk to an advisor at your school and find out if you can apply previous college credits or test out of lower-level classes. On the other hand, you might need remedial work in some areas, most likely in mathematics; your advisor can tell you how to set up a placement test to determine whether you’re ready for classes. A college education isn’t for everyone, but someone who’s been in the workforce and is making an informed decision to go back for more education is well-positioned to succeed.

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College Education: Not For Everyone

These days, it seems the conventional wisdom is that everyone should go to college. What nonsense!

True, a bachelor’s degree is pretty much required for many entry-level jobs these days, but for other positions that pay just as well, you’re better off going to a trade school and learning a skill. I’m all for getting a well-rounded college education even if it has no practical relevance to what you’re doing, but if I’m hiring a plumber, I’d rather have someone who spent two years learning all about pipes.

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No Child Left Behind..Unless They Want To Be

My second year teaching middle school, our slogan was “Failure is not an option”. The official policy was that every student has the ability to succeed and it was our job to help them do so.

Well, yes, that’s true. Every child can learn. The problem is, not every child WANTS to learn. For some students, school is something they do a couple times a month when disrupting class sounds more interesting than whatever else they had planned that day. For some, school is something they do because the court orders them to show up. No, I’m not exaggerating – both were true of multiple students.

On to the rant. According to the right, only three things are required to make all students succeed: replace all public schools with private and charter schools, test constantly, and outlaw unions.

Continue reading No Child Left Behind..Unless They Want To Be