The university has existed as an institution for almost a thousand years, but the motivations that drive people to earn college degrees are much older. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has identified a "seeking system" in the brain that makes intellectual discovery rewarding in itself. There is the emotional need to form communities with mentors and peers. And there is the physical need to earn a living. As I describe in my books DIY U and The Edupunks' Guide, a progressive, self-directed learning movement, which dates back more than a century and has been meeting the explosion in information technology over the last 20 years, is enabling learners to satisfy all these needs in new ways.
Martha Chumo, of Kenya, is a case study. As an 18-year-old, she landed an internship in the summer of 2012. Having daily access to a computer for the first time, she was fascinated to learn how it worked. Starting with Google, she began to learn how to code. Like most self-directed learners, Ms. Chumo used a mixture of online and offline resources. She became a moderator on Codecademy, a free site for learning code. She joined Twitter to talk to others interested in programming. She joined Treehouse, a Web site that offers video-based classes, an online community, and a badging system to keep people motivated while learning Web design. She started contributing to open-source coding projects on GitHub. In real life she spent hours practicing at the Nairobi iHub, which provides office space for start-ups, and mentored other aspiring coders.
Within less than a year, Ms. Chumo had realized one of the conventional outcomes of a college degree: She landed a job, in a growing and competitive field, as a Web developer. But what comes through in her writing online is another set of outcomes associated with higher learning: the sense of identity, mission, and possibility. "Programming opened an unknown world to me," she has written. Best part about coding for her? "Teaching and giving back to the community," she has said.
And she was out of pocket barely more than the cost of her laptop.
Ms. Chumo is exceptional for her talent and self-motivation. We want education to develop each person's talent and motivation, no matter the circumstances of her birth. It must be radically affordable, near-universally accessible, diverse, and endlessly customizable to students' needs. Universities can simply get out of the way of this movement, or they can guide an increasing number of students toward self-direction by certifying and assessing prior learning and multiple paths toward mastery of a subject, and by offering learning resources, mentorship, support, and even physical meeting spaces, all at low cost and on an as-needed basis. In this vision, an experience like Ms. Chumo's is no longer the outlier; it becomes the ideal.