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.