People learn things for a variety of different reasons: to get a good grade, to earn a degree, to get a better job, to earn a badge or certificate to display on their website. But, I think the most important reason to learn is for its own sake. Or, as the physicist Richard Feynman put it, for "the pleasure of finding things out."
The opportunities and resources for learning are growing exponentially thanks to the internet. To name just a few websites where you could spend days learning just for the sake of learning: TED, YouTube.edu, iTunes U, Coursera, Udemy.
With so many options for learning and so many people taking advantage of them I think a value shift is underway. Learning for the sake of learning will be the primary type of learning valued.
In John Kay's excellent book Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly, he discusses the notion that for many of our ultimate aims the best way to achieve them is not to aim directly at them. Right now, this is radically different than how we think of learning and education. We currently discount the potential benefits of learning for the sake of learning in favor of the direct, tangible benefits of the degree, the certificate, the job. What would things look like if we stopped focusing on these outcomes directly and began focusing on learning?
1. We would enjoy our life and our learning more. We lose so much of the joy of learning when we focus instead on the direct goal of earning the A, getting the degree, getting the job. We turn learning into work and, for many, work is not fun. We struggle to find a motivation because we have given up on what would intrinsically motivate us and instead focus on external motivations. Focusing on learning itself changes all of that. But, what about those external reasons for learning?
2. The degree would take care of itself. When I was in college I discovered that I could enjoy any class I was in by connecting what was being taught in the course with what I was interested in. I became a master of being able to write papers for the class that I would enjoy writing because they were about subjects I cared about. Sometimes this meant I had to be a bit of a salesman to get my idea accepted for the paper assignment in the course. But, in almost every case I was able to succeed. And, in doing so I had fun learning and the grades and the degree took care of themselves.
3. The employment will also take care of itself. Put yourself in the place of an interviewer for a job you want. The interviewer has a choice between two candidates. The first candidate has a conventional four year degree in English or Communications or some other general education major. For the sake of this example I should point out that this candidate's degree does qualify them for the job for which they are interviewing.
The second candidate does not have a conventional degree. What this candidate has is a digital portfolio which outlines all of the learning activities they have engaged in for the past 5 years including such things as: taking courses online from universities all of the country (a psychology course from Harvard, a biology course from Yale, communications from Duke, history from UCLA, and so on). To show mastery of the material in each of these courses the candidate has written several papers on various topics related to the course and many papers showing connections between several courses and the insights gained from them.
This candidate also has links to various other online profiles including a LinkedIn profile with quite a few connections, endorsements, and recommendations. An active Twitter account with a decent number of followers and retweets. Several internships with companies in fields relevant to the job they are interview for now with recommendations from those in the company that the candidate worked with.
Like many jobs that this second candidate has interviewed for, this one has a formal degree requirement but it is not a requirement that is inflexible. This second candidate was able to get an interview on the basis of their portfolio and is in the running for the job. So, if you were the interviewer which candidate would you hire?
For more check out Thomas Friedman's insightful article "How to Get a Job at Google."