12 Ways to Educate Yourself Without College

Guest post by Blake Boles. Cross posted at The Huffington Post
It’s popular to criticize college today. No matter which way you look, somebody is writing about a student loan horror story, declining academic standards, disruptive technological change, or the narrow work options available to graduates.
Criticizing is easy, of course. Offering solutions is hard.
The reality is that college fills many valuable roles today. It offers young adults the chance to build hard skills (e.g. writing) and soft skills (e.g. teamwork), be part of an exciting community, live independently, get exposed to new ideas, and signal employers with an (increasingly devalued, but still valuable) college degree. College is pretty much the only place that bundles all these good things into one convenient package deal. That’s why, despite the voluminous criticism, college as we know it won’t disappear anytime soon.
But in an era of skyrocketing tuition fees combined with widespread economic austerity, millions of students will find themselves unable or unwilling to finance the college package deal. Yet they’ll still want, and need, to gain a higher education.
Luckily, higher education doesn’t have to be delivered by a college institution. You can gain skills, community, independence, exposure, and work opportunities by piecing together a self-directed, a la cartecurriculum of real-world projects. It’s a like a design-your-own-college-major program — but without college or its inflated costs.
Self-directed learning is one solution to the college debate, and certainly not the only one. But unlike other solutions, you can begin self-directed learning immediately, without spending a ton of money or waiting for policy makers or university administrators to change their ways. And perhaps most importantly, self-directed learning builds serious personal entrepreneurship: an incredibly valuable “soft skill” in an era of rapid economic change.
Here are 12 ways to begin pursuing your own self-directed higher education, right now, without college:
  1. Kickstart something. Organize a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for one of your creative projects, upcoming trips, or educational ventures. You’ll learn how to develop a product line, manage a budget, and market yourself with social media. Here how to get started.
  2. Write for an audience. 19-year-old Jason Lovett publishes short Kindle guidebooks; 20-year-old Weezie Yancey-Siegel interviews people she admires; 24-year-old Cameron Lovejoy shares poetry from his life on the road. No matter how you do it, writing for an audience sharpens your mind and helps you figure out what other people find valuable. (For fastest learning, work with aprofessional editor and solicit as much reader feedback as you can bear.)
  3. Take free or cheap introductory courses in multiple subjects. Introduce yourself to fascinating new ideas, people, and potential career paths using Coursera, The Floating University,Skillshare, Khan Academy, TED talks, DO lectures, Academic Earth, Udemy, or local community college classes.
  4. Compose a goal list and share it publicly. Think of this as your self-directed syllabus. Sharing it publicly will help keep you on track, as you’ll feel accountable to the friends and family who read it and get excited about your projects. (Here’s my list.)
  5. Recruit a mentorship team. Assemble a small team of trustworthy and knowledgeable people from whom you can seek guidance for your self-directed journey. If possible, include someone who currently works in your field of professional interest. Search Zero Tuition College to find mentors who understand the self-directed path.
  6. Develop a hands-on skill. Think: cooking, electrical work, sports instruction, or automotive repair. Such skills aren’t easily offshored or automated and therefore offer an excellent part-time or fall-back work option (as well as much-needed relief from a computer screen). Don’t dismiss such work as intellectually devoid; it’s not.
  7. Couchsurf and volunteer your way across a country. International travel can be an incredible learning experience if you take the time to immerse yourself in the local culture. Do this—and save lots of money in the process—with the websites Couchsurfing, HelpX, WWOOF, andWorkAway.
  8. Start a tiny business. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to start many types of businesses —perhaps $100 — and you don’t have to think of it as a long-term venture. Whether you succeed or fail, you’ll learn powerful lessons that most colleges can’t teach.
  9. Teach. Record a series of instructional videos (they might land you a New York Times piece),offer a free online course, lead a hands-on class, tutor someone, or create a workshop for a conference.
  10. Enhance your peer community. Face-to-face community is a vital part of higher education. Without being formally enrolled, you can find community through online interest groups, local events, and workplaces. If you’re seeking a huge concentration of 18- to 25-year-olds, simply move to a college town and join an off-campus student house.
  11. Practice, deliberately. “Deliberate practice” (DP) is the psychological process through which people attain deep expertise. Unlike regular practice, DP involves custom-tailored instruction accompanied by immediate, high-quality feedback. You can use DP to become a better violinist, swimmer, artist, or businessperson. But more importantly, you can learn the methodology behind the process and apply it to everyday learning situations. Start here.
  12. Build an online portfolio. Demonstrate your capacities to potential employers by creating a website that tells your story, displays your biggest accomplishments, and highlights the value you’ve created for other people. When someone asks you what you’ve been doing with your time instead of college, point them here. And keep your eyes on Degreed, RadMatter, and Knowit: new ventures that may help you quantify your self-directed learning and enhance your portfolio.
These are just a few ways to start giving yourself a well-rounded higher education without college. Do you have other suggestions? Please share them in the comments below.

The trick to knowing what social networking sites are right for students

Parents often come to innovative educators for advice about the online spaces their children are or should be using. Is Snapchat ok? What about Instagram? Should my child be using Facebook and Twitter? What is a safe site for my pre-teen to engage socially?

If you consider yourself an innovative educator you may be wondering how you can be expected to keep up with all the different options out there.
Don't despair.  You can!
Common Sense Media (http://www.commonsensemedia.org) allows you to look up any digital product and find out just about anything a parent or teacher would want to know.  

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Nest Thermostat – Quick Review

Nest Programmable, Learning Thermostat – Quick Review.  Updated with new comments after a year’s use.

I bought a new Nest brand thermostat for my furnace / AC, replacing my old Mercury-filled thermostat that I’ve used for the past 23 years.

Everybody who has bought one of these will tell you how neat they are.  I agree.  This is about the most fun you can have with a mundane household appliance.

What you will find is the thermostat is easy to use, thoughtfully designed, magically functional, and artful.  High praise, deserved.

Unbelievable Features first:

  • Connects to the Internet (yes!)
  • Downloads updates and patches itself when first started
  • Analog controls – turn the dial to adjust the heat – no buttons
  • Screen turns red when heating, blue when cooling
  • Always shows status (such as “in 20 minutes, heating to 72deg)
  • It ‘learns’ your schedule and programs itself
  • It connects to your Android or iPhone – adjust from anywhere
  • Motion detector, turns down heat if nobody is home
  • The cat does not appear to trip the motion detector
  • It knows the outside temperatures and adjusts its schedule

This is a programmable thermostat with no buttons or programming.  The thermostat “learns” how and when you set your temperatures — basically ‘figuring’ it out as you go.  The Vendor claims that (90%) of all programmable thermostats are not programmed properly; this thermostat fixes that problem.   

In our case, after three days, the device had decided our patterns and had programmed itself.  We usually wake at 6:00am, last one to leave for work is at 8:30; someone comes home by 4:30 and we go to bed at 11:00.   On the Android, the reported schedule looks something like this:

For the first few days, we adjusted the temperature the way we like it.  It figured out the rest.  After a short time, it even calculates if it needs to turn the heat on earlier than normal if it is particularly cold outside. 


The thermostat has a stainless-steel ring, which rotates around the glass-front.  The device, about the size of hockey-puck, feels solid and substantial.  It is heavy for its size.  The thermostat is composed of two basic parts:  the thermostat and a snap-on wiring harness.

The wiring harness is logical and installs with two lag-screws (illustration, below) and it has a bubble level. If hanging on sheetrock, without a stud, I would use plastic sheetrock anchors, which were oddly not included.  In my case, I was mounting on a wooden wall and had no concerns, but the device does come with several optional mounting plates, should you need to cover a junction box or if you have a gaping hole from the old thermostat.  It even comes with a screwdriver.

Once the harness is attached to the wall, the hockey-puck-electronics snap onto it with a click.

It comes beautifully packaged, but with little documentation. The web is the real resource.  With that said, I installed and configured it without really reading any of the instructions.  It is a self-guided installation, but you will want to go to the web and use their automatic wiring-diagram.


Installation was do-it-yourself easy.  Follow these steps:

  • Remove the old thermostat’s cover
  • Record which wires went-where on the old thermostat.  They are always labeled as “G” (green), R, Y, RH, etc.  Ignore the actual wire colors.
  • On the Support.Nest.com installation site, check the labeled boxes (R, G, Y, RH) – the wire-names you have.  It then gives you a wiring diagram, and confirms the thermostat is compatible with your furnace (98% are).

  • My Wiring Diagram looked like this (literally displayed like this on the web):

  • Turn off the breaker to the furnace/AC
  • Remove wires from old thermostat
  • Screw new wiring harness to the wall and pull wires through center
  • Insert wires into the push-connectors
  • Snap the thermostat onto the harness; power-up
  • Pat yourself on the back for a job well done

I had a momentary confusion because my old thermostat forked the red wire from the “R” connector to “RH”, giving me four wires at five connections.  The Nest does not care or need the jumper, all I had to do was plug into the RH, exactly per the wiring diagram on their website.  Also, be aware the wire on your old thermostat may have been labeled G “green” but the actual wire color could be something different — ignore your actual wire color and only pay attention to the old-thermostat’s printed labels on its wiring harness.

The thermostat is powered by the existing wiring (24-volt); no additional power is needed.

Be sure to take the old Mercury-filled thermometer to a hazardous waste dump – Mercury is nasty stuff and must not be thrown in the trash. 

When it wakes up, it shows all of the local wireless networks (or you can type your SSID); choose your network, type the password (the round dial has a way to type individual letters; a third-grader can figure this out, it is really easy), and it connects.  Once online, it downloads new BIOS versions and walks you through various questions, such as what is your zipcode (it uses this to determine the local temperature), what type of heating you have (forced-air, gas, electric, infloor, etc.) and a few other minor questions.   Once you are done, the thermostat is ready to use.

Although the thermostat does not need an ethernet connection to work, why would you buy one of these without it?  The wireless is what makes this so neat.  I would not use this thermostat without a wireless connection. 

Smart Phone Installation

Optionally, from your App Store, install the NEST application.  Create an online account, where they ask for an email address (acting as an account name) and password.  As soon as you do this, your phone will tell you to walk up to the thermostat and press “Ok”.  The two devices automatically connect.

Immediately, from your phone, you can adjust the temperature, and later in the week, after some history, you can view reports on when your furnace and A/C are turned on and what temperatures were set in the house at any hour.  It is embarrassingly easy to use.

Total hardware installation time was about 5 minutes.  Waiting for software updates and setting up the wireless was another 20 minutes and 5 minutes for the Android phone setup.  Complete, fully functional time was about 30 minutes.  Amazing.

The phone is handy
The other day, I left work early and from my phone I turned the heat up to 71 degrees so the house would be warm by the time I arrived.  What a hoot.

Once a month, Nest emails a report showing energy use.


  • These are somewhat expensive devices, costing $250, but it should save money.  I’ve not compared last year’s energy use with this year, but the device appears to be working as advertised.  It clearly has been turning off the AC (or furnace) when we are away and the schedule has been working exactly as hoped.  I would guess the payback might be after a couple of years.  But that is hardly a reason not to install one.  They are too much fun and have monsterous bragging rights.

Installation is easy.
Operation is transparent.

This is a recommended device.