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Learn To Program – Online College or Self Taught?

H04K0047

I got this interesting question the other day.

“I am interested in pursuing a career in Computer Programming and have a question. Which would be better: to get my degree through an online college, or to teach myself. If self teaching is better how and where should I start? Any help would be greatly appreciated.”

It’s been quite a while since I’ve provided any kind of opinion of the educational system with  regards to programmers on this blog.  So I guess it’s time to bring it up again, with this new twist.

Those of you who have been with me since the beginning of this blog will be well acquainted with my general opinion that the college system is broken in general and even more broken as it specifically relates to computer science.

However, I think I am ready to admit that some people will do better in a college setting than not.  So the real question is, what are you trying to get out of this?  And in this case the specific question is, “Will I do better learning it myself or should I use an online college?”

If you simply want to know if you are cut out for programming, taking a class my be the easiest way to find out.  You may find that the class is difficult.  If so, that should be your first clue that maybe this isn’t for you, even if you are able to get A’s in the class.

On the other hand, maybe you already know you can program.  My own journey had me programming for pleasure first–teaching myself–and then I went off to a college.  I found that there were some programming languages I didn’t quite grasp right away.  The concepts I got fine.  I tried Basic, then Pascal, and then C.  Basic I understood.  Pascal had too much syntax for me and just confused me.  C worked like I thought.

So even though you may not do well in one language teaching yourself, that does not necessarily mean you don’t have the aptitude.

Maybe you already know you have the aptitude and what you are really after is the career.  You may be able to get there by teaching yourself.  You may not learn anything by going to school.  But the fastest way into this field is with a piece of paper that says you’ve done the program.

That’s unfortunate, because most of what you’ll learn when you go to school (online or offline) is about 10 to 20 years old.  In computer time, that’s ancient history.  So when you get out, you’ll have a great foundation, but don’t expect it will tell you everything you need to know for the rest of your career.  You’ll be lucky if it gives you what you need for your first job.

In fact, most of your career will be spent learning.  At least if you want to progress.  Yes, there are programmers who work for large corporations that have been doing the same basic thing for the last 20 years.  But I doubt you are interested in programming for a living because you want to do the same thing for the rest of your life.

So my conclusion is you probably want to do both.  Get the paper from the online college AND teach yourself what they won’t.  That way, you’ll have a piece of paper that will get you that first job and you’ll have the skills you need to keep your job and get others in the future.

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About Dave Bush

Dave Bush is a Full Stack ASP.NET developer. His commitment to quality through test driven development, vast knowledge of C#, HTML, CSS and JavaScript as well as his ability to mentor younger programmers and his passion for Agile/Scrum as defined by the Agile Manifesto and the Scrum Alliance will certainly be an asset to your organization.

  • Sorpigal

    I found this to be true, personally.

    I taught myself to program because I was interested and I found that I loved it. I loved it so much that I learned a lot of it. Then I tried to get a job… and found that no one would call me back if I sent in a resume without any formal experience.

    So I went to a 2-year college and took programming courses. It was blindingly easy, so I used the class time to read ahead and keep teaching myself. Example: In the C++ intro course I spent 3 weeks learning what we were going to cover that semester, then started reading ahead and learning as much as time would permit. (Side note: this can be dangerous. Handing in a simple count to 10 for loop exercise done with classes and iterators will tend to make the professor ask you where you copied it from.)

    After two years I had learned that college was a joke and I got a piece of paper saying I knew what I knew already.

    Armed with my paper I got a job as a programmer in short order.