My awesome publisher No Starch press sent me a couple copies of the Portuguese translation of Build Your Own Website last night. So neat to see this.
In the past month I’ve experimented more with different kinds of teaching formats and curriculum. I also attended the 140 conference on Education where K-12 learning styles were discussed in the context of social media. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a disconnect between theories of learning and the realities of modern media consumption beyond a K-12 level.
We in the US are living in a time of unprecedented access to information and at the same time that information is changing rapidly. Skills to prepare one for this new techno-savvy future were not entirely evident in the later part of the 20th century. In the 1990s much was theorized about our new media future and projected upon. So much of what I’ve been taught about how adults learn center around hands on training activities.
I quite enjoy doing classes in this format when I have the opportunity and I’m presented with an engaged audience. Far too often, however, I find that it’s more of a challenge to get adults to follow along with what you’re doing and get them to do the work in a hands on fashion. I can’t say that I blame them. I tuned out from hands on learning activities when I left grade school. What always captivated me in classes in college was a gripping lecture punctuated with solid examples.
I know lectures aren’t for everyone and I’ve slept through my fair share, but how can we look at the success of TED or talks from the Royal Society and honestly say that lectures are outmoded or don’t work? With the explosion of online content providers like Big Think serving up content in short video chunks, in addition to bite-sized articles and essays delivered to our phones and Kindles, it seems to me that far more of us are not learning by hands on but instead by collecting bits and pieces of information and deep-diving on the topics later.
This has always been my approach to the classes I offer. I cringed for months when my web concepts classes Website Bootcamp and Website in a Box were (and often still are) labelled ‘HTML’ classes. Anyone who’s serious about learning HTML knows that you don’t need to pay money for a 3 hour class to learn it. That information is freely available online. What I offer in my classes is a base level of HTML and CSS that are core to what I’ve had to use repeatedly in my past work experience. It’s just as important to me what I’m not teaching as to what I am teaching. I also bring in concepts like SEO that students are inevitably curious about, but that often don’t get touched in HTML basics classes. We’ve segmented the topics to such an extent that to realize their connection takes years of working experience.
Right now there’s an explosion of online training and extracurricular learning especially in the tech world. Yet we’re still using terms like “hands on” and “hard skills” rather than thinking of the student, our audience and customers. A good physical trainer knows that being healthy is a lifestyle. Even though we have specialists in the nutritionist, the family doctor, the personal trainer at the gym, etc each plays an important role for the individual looking to loose weight or adapt to a healthy life. Likewise our mental health relies on understanding that how students learn is different. Not everyone will respond to an online video. Neither will everyone seek out a book on a subject to learn the topic. But many still will in both cases as well. There’s not a right way and a wrong way to learning except in what’s measured by how the student perceives his or her knowledge on the subject. Let them room and they’ll learn in their own way.
Last night I had the pleasure of presenting on my recent Kickstarter success at the New Work City member Show and Tell. I got asked an excellent question from the audience afterwards. In my presentation I had shown that I did my homework about what works: price points, network effect etc but, some one asked “Did you look at any failed projects to see what went wrong?” I answered with my typical response when I don’t know the immediate answer “That’s a great question.” In those brief seconds I had to think of a response, I actually experienced dread.
I imagined myself preparing to launch my Kickstarter filling my head with all these stories of failure and negativity. I thought about what Chris Gillbeau (author of the $100Startup) said in the same space just two weeks before. Some one in the audience questioned his focus on successful entrepreneurs. To paraphrase Mr. Guillebeau, “failure is overrated. Don’t get my wrong. Failure is a good thing to experience because it gives you a learning opportunity.” The important thing is to iterate. Some have the tendency to emphasize the problem over the solution. This can lead to inaction.
Happstr is an example of vindication for the optimist.
It’s been less than 3 months since I stood up at 5 am on a bus leaving New York City and said something like, “Have you ever been fucking depressed? Like, go through moments of darkness? I want to build an app that encourages happiness. You tap a button and your happiness gets mapped out for others to see and get inspired by. If you aren’t feeling happy you can search a map and go to where people are happy.” After three all nighters and a whirlwind tour through the south, five amazing, wonderful people built that very app. We called it Happstr. The app continues to gain steam, has almost double my Twitter followers despite still being a prototype and not ever being officially launched. It was recently nominated for an award for humanizing technology (a personal victory since I teach technology to humans).
Happstr is an example of vindication for the optimist. I’m not always overly optimistic. Like everyone I experience periods of doubt and regret but I try not to project that to others — especially those I first meet. My job is to teach beginners about tech and too often people outside the world view it as closed off and inaccessible. They’re afraid of making mistakes. I don’t blame them. I have a lot of friends who build apps and websites for a living and it’s not uncommon to hear “That’s a dumb idea” or something close to it. The tech world venerates lean, fresh, new and most important ridiculously high-performing products. There is no second place. If you don’t have the hottest, newest exclusive technology you shouldn’t even bother.
From years of teaching people technology, however, I know that the trouble for most beginners is overcoming their fear of mistakes. Giving a beginner enough room to try it out themselves and mess something up leads to high quality learning and the most likely road for their personal success. Guess what? Getting frustrated every time it takes someone 30 seconds to do something it takes you 10 seconds to do, doesn’t exactly help them.
I see students all the time who’ve started and ended their personal web projects prematurely because they saw other people’s sites or they were convinced by someone else that some other technology would be easier or better. Too much posturing again leads to inaction. I often tell my students who ask me what’s the best way to start getting into web development learn any language. I find the people who get that action is more important than talk — like Girl DevelopIt and Mike Caprio who organized the NYC StartupBus make up the quiet majority while the haters; the get out of town if your idea isn’t the next Facebook are the loud minority.
That’s why I’m personally honored (while not presuming full-credit for its success) that Happstr is nominated for a humanizing technology award. It’s not perfect (It’s not even finished). But it’s an app that proves that being optimistic in the tech world doesn’t represent a naiveté but rather a choice and an inspiration for others.
I went to two events this past weekend that helped form some thoughts about my relationship to my work, teaching students. The first, on Friday was “Rise of the Independents,” a crash course into the coworking world with Chris Guillebeau author of the $100 Startup. The second was The Brooklyn Food Coalition Conference in Greenpoint.
In the $100 Startup Chris Guillebeau interviews entrepreneurs who either left their job by choice or were let go and found themselves with the opportunity to pursue an independent career. I see Chris’ book as almost the polar opposite of the Lean Startup, which is focused heavily on high-growth startups. $100 startup instead looks at people who are figuring out how to make a living on their own with little or no capital investment and with a minimal trial and effort strategy. At the event on Friday, Chris talked a lot about the idea of value. If you are adding value, providing a good or service people want then you can make a profit. If things aren’t going the way you’d like, you can adjust to figure out what the value is and how to better provide it. The book $100 startup chronicle everyday people making decisions like this some are indeed making lots of money on their businesses ($1M+ per year), but they’re doing so with little to no capital investment or traditional business loans. Tony Bacigalupo underlined the work of the book in his introduction by describing how this major shift towards microbusiness is happening despite being under-reported in the media.
At the Brooklyn Food Coalition conference there were workshops on everything from why you shouldn’t eat meat to food politics and policies to navigating the minutiae of government red tape to build a rooftop garden. It was clear that no matter which side of the argument you were on over whether food is a basic human right and shouldn’t be subject to market fluctuations, that most of the action was in the local organizing. Every where you turned you saw t-shirts and fliers for local gardens community coops, CSAs and meetup groups for neighborhoods. Just like with the microbusiness revolution described in the $100 Startup the talk is important but grossly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of action happening on a local level. While at the conference I took a workshop on food security and profit where the conversation quickly turned to a discussion of GMO labeling and concerns about the safety of food, and how to protect against contaminants. I’m always struck in these conversations how closely it mirrors discussion of software patents, DRM and file-sharing. Companies want to protect IP to the detriment of the spread of ideas. Rebel farmers share seeds illegally circumventing copy-protection measures put in place by these large corporations.
There used to be an understanding that college was a four year phenomenon followed by lifelong employment with little to no variation until retirement. It’s almost laughable to type such absurdities now. The realities of the modern economy is that jobs change frequently and skill-sets even more.
When I left my full time job to start a consulting business I was following in the footsteps of millions of other accidental entrepreneurs. I knew teaching would be a big part of what I do but wasn’t 100% sure it could be a business. By experimenting with adding value raising and lowering prices trying out platforms and venues, I was able to figure out a way to make it work. There’s so many resources available for learning today Meetup, General Assembly, Eventbrite, Skillshare, Girl DevelopIt, CodeAcademy just to name a few. It’s quite possible, as I’ve written on before, to make a living by being a teacher and a lot of people do. But like so many things happening in this new microbusiness, sharing-economy a lot of the work is happening under the radar.
A lot of my colleagues don’t realize I’ve worked in academia for a number of years. In fact almost exclusively except for the last six years working in training and education at Apple Inc. Like many people I share the belief that the education system and academia is broken. Unlike many others I don’t believe this means there’s no good in it. I do, however think there are some key factors that make the industry of education seem outmoded. Here’s just a few factors:
1. Maintain a Network
Last year I did something daring. For the first time in my life, I quit my job and decided to start my own company. If you talk to anyone who has done it before, you’ll know that there’s a familiar story of freedom and sheer terror. It helps to have a network and I knew that I’d have clients who needed help learning how to use their technology. Referrals are a main engine of growth within my company. The majority of my business comes from a direct referral from someone I know, usually through clients that I have worked with in the past. Good service goes viral. One good session with a client can spread to their contacts and eventually to third-level contacts. It’s important to maintain an email list and email updates of what you’re teaching. Let previous clients know about your upcoming classes. Students who’ve taken you classes can turn into clients down the road if you keep them up to date with your current events.
2. Organize Events
When I left my job, I knew that I wanted to make group training a big part of my business. Without really knowing how to go about teaching, I started to organize Meetups to look for potential clients and test out the content of my class. I hung out at a coworking space that had events and was able to meet organizers of meetups that way. That lead to speaking gigs at other meetups and the ability to organize larger group meetings through existing meetups. This sort of IRL long-tail is crucial to getting your name out there. Everyone you meet isn’t always a client but they can become part of your network and generate referrals. Remaining active in groups whether social or explicitly networking-focused gets your name out there and broadens your prospects not only for individual clients but also for prospective students.
via big think