For the past week or so, I’ve been trying to learn Swift, which is a programming language used to make iPhone apps. I’m working my way through a free intro course on Udacity, which has been very helpful and a good reminder of how much great stuff there is on the internet. The course explains things clearly, which is nice, but the best part of the course is that it teaches how to learn more by yourself. This ability to use Swift’s documentation and Google searching to answer questions is easily the most valuable skill taught by the course. All of the knowledge necessary to become a master programmer seems to be freely available on the internet, if you know how to find and comprehend it.
That’s probably true for a lot of things besides computer programming. It is certainly true for significant parts of my job analyzing federal budget policy. The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency within the Legislative Branch, publishes budget and economic outlooks that are an excellent and freely available introduction to the federal budget. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, publishes an excellent series of “Policy Basics” on key issues. If I need to answer a budget question I don’t already know, my first step is often to Google it.
The ability to answer questions with a Google search is so powerful that someone made an entire website devoted to mocking people who don’t understand it, called LetMeGoogleThatForYou.com. If someone asks you a question that could easily be Googled, you can use that website to create a custom link to Google that for them. Here’s an example. There was even a Senate bill called the “Let Me Google That For You Act,” which I learned while making that example.
Of course, there is more to learning than Google searching. I’d argue the most important part of learning is interacting with other people. Those conversations challenge assumptions, identify gaps in knowledge, offer new perspectives, and share information learned over a lifetime. As much as I value Google and the Congressional Budget Office in my work, the strongest foundation for my understanding of budget policy comes from the people I worked with during my previous job at the U.S. Senate and my current job at the Center for American Progress.
The benefits of social interaction are always going to be an advantage that traditional schools have over online education (also better sports programs—On Wisconsin!). But the better online learning tools seem to recognize this, and do their best to create as much interaction with real people as possible. The Udacity course I’m taking frequently points users to their message board, where people taking the same course can share their progress and ask questions. This blog post is actually part of my Udacity course, which included an assignment to write a blog about an idea I’ve learned in the course. So I wrote about learning how to find solutions using online resources, and I’d be interested to hear your feedback!