I have big feet. I’m always stubbing the toes of my size-12 shoes against curbs and table legs. Worse, when properly shod (as seldom as possible), my feet barely fit in the space under the dash of my car. Every time I step on the gas or press on the breaks, my toes rub against the floor boards. As a result, the leather on the toes of all my shoes is worn and discolored. Now, I’m a thrifty guy – I have a pair of wingtips that have been resoled four times – but somehow this thrift doesn’t translate into the routine care of my footwear. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve personally polished a pair of shoes. But a couple weeks ago, I got tired of looking at those scuffed up wingtips and decided it was time to do something about them.
Unfortunately, they were far beyond the point of a simple polishing. The roughed up toes would have ended up a different color than the rest of the shoe. So the question became, how do you remove the scuff marks before you polish? This goes beyond the meager tutorial on shoe polishing my dad gave me when I was a boy; so, like any modern man with a “how-to” question, I turned to the Internet. You won’t be surprised to learn that Googling “polish scuffed shoes” yields nearly a million hits. On YouTube alone, there are dozens of experts, ranging from cobblers to butlers, advising you how to properly return a shine to your old shoes. Their advice runs the gamut from how to choose between liquid and paste polish to the fine points a spit polish. For really serious scuffs, like mine, there seems to be two basic treatments: boning (rubbing with the handle of the shoe brush instead of the bristles) or smoothing out the roughened leather with fine sandpaper (220-grit or higher) before a serious polish. All that for free from YouTube. (Though, to be honest, I haven’t screwed up the nerve yet to sand the toes of my dear old wingtips.)
This is the kind of mundane educational information we’ve come to expect on the Internet: some know-it-all in his bedroom teaching us how to tie a bow-tie, or do a magic trick. I’m not criticizing. These are skills that used to be limited to a small group of cognoscente; now they’re available to any fool with an Internet connection. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to free online education. The amazing thing about free online education isn’t the trivial, informal material that clots YouTube, it’s the vast quantity of serious technical and academic material that’s becoming increasingly easy to find. Almost every major university produces some kind of free coursework. The Harvard University Extension School, for example, offers “Open Courses” on subjects ranging from Greek Civilization, to Shakespeare, to Probability Theory. These aren’t short tutorials or one-off classes; these are semester-length college courses that are directed primarily at paying students. Similarly, MIT offers more than 100 free electrical engineering and computer science courses (to name just one category) through its MITOpenCourseWare program. That’s just the kind of education MIT is famous for, and you can get most of it for free. It’s the same with Stanford, University of Chicago, Princeton, Yale etc.
If you’re looking for more practical or applied training, that’s also available for free on the Internet. For example, most major software companies provide vast amounts of free educational material on their web sites. Adobe TV offers shows on everything from Acrobat to Photoshop. Each show, in turn, has episodes on almost everything you need to know about Adobe products. For the more advanced user, shows offering more technical training are available through the company’s Adobe Developer Connection. Again, it’s all free. Same with the GIS software giant ESRI. (Frequent readers will note I’m a big fan of ESRI.) Using the videos posted on their web site, the industrious student can learn the rudiments of all the company’s programs. It’s an ESRI certification in a box. Minus the certification – you’ll have to pay someone for that.
But these are just specialized examples. You would have to know about them to find them. Even more amazing are the big aggregators of free education videos. The best is probably iTunes University, though you’ll have to download iTunes to take advantage. Here, you’ll find hundreds – maybe thousands – of free courses. Not from one or two schools or a few software companies, but from hundreds of universities, educational and cultural organizations. (By the way, kudos to Punahou for being profiled on Apple’s education page.) Just browsing the list of offerings is a kind of cultural education. And if you’re just hankering after that old-school, college education (that’s probably not worth much anymore), iTunes U means you don’t have to wander from one university web site to another; most of the top universities have simply put their free courses up on their own iTunes channels. And although iTunes may have the best curation, it’s far from the only aggregator of educational videos. For sheer diversity and abundance, good old YouTube is hard to beat.
In short, the only reason to pay for an education anymore is if you’re vain or you need a degree or a certificate for your job.