Book, Look, Mooc, Cook

So far in my adventures back to technology through self-study, I have used a few different methods. When I started out, several people asked me where I was studying , or what course I was enrolled in. This showed that the traditional ideas of study and learning are still very well entrenched, and it also missed the point of what I was trying to achieve. It was also quite difficult to answer as I did not have a clear, well-articuated goal and method to give them.

In the past, the self -learner, particularly in IT subjects, has a huge array of books. In fact there seems to be a sizeable industry, churning out light-weight “Bluffers Guide to…”, right up to the heavy but well respected O’Reilly, Packt or Wrox publications. And books are great. Buying a physical book can make you feel like you have started the path to knowledge (you are kidding yourself, by the way!), but at 300-700 pages fat, it can be tough going. Tough because that’s either 400 pages of information to digest, or (quite often) 400 pages among which you have to find maybe 50 worthy pages worth of good new content. Also books have to pick an approach from step by step beginners guide, through updating skills to a knowledgeable audience, up to pure reference or philosophical discussion. One book cannot fit all, and it can be hard to get the right book. E-Books were last decade’s revolution and at least remove a couple of incidental obstacles presented by books – a large library is highly portable and book-markable, even if (like me) you don’t possess a physical  e-reader ( I just use the apps on my existing devices), and also there is a lower cost, even after the fact that ebooks incur VAT. Typically a £30-£40 paper book will cost you £20 or less and many titles are less than this. Just take the time to read a good cross section of reviews.

So, as I said, books are great for learning but it can be heavy going. The plus side is they are comprehensive and fill in the gaps between the raw facts and technical details, but as a medium for learning, I find I have a pretty short boredom threshold. Even though a lot of my study is not just about solid reading, but rather a few paragraphs,  and then CMD-Tabbing to a text editor to write code, then CMD-TAB to a browser to see if it worked, I still found it so predicated on my self-motivation that it feels like an unnecessarily sticky way of learning.

Fortunately for me there is a quiet but huge revolution underway in the way learning is made available. There is an awful lot of free-of-charge web based resources and tutorials. These are more terse and more efficient than reading whole chapters of a book, but then they lack some of the glue to help the facts make sense. There are many blogs and Youtube clips of people sharing their own knowledge and perspective but being knowledgeable on a subject does not make you a great teacher. In fact a monotone voiceover of a Youtube screencast can be more soporific than a couple of chapters of a book. The content may be there but the delivery can be weak. The problem with everyone being a writer/broadcaster is like there are 2 billion TV channels, with none you actually want to watch.

The best web resource by far for web development is w3schools. You need some sort of background understanding, and I think you would struggle to use it exclusively as a learning resource. But it’s punchy and efficient, particularly if there is a specific command or technique you want to understand. Also there tend to be specific tutorials for libraries, written by the creators or their communities. These can be very good, but will not teach you how to code from a cold start. You have to be running already. Stack Overflow also provides a lot of from-the-trenches answers from experienced coders to each other and to newbies.

For me the lights finally came on when I discovered online code schools. These are paid for services which, in exchange for a month’s subscription, give you access to highly structured tutorials on web coding, design, app development,  and other technical practices. They are made up of short videos with quizzes and live coding practicals to reinforce and test the learning. The video’s are pretty high quality as learning tools, but the genius is the live coding. It means that without having any programming environment setup on your own device, you can try techniques in html and css through to rails or SQL and other server side techniques that would otherwise need you to have a server (or local server simulator -more on this in a later post ) and development tools.

Now I have found that these course start out pretty light but get serious quite quickly. You are motivated to pay attention and rematch sections as you just know you are going to have to do it for real in a few minutes, and this is the feature that works for me. I pay attention because I find the delivery format engaging and sufficiently fun (sometimes a little frivolous), and because I know I’m going to be applying what I have learned in a code challenge very shortly.

Now as I say these cost, but the quality is there to see. For me, twenty minutes of videos and practicals on these sites is comparable with an hour or more of finding lower quality free resources and building an equivalent picture. I have to make every minute of my UoD Study count, and really resent any dead ends, or useless content.

Sites I have had experience of directly: Team Treehouse, and Codeschool, both of which I would recommend. These really need a post in their own right, as they are such a powerful learning tool.

Now the real revolutionary bit:  MOOC, or massive open, online course. Six weeks ago I had not even heard of Coursera, let alone been aware that it was part of a massive experiment by Universities. It’s a platform that gives you free access to real undergraduate quality course material, delivered and curated by the professors and lecturers at the heart of their subject matter. This is not just a case of sharing old course notes or screencasts from last years on-campus lectures. This is real content run in real time, with video lectures, weekly quizzes, peer-reviewed assignments and  lots of student interaction through in-platform forums, or offline on social platforms. I am still new to this – in fact the whole thing is pretty new. One of my fellow students has got a lot more to say on the subject of MOOCs, what they are and how effective they are.

I am currently enrolled on two Coursera courses: Developing Ideas for New Companies: The 1st step in Entrepreneurship from University of Maryland, and Creative Programming for Digital Media and Mobile Apps, from Goldsmiths, University of London. I’ll talk about the content in a separate post, but the experience is quite different. The code school style of delivery is very subject specific, aiming to give you a very vertical set of skills quite efficiently. My Coursera experience demands a much more exploratory approach. You are guided , but have to think for yourself to get the true value. I suppose it is like a comparison with university learning versus a more vocational college course. The time and attention commitment is significant. A couple of hours may get you through the week’s video lectures, but you really need a couple more to apply what you have learned to your own project and get the benefit. While it does not directly lead to tangible, instant skill-gain, it builds a pyramid of solid knowledge and understanding on which you can build.

So that’s Book, Look(ing for stuff on the internet), Mooc and the Cook part is bringing it all together. As well as these specific learning endeavours I am out at public lectures, geeky network events, and other get-togethers with techy types, to make sure there is an element of human contact to my journey.  I really think the answer to self-learning for me in in the blend of these different mediums and methods. I don’t get bored. I pick up and put down each source as it suits, and learning is definitely occurring here at the University of Dave.

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