IT Pros must constantly learn, but they don’t all learn in the same way

The first time I saw my favorite professor present a lecture, he declared to the lecture hall “everything I’ll be teaching you this semester is written down over in the library by people far more eloquent by myself. As that is demonstrably true, ask yourself why should you give up several hours each week to hear me provide you with the same information in this format?”

As is always the case with my favorite professor, there’s actually a good answer to this question. It has a lot to do with the fact that while some people in the room would be able to learn everything he was going to teach by going across to the University library, many people in the room were going to be better off attending the lectures rather than reading the books.

I was reminded of the professor’s words when reading an interesting article on Slate recently about the trend for some people in the education/technology sector to assume that the majority of people were autodidacts.

An autodidact is someone who excels at self paced learning and teaches themselves rather than being taught by others. The books I write for Microsoft Press, the Exam Ref and Training Guide (formerly the Training Kit) series are eminently suitable for people that have the discipline to learn without much direction. As is the video based training I do for PluralSight.

I used to assume that many IT Pros, because they had jobs that required constant learning, must have strong self-learning skills. Like the article suggests, I had assumed that the majority of IT Pros must be autodidacts. This assumption seemed reasonable because it seems self evident that part of being a successful IT Pro is that you need to almost constantly be teaching yourself new products and technologies. As someone once suggested to me a long time ago, IT is a treadmill, and if you stop learning/walking, you’ll fall off.

However things that “self evident” aren’t always necessarily true.

While IT Pros do need to be able to absorb and process information, they don’t necessarily have to be self-directed learners. There’s a reason that classroom and lecture based learning has stuck around for hundreds of years even when libraries that have the same information have been accessible to the students sitting in those classrooms or lecture halls.

As an author, I used to wonder why people would pay for me to teach a class when they could simply pick up a book I’d written and learn the same thing. What I’ve learned from the students that attend instructor lead training is that many of them find directed classroom learning far more effective than self paced learning. That is, they learn more by interacting with an instructor of whom they can ask questions rather than by reading something on a website or in a book and then attempting to apply it in a lab or in a development environment.

IT Pros always need to learn, but not all IT Pros employ the same learning strategies. What works for one person may not work for the next.

I’ve often thought that this was something that Microsoft understands at an intrinsic level. In my own work for the company, I’ve created content that addresses a multitude of learning strategies. I’ve written books, written and presented instructor led training, and created videos. Information about the same broad topics presented in a variety of ways. What I’ve always found great about Microsoft is that they spend serious resources understanding how people learn things. Some other vendors don’t have this broader understanding about different learning strategies, and seem to figure that if they make some technical documentation available, IT Pros will figure out what they need to know for themselves.

So the answer to my question about why people paid me to teach a class on things they could read in one of my books is the answer to the question my favorite professor posed. For some people, having an instructor is a critical part of how they learn. As the Slate article seems to suggest, understanding that there are a variety of different learning strategies that need to be serviced, rather than just the learning strategies of the autodidacts, is critical for any organization that needs to have people learn and understand how to use their products.

My grandfather used to say that the most important thing you’ll learn at university is how you actually learn. Once you figure out which learning strategies work for you, you’ll find it easy to stay on that IT learning treadmill.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Jul 24, 2014

I'm an autodidact to the extreme. I've self-taught myself everything. It's not because of the lack of great training material out there but just because I get too impatient with people. Even the stuff I do for Pluralsight also I think is no good just because I don't learn that way. I'm glad the viewers disagree with me. :)

However, this sometimes comes as a detriment to "true" learning. I can generally figure out anything if you give me another time myself but sometimes it's not the best way. I don't allow myself to learn it enough to truly understand the depth. I just learn it enough to get done whatever I'm doing and move on.

on Jul 24, 2014

I'm a little dubious about the claim to "mastery takes 10,000 hours" (I think the person who came up with that pulled the figure out of mid air) - but a teacher will often show things that someone who taught themselves never found.

on Jul 25, 2014

It's been my experience that formal education in technology falls far behind state of the art (by at least a decade.) It takes time for the authors of books and courses to "learn their stuff" and organize it by writing it down, etc., still more time for the printing of textbooks and what books you might find on a shelf in the library, and it takes even more time for the proper accreditation of courses for college, etc. Meanwhile, technology marches relentlessly on.

It reminds me of a lesson I leaned a few decades back. I'd decided to audit a local university course entitled "Introduction to computers," as I felt it might not hurt to have a little "formal" mixed up with my decade or so of hands-on experience at the time. What a disappointment (I've never forgotten it.) What the course was actually about was not "computers" at all--it was about using Wordstar, a primitive word processing program that even then, as far back as that was, had been replaced by WYSIWYG programs. What was taught about "computers" (a teetering old IBM-PC with a tiny monochrome monitor and a 5.25" floppy drive--I had far better at home even then!) was restricted to turning it on and off, connecting it to a printer, and other such highly technical information. After the third class I talked to the professor and regretfully bowed out. In the decades since, the most I've learned came not from any formal educational presentation, but from constantly working with the new products that hardware and software engineers are creating and selling into the marketplace whenever I can get my hands on them...;) It is a process of "reverse-engineering" what these people know, if you know what I mean.

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Orin Thomas is a contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and a Windows Security MVP. He has authored or coauthored more than thirty books for Microsoft Press, founded the Melbourne System Center,...
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