This is a braindump. I'm not sure where it's going, but I want to get the data out.

Matt and Max were talking about the current state of undergraduate education and its relationship to open source today. Somewhere in the middle of that, a thought hit me: the way we teach a lot of engineering/CS now is like learning guitar without ever going to a concert or buying a CD.

How do I learn guitar? (Admittedly, I haven't learned much.) What resources are out there for me, and what do I get from using each of them?

  • When I listen to a CD, I get a polished piece of work by skilled musicians - edited, arranged, the best take they've got. It shows me how good a crafted piece of work can be. Heck, I hear this on the radio, I see it on TV... I'm just swimming in music, in the notion that people make music.
  • When I go to a concert, I see great musicians performing - doing what they do, live. Seeing how they spin that energy at a high level in real-time - how that skill gets expressed.
  • When I listen to amateur performance videos online, I see people performing at their best, where "their best" is at all levels along the pathway from novice to journeyman to master - and some people have enough videos up that you can see them learning and improving over time.
  • Then there are lessons online, which annotate or scaffold me through figuring out a piece I've already heard (I usually wouldn't look for a lesson otherwise) and already want to play. Sometimes they're videos, sometimes they're written instructions, they're usually one song at a time and don't give theory or anything.
  • Then there are books that step you through scales and chords and theory so you understand the foundations behind the stuff you're playing.
  • Then there are books and resources on the historical context - why was this musician's adaptation of this piece groundbreaking, why do we consider this person great, why is was this recording not quite so good? Calibration and value-setting. I also get this from listening people comment on the stuff I'm listening to.
  • There's listening to friends mess around with their guitars, and having them sit down to show me things, and teaching them in turn. Sometimes they play songs. Sometimes they play exercises. Sometimes they just play. I'm not alone in learning, and seeing other people going down the path - at many places down it, some ahead and some behind - helps keep me going "yeah, I do want to keep on doing this." Reminds me of where I've been (not very far) and where I'm headed (hopefully somewhere, but I'm just doing this for fun, not really studying seriously right now).
  • I've never actually taken a guitar lesson, so I can't speak to that.

I'm sure I'm missing something - but it's a rich network of resources right there that I've got - it's almost impossible to grow up in a media-rich US-centric childhood and not get the idea that there are things called guitars and people play music on them and if you wanted to start learning maybe you'd ask these folks or read this book and it's okay to mess around, you're supposed to experiment with sounds, play bad music with your friends as part of learning, but that you knew what good guitarists sounded like and recognized that you would have a ways to study and grow before getting to that point.

Now think about engineering. Most kids don't grow up with that sort of rich network around the notion of engineering being a thing that people do. Maybe the equivalent would be for someone walking into music school and having this conversation.

"Hey, welcome to Berklee."
"Hi! I'm here to study guitar. I've never played before."
"Oh - that's... I guess that's - what else do you play?"
"Nothing. I heard guitar was a good way to make money when you graduated."
"So, what... music do you like? What do you listen to? Clapton? B.B. King?"
"Who? I haven't actually heard - well, maybe there was once I heard someone play guitar. They said it was really great. I dunno why. Um... wait, actually - what's a guitar? Is that... is that one over there? Hey, do you think I could get a guitar internship this summer?"
"Remind me why you're here again?"

I think the hardest part of learning something is learning how to learn it, in a way - to grok the context, learn what it is you might be learning, learning how and when to ask what sorts of questions. I think we often rob students of that richness in the name of efficiency - and I think that participating in open source communities is one way to get it back. A very good way, in fact.

Still not sure where this braindump was/is headed, but wanted to get that out there.