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.

  • kathysierra

    This announcement has me walking on air. So proud of everyone involved, and so happy to think my books will be part of this.

    • http://radar.oreilly.com timoreilly

      It really makes me happy to see authors like you and Matthew supporting the initiative!

  • http://MiningTheSocialWeb.com/ Matthew Russell

    Tim – I really applaud your leadership on this one. An opportunity to make a difference (and set an example for others to follow) presented itself, and you made the right call in short order. In a certain view of the world, everything rises and falls on leadership. It makes me proud to be affiliated with a company that leads by example like you’ve done here.

    While your generous donation can’t possibly solve all of our educational problems, I do think it’ll make a nice dent and hopefully set an enduring spark that we can start fanning into something bigger. Every little bit helps, and you also raise a good point about this investment not just being for the students but also being of great advantage to teachers as well.

    As time goes on, I’m especially curious to see how the work with very science-oriented publications like Make and the new bio journal slowly creep into our government schools.

    Thanks again. I too am proud to have my work available to our country’s high schools.

  • steelotter

    Tim, thank you. There’s nothing more exciting for a teacher than to know they have support to throw exciting things out ahead of themselves and their students. O’Reilly books are the ‘good food’ of self directed passions. This will develop teachers too. It can be scary for teachers to manage resources that extend so far from their knowledge base. It’s the right fear to face, and this is the right way to make it happen.

  • Sean Doyle

    This is wonderful – but I also know some kids entering middle school who would love it if this were available a their school. I hope that the program is a success and will expand so that more kids can take advantage of it.

  • Scott Palochik

    This is FANTASTIC but should not just be limited to High School. I truly believe we need to start as early as elementary school in getting our youth introduced to coding and programming. With all of the available data in the world it is those that can access it, transform it into useful information to make a better decision that will excel.

    • http://anchorseweranddraincleaning.com/ Jim Leasure

      Early this morning, I read an article on CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/02/us/facebook-post-costs-father/index.html#comment-1268232874) in regards to a private school’s director and his contract expiring. The school chose not to renew his contract. He sued, claiming, “Age Discrimination”. He is 69.
      The man was not to speak publically concerning the judgment in his favor. His daughter did, on face book and lost the settlement for him.
      One of the comments argued, because of this girl’s lack of tacked and insight as to the gravity of her need to be outspoken, people who are younger than 18 should not be permitted to use a computer.

  • Dierk Seeburg

    Tim, I believe I speak for everyone here at Safari Books Online when I say that we’re extremely proud to be part of the ConnectED program. Thank you for your and Andrew’s leadership to make this happen, a truly inspiring moment in our history.

  • Sam Flint

    How about doing this for homeschool students, too?

  • smr

    التبرع للفقراء اجمل الاشياء لكي يعم الخير والسرور للجميع وانا معجبه باسلوبكم

  • BMGM

    I volunteered at a Title I school in LA County when I was sidelined by sequestration. Implementation will be harder to solve than one might expect. Middle school kids are pulled in so many directions; it’s hard to keep them focused through the steep learning curve in the beginning of learning to code. They really need someone local and in person to help steer them.

    Add predator hysteria to the mix and it gets harder still. I needed to be fingerprinted and undergo a background check ($75-100) just to be allowed to work with kids. That took a few weeks. Then I needed to work with the kids in the middle of a busy library instead of a quiet corner.

    Websites on school networks are whitelisted. So, if the kids want to follow a link to a website that is not on the list (and many coding sites are not), they are blocked.

    Oh, let us not forget that we need permission from the parents to communicate with their kids via email when they have a coding question.

    FWIW, I’m a married straight woman w/ a PhD offering to work with kids for free, and they put me through these hoops.

    That said, I did teach a couple of kids to code a bit in Python and help many kids in Pre-Algebra, Algebra and Geometry. One immigrant kid was clearly bored and I helped him through pre-calculus on Coursera. Another had already taken Geometry (before 8th grade) in her native country and came by just to practice her English.

    I am cautiously optimistic about your endeavor. But the impediments will surprise you. Feel free to contact me at badmomgoodmom@gmail.com

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jasonallenfields/ Jason Fields

    I think public libraries would be excellent candidates to receive this, too, especially because there are patrons beyond school age who could take advantage of these resources. Public libraries are also included in the ConnectED program, which seems to be somewhat glossed over (in general, not just in this case).

    I’m an IT manager at a small public library in rural Indiana. I’m also a librarian. It’s absolutely critical we provide communities like the one I serve with opportunities that access to these resources will provide. Because ConnectED does include public libraries, I hope that a provision to provide this e-library to them is included, eventually.

    That said, I think providing access to these books to teens is an excellent idea. I’ve used O’Reilly books myself and they are outstanding!

  • AJahnel

    That is wonderful, but why only the USA. It is the World Wide Web after-all.