Format and Learning — A Self-Analysis

While my life has its challenges and rewards, one thing I certainly believe has happened in my life is that my learning curve has exploded. Social software is definitely part of this equation, but I have to say it is not all of the equation.

Over the past few months my primary learning objective has been code. I am playing around with PHP, XSLT, AJAX and other languages. I even considered a bit of Ruby. I have also been very interested in ethics and change management.

Normally, when I pull out those acronyms, it’s because I want to establish myself with a bit of credentials. This time, it’s about how I learn and why I think format matters in a learning strategy.

I was thinking about how I learn best. What has worked to get me from where I was 6 months ago to where I am now (you will have to trust that these two “wheres” are not the same thing) .

So, what formats did I use to learn stuff, and how did they work for me:

Online tutorials (non-interactive)

For sure the W3 consortium tutorials have been a big help along the way. But really, there is only so much I could retain “next”-ing through each sheet of syntax. For instance, each function in PHP pretty much works like any function in any language. Re-describing each function, however important, would get pretty boring.

Remembering what each function does and when to use it is pretty difficult. In the end, you have to use the tutorials as a reference tool when you are stumped (as in, “my goodness there ought to be a pre-set function to handle form validation, I wonder where it is. . .”).

Online Tutorials — Interactive

These are pretty sparse and for good reason. They take a long time to create and usually don’t get much action in the end. If you want an interactive tutorial, it better be fun. But, code can only be so fun in the end.

That said, occasionally, the W3 (again) gives some nice demos (for example with CSS) on coding that work nicely. You can change the code and see the results in another frame. This is more helpful than ftp-ing files and refreshing screens all the time.

Blogs & Wikis

You can complain all you want about the reliability of the information on blogs and wikis, but one exception will always exist: technology. Wikipedia is excellent for technology information. A wide range of tutorials online via blogs have also been really helpful for me to learn things like form validation, xml schema, and sending mail via php.

I do have to state one exception, though. Sometimes people do not do a good job of testing their code samples. Sometimes this is a moral/ethical thing — as in the author expects you to use the tutorial to learn to do your own coding, instead of just stealing the code. Other times it’s just laziness. Either way, it’s always best to understand what the code is trying to do rather than just copying the file and sending away with it.

On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many times I had a techie try to baffle me with an acronym, I Google said acronym and within three minutes I am in the know. Google, Wikipedia and Technorati are definitely your friends.

Print-offs of Blogs, Wikis and Tutorials

Print-offs have been essential. I’m sorry, but I like to highlight and touch my knowledge for some reason. And scratch notes on the document. And splay them out for my own purposes.


I haven’t really tried to much podcasting for code-related purposes. But for broader schemes, ideas and the like, I have found Podcasting and Videocasting to be great.

One of my favorites is the CBC Ideas podcasts. There’s nothing like walking to work with an iPod in my ears hearing the likes of Charles Taylor, Theodore Dalrymple or Michael Blake discuss modern culture.

There have also been a great number of gems in video. A really good one is David Weinberger’s presentation on his new book: Everything is Miscellaneous.

I am an auditory learner, though so I like to listen to things alot. I learn best when I am able to iterate, discuss and hear knowledge. This is a fairly rare type — most people learn visually. Video, of course, is excellent because it covers both auditory and visual learning styles.

But video is not great for code learning. Who would want to watch a video of something doing code? Or worse make a video of yourself coding something. Blech!


Books have been an essential part of my learning. Online learning is too distracted to be effective in any depth (for me, anyway). While the online tutorials gave me a good overview of what I needed to know, the books helped me discover in depth.

Books have an added advantage (for now). There nothing like having the text demo in print format sitting on your lap, while you are practicing your code. Clicking back-and-forth on a computer is just hell, even with a big screen and multiple windows going.

Lastly, I find books very relaxing. Relaxing in a learning environment is so important. Just being able to slow down and absorb everything was so valuable to me and the book has helped me do that.

Gurus (real life)

For an auditory learner like myself, having a person to ask questions is essential. Sometimes the guru doesn’t even answer my questions — most of the time, I just talk about the problem and realize the solution as I am talking.

I would say this is the major reason that I would want to attend a conference.

Gurus (online)

Online gurus have also played a big role. A good source of these gurus can be found on the Library Society of the World Meebo Room, and Twitter. Thems librarians just love to share their success and failure stories online and I have to say that I’ve learned alot from these folks.

Doing It

Of course, hands-on is essential for alot of technology-related learning. I’ve tried to play my part by letting people have access to my test-server as a sandbox for whatever product they want to try. I’ve done the sandbox thing with WordPress, Joomla, and DrupalEd so far, and there are lots of other goodies there. Again, just let me know if you want me to install a CMS or other funky-web-server product. I’m willing to give it a shot.

Funny enough, a group of librarians discussed the whole “test server” idea after the Getting to Library 2.0 CLA Emerging Technologies Interest Group pre-conference. One of the conclusions we came to was that any new librarian ought to get him/herself a webserver to set-up a nice web service to show to colleagues. One of the reasons for this was the understanding that Systems folks cannot possibly spend time installing various sundry products for a “sandbox” — the interested librarians have to get some of this knowledge on their own!

The good news is that products like Joomla and WordPress are often provided as “one-click installs” for many hosting services.   Even if you have to download and install yourself, it’s not that hard.  For most services, all you need to know is how to create a database in MySQL and read the manual.


I realize the sources for learning here are all obvious ones, but there is a bigger point.  My learning strategy was not limited to format, and frankly, I do not think I cannot imagine that one format has been any better than the others.

In fact, I’d say the more formats for your learning, the better.   Each product has its own nuances that let those senses and neurons connect in new and interesting ways.   In the end, diversity is the primary format you should be focusing your energy on.  Don’t reject any format just for the sake of rejecting.   No format is too old, or too new; too cool or uncool; too hot or cold.   It’s all about getting your interest and helping you make information a part of you.

This discussion all brings me back to one of the most mundane discussions in all of librarianship — namely, making sure we have information available in as many useful formats as possible and/or economically feasible.     Even if books go out of style, there is no doubt that we will be printing information to help us learn in the near-to-far future.   We shouldn’t be too quick to sluff things off as obsolete!

3 thoughts on “Format and Learning — A Self-Analysis

  1. hey, thanks for your thoughts on the various formats that one can use to learn about new technologies. would you also post about specific books and/or blogs that you’ve found helpful?


  2. I have a lot of blogs in my reader, but here are some that are useful for specific purposes:

    For tech updates: Librarian in Black & Library Stuff .

    For “big picture” stuff, I like: Walt at Random and The Free Range Librarian .

    But really, any of the blogs on LibDex will do. In fact, I think you should read different blogs than I do, that way I can learn from you too!

    Great books? Well, on code I recommend the O’Reilly series or the Apress Line . But, really, code is code.

    If you go to the O’Reilly site, look out for the “read online” options using their Safari page . Buying the book, in the end, is cheaper — but at least you can see what you are buying before you do!


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