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September 21, 2017

Taking Ownership of My Learning

Written by

Ray Herber

 "Taking ownership of my learning is something I have always done, and can probably be considered a strength."

University was a poor fit for me not only because of the things I did poorly, but also because it didn’t complement and reward the things I do well. I have always been enormously curious, interested in studying things both inside and outside of any course’s curriculum, and the university setting was probably not the best environment to support such a mindset (this is why I say above I should have left earlier). The reason for this is largely because the things that guided distribution of effort in university were things like test scores and GPAs, which had little value in their own right while still heavily constraining what it was smart to put time into.

In contrast, iXperience rewarded me at every turn for pushing ahead, doing extra readings, and exploring electives unrelated to the class material.

In Data Science, head teacher Andrew said something along the lines of “there are too many topics to cover any of them in depth, so we will explore as many of them as we can shallowly, so you can deepen your strengths on your own” (not an exact quote). He also regularly provided us with resources to explore on our own. Books like The Art of Data Science and An Introduction to Statistical Learning really helped me achieve both perspective and a deep understanding of what it is Data Scientists did, and some of the tools they employed (in particular machine learning).

In University, if I was excited about a topic being covered in class and began to read ahead, I would be punished the next semester by just being placed into the next class and having to sit through what I had just spent time exploring. In the intensive and ambitious 4-week setting of iXperience courses - which aim to provide instruction equivalent to a semester long course - only good came out of me doing extra readings, staying later to master, say, the principles of functional programming, and taking on ambitious projects that I wouldn’t be able to complete within the timeframe of the course.

For instance, the Shiny Web Application I made during my final week in Data Science (Spotify Top Tracks Features Explorer), is still in development even many weeks after the course, and in fact helped me land a paid internship offer.

A big turning point in my learning was during the third week, when we were split into groups and tasked with researching a machine learning model and presenting it to the class in a few days (my group got Support Vector Machines). Instead of jumping into making the presentation, I tried to convince my group to invest time in achieving a solid understanding of ourselves, so that explaining to others would come organically and easily. Many times, I was asked “what do you think about this thing on SVMs?” only to respond, “I don’t know, I’m still learning what machine learning is.”

In the end, the fact that I wouldn’t be receiving a grade on the presentation allowed me to approach the task with the philosophy that what I ultimately got out of the assignment was the understanding of the topic I walked away with. Ultimately, my group delivered a very strong and coherent presentation, even though we scrambled till the last minute putting together our presentation material.

Having a class structured in such a way that I was encouraged to pursue understanding first, was the sort of gratifying experience I was denied in university - one where my curiosity was encouraged. Instead of deadlines being emphasized, the creation of the actual product became the focus. The projects we started in class are now Github repositories I still push commits to, with some on their way to becoming valuable cornerstones in my young portfolio.

But I wasn’t only rewarded for digging deeper into the class material. The focus on deliverables and personal understanding over grades was liberating and encouraged me to attend a variety of electives. iXperience offers many options for exploration on a daily basis. From workshops on management consulting and entrepeneurship, to instructional sessions on ballroom dance, Bhangra, and self-defense, to sessions on the Blockchain, there was so much to feed and encourage my child-like curiosity. And this is not even mentioning the sort of opportunities for cultural growth available just outside in Cape Town.

There was never a moment when I thought, ‘I shouldn’t try this because I need to finish my assignment.’ In this way, ownership of my learning lay not with the institution, but fully in my own hands. And this is a major reason I think iXperience has been nothing short of an amazing time for me.

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