Self-directed learning, and O’Reilly’s role in the ConnectED program

I wanted to provide a bit of perspective on the donation, announced on Wednesday by the White House, of a Safari Books Online subscription providing access to O’Reilly Media books, videos, and other educational content to every high school in the country.

First off, this came up very suddenly, with a request from the White House that reached me only on Monday, as the White House and Department of Education were gearing up to Wednesday’s announcement about broadband and iPads in schools.  I had a followup conversation with David Edelman, a young staffer who taught himself programming by reading O’Reilly books when in middle school, and launched a web development firm while in high school.  He made the case that connectivity alone, without content, wasn’t all it could be. And he thought of his own experience, and he thought of us.

So we began brainstorming if there were any way we could donate a library of O’Reilly ebooks to every high school in the country. Fortunately, there may be a relatively easy way for us to do that, via Safari Books Online, the subscription service we launched in 2000 in partnership with the Pearson Technology Group. Safari already offers access to corporations and colleges in addition to individuals, so we should be able to work out some kind of special library as part of this offering.

Andrew Savikas, the CEO of Safari, was game. We still haven’t figured out all the details on how we’ll be implementing the program, but in essence, we’ll be providing a custom Safari subscription containing a rich library of content from O’Reilly (and potentially other publishers, if they want to join us) to all high schools in the US.

What’s interesting here is that when we think about education, we often think about investing in teachers. And yes, teachers are incredibly important. But they are only one of the resources we provide to motivated students.

I can’t tell you how often people come up to me and say, “I taught myself everything I know about programming from your books.” In fast-moving fields like software development, people learn from their peers, by looking at source code, and reading books or watching videos to learn more about how things work. They teach themselves.

And if this is true of our adult customers, it is also true of high schoolers and even middle schoolers. I still laugh to remember when it came time to sign the contract for Adam Goldstein’s first book with us, Applescript: The Missing Manual, and he sheepishly confessed that his mother would have to sign for him, because he was only sixteen. His proposal had been flawless – over email, how were we to know how young he was? Adam went on to be an Internet entrepreneur, founder and CEO of the Hipmunk travel search engine.

Other people from O’Reilly’s extended circle of friends who may be well known to you who began their software careers in high school or younger include Eric Ries of Lean Startup fame, Dylan Field of Figma, Alex Rampell of TrialPay, and, sadly, Aaron Swartz.

As David explained the goals of the ConnectED program, he made the point that if only one or two kids in every school gets fired up to build and learn on their own, that could make a huge difference to the future of our country.

It’s easy to see how kids get exposed to programming when they live in Silicon Valley or another high-tech hub. It’s a lot harder in many other parts of the country. So we’re glad to be part of the ConnectEd program, and hope that one day we’ll all be using powerful new services that got built because some kid, somewhere, got his start programming as a result of our participation in this initiative.