Continuous Learning Online

My apologies for not posting in a while. Good news is, I’m working–a nine-month instructional design contract and technical and proposal writing for an aerospace small business. I’m certain I’ll have more to share about topics dealing both jobs when I have the time and inclination. Today’s entry is prompted by my aerospace work.

I am prone to fret about the possibility of job insecurity, which equates to financial insecurity. My solutions to these problems are twofold: find work and/or pick up additional learning.

My employer at Zero Point Frontiers Corp. is convinced that I’m really an engineer at heart, I just have a “mathematical deficiency,” as he calls it. Well, yeah. And math tends to be important when you’re building things that go into space. So if I have challenges or educational gaps in my mathematical skills, that’s probably a good clue that I shouldn’t be helping design rockets.

However, this is the 21st century, and knowledge gaps are no longer fatal to one’s career, nor are they prohibitively expensive to overcome. While I am toying with pursing a M.S. in Systems Engineering, I still need to get over that mathematical “hump.”  The one prerequisite listed on the Embry-Riddle site, for instance, is Math 412, which is a combination of calculus and statistics, neither of which I converse in clearly–or, let’s face it, at all. That means one of two things: going back to community college and retaking “dummy” algebra and trigonometry or getting myself smart on my own.

Fortunately, there is another alternative. Several educational institutions now have full classes online, covering everything from algebra and calculus to art history and chemistry. The service I’ve been using this past month is Khan Academy, an online “school” that’s helping me get smart on my math. Khan Academy appears to have been started for kids, but the subject matter lends itself to anyone who wants to learn. The instructors–at least the guy who’s teaching the math content–are clear-spoken and not condescending. Plus, I can go at my own pace.

Another place offering free online content is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I’ve listened to one or two of their courses as well, though the professors tend to be a lot more high-blown in their language and they assume that you’ve had education in their subject before you sit down to listen to Course X.

The biggest problem with Khan or MIT’s free courseware is that, while it might get you up to speed on something, that doesn’t mean you have credentials in the field. I suspect this will change in the next 5-10 years, as more and more kids get home-schooled and more and more adults find Big Education had to afford.

As it stands right now, I plan to get as smart as I can on a variety of engineering-related curricula before I put down money for another master’s degree. First, it will give me a leg up on the content, and second, it will make the actual degree work pass more quickly and smoothly. The degree, while relatively expensive, can be done in ~3 years, which is how long the M.A. in tech writing took.

The good news about pursuing accredited academic work online is that it does get you the credentials, and HR departments and hiring managers check boxes much more easily. Online work, regardless of whether it gives you college credit or not, has one distinct advantage over in-class work: you can do it pretty much when you please, as long as you turn in your work on time. However, online classes don’t tie you to inconvenient classroom times or require you to drive on campus, pay for parking, or fight for a parking spot, all of which are common inconveniences for “non-traditional students,” as they call those of us who are not still in our teens or twenties.

In any case, if you are looking to change careers, online sources provide a great way to get your feet wet without spending any money. You might learn to love your new subject matter, or you might realize that the subject matter is not for you. I’m learning that I can do algebra (I did get an A the last time I took it), but I have to slow down, think math-logically, and take my time to get it right. Whatever journey you take, I wish you well.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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