Open source software is, by definition, free. But it can sometimes cost you a king's ransom to learn how to master it. The good news? The open source ethos is alive and well in the education sector, and there are plenty of high-quality learning resources available. You just need to know where to find them.
This article—adapted from my book, Solving for Technology: How to quickly learn valuable new skills in a madly changing technology world—offers some thoughts on what's out there and how to get the most out of it.
How do you learn best—video courses? Hands-on interactive classes? And what are you usually looking for when you go hunting for knowledge—fast fixes to immediate problems? Deep understanding of an entire technology? Quick and dirty getting-starting guides?
Whatever you're after, you're more likely to find it if you know what's out there. So keep your mind open to the many categories of teaching tools that exist, and join me for a tour of the current state of online technology education.
Most of the heavily edited, peer-reviewed courses available online live behind paywalls—but not all. freeCodeCamp, as its name suggests, is free. And by free, I don't mean the site exists to drive traffic to some revenue-generating web page—it's completely free, simply because its creators believe such opportunities should exist.
The idea behind freeCodeCamp is that "campers" work their way through realistic projects centered around coding challenges. But this site is different in a few important ways. First, campers are encouraged to join other local campers so they can code in mutually supportive groups. Once they've worked through the Front End, Data Visualization, Back End, or Full Stack certifications, campers are also encouraged to gain real-world experience by coding for non-profits. Finally, freeCodeCamp guides graduates through the job search and interviewing stages of their young careers.
Wondering how to change the bulb on the passenger-side brake light on your 2010 Dodge Caravan (3.8L)? There's a YouTube video that'll show you. Need to replace the pressure sensor on your ten-year-old Carrier forced-air natural gas furnace? There's another YouTube video that'll show you how to do that. In fact, there's a selection of YouTube videos that can show you how to do just about anything you can imagine—and a great many things you can't (and perhaps shouldn't).
Got a specific problem that's blocking your progress? Looking for a bird's eye overview of your next language? Someone out there has probably already been there and recorded the solution in a video. Also, keep an eye out for video authors you like and subscribe to their YouTube channels. That makes it easier to find more useful content.
Perhaps the most famous and successful YouTube channel of all is Salman Khan's Khan Academy. Although it's primarily aimed at K-12 students, there's plenty of useful content for people taking their first steps in programming (or physics or electrical engineering, for that matter).
Top 4 MOOCs
The cost of traditional higher education programs has ballooned in recent decades. Currently, a four-year degree in the US can cost about five times the median annual household income in 2016 (around $59,000). Even if your degree ends up earning you an extra $20,000 per year beyond what you would have earned without it, it would still take you more than ten years just to break even (and perhaps many additional years to pay off the actual interest-carrying debt).
Investments like that might not make a lot of sense. But what if you could get the same knowledge at no cost at all?
Welcome to the world of the massive open online course (MOOC). A MOOC is a platform through which existing educational institutions deliver course content to anyone on the internet who's interested.
By joining a MOOC, you can view video recordings of lectures from some of the best professors at elite universities and engage in simulated interactive labs, all at no cost and from the comfort of your own home. In many cases, you can also receive credit or certification for successfully completing a course. Certification often does carry some charges, but they are much lower than what you'd pay for a traditional degree.
The downside—although not everyone will consider this a downside—is that many university-based MOOCs are less job- and industry-focused and spend more time on general theory. They sometimes also expect you to have already mastered some prerequisite STEM skills.
Here are four major MOOC portals:
- Coursera: Taking the 4- to 10-week Coursera courses is free, including quizzes and exercises. But they also offer fee-based add-ons such as assessments, grades, and certification. Specializations are multiple Coursera courses organized into a larger program like Data Science or Deep Learning. To earn a specialization certificate, students must complete a capstone project at the end. Coursera categories include Computer Science, Data Science, and Information Technology.
- edX: Originally created by MIT and Harvard University, edX is a non-profit organization that delivers courseware created by more than 100 universities and colleges. Students may audit a course for free, or for a reasonable fee, gain verified certificates of completion.
- MIT OpenCourseWare: OpenCourseWare isn't really a learning platform, and it won't help you much if you're looking for an organized guide through a particular topic. Rather, it's an online repository containing notes, quizzes, and some videos from thousands of MIT courses. The content can give you insights into specific questions, and if you're ambitious and determined enough, you could mine entire topics from the rich resources you'll find.
- Udacity: I included Udacity in this higher education section because that's where its roots lie. But while the project's founders came from the Stanford University faculty, it was originally something of a rebellion against the high costs and distracting bloat of many university degree programs. Rather than spending four (or more) years studying material that's largely out of sync with the demands of the real job market, it proposes, why not focus on the skills the industry is looking for and get it done in much less time and for a tiny fraction of the cost?
Udacity currently offers a couple dozen or so nano-degrees that can get to you beyond entry-level competence in some high-demand fields in just a few months. Because the nano-degrees are created with the direct involvement of major industry employers like Amazon, Nvidia, and Google, hard-working graduates have a decent chance of quickly landing a great job.
Tips for using the internet
There's a world of help waiting for you out there. Don't miss it. A few tips:
Learn to compose smart search strings
Internet search is much more than simply typing a few related words into the search field and hitting Enter. Here are some powerful tips that will work on any major search engine (my personal favorite is DuckDuckGo):
Use your problem to find a solution
Thousands of people have worked with the same technology you’re learning, and odds are at least some of them have encountered the same problems you have. And at least a few of those folks will likely have posted their questions to an online user forum like Stack Overflow. The quickest way to find the answers they found is to search using the same language that you encountered.
Did your problem generate an error message? Paste that exact text into your search engine. Were there any log messages? Post those, too.
The internet has billions of pages, and vague search results are bound to include a lot of false positives, so be as precise as possible. One powerful trick: Enclose your error message in quotation marks, which tells the search engine that you’re looking for an exact phrase rather than a single result containing all or most of the words somewhere on the page. Just don’t be so specific that you end up narrowing your results down to zero.
As an example, for an entry from the Apache error log like this:
[Fri Dec 16 02:15:44 2017] [error] [client 188.8.131.52] Client sent malformed Host header
Leave out the date and client IP address because there’s no way anyone else got those exact details. Instead, include only the
"Client sent..." part (in quotations):
"Client sent malformed Host header"
If that’s still too broad, consider adding the strings
[error] outside the quotation marks:
"Client sent malformed Host header" apache [error]
Search engines let you narrow down your search by time. If your problem is specific to a relatively recent release version, restrict your search to only the last week or month.
Search in all the right places
Sometimes an outside search engine will do a better job searching through a large website than the site’s own internal tool (I’m looking at you, Government of Canada). If you feel the solution to your problem is likely to be somewhere on a particular site—like Stack Overflow’s admin cousin, Server Fault—but you can’t find it, restrict results to only that one site:
"gssacceptsec_context(2) failed:" site:serverfault.com
Leverage public code samples
Are you stuck in a way that only a developer can be stuck? You've read your code through over and over again and you just can't find the error. You've tried at least a half a dozen different design approaches and even—briefly, mind you—an entirely different language. Nothing. The application isn't working.
Haunt GitHub and other places where public repositories of code live. They're all searchable and filled with examples of great code. Of course, there will also be plenty of examples of really bad and even malicious code, so keep your guard up.
Browsing through other people's code is a great way to get new ideas and learn about best practices and coding patterns. If your search engine skills are as good as I'm guessing, then you'll probably uncover working solutions to whatever it is that ails you.
More free stuff
You don't have to do this all by yourself. Before embarking on a significant new learning project, take a good look at your community and government to see what services are available.
Many governments offer support—both financial and practical—for people looking to upgrade their professional skills. There are also more and more state/provincial governments joining the open textbook movement, where well-written, up-to-date technical textbooks are made freely available on the internet. At this point, the quality of most collections looks a bit spotty, but the long-term goal is to cut the cost of an education by many hundreds of dollars.
Your company might be willing to sponsor your learning. Many companies provide their employees with accounts to online learning sites; sometimes it's just a matter of asking your boss or HR rep what is available.
And what about your community? You might be surprised at how many older, experienced professionals are eager to engage in mentoring. It might take a bit of courage, but go ahead and approach someone you admire to see what wisdom and practical guidance they might offer.
This article was adapted from the book Solving for Technology: How to quickly learn valuable new skills in a madly changing technology world. As an exclusive offer to the opensource.com community, feel free to download a PDF version of the full book.