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I remember the first time my freshman counselor handed me a class schedule. My learning opportunities were neatly arranged in 55-minute periods. It was my responsibility to get to each on time and in order. It seemed like such an ominous challenge for a 14 year old.  In each first class, the teacher handed out the syllabus and books with assignments marked for each class.  This is how real grown ups learn. I was sure of it. I had the computer print out, the syllabus and the class notebooks to prove it.

My model of education and learning was formed at that point, and nothing over the next 12 years of formal education really did anything to change it. Education was packaged. Go to this school, get this professor. Get this professor, get this reading list. On some occasions, even grades had a formula. Want an “A”? Here’s the price. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if the 55-minute periods even changed all that much.

I understand why this model of efficiency worked for institutions. It’s more organized than having people wander randomly into classes, or deciding which classes were necessary by asking students to vote with their feet. And, I still see merits of a curriculum, especially in fields where certification is required. But I’ve since come to believe that the pre packaged, organized model of education suits institutions more than students. For the most part, it taught me how to complete requirements. Not sure it taught me how to direct my own learning, which is too bad, because that’s what I needed to do in that place called “the real world.”

The biggest disruption seems to come from the outside, and so it seems with education. Technology is opening up entirely new opportunities for self-directed learning. Students of all ages, locations and needs have a range of online opportunities available to them.  Some are taught by the leading experts in their field. Many are free or nearly free. If you haven’t checked out a MOOC yet, (massive open online courses) just look to see what’s available. Here’s a place to start. If you want to anything from brush on second language skills to understand finance to discuss the great books, there is a class available for you. For free. You can watch the videos and do the work at midnight or noon.  You can participate in class in a suit from work or in your PJ’s from the couch. All you need to do is participate and learn.

My colleagues at Northwestern University’s MSLOC program have been talking about PLN’s (Personal Learning Networks). I recently joined one to find out what all the buzz is about. In my words, a PLN is a group of people interested in the same topic who connect through a variety of media. People connect and share information through online collaboration site, like Google +, through Twitter and on blogs. When you join a PLN, you set and manage a personal learning goal. It’s your responsibility to use the network to reach your goal, and to help others reach theirs. One of my goals is to understand how PLN’s work, and how they can be adapted to an organizational setting.

Many, many years after I received my first class schedule, I am still learning. The opportunities are far different.  No one decides what I need to know, when I need to know it and where I need to go. This presents the blessing of freedom and the burden of responsibility. No one decides if I study for 10 minutes, 55 minutes or for hours. Because there is no schedule, I might decide not to study at all. Sadly, this is the often the case when I frame learning as something to do when I have the time. I don’t even see the people I learn with, which is really interesting because I often learn so much more from them than the person I sat next to for ten weeks and now can’t remember their name. Instead of neat blocks of designated time, I now have access to 24 hour learning.

As I jump into the brave new frontier of learning, I’m interested in your experience. Have you participated in a MOOC or a Personal Learning Network? What’s your advice to get the most from it?