The Learning Process Explained

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Multimedia Training & The Learning Process Explained

The purpose of this article is to explain what you should expect from multimedia training programs, and how they fit into the overall learning process.

It should help to prepare you, and provide a framework of study that will ensure you get the most from your investment.

'Learning' Vs 'Training'

'Training' is only one stage of learning. Training implies an external process which introduces knowledge. 'Learning' implies taking personal responsibility to understand a subject, wherever it may lead. Although we don't live in the world of 'The Matrix', some students still seem to believe that merely purchasing a training program will inject the knowledge directly into their brains. Their expectation is to be able to sit quietly in front of the training, as though it were the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and let the information 'flow' into them. But, in the cold light of day, we all know that the learning we achieve through our effort, directed research, personal engagement and practice is the most deeply held.

Studying creative subjects will also be very different to technical subjects; an entirely different skill-set is being built. With web design, for example, the tools are trained, but the design skills are learned from research, use, practice and playing. Templates are a fabulous place to start for web design - as they're effective working examples of many design elements which you can pull apart, break-down and try things out with. With programming, systems or network design and database tracks, the learning often can't be broken down into simple bite-sized chunks that can just be repeated. They require the effort of analysis, understanding and personal creation. Why do you think people at this level are paid much higher salaries? If it was as simple as point-and-click, then anyone could do it. Your creative 'muscles' have to be exercised and developed too.

At higher levels, knowledge becomes more and more about refinement, and the ability to differentiate between often very small distinctions. The certification gets further and further away from rote-learning. It gets more cerebral, less 'spoon-fed' and more about depth of understanding. With a program like the CompTIA A+, an instructor can demonstrate a skill - and then you can copy. With something like the MCSE design exams or MCPD programming etc., an instructor can give a lecture on theory, techniques and methodologies, but then you'll have to research them to gain the detail required to fully put them into practice. Then you need to use and refine that knowledge personally.

'Training' is often directed research. At university, students don't usually get spoon-fed information for their degree. The lecturer explains the higher level topics and provides the 'frame-of-reference' for the student, who then goes off and reads different texts & opinions on the subject - and starts to acquire his or her own background understanding and opinions. When we state that a program could take 500-700 hours, we clearly don't mean 500 hours of watching video. Watching tutorials or lectures etc. may only account for a tiny percentage of the overall study time. The research, use, refinement, practice & play steps take up the majority of the time.

Multimedia Vs Books

Just because we're a champion of multimedia training, doesn't mean we don't believe in the use of books. The entire wisdom and knowledge of the human race is contained in books. Books and reference manuals are a fact of life for learning and especially for IT and technology. It's just that using books solely as a training medium is very boring and doesn't encourage quick retention and memory. Reading only uses limited senses (it's actually an auditory learning style - not visual as some people believe - you effectively 'hear' the speech in your head,) whereas incorporating multimedia elements dramatically expands sensorial input. Watching a live lecture on a DVD, as though you were sitting in a class with a world-class expert, combined with slide-shows and over-the-shoulder video demonstrations (where possible) make the training much more enjoyable, and vastly increase the likelihood of remembering what you've covered. But never make the mistake of thinking that a multimedia program invalidates the need for books. Research, whether added by yourself to expand your understanding, or directed by an instructor to get to the details required, requires books and reference texts, plus a good deal of trawling through relevant on-line forums and communities; swapping ideas and information. But books should be just one of your many training 'assets'.

The Incremental Stages Of Learning

1. Overview & Explanation

Here, the training creates the initial frames-of-reference - the starting framework of understanding on which we'll hang all the knowledge, and the ever-increasing details. Without this essential step, we're groping in the dark. We need enough background and overview information to allow our brains to come to terms with the new information, and build the mental filing cabinets to sort and store everything.

2. Demonstration

Where possible, and if it makes sense to the study topic, a visual demonstration is very useful at this point. Being able to watch a highly qualified instructor demonstrate a technique, while offering his or her insights and tips, can really help cement the information into our understanding. Most of us are 'visual' in our learning style. This means that seeing something is the most effective way of pushing it in to long-term memory. And when we couple this with speech, we further increase the chances of retention. But up till this point, learning has remained passive, and it's the next step that makes learning 'active' - providing a factorial increase in effectiveness and understanding.

3. Research

This is one of the main, time-consuming parts of 'learning' (as opposed to 'training'.) This is where knowledge e-x-p-a-n-s-i-o-n happens! We gain more detail & depth, as well as alternative view-points, methods or opinions. We start to refine our frames-of-reference, and expand upon them so that we've got more room to hang new details.

Research can play anything from a very small - up to a huge part of the learning process. With a simple low-level skill, almost no research will be necessary; if it can be reduced to a simple set of steps that can be repeated the vast majority of the time, then it may not require research. On the other hand, if the knowledge sought is at a higher level, then more and more personal research becomes necessary, because the topics that we're trying to grasp often aren't simple enough to be reduced to 1-2-3 steps. In some areas, a quantum leap of understanding will be necessary - that eureka moment when things fall into place; sometimes requiring multiple points-of-view, and coming at different stages for each individual.

The role of the instructor here is often more of a mentor - a director of questioning and research. If we look back at some of our best teachers in school, the ones who inspired the greatest understanding and fulfilment, they often didn't even explain things to us - they just coached us and asked the right questions to direct us to our own realisations. And when they came... boy, did they feel good! And infinitely more satisfying than just having the answer spelled out. Because, when the human mind is backed into a corner, and forced to seek and analyse it's own data to form a conclusion, the depth of understanding is much greater - because you've gone through the entire process - rather than skipping steps by just being spoon-fed the information. True understanding comes from following the entire learning process, not just picking bits out.

I'm sure you can think of times in your life when you've tried and tried to achieve something, coming at it from different angles and perspectives, until suddenly, it happened. Thomas Edison is famous for saying that he didn't fail at designing the light bulb 1,000 times, he just found 1,000 different ways not to build a light bulb. And it's important to understand here, that this isn't just trying to look on the bright side (pardon the pun!). It expresses the inherent need to have gone through those steps, without which the final stage could not have been achieved; as Thomas Edison's other famous quote states "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration". This thirst and drive for knowledge and refinement normally comes from a passion for the subject, so make sure you're studying an area that fires your interest!

4. Practice & Play

This is where we apply the research and knowledge that we've gained and make use of it, to further refine our understanding. In the real world, step 3 and step 4 intertwine and feed each other. Interactive labs and testing suites are great if they're available (and are applicable to the subject you're studying.) Many labs exist for lower end IT certification to help us practice the steps, without having to deal with the consequences of mistakes.

With creative fields, like programming and web design, this is where we experiment with sample code and templates, pulling it apart and reworking it, making changes and doing all those fun 'what-ifs'. It's also where we start to develop those subjective aesthetic senses; what constitutes 'clean' code or design, how many different avenues there are to achieve a similar end result - each with its own benefits, and how important it is to keep things simple and well-documented for those that follow.

It's essentially the school of hard-knocks: You deal with success and failure in the same minute, driving forward your understanding in stops-and-starts. Time becomes elastic; hours can feel like minutes, and before you know what's happened, it's getting late! But, the knowledge gained here is what it's ALL about - it's that experience which sets us apart from the pack. It's the experience gained from hours of dealing with what happens when it doesn't work, that means next time, it'll be much quicker and work better.

5. Repeat Until It Sinks In...

It can often be useful to go right back to the 1st step again, as you'll be learning in a different light - with new and active frames-of-reference, so you'll hear and understand things that simply passed-you-by last time. (Consider some 'deep' movie you've watched recently for a second time - and all the revelations and detail that appeared this time through.) With some topics and areas of study, you'll go through all 4 steps in 10 minutes; with others, you'll never be finished. It's a constant truism with IT: Your learning will never be done. You'll be forever adding and refining knowledge (and at quite a pace in some fields!) It's often the case that those who are most naturally inquisitive go the farthest in IT, as they're expectation and passion is towards the constant acquisition of knowledge.

Conclusion And Thoughts

As technology gets easier to use and integrate with our lives, so the systems required to make it easy become exponentially more complex. Just because my iPhone is easy to use, doesn't mean the hardware and software programs that control it were simple to design and implement. There is an inverse law of complexity with technology. In our quick-fix immediate-expectation society, we sometimes forget this rule, and it has a profound effect on our expectations of education. We think that somewhere (if I really look hard enough...!) there should be a simple and 'perfect' training break-down of what I want to know - and if I go over that a couple of times, I'll understand it and can then do it myself.

But those simple knowledge 'sound-bites' that we hope for, rarely exist at higher levels of IT certification. Sure, if you're doing the CompTIA A+, we can demonstrate lots of simple-to-copy processes - like how to format a drive in a specific way, or how to set up a standard router. But the minute you get out of the basic forms of IT, you come to the crux - and that is: Most higher IT certification is about design, trouble-shooting and management. These skills don't come from a book, a DVD, a movie-clip or a lecture. They come from tried-and-tested experience, with the understanding of all those times it didn't work, failed, went wrong or crashed!

At the end of the day, you can put one student in front of the best instructor in the world, and he will fail, and another student in front of a highly mediocre instructor, and he'll pass with honours. It's down to the attitude and mindset of the student; does he/she want to learn and become good at what they do. If they do, they'll realise that it's going to take far more than just the 'training' to become that; individual research, effort, refinement and personal investigation & practice will all play major roles. Consider another famous Thomas Edison quote: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

As long as we understand the entire learning process, and the place that training occupies within it, we can approach our study fresh and invigorated, armed with the true understanding of our commitment. That old truism, that nothing ever happens without action, is painfully obvious when we talk about it, but how often do we apply it to our lives? A training provider cannot do the work for you; surveys have shown that many students don't even start their program for 4-8 weeks after they've purchased it. Procrastination is truly the biggest thief of success.

Speak to a qualified industry advisor, who'll help you analyse your interests and potential career tracks. Choose an appropriate area of study, purchase the program, make a commitment to yourself, and then get on with it! Ultimately, you have to take responsibility for your own education; purchase the best training tools for the job of course, but only your commitment and determination can fulfil their purpose and your aspirations.

Good Luck!

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