What I miss most about university

Posted on September 22, 2013

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Seven years since I started university, I miss it. But it isn’t the lack of responsibility I miss the most, turning up to lectures still drunk from the night before, endless summers doing nothing. What I miss most is the learning.

That’s not what university is for, I hear you cry. University is to figure out how to be a grown-up, get away from your parents, learn to cook something that doesn’t come straight from the freezer (eventually). And yes, this is of course true.

But how often do you get chance to learn just for the sake of it? How many times in your life do you find out about something just because? I didn’t appreciate the fact that I did it then and I haven’t done it since.

That’s not completely true. Being a journalist, I find out new things every day. It’s always functional, though; there’s always a point.

The joy of university is that you don’t have to have a reason. Want to study how dolphins communicate? Why not. Want to analyse sexism in children’s literature? Go ahead. Want to come up with a theory about human behaviour, investigate it, find out it’s completely untrue and write it up anyway? That’s what uni’s made for.

Being a grown-up in the real world means you don’t get to do stuff for no reason. That’s because 90 per cent of your time is filled with doing something for a pay cheque that you get to keep 10 per cent of by the time you’ve paid the bills, if you’re lucky. You don’t have the time to go to an evening class and you certainly don’t have the money.

I’d pretty much accepted this as a fact of life when I heard about Moocs. That’s massive open online courses, for those not up to date with the latest education lingo.

Moocs are massive because participants run into the hundreds of thousands and open because they’re available to anybody, regardless of qualifications. And they’re not just some guy on YouTube telling you stuff that may or may not be true – they’re run by universities or education institutions, proper clever people. They’re usually in video format and come with supporting online materials.

My search took me to this list of 750 free online Moocs and then a list of certificate-bearing courses. At this point, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop – do I want to study Hannibal? Or perhaps Economic Crisis and Globalisation? With so many choices I’m at serious risk of wanting to study everything right now.

Then last week, FutureLearn launched, the first UK-based online learning platform (the world – well, the US – has been ahead of the curve on this for some time). At the moment, it offers around 20 courses from UK unis, covering subjects from building your first mobile game to dental photography.

So far, I’ve signed up to Think Again: How to Reason and Argue. I hope that this will teach me to win more arguments. I concluded that dental photography wasn’t for me. I also have a long list of courses I want to take once I’ve completed this one.

I love the idea of this – bringing education to anybody who just wants to learn just because. I love that I want to learn and that thousands of other people do too. And I love that I can study anywhere, whenever I like.

So wish me luck. And if you fancy it, sign up for a couple yourself. There’s no one to prove anything to; no one cares if you turn up for lectures or not. But there’s lots to learn if you just want to.

Image from Abizern’s photostream at Flickr.

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