Less than a week ago, I decided that I am going to learn how to create iOS apps (that run on iPhones and iPads). I've wanted to make apps for years, but the learning curve is steep. Knowing where to start was difficult, but I was determined to learn. In the few days that followed, I used resources from every corner of the internet to get over the hump. I've created a few simple apps and am on my way to more complicated projects. Hopefully this will culminate with the ability to create apps for my job and for fun.
Throughout this process, I have been in awe at the amount of resources available online at no cost. I started at iTunes U, where universities upload videos, books and PDFs that cover a wide range of topics. I found an iOS development course from Stanford that I subscribed to. I sat in on a couple lectures before deciding that I needed to back up and learn some basics.
Here's where things got crazy. To program iOS apps (note: I get back to English after this paragraph), you use a program called Xcode, which I knew how to use. You write in a language called Objective C, which I didn't know. But you can't just learn Objective C, because it's based off of the language C. Learning C is a good place to start, but then you need to learn the fundamentals of object oriented programming. I have done a little of that, but only enough to be dangerous.
So where do you start? A book would normally be a good place to start, but this is such a fast-changing area that I was afraid of outdated information. I was able to find several websites that started with overviews and then went into specifics. I combined these with miscellaneous YouTube videos, some professionally done, and some created by young people sitting at home recording their computer screens as they speak into cheap microphones. These were surprisingly helpful most of the time.
It's been a whirlwind of code and syntax and computer jargon, but at some point I realized that I was learning a whole bunch of stuff from a whole bunch of people in a very short period of time. And this is how I learn best. It starts with a desire to learn, followed by identifying what exactly I need to learn (which sometimes is more difficult than it sounds) and explore multiple sources until I start to hear the same thing over and over.
I changed the brakes on my Honda a couple weeks ago, all by myself, and without any trouble. I applied this same approach to learning with that project as well. I read my repair manual, read online forums and watched a bunch of videos. Trends emerged, and it become clear which steps most people took and which ones were only mentioned once or twice. For example, my Honda repair book stated very strongly that you should wear a respirator when working on brakes, yet this was not mentioned in any forum, and nobody in the videos I watched wore any sort of mask.
Using multiple sources like this, you start to see this aggregation of knowledge that becomes extremely practical. There's a point when you can tell the difference between the right way to do something, the wrong way and the popular way. That helps take the knowledge and apply it to your situation effectively, because one of the problems with learning is that your sources don't know you and what your goals are. Because of this, many times you learn too much or too little or in the wrong direction, and it becomes irrelevant. And irrelevance, to me, is the arch enemy of education.
Perhaps this is why I was bored in school while learning about things which I was told were very important. You know, like the Civil War, run-on sentences and the pythagorean theorem. All of these things are fascinating topics to me, but only when I care about them. And I don't care about them all the time. And when I don't care about the Civil War, the last thing I want to do for hours is learn about the Civil War.
This was my biggest problem with school. It wasn't that I couldn't learn or that I didn't learn. It was that I didn't have patience to waste my time learning things that weren't relevant. I learned to become combative with my attention, many times challenging teachers to explain why a certain topic was relevant. This didn't necessarily go over well. How dare I ask such a question! It's relevant because it's being taught! End of discussion. You will learn now.
I became increasingly irritated by the feeling that someone, somewhere had decided for me everything that I was to spend my time learning. You will learn algebra, and science, and history, and social studies, and health, and a foreign language. And let's throw in a few electives to make things interesting.
As easy as it is to identify what my problem was in school, it's not easy to identify a solution. I don't know how other people learn. I've come to realize that most adults don't spend their free time watching hours of college lectures and taking quizzes that will never get graded. But I'm sure some do. And I'd like to believe that if we could somehow find a way to make content relevant to students (or better yet, find a common thread of what is relevant to them already), they would be so eager to learn that it wouldn't even seem like work.
And this brings me to a skill that I've acquired somehow, which is the ability (and desire) to learn. Maybe this is something I've had all along. Maybe I acquired it as a defense mechanism in grade school to filter out all of the noise and focus on what was important to me at the time. However it came to be, it has been an invaluable skill as an adult. I've re-carpeted my car, installed toilets, created 3D computer-generated motion graphics, fixed a washing machine and explained the inner-workings of a tornado siren warning system to a small child. These are not things I learned in school.
I realize that I'm not special in this. Everyone learns, and everyone has their own list of accomplishments. This just really interests me now because of the explosion of information that has become available, for free, online over the past several years. You no longer have an excuse not to learn something.
With this explosion of information comes the importance of a skill that surprisingly few people seem to have: the ability to find things on the internet. I've witnessed some embarrassing attempts at locating information, even from people who I would consider smart. Searching doesn't seem to be an intuitive skill. There are so many resources that sometimes it can be difficult to even know where to begin. While learning iOS development, I have used iTunes, Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Apple's development resources, Xcode's help menu, several programming forums and countless personal websites. This has connected me with words, videos, audio files and PDFs that have gotten me where I am.
I've consumed about a year's worth of college material in less than a week. I won't be graded on it, and I won't get a degree. But I will come away with a totally free education that wasn't possible to get even two years ago, and I will be able to put this education to work in practical ways that can better me as a person.
All of this comes at a time when, just yesterday, Encyclopedia Britannica announced that they will no longer be printing books.
This is a very exciting time for people interested in education. It's an exciting time to be a person with a hunger for learning. And I'm sure it's an incredibly frustrating time to be a student in grade school. I mean, all this considered, grades and degrees couldn't seem much less relevant. And when something as abstract and irrelevant as a grade is supposed to motivate students to learn, I think we're in trouble.
I don't know how we're supposed to make everything relevant for students, and I don't know how we're supposed to cater to different learning styles in a classroom environment. I didn't even mean to really go off on this tangent when I started writing this blog. I was going to write about iOS development. I was going to write about Beer Dude coming to your iPhone. Now look what I've done.
I don't mean to sound cynical about our education system. I mean, I work in public education, and I love it. I love going to classrooms and seeing teachers work. Teaching, without a doubt, is the most important job. I know that teachers know a heck of a lot more about this than I do. I just know what it's like to be a frustrated student. I also know how much of an impact education has had on me when it came at that perfect moment when I was ready and able to receive it. Mrs. Bright-Moore at Jefferson. Photography with Mr. Webb at Southeast. That art teacher I had at ISU. Mark Hardiman at LLCC. These teachers have changed me in profound ways that I'm grateful for.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. How do you learn best? When do you learn best? What was grade school like for you? Do you use the internet in your adult life to make yourself a better person? And how much would you be willing to pay to play Beer Dude on your iPhone?