What I Learned About Self-Directed Learning In Tokyo

During my Gap Year with UnCollege, I spent 3 months in Tokyo, Japan teaching English, doing housekeeping, learning Japanese, touristing around and making connections with super cool people. While I was there, I learned a few valuable insights about self-directed learning, specifically self-directed learning in another culture as contrasted with the culture I’ve lived in my whole life.

Japan is a place where conformity is valued highly, especially in the school and work culture of fast-paced Tokyo. It is said in Japan that if everyone behaves in the same way, they keep the harmony of the country. That’s a heavy burden for anyone who is at all “different.”

I was working in an English conversation cafe teaching English in a more informal setting than most Japanese people were used to; using conversation instead of lessons to teach. The first thing I always heard from newcomers was that this was different than anything they had ever experienced. In school, they “learned” English by studying spelling and grammar lessons. Even though they studied English for the majority of their schooling (all of middle and high school), when they came out of school, they couldn’t speak a word. All those years, they never practiced actually speaking English. They could read and (kind of) understand English, but they had no idea what it sounded like or how it felt in their mouths as they said it. They didn’t know how to form the sounds of the alphabet or make words or sentences.

At the cafe I worked at, everything was based around speaking and listening. New, random vocabulary wasn’t dished out using worksheets that were due at a certain time on a certain day. Instead, when someone encountered a word they didn’t know, they asked a question, looked it up in an English-to-Japanese dictionary or googled it on their phone. After they understood the word and how it fit into the sentence, then we would continue our conversation. So, what if someone came in knowing no English whatsoever? I would get a third party to translate between us and talk really slowly and simply. A lot of people would just sit and listen, occasionally asking questions to someone in Japanese, until one day, they would venture into speaking a few sentences of broken English. I saw this happen many times, and it always seemed like a brilliant transformation of the student.

While I went through my 3 months there, learning, working and touristing, I made notes in my head about self-directed learners and what I learned about them that crossed all lines of culture. Though there was a lot that I learned, the following three points are, I think, the most important things I learned during my time there.

  1. Self-Directed Learners Are Different

While many people are equipped to become self-directed learners, not everyone who can will. That said, not everyone is equipped to do it. The people who have already crossed that line are different than the mainstream of people inside their culture. And they were probably already “weird” before they started educating themselves. Self-directed learners are different, we use our time differently than most, and are usually ambitious as fuck. I met students who wanted to learn up to 7 languages, were freelance translators, wanted to change the education system and even owned their own businesses. I also learned that it was often viewed as a bad thing in Japan to be different and that these people were taking a risk socially by learning to speak English and pursue the other things they were learning or doing.

Self-directed learners are viewed as different, no matter where they live, because they are learning outside the system. We’re usually always viewed as different to begin with, but the fact that we learn on our own definitely is another thing that sets us apart. Usually, self-directed learners are also very ambitious. And you have to be in order to teach yourself something and really follow through on that.

The best self-directed learners are proud of that which sets them apart. The students I had that did the best were the ones who would look to see if someone was listening and then say to me “I’m weird.” And smile. In Japan, this is a big thing to do because their culture is very centered around conformity and the idea of being “normal.” Some students would even go on short angry rants about how they hate this about Japan. But other students, usually the ones who didn’t try too hard and didn’t return often, whenever someone would point out that they might be weird or different, they would come back with “No I’m not. I’m normal!” And they would say it urgently, looking unsettled, an unspoken fear showing on their faces. The more they embraced their weirdness, the better they did. It was a really interesting correlation I found as I taught there over the course of 3 months.

  1. You can’t do it alone

This I found in my own experiences as I ventured around Tokyo. Without the help of other people, I would have not gotten much accomplished. I would’ve spent most of my time lost, probably would’ve gone broke and might not have been able to muster up the courage to face culture shock and the language barrier every day. Alone, I would’ve learned little to no Japanese. With help of friends and teachers in Japan, I learned enough to be able to survive any given day in Japan. With the help of friends, I found work and therefore money. I met friends of the friends I made while teaching and ended up making lasting friendships with people I still talk to.

One of my goals while I was in Japan was to keep a daily writing practice. Without Hisa, a friend I met at the cafe where I taught English, I wouldn’t have known where outside my house I could write and research on my computer (most coffee shops in Japan don’t have wifi), and I wouldn’t have had anyone to keep me accountable. After meeting him, we started hanging out at the library, writing together between the hours of my morning housekeeping job and my night English teaching job. He did all his writing freelance, so he made his hours fit with mine, which was awesome. He also made sure I wrote at least 1,000 words a day.

Just because you’re self-directed doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. If you want good results, you really shouldn’t. With other people to  help motivate and keep you accountable, you achieve a lot more than you would alone, not to mention that they can introduce you to new connections.

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself

When I was in Japan, I kept falling short of my goals in respect to language learning and writing. The more I tried, the more I failed. And when I failed, I was super hard on myself for it. I would get mad at myself and ruin my own day because of it.

In contrast, when I was teaching English and my students beat up on themselves even a little bit, I would call them out and tell them to stop. I would tell them that they’re learning and it’s okay to not be perfect, and that they needed to be nicer to themselves. It took me a while to realise what I hypocrite I was being. It took me even longer to take my own advice and put it into practice.

Often, we expect too much from ourselves, and when we don’t meet our goals, we become angry at ourselves. We go over all the reasons we failed. We beat ourselves down and that doesn’t help anything. This is probably the most important thing I learned in Japan. That I need to be kind and understanding to myself instead of expecting to succeed every time and getting mad over failures of any kind. I thought, if my students did this, I would call them out. And there was no one to call me out most of the time, so I didn’t catch on to this bad trend until a lot later than I should’ve. There’s a balance between completing goals, being held accountable and just letting up on all the pressure we put on ourselves.

In the end, we won’t get as much done, learn as much or be as awesome if we spend a ton of time being down on ourselves. Instead, if we let up on ourselves and treat ourselves like people, we’ll bounce back from failure faster and learn more than we could otherwise. We’ll be better at communicating with others and managing our stress, which leads to a higher awesomeness level and overall a better life.

So there you have it: embrace your weird, get buddies to learn alongside and be nice to yourself. I learned a lot during my three months in Japan, but I would say that these three things are the most important things I learned. And I’m not a prime example of someone who is a master of any of these. I struggle with them all the time. But I’m working towards something better every day. And that’s what matters. It’s the journey, not the destination. And if you keep that in mind, the journey will be ever more meaningful for you and you’ll grow way more than you would’ve otherwise.

Posted by on October 4, 2014
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Fall 2014 Reading List

Here’s a peek at what our UnCollege fellows and staff are reading this fall:



Jon Gordon photo

Jon is one of our coaches who specializes in non-violent communication and facilitation.


Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan. One of Google’s earliest engineers  breaks down  emotional intelligence in a google/science way.  Along the way providing evidence that mindfulness and vulnerability are not only important in life but key components to success and happiness



Morgan is a writer interning at UnCollege. He does content marketing and administration.



Shakespeare’s Sonnets. A challenging read for sure, but the imagery in his words  is unparalleled. Worth reading for anyone with any interest in poetry or english literature.

Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. If you want to know where a lot of America’s founders believed about government, you should know that many of them studied from this work. It influenced the government we’re in now so highly that many of the concepts – once you get past the Old English writing – are common sense to us now.

Sovereign by Ted Dekker. The third book in a trilogy about a medieval, dystopian future where people have no emotions. Dekker’s fast-paced style never bores and he writes plot twists like no other. Always a step ahead of his audience, he’s up there with Stephen King in quality.



Trevor is an UnCollege Fellow from a previous cohort who is interested in skill acquistion and is currently doing a sales internship.



The Social Animal by David Brooks. It’s a story of success told on a level deeper than the surface. It’s about the hidden qualities in us that can’t be measured, but in the end are what actually lead us to success and happiness.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Explores the science behind habits and how they affect our lives and businesses.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Why character, confidence, and curiosity are more important to your child’s success than academic results.



Caleb is a Felllow from a previous cohort who is skilled in videography and does videos for UnCollege.



The Art of Self-Directed Learning by Blake Boles. If you’re looking to learn more about self-directed learning, this one can’t be recommended enough. It’s a short read, but the content is jam-packed with advice and understanding about self-directed learning, how it really works, and how to make it work for you.



Sharan is a current UnCollege Fellow who has a variety of interests, but is especially interested in neuroscience.



Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It explores adventure but also questions imagination.



Charles is a current Fellow who is focusing on music production.



His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The story is about travelling, facing human cruelty, and finding inner beauty without dogmas. Science, witchcraft and religion become important parts as the books progress. The characters are amazing. These books helped me realize how great and important imagination is, and also how much human beings can be amazingly evil or beautiful.

Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The true story of a philosopher trying to come to terms with his solitude and find happiness in nature. It’s written in a really beautiful way while being autobiographical at the same time.



Natalie is a current Fellow who is working to start her own cosplay and chainmaille business.



Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. What I really like about it is that it’s not dumbed down. It’s written in a way that you can understand, but you still sometimes find yourself looking up words. The concepts aren’t dumbed down either, like most things these days are. I like it when authors treat their readers like intelligent human beings.



Nick is a current Fellow who is interested in technology.



Zero to One by Peter Theil and Blake Masters. About how to innovate in any industry, and why innovation and progress shouldn’t be limited to technology and Silicon Valley.



Keri is a current Fellow who is interested in writing in many different forms, including poetry and her blog.



Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. What I like about it is the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, so you know what the main character is thinking, but it is also a well-crafted narrative.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I like it because it’s anti war. It does a good job of mirroring our lives and talks about things that most people are afraid to address and is honest about them.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s narrated by death, which is awesome, and it gives a really honest account of of World War 2. What I really like about it is how it captures what it’s like to be going through adolescence on the brink of World War 2.

No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay. A book of poetry that really links together family, love and the importance of human connection.

Posted by on October 3, 2014
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We’re Hiring an Admissions Advisor!

We at UnCollege/Gap Year are seeking an advisor with previous experience in admissions to represent Gap Year’s growing global network of campuses to prospective fellows from a diverse range of backgrounds throughout the world. You have a unique opportunity to be part of an organization at the center of a revolution in higher education.

When you work at UnCollege/Gap Year, it’s more than just a job that awaits you. You are joining an exciting intellectual and cultural community, one where everyone is working together to make education less expensive and more meaningful. Most importantly, you should care deeply about creating a world where people have the freedom to learn how, where, when, and why they want.  The position could start right away for the right candidate.


Admissions (70%)

Evaluate and recommend applicants for admission
Manage the application system and ensure all forms have been collected
Assist in further implementation of a CRM system
Report on the admissions funnel
Build relationships with applicants as their primary point of contact
Respond to inquiries
Advise applicants, families, and school officials on our programs, admissions policies,and financial support opportunities

Marketing (15%)

Plan, write and edit content for the website, blog, and external sites
Manage Adwords campaigns
Provide design support
Update and maintain the website (WordPress)

Budget and Account Management (10%)

Assist with payment planning
Track tuition payments made
Explore and recommend payment planning solutions
Track marketing budget and expenditures

Events (5%)

Represent the Gap Year program at recruitment events, school visits, and information sessions
Make presentations to parents, students, and educational professionals in venues ranging from small groups to conferences
Assist with events involving Gap Year fellows, such as orientation

Direct admissions experience

Required Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Outstanding communication, interpersonal, and public speaking skills.
Ability to represent and promote UnCollege/Gap Year independently.
High degree of organizational and management skills.
Ability to handle a large workload to peak periods.
Some travel and weekend hours required.

Preferred Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Experience evaluating international credentials.
Experience recruiting students for highly selective programs.
Experience producing publications.
Editorial writing.

To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to [email protected] with Admissions + Your Name in the subject line.

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Gap Year: Day One

It’s day one of a year that will change the lives of 13 young adults.

The fellows arrive at the Gap Year house. With hugs and kisses, some apprehension and sadness, they say their goodbyes to parents. They say goodbye to the life they knew before their gap year, and they say hello to something entirely new, not completely sure of what to expect. There is fear, there is joy. There is excitement buzzing in the air as fellows find other fellows to talk to, looking for friends in each other, each wondering what lies ahead on this first day of the next year of their lives.

Soon enough, it’s time for their first dinner at the Gap Year house. And everyone around the table, both staff and student, have to answer a question that stretches their minds, and perhaps their comfort zones: “What makes you a misfit?” Each person at the table fills the silence of eating with something about themselves, something that sets them apart. Again, a bit of fear weaves its way into their stomachs. But they know to embrace this thing that sets them apart. They know to fight against the fear inside them. Because they know no one here will hurt them. They are safe. And they speak, each in their turn, and say that wonderful thing that makes them different. Their badge of pride. That thing that makes them a misfit.

And they find they aren’t so different after all. They are all different, but similar in the fact that they are different. They find pride in that thing that sets them apart from the others. And the next morning, they wake with the memory still in their minds as they come to the table a second time, now for breakfast made by the staff. The fellows stayed up late meeting and getting to know each other, sharing their hopes and dreams for the year, and they don’t waste any time with silence as they talk all throughout breakfast.

At 10 am, they all head downstairs to learn the the schedule of the first three months of the year they are embarking upon. Here they learn what the expectations are for these three months as well as the simple truth that what they’re doing isn’t just a program, but a movement. And they are a part of that movement. They actively have a hand in shaping it. And this brings upon the fellows both a sense of responsibility and an electric excitement. After this, they are reminded of the importance of taking good care of themselves during the year, with emphasis on sleep, exercise, food and generally being healthy physically, mentally and emotionally.

After a break for lunch where the fellows get to go out of the house for the first time to check out the restaurants around the neighborhood, they arrive back for the rock-paper-scissors world championship. Here, the rules are that when some one get beaten by another player, they have to follow them around, cheering for them. One fellow who was a more shy and introverted person than most of the other fellows began to get a lot of support from the others by winning a lot of games. By the end, the whole room was chanting her name in unison when she became the rock-paper-scissors world champion. She experienced what it’s like to have a bunch of support behind her in what she was pursuing and to see how it affected her. Needless to say, she was smiling wide and knew she had just made some new friends.

After some fun improv games, things progressed to a bit more serious tone. Fellows were asked to complete the sentence “One thing you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me is…” fellows talked about everything from being very family-oriented to being self-critical or not being like other kids because they didn’t like to party. Then, they took a break where they spread out in the house, the park nearby or going on a short walk around the block and talked about their life stories on a one-on-one basis, getting to know each other better.

Then they returned to the community space in the house for a continuation of orientation. The room had a different feel this time when the question was asked. Complete the sentence “if you really knew me you would know…” There was anxiety in the air as people began to talk about their deeper selves and everyone got 2 minutes to talk uninterrupted. Honesty filled the air as the fellows allowed themselves to become vulnerable with one another, and the gentle caring of the fellows and staff in the room was palpable in the air. As they mustered their strength to show their true, raw selves, tears were shed and hugs were given. By the end, the fellows knew each other better than most friends know each other.

After a short break to collect themselves, the feel of the activities changed again. Again, there was a spark in the air. Excitement found itself in the back of the fellows’ minds. They started playing a game called elves-wizards-giants. Which is like rock-paper-scissors, but dividing people into two teams, miming silly fantasy characters and chasing people in an effort to tag them and recruit them to their team.

Jon, the main staff member in charge of orientation and one of UnCollege’s Program Specialists, has been getting people to open up and become closer in business and academic settings for about 10 years. His work is very intentional, and there is a purpose behind every activity in the orientation. When asked about why he gets people to open up to each other so early in the program, he had this to say:


“I’ve noticed, after doing this thousands of times, that when people get real with each other, they become comfortable with each other, and whenever you’re trying to create a culture or an ideal learning environment, people being comfortable with each other is an integral part of that.”


The day ended in a group meal. After a long day of teamwork games and brutally genuine moments, the fellows ate together as a family of deeply connected friends.

Posted by on September 20, 2014
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Unspend Your Student Loans

This fall, more than 3 million students are heading off to college for the first time. Many of them will take out student loans in order to afford it, and for a few, it’ll turn out to be a decision they wish they could have back.

For them, we’ve created a new program to pay back their student loans.

If you are a college freshman reconsidering your choices about college and student loans, think of this as a do-over.

Stopping out of college is a big decision. We know. Four years ago, UnCollege was born out of Dale’s decision to choose his own educational path and stop out of college. He’s written about it a lot. He’s shared his very personal story. And he just published a new guide on the topic (which can be downloaded for free).

College can be a great choice, especially for students who are certain of their interests and career pursuits. But there are other choices, and fortunately there are more of them today than ever before. Real learning means actively choosing the experiences that have the most value to you. And the conventional college path doesn’t work for everyone.

So if you are a freshman choosing to stop out of college this winter to explore other possibilities, we want to help you get out from under the burden of your first-semester student loans so you can consider another option. The UnCollege Gap Year is an experience-based program that teaches young adults practical skills that they might miss in conventional classroom settings. Our participants, called fellows, are guided through a year-long course of self-directed learning marked by an overseas expedition, professional internship, personal coaching, and the launch of an individual project. It’s far beyond a traditional gap year. We leaned on decades of educational research to build this program, engineered it in Silicon Valley, and made it flexible enough that it can be taken as a supplement to a conventional college experience or as a stand-alone.

Here’s what you need to know about the Unspend Your Student Loans program:

Who is eligible?
•  students currently enrolled in their first semester of college
•  students with fewer than 18 completed semester units or 24 completed quarter units
•  students who have active Federal Direct Student Loans (subsidized and unsubsidized)
•  students applying for the UnCollege Gap Year program winter 2015 cohort only
•  students must be admitted for the winter 2015 cohort by November 15, 2014

How does it work?
•  UnCollege will select a total of two recipients by December 1
•  after the recipients exit college, a six month grace period goes into effect before the loan repayment period begins
•  before the grace period elapses, UnCollege will pay up to a maximum of $2750 each to satisfy the loans of the selected participants

We’re piloting this program with the hope of expanding it in the future, but for the Winter 2015 term we’re starting small with two participants. Obviously, inclusion in the Unspend initiative is competitive. Selections will be made based on a comprehensive review of the candidates’ application materials.

If you know a college freshman who might be interested in making a new choice, we’d love to pay back their first semester student loans and have them join our Gap Year program. It’s easy to get started. Grab Dale’s white paper “Should I Drop Out of College? A Dropout’s Perspective” and read the six crucial questions you need to be asking as you contemplate stopping out. You can always jump right in and apply to the program for the Winter 2015 term.

It takes courage for a student to step away from the conventional educational path when that paradigm is so entrenched. We hope this new program will help make it easier for students to take that step and join us for Gap Year.

Posted by on September 17, 2014
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Meet a Fellow – Tim

Gap Year Fellows come from all walks of life. They each have unique goals, and have had different experiences and outcomes in the Program. This is Tim:

Gap Year Fellow Testimonial – Tim

Tim is a 22-year-old with a diverse background. His mother helped him develop a keen eye for design and a touch of creativity, while his father provided him with problem solving skills through careful analysis. He built his first computer at age of 13 and had hiked and canoed over 500 miles by 15. After achieving the rank of Eagle Scout and graduating high school, he enrolled in a large state university. After two semesters he found himself disgruntled with the institutional aspects of such a large school that had little regard for individual guidance. He dropped out and began to search for a passion, pursuing many different fields in the process, from physical fitness to internet marketing. He enrolled in the Gap Year program as an exploratory phase to collaborate with other bright minds and learn about himself in the process.

During the Program Tim interned for 3 months at H-Farm – an Italian startup Incubator in Venice. There he worked on marketing and community engagement, with H-farm’s host of early stage companies. Now Tim is off to Palo Alto to work as a marketing intern for a venture-backed stealth company building photography hardware.


Posted by on July 17, 2014
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We’re Hiring an Admissions Officer!

UnCollege/Gap Year seeks an experienced admissions officer with previous experience in admissions to represent Gap Year’s growing global network of campuses to prospective fellows from a diverse range of backgrounds throughout the world. You have a unique opportunity to be part of an organization at the center of the revolution in higher education. The position will likely begin in Fall 2014, but could start sooner for the right candidate.

This admissions officer will advise students, families, and school counselors on admissions policies, procedures, our programs, and financial support opportunities. He/she will conduct school visits; host information sessions and events designed for target audiences; attend education fairs to increase the visibility of Gap Year and meet prospective students; and support the recruiting efforts of Gap Year by developing partnerships worldwide. The person in this role is expected to lead in the cultivation of relationships with key constituents in schools, community organizations, and governmental agencies. He/she will be instrumental in evaluating and recommending applicants for admission to Gap Year’s campuses.

2-3 years’ of direct admission experience

Required Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Outstanding communication, interpersonal, and public speaking skills.
Ability to market UnCollege/Gap Year independently.
Travel and weekend hours required.
Ability to evaluate a high volume of applications for admission
Highly developed written and public speaking skills.
High degree of organizational and management skills.
Ability to deal with pressure and to handle a large workload to peak periods.
Some publications/editorial experience preferred

Preferred Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities:
Experience evaluating international credentials.
Experience recruiting students for highly selective program

Most importantly, you should care deeply about creating a world where people have the freedom to learn how, where, when, and why they want. When you work at UnCollege/Gap Year, it’s more than just a job that awaits you. You are joining an exciting intellectual and cultural community, one where everyone is working together to make education less expensive and more meaningful. You are part of a diverse, multi-cultural and creative organization – we are opening a campus in Sao Paulo this Fall. Capetown, Stockholm, and more will follow shortly.

To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to [email protected] with Admissions + Your Name in the subject line.

Posted by on April 28, 2014
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Thank you for loving me

Screen shot 2011-04-24 at 10.21.00 PM


A screenshot from when I Skyped with Rebecca Goldman to tell her I got the fellowship.

This Saturday marks the close of my two-year stint as a Thiel Fellow. I sat down to write Danielle Strachman, Jim O’Niell, Mike Gibson, Deepali Roy, and Jonathan Cain a thank you letter, but I decided to expand this letter to include the many other wonderful people who have been part of my journey the last two years.

The last two years have been a whirlwind. In the spring of 2011 I was sitting in my drom at Hendrix College staring at my computer screen as emails kept flowing into my inbox. One of those was from Danielle with a message inviting me to fly to San Francisco as a finalist for the Thiel Fellowship.

The first week in April that I did. I left with a renewed sense of energy. It felt at home. Danielle, Jim, and Jonathan welcomed me with open arms. I jumped off the ledge into one of those ball pits that you find in the children’s area of McDonald’s and I was supported from all sides.

My path has had many twists and turns in the last two years, and I am grateful for the explorations we made together. I’m honored that relationships have been both personal and professional. I’ve grown in both ways. I loved every minute of my reviews as a fellow as much as walking home at 4am at Davos with Jim or tasting the breakfast cocktails with Jonathan at mission bowling. These were the best of times that we shared together.

When I look back, I’m stunned and how much support I’ve had on this journey. Somehow you turned from strangers into friends and then lovers.

While I really only left school and started the fellowship and Uncollege two years ago, I feel as though the journey started the year before. I was working in San Francisco, for a company called Zinch for Mick Hagen and Anne Dwane. I had no experience, but they took a chance on me. I recall that summer, Mick, who had dropped out of Princeton, asked me: why are you going to college? Mick and Anne, thank you for believing in me.

I realized I didn’t have a good answer. I think I mumbled something like “I’ll at least give it a try.”

I related this story to Rose Broome, whom I love dearly. She asked where I was going. I said Hendrix, in Conway, Arkansas. She began laughing, and when she regained composure finally spit out her words – “You won’t last the year.” Rose, thank you for always speaking the truth.

I didn’t. When I came home for winter break, I went down to Palo Alto for a conference. I stayed with a friend who happened to be employing Rebecca Goldman. We spent a few hours complaining about college. Then we figured out we’d both been unschooled and it clicked.

The next week I went back to college. It was cold and rainy. I was in the dumps. I emailed Rebecca, asking how we could change college. She asked “Why don’t you star your own?” A few days later I registered Rebecca, thank you for pushing me.

And thus began the journey.

Two days later, I emailed Audrey Watters asking what she thought. She interviewed me for her blog, I had no idea what I was doing. Audrey asked – and continues to ask – important questions. I adore her, and she has continued to push me to be a better person. Sometimes what makes us better can be hard to swallow, but that’s the stuff life’s made of.

In May, an article in NY Mag came out about me. They said I was writing a book. I suddenly had agents chasing me. I called Sandra Aamodt, who I have known since I was 16, and asked “What do I do?” She was the only published author I knew, and she helped me calm down. Sandra, thank you for always brining me back to reality.

Long story short, I ended up writing a book. I didn’t realize how much work that would be. At first I though I’d be helping to build a software project at the same time (Radmatter) but I didn’t understand just how much work writing would be. I owe it to Aron Solomon for helping me to figure that out. Aron, thank you for asking the tough questions.

Around that time, Michael Ellsberg had emailed me to interview me for his book and to ask if I would blurb it. Somehow my quote ended up on the back of his book. How, I don’t know. It was crazy to me – in the span of six months, I’d gone from a random student to an authority blurbing books. I struggled with my identity. I’ll get back to that in a second.

At the same time, I saw my best friend from college, Sophie Denofrio, starting her second year at Hendrix and hating it. Totally hating it. It made me sad and gave me empathy. I’m so happy that Sophie has escaped to a place that now makes her happy. Sophie, thank you for being you.

That summer I also met two people who have been extremely influential in my life, Elizabeth Stark and David Dalrymple. Elizabeth really helped me become comfortable with myself. She taught me to dance, and that extends to other aspect of life. Thank you for that.

David and I met in Dolores park in August of 2011 and started an ongoing Facebook conversation. This continued through the year and in May 2012 we were talking and he asked if I wanted to get lunch. I didn’t realize that he’d left grad school for a startup. An hour later, we were talking about our growth the past year. We had no idea of what was to come. David, thank you for always being open.

That summer I also met Lisa and Joe Betts-Lacroix. They homeschool their children, and that was our connection. Lisa and Joe have been fantastic people to know. They have pushed me and supported me, hosted way too many dinners in the honor, and given me so much respect. Thank you for that.

The other people I met that summer that I am thankful for are numerous. Kevin Roose asked me hard questions about my identity as someone writing a book. Jenny 8 Lee was an amazing resource as I was writing my book, introducing me to interviewees and editors. Dave Hoover and I had coffee at 6am before a flight to NYC. I’m so proud of his growth into Devbootcamp. Thank you, Dave, for always being willing to be proven wrong. That’s an inspiration. Olof Mathe really pushed me to think about my identity, particularly as someone who dates men.  He encouraged me to get rid of labels and replace them with factual questions such as “What gender do you date?”

That summer I also met Asha Jadeja who has become a second mother.  Literally.  Her daughter in my sister on Facebook.  The love that Asha has extended to me is glorious.  Thank you, Asha.

Asha brought me to DLD, where I met Cindy Gallop.  I’ve always been an independent person, but Cindy pushed me.  She pushed me to think about what I value, and why.  Thank you.

In September I was starting to write my book and to travel for conferences.  I met Holly Epstien Ojalvo at one and Suzanne Walsh at another. I’d known them both online, but this was our first real world meeting. They have both become friends. Holly, thank you for first writing about me at the NYTimes. I’m so proud of your new journey. Suzanne, thank you for encouraging me to stay the course instead of swaying to the bias of Silicon Valley. At a time when I felt judged for writing a book, you helped me embrace my identity as a writer.

In NYC, I caught up with Pierre Valade who I met at SXSW. We spoke French and ate croissants. We promised to stay in touch, and we did. Pierre, thank you for being an example of someone who makes a commitment to Friendship

When I returned home, Tyler Driscoll was just moving in to my apartment. Meeting Tyler was interesting. Here was an awesome, kind, talented person who happened to date men. (Seriously,Tyler is awesome and designed my book cover). But he said something that made me think. He’s just moved from DC, and wanted to make more gay friends. I wondered why, and it made me insecure when I realized that I didn’t really have any gay friends (aside from my boyfriend). More on this in a second.

I met Ryan Holiday and Michael Ellsberg’s book launch party. I went on to interview him for my book, and Ryan helped me understand how to relate to the media in more ways than I can count. Ryan, thank you for always being patient.

Roy Bahat emailed me, asking to have coffee. I agreed. Such began a friendship that began to include his wife, Sara. Together, they ask interesting questions. Thank you both for supporting and pushing me.

My first relationship was coming to a close, and I ended up flying to London on Christmas day to break up with my boyfriend. Fate was at play, and I sat next to Derrick Carter. Derrick has constantly provided a healthy dose of perspective. Thank you for that, Derrick.

In Berlin, I welcomed Nik Baron into my home. We became fast friends. Those were some of my happiest days. Thank you, Nik, for always being yourself. While in Europe I visit Clement Epie in Paris and met Raghava KK in Munich. Both have become amazing people who love and support me. Thank you both for being you.

When I returned from my two months in Berlin, I went to SXSW where I met Kyle Macdonald who went on to become my roommate. Thank you, Kyle, for keeping reality in check. Around that time, I had a conversation with Michael Staton, who I’d met a year earlier, about where UnCollege was heading. I didn’t know. He proposed a 5-year program. I fired back with a 1-year program. That became gap year. Thank you Michael for always having ideas. I also Met Bay McLaughlin at that time. In the last year, I have learned so much from Bay about how to be open and willing to learn. Thank you, Bay.

At SXSW, Nicole Patrice helped me learn how to be myself. She has continued to challenge me, and I love it. Thank you.

In June, I went to the wedding of Scott and Jo Phoenix. I met the pair through Rose, and for the last two years we’ve had fairly consisten monthly dinners. I respect both immensely, and I thank them for their commitment to consistency.

That summer, I hosted the first Hackademic Camp and my friends Natalie Warne and Tiffany Mikell came from Chicago for it. They are both awesome and beautiful people. I want to thank Natalie for always reminding me how ridiculous I can be, and I want to thank Tiffany for having such a optimistic view of life. It was a conversation with Tiffany that sparked me to talk publicly in November about the advantage of being a misfit. I promise, I’ll get to this in a second.

In August, I took a vacation with Todd Perry. I want to thank him for engaging me to think different about gender in society.  It is so engrained, and it needs to change.  It was a book that I read while on a feminism bent that sparked a conversation with Deanna Macclellan in October.  Thank you, Deanna for helping me like Los Angeles again.

The two women I still need to thank are Eden Full and Kristina Varshavskaya.  Both have been amazing friends, and have really helped me be myself over the last two years.

Personally the biggest change I’ve seen in myself in the last two years is starting to develop loving relationships, and in my particular case those have all been with men.  I don’t think of this as a coming out phase but rather as a process of discovery.  To come out, you have to be in a closet.  I never felt like I was in a closet, rather as I got older I discovered new things about myself, who I wanted to love and the desires I had.  When I got to college I met gay people for the first time, and I discovered what it meant to be gay.  I thought perhaps I was like those people in some ways.  In January 2011, I got my first boyfriend.  I would happily tell people I had a boyfriend, but I refused to be called gay.  I didn’t like the label.

It was interesting that this discovery of an identity occurred at the same time as my discovery of my identity as a dropout.  In a similar way, I didn’t use to like being called a dropout.  Now of course I’m fine with being called a gay dropout, but it took some time to learn to embrace that.

I think what really helped me embrace that was a conversation with Thom Dimmock, a now friend who I dated last summer.  Thank you for that. What I discovered was that I actually really didn’t understand what it meant to be different because I was so used to being the odd one out.  I’d been out of school of six years.  I was caught up on semantics.  What I came to understand that semantics don’t matter.  As long as you’re different, you’re different, it doesn’t matter what name you call yourself.  You can be a dropout, or a stopout, or an unschooler, or a lifelong learner.  You can be gay, or bi, or queer.  At the end of the day, you’re still different. You’re a misfit.**

What I’ve learned over the last two years in how to love, share, and nurture that difference, because there is no greater loss than authenticity.

Thank you,


**Special thanks to Tiffany Mikell and Nick Terzo for helping me write the talk I delivered at TEDxBrussels.

Posted by on April 13, 2013
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MOOC with a Business Model: Taking a Look at ALISON

Written by Dale Stephens. This piece is a response to Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz’s article “Online Courses seek a Business Model” in the Wall Street Journal.

If you were told of a MOOC had 1.5 million learners and 250,000 graduates worldwide, the names Coursera and Udacity would probably come to mind. What if I told you this MOOC was founded in 2007, has over 20,000 favorable testimonials on its website, is based out of Ireland, and is profitably educating millions for free? Would you know who I am talking about?

In contrast with celebrity MOOCs who are struggling for business models — and yet have raised millions of dollars in funding — ALISON has become successful with less than $2 million in capital. It is growing faster than ever.

Unlike newer MOOCs, ALISON doesn’t seek to educate the elite. Instead, it focuses on the working class, students who may never have gotten the chance to attend college and who need to develop certain skills. It caters to people marginalized from basic education and training, especially those in developing world countries.

With learners in every country worldwide, ALISON’s business model might suggest where others might go to in time; it is supported by advertisements. After all, if advertising can support the development of radio and television, why not education?

A wonderfully equitable aspect of advertising-supported education, as founder Mike Feerick explains, is that when someone clicks on an ad on ALISON while studying basic accounting in Yemen, Indonesia or India, the income is next to zero. When an American in California clicks on an ad, however, he or she pays for the next hundred students in those countries. The challenge, says Feerick, is that his content must be of high-interest to the learner in USA. It’s a challenge he and his team are very willing to accept.

As I travel around the world, I come across innovators in education from all different countries. Many of them have international impact: ALISON, for example, has 200,000 learners in the USA. Although not high-profile, they are making an impact all the same, and with a free certification system that really should get more attention. Celebrity MOOCs are great, but there are some less-tinseled MOOCs out there that we can learn a lot from – in more ways than one!

Posted by on March 24, 2013
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A Response to “Education is The Work of Teachers, Not Hackers”

Written by Dale Stephens. This piece is a response to Leon Wieseltier’s article of The New Republic.

When I look back at my education, I am struck by how little I was taught.This is, apparently, the opposite experience of Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. While I certainly had a unique experience — I left school at twelve — it is inevitable that education will become more self-directed in the future.

Look at the rise of massive open online courses over the course of the past year. Stanford’s experiment in the Fall of 2011 gave birth to two companies: Udacity and Coursera. Not be outdone, Harvard and MIT created Edx. Other universities across the country and around the world are following suit.

Sure, as Leon points out, this is merely information. This is true, but once the gates are opened to the information that Ivy League schools hold, it is up to you what to do with it. And people are doing amazing things — this African teen built his own DJing set using knowledge he learned online, for example.

That is, of course, not an average example, but it is an example of what can happen once you unlock content and start unbundling it from school. The impact will be even more powerful once we unbundle the other parts of school that are currently packed together—namely the community and signal.

Learning communities outside school are already being created. Around the world, there are more than 1200 Hackerspaces that have created in the last four years, places where people come together to work on projects and share knowledge. Companies like General Assembly and TechShop are creating real-world spaces for people to learn in formal environments outside school.

The signaling effect of a college degree — the guarantee of a job if you spend four years in lectures — is a fallacy. Leon would point out that the BLS statistics show that college graduates are less likely to be unemployed than those without degree. That is true, for those over twenty-five.

For those under twenty-five with college degree, 22.5% are unemployed and another 22% are working jobs that don’t require their degree. In other words, even if you go to college, odds are that only 50% of a time you’ll end up a with a job that you need your degree for. Even if you get that job, you’ll have an average of $27,000 in debt. If you don’t get that job, you’ll still be saddled with an average of $27,000 in debt.

The picture of youth in America is not pretty. I am not on a “campaign against allegedly useless study” as Leon says, but rather a crusade in favor of rationality. It seems, then, that Leon is arguing that I am too rational.

The problem is not that people are reading useless books, but rather that they are doing so without thinking, and doing so while spending exorbitant amounts of money. If you think about education as an investment, which I feel we must do in this economy, then how can you justify spending four years and $100,000 to end up right where you started?

In terms of investment, there are exciting startups in the signaling space that offer a much better return. DevBootCamp, for example, offers a 10-week training program for people who want to be professional software developers. 88% of their graduates have job offers starting at an average of $79,000 a year after their program. The program costs $12,200. That is a much better investment than college.

The ways that I describe technology impacting education are not far-flung hypothetical scenarios.They are happening right now. Hundreds of thousands of people are taking university courses on the internet. Those people are using sites like Meetup to form real-world study ground and exchange knowledge.They are finding mentors. They are building portfolios to showcase their work. They are using sites like StackExchange to connect that work to the needs of employers.

I don’t wish universities to disappear, but if academics like Leon don’t take note of the rapid changes in education, they will soon be out of jobs. That would be a tragedy.

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