Learning over the Web
Now a days, when people need to know something, they turn to Google. When people need to learn something new, like say a new programming language or application, they turn to the Web for on-line training. But what is the best way to learn things from the Internet? Which tools work well? Which tools end up wasting a lot of time? As a blog writer and Software Architect, I spend some time wondering on the best ways to disseminate information. I’ve tried a lot of the items discussed in this posting both as a teacher and as a student. As usual these represent my own personal biases and opinions.
I think there is a lot to be said for attending real physical classroom or attending conferences. Besides the sessions there is all the networking and sharing of experiences with other attendees. Sage Summit is a great one for learning and networking here in North America. But travel is expensive and time consuming. Often attending classes is too much time commitment. So it’s nice that if you can’t turn to these there are still some good alternatives.
PowerPoint is Evil
The heading refers to a well-known Wired article: PowerPoint is Evil. Many consider PowerPoint to be the worst thing that has ever happened to education. Here is the Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint form to emphasize what is lost in a PPT presentation. If you are looking to learn a new topic and you Google, chances are you will find many PPT presentations on the topic. Chances are if you download and read these, you will learn very little and become frustrated. I know I’ve annoyed people by sending them PPTs from old conferences in answer to various questions. Many Universities and Colleges make a big deal on how they publish all their class PPTs on the Web. To me these aren’t very useful, and make me wonder at the value of these institutions. Never mind the horror of death by PowerPoint in a meeting or at a conference.
Khan Academy is a website that is completely free to use and offers course material from all over elementary school, high school and college. There are over 3000 videos and over 300 math exercise that you can use. All the videos are made by the founder Salman Khan, and are interesting because of their simplicity. Basically you get a virtual blackboard that Salman draws on as he explains a topic. Most of the videos are under ten minutes long and using this site is quite addictive. Although I haven’t done it yet, I feel that producing Khan Academy type videos could be a very efficient way of producing quite effective training material. There are other specialized on-line training sites like Code Academy, but I tend to like Khan the best.
There are some excellent videos of training sessions and lectures on the Internet. InfoQ is always posting quite good lectures. The main problem I have with them is that they are hard to skim through. Often to get the benefit you have to watch a full hour long video. I tend to prefer written material since I can skim through it and process it quite a bit quicker. You also have to watch the quality of the video, some are quite un-watchable. In a way videos are great to watch lectures you missed, perhaps at a conference you couldn’t attend. On the other hand I find it really hard to find that un-interrupted hour in a day to watch a complete video lecture.
I’ve only created a couple of videos, I found it very time consuming, mostly because in the editing process you spend so much time watching and repeating parts. Perhaps I need more practice, but I find it can take a full day to create a decent 20 minute video. I wonder if to practice, I should start doing some of my blogs as vlogs?
I’ve attended some really excellent webinars. I especially like them if they are interactive. If there are a small number of attendees then you can ask questions as you go along. If attendees can’t ask questions I find it isn’t nearly as engaging, if there is a large audience, often a helper can find some good questions off the chat window to interject a little interactivity. Generally a good technology to provide a near classroom experience when you can’t physically meet. With newer Telepresence technologies, I expect webinars to get better and better and to fulfill the vision of virtual classrooms.
Often when people give webinars, they record them and then post them for people that missed the live webinar. Then you get into all the issues I mentioned in the videos section. I often find recorded webinars quite boring in comparison to the live event.
Often you can find a number of free e-books on any given topic. For that matter you could buy a real physical book or buy an e-book version. For much learning, I still enjoy quietly reading a book, whether a physical book or an e-book on my iPad. There are always promises of more interactive books, but I still like the old fashioned passive variety. Being able to mark up and search e-books is definitely nice. I even wonder if I should one day create a book version of all my blog posts?
I like it that companies post all their instruction manuals as PDFs on the web. So once I’ve lost the manual for my phone and need to change the answering machine, I can find the manual much easier on the web than finding the printed one in my house.
I find blogs a good way to disseminate small amounts of information. However I don’t think a blog is a good vehicle for producing a training course. Cumulatively there are a lot of blogs out there and a lot of good information is available in blogs first before it appears in other media. I know I try to push out information in my blog before other departments have a change to process and publish it. So generally I find blogs best for information at the very bleeding edge, often in quite a raw form. I’m not sure if I would get many viewers, if say I ran a ten part series on say learning SData.
Around the office we have a joke that Wikipedia knows everything and this is pretty much true. If you need quick info on a topic, then Wikipedia or other Wiki’s can be a great source. We do all our technical documentation in Wiki format now, so we can quickly push it from our internal to external Wiki very easily. We find this is a great way to provide technical documentation without any extra overhead. Many companies have Wikis of this nature. These aren’t always the best places to learn from, but they are great for looking things up.
A lot of companies publish all their reference material to the Internet. Often this is in Wiki format as mentioned above. However there are many other tools for generating this. For instance for our Java APIs we insist that all source code has complete JavaDoc, and then we generate this JavaDoc and reference it form the Wiki to provide API reference documentation.
I tend to think the best way to learn, is by doing. The best way to learn is from making mistakes and you need to be doing, to make those mistakes. You can’t learn all the pitfalls of something just by reading or watching. But how do you get started? The web now offers a wonderful variety of resources that are mostly free to get started and to get learning.