Episode 145 - Learning Circle
Published February 12, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Max Holzheu. Education. It's a core fundamental of any functioning society. And yet, is the way we educate keeping up with the way the rest of society is changing? Many people think there's room for substantial change when it comes to how we learn. On this episode, we're joined by Ruby-On-Rails developer Max Holzheu to talk about a project he's working on in the education space and also how he's used the Internet personally to shift how he approaches learning. Recorded 2/1/2015.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Max on Twitter
Hackschooling Makes Me Happy, Logan LaPlante (TEDxUniversityOfNevada)
One World Schoolhouse, by Salman Khan (founder of the Khan Academy)
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #145. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us tonight as our guest is Max Holzheu. Max, thanks for joining us.
Max Holzheu: Thanks for having me.
MJ: Could you give us a little bit about your background before we dig into the specific project that you’re here to talk about?
MH: I started teaching myself to code a year ago. It’s interesting; I graduated from high school a couple of years ago and, in short, I just decided not to go to college because I saw how the internet has evolved and how it has become this great source of knowledge, and I saw college as exactly that--as a place where you can get both knowledge and networking. That’s basically what I did, I just decided not to go to college, and I tried to seek out networking events and opportunities by myself and just go from there. I’m actually a web developer right now at Junto Studio. We work as a web consultancy and we try to release our own programs as well.
MJ: You’re a Ruby on Rails developer, right?
MH: That’s correct.
MJ: And you’ve basically taught yourself Ruby on Rails?
MH: Yeah. I basically started googling “How to teach yourself how to code,” that’s how I started. I came across a video by Mattan Griffel which tells you the language. The real specifics of how to learn how to code isn’t as important as just starting out. So, he recommended starting with Ruby on Rails, so I followed his advice.
MJ: We connected with you on Volley, which is a social network that Mike Murchison is one of the cofounders of, who was on a previous episode with us, and you mentioned a project specifically for learning called Circle. Could you tell us a little bit about that project?
MH: Circle is a project we started at Junto because we saw how that without a college degree or an institution backing up your learning or knowledge, it’s really difficult for students or older people to actually prove that they know things. So, we started out trying to solve that problem. What we did was create a platform called Circle, which enables people create courses, have them published to everyone and for it to have a lot of accountability by the rest of the network. In that way, you can prove that you actually took whatever course you wanted or learned whatever skill you needed to learn, giving you a portfolio to show your future employer as proof of what you have done so far.
MJ: Is this a website now or is it an app that people can get on their smartphone?
MH: Currently it’s a responsive website, so you can use it on your browser, mobile phone. It’s in private beta, so it’s not yet available but we plan on releasing it soon to the public.
MJ: Are you guys ready for people to sign up for it when it goes into an expanded beta or live to the public? Is this something that will be coming out soon?
MH: It’s something we’re planning on rolling out in a couple weeks from now. I don’t have an exact date, but we can link it in the shownotes later.
MJ: For you as a student, you had just graduated high school, I’m curious as to what some of the reasons for why you decided not to go to college. You mentioned a couple of them, but could you elaborate a little bit?
MH: When I finished graduating, I didn’t have any weird ideas about not going to college or anything. I was, in a word, curious in high school and I just had a curious mind, so just by sheer luck I got linked up with some Thiel fellows, from the foundation that Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, started. I managed to go and meet them and stay with them for a month in San Francisco, where I got infected by the startup virus and the “Do it yourself, take control of your own education.” When I came back, I realized “Well, I guess I just have to get going. I don’t need an institution or anyone to tell me to start learning or what to learn. I can just google whatever and take the first step, even if I don’t have a specific curriculum in mind.” So, I started doing that and in the meantime I also applied to a couple of colleges. I applied to Stanford and Northwestern and these super huge nice colleges and I got rejected by all of them. I think it was both a blessing and a curse as because of that rejection, I actually got to meet all these sorts of nice people who have helped me out throughout this journey. To answer your question, one of the things I found is the freedom you have when you aren’t bound to a curriculum or some specific order of courses that you have to do. We’ve all seen or heard of people that are stuck in their own majors and that there some classes they really hate along with classes they really love, and they have a certain amount of time devoted to each one of them. I really saw it as an opportunity as “Well, if I want to learn something, I will just learn it. I don’t want or need anyone to tell me how or in what order I should learn things.” So, that’s been a great part of it.
MJ: In addition to Circle, are there any other of the e-learning platforms that you’ve used yourself? I’m thinking of anything from Skillshare all the way to Uversity or Udacity. I have a bunch of them installed, actually. Coursera is another one of them. I read about those as startups all the time. It seems like there’s been a lot of activity; are there any other platforms like those that you’ve used yourself whose ideas you’re looking to incorporate into Circle? What has your experience been like with those kinds of platforms, or are you just finding blog postings and Youtube videos for some of the stuff that you’re trying to learn?
MH: That’s a great question. I’ve heard of a lot of them. How I started was I started using a site called Lynda.com, and they offer you a free trial week. So, I just signed up for it and in one week I completed the Rails course and canceled the subscription beforehand, and that’s how I got started. But there are so, so many different services out there--you mentioned them. I’ve used Khan Academy, Coursera, Pluralsight, Code School, Team Treehouse. I’ve used so many of them. The idea behind Circle is actually to integrate those platforms at a higher level. Say maybe I’m a student or an unschooler, whatever, and I want to do a course on Coursera for example. We’re trying to integrate all of those sites so that you can actually see what courses you’ve taken on what sites. Since all the content is already available, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here, we’re just trying to make it really easy for students to show the courses they’ve actually taken. That’s the main idea behind it.
MJ: One of the things you mentioned right away triggered something that I know Matt and I have talked about quite about, which is that with the internet, it seems basically all of humanity is at everyone’s fingertips. I’m always amazed that more people don’t use it for things. You said you googled “learn how to code”; I google things like “What’s the best shampoo?” Literally every decision I have to make, I go to the internet and look for research and reviews and all of that on literally everything, and a lot of the things I’ve found range from learning materials all the way down to books or movies or media and things like that, or actual products to make your life easier everyday. I’ve just found so much. I’m always surprised that more people don’t do that.
MH: Absolutely. It’s funny because I see this movement in myself, I’ve used myself as a guinea pig of that sort of movement. Using a site called CouchSurfing, I’ve found a place to stay here in Austin; I’ve been here for three weeks and I still haven’t figured out a permanent place to stay--I’ve been jumping around from place to place. The interesting part of it is how it’s become this huge network of possibilities, both in the real world as well as online and offline. It’s been great to see how the internet has helped me go to restaurants, for example, and to see what the best dishes are at certain restaurants. Or where to stay. I actually have no place to stay in two days, I have no idea where I’m going to sleep that night, but I’m confident that using sites like CouchSurfing or AirBnB, I’m going to be able to find a place and for cheap. It’s really cool how the internet has changed my life really. I learn from it, I experience it every day. It’s amazing.
MB: I’m sure a lot of your friends went off to college after high school. You keep reading all these stories about how kids are leaving college with $80,000 of debt and no job. Do you think you’re at an advantage now because you didn’t go that route?
MH: It’s difficult to say. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily an advantage; I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. I have had a very clear sense of what I wanted to do since two years before graduating, so in my case it was just starting, just going for it. In many cases, a lot of students don’t really have an idea of what they want to do, so especially in those cases, I don’t recommend people to just go to college and spend a lot of money trying to get a degree you aren’t really passionate about. That being said, it really depends on the person. I know I’ve been very self-disciplined my whole life--when I taught myself to code, I woke up at 9 AM, spent the whole day coding, went to sleep and then started it all over again the next day. It was a great joy to me because I really enjoyed it, but I could see how someone would be more inclined to try different things and move around. It’s different for everyone. I’m not sure there’s a certain path that everyone should follow. Maybe the key insight here is that college is not the only way to go--you should be able to think outside the box of just college and really decide what’s best for you.
MJ: I don’t know if this is too personal of a question, so if it is, we can skip it, but how did your parents react to the whole unschooling process? Did they have a certain concept of “This is how you go from elementary school, high school, college, and then job”? Did they have that concept or were they pretty open to this idea.
MH: This is a very important question when you’ve just graduated high school--parents have the power, they have the money and you don’t have much experience. So, if you want to do something and you don’t have their full approval, it can be very difficult to actually take that route. In my case, I went to San Francisco and when I came back, I was waiting for the college decisions while I was teaching myself to code. So, when the time came that I had to make a decision, I actually had something to show. They had seen me wake up and spend the whole day just coding and doing this stuff, I had shown them what I had built so far. That gave them a lot of confidence to actually believe in me, because at first they didn’t agree with me. They were like “No, you have to go to college. It’s just the way it’s done.” It was sort of a negotiation, because on one side it was a gamble, in their eyes, to do something differently. But with my case, what I tried to say to them was “Well, college is expensive. I already know exactly what I’m going to do, I’m in this great position.” Even before I had made the decision not to apply to colleges, I already had this job offer in Germany and I knew that I was going to be learning and having a lot of relationships with people close to the UFM, which is the biggest university in Guatemala. So, that’s what convinced them. I did have some connections to college, that was the final ticking point. But I’m sure that once they take the step, there’s no going back. I can only see how my little brothers are going to take the same steps. It’s been a great journey so far. I see how they’ve learned about how a lot of the current education system is broken.
MJ: You’re a lot closer to being in high school than Matt and I are. Matt and I actually have known each other since junior high but we went to the same high school. We’ve talked a lot about the education we got and how the teachers taught. Matt’s analogy was “Once you finish one year, it’s like learning 80% of how to ride a bike and they push you onto the next year and then they hand you a unicycle and go ‘Okay, here you go kid.’” It’s always seemed to me that teaching is very grounded in almost 19th century thought and it’s really geared to turning out your 20th-style worker--someone who shows up on time, follows instructions and can recite certain basic things from memory. It seems like those skills are really terrible fits for the economy now. Do you think they’re still pushing those kinds of things to the detriment of other skills or has it changed at all since Matt and I were in high school?
MH: I don’t think so. I think it’s become a little less rigorous, but the idea behind it is still the same. Like you said, the classes are forty-five minutes and then you have a five minute break, and then you have to prepare to take a completely different class. For example, I have a history class and we learn about the wars and how it all happened, and then we start wondering and letting our minds be free, and then after forty-five minutes or bell rings and now you have math in five minutes. You have to cut whatever you’re thinking and just focus on the next thing and it cuts off all the creative thinking that arises from all the information that was shared. So, this kind of segmented learning is what we at Junto Studio are trying to fight. We actually don’t have managers at our company, everything is discussed through the socratic method. We all get together in a skype call or a hangout and basically just discuss things and come to a consensus, and that’s how decisions are made. That’s how we learn as well; we have some learning groups and the idea is that there is a guide or mentor who would grade and evaluate the work, but it’s more of a passive role. The way that the students learn is by each one of them teaching each other in a peer-to-peer way. For example, we’re trying to solve a math problem--I get a little tiny part of it and I can explain it to you, and in return I understand it better because teaching also helps you understand it. Then the other person takes another part and they try to explain it to you, and in the end it all works out, you get real knowledge. It’s very different to have some friend of yours explain something instead of an authority figure, like a coach. That’s what we’ve used and it’s worked out really well. We’ve also just recently made a website for Acton Academy, which is a school here in Austin, and that’s basically how they teach there. Teachers aren’t allowed to make statements, they can only ask questions. For example, if someone asks them “Hey, I don’t know how to solve this puzzle, can you help me?” they’ll say “How have you tried to solve it? What has been your strategy so far? Have you tried this, or this other thing? Or have you thought of this?” instead of just cramming all of the information inside a kid’s head.
MJ: Is there anything else that you definitely want to make sure that we get in this particular episode?
MH: The thing is we just have to evolve. Like you said, the need to memorize things isn’t as important anymore--we have google. So, creative thinking is more of a useful skillset to have these days. I guess it will happen eventually, it’s just a matter of time.
MJ: I’ve been really surprised--for my career, I’m a systems engineer and I work with a lot of Microsoft Windows server products and with the certifications tests that you take for those, they take away your smartphone immediately, they don’t let you access the internet. I would say 99% of my job is that’s what I do, I spend all my time on the internet looking for solutions to the problems that I run into. They’re not actually testing you on the best way to solve a problem, they’re testing you on the Microsoft book way to solve the problem. So, there’s a huge disconnect between the certifications that I have to take for my career and my actual work.
MH: Absolutely, and we’ve seen that as well. We’ve seen some companies that already have people asking “Can I google this” like for a web developer interview or whatever. “Can I google this?” “Sure man, why not? It’s how you’re going to be solving these problems anyway.” If you can google and find the solution easier than you can just try to solve it yourself, then the better for everyone.
MJ: It certainly seems like it to me. Throughout my career, I’ve learned from people that have walked in and have never really done support before, all the way up to people that have been doing things thirty years longer than me, so. I’ve always found that the people around you are good sources as well. In a lot of those testing situations, they disconnect you from everybody that you would ask questions of.
MH: Definitely. That’s what we should strive for: make the testing environment as close to the actual production as possible. So, if you want to join Circle, please do. We’d appreciate some feedback. And if you found yourself identified by these sorts of practices, I’d love to know.
MJ: Well Max, thanks so much for joining us.
MH: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for this radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode in our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.
Image Credit: Public domain (via Wikimedia)