This is my first contribution to #StartYourShift. I’ve been watching the writing prompts flutter in to my inbox for months, but I’ve been hesitant to jump on them, mainly because unlike some of the other Shift workers…I am not big in the web world.
I’m not a front end unicorn, a full stack gummybear, or a wizard, warlock, or magical being of any kind.
I’m an art historian.
This month’s shift is about Web Education. And finally, thankfully, I can contribute, because, well, I’m presently a web student.
I’m three quarters of the way through the Udacity frontend web development nanodegree program, which I started in September. This is not the post where I shill Udacity (I’m not even going to link to it) but I will talk about where it has taken me. I’m going to talk about the challenges of web education from the perspective of a learner, and share some of the things that I think we can do to support transitional learners.
We’ve got to acknowledge that learning to code, especially later in life, is something that takes a fair amount of advantage and privilege. Privilege to either pay for online tuition or a bootcamp, or the privilege of being able to spend time learning from free tutorials. Being able to learn also requires things like an internet connection, a computer, a roof under which to learn, food in the student’s stomach, someone to help with care taking responsibilities, and the energy or permission to learn.
So when we are exhorting people to “Learn to Code!” en masse, I understand the sentiment behind it — web careers pay well! — but we need to realize that there are some very basic things that make it hard for people to be in web education.
And web education doesn’t make it easy to be in. Much of web education is self directed, and there’s a fetishization of self directed learning. People speak in awe of the prodigy who learned to code in 3 months. We do not speak in equal awe of the person who learned to code over a year and a bit, but was responsible for other humans, held a full time job, and had to work overtime to pay for the training.
We need to break away from the fallacy of the lone genius. What’s wrong with having a mentor? What’s wrong with having questions? What’s wrong with failing a quiz? These are opportunities for learning. For examination of the problem and the logic. We do not expect students to immediately know any other type of information — why should we expect them to have an immediate grasp of the million armed octopus that makes up the web?
Looking out to sea.
When I began seriously pursuing a web education, I asked my web worker friends what I should learn.
The alphabet soup of languages, and the paths to them, that I got in return was daunting. Conflicting. Impenetrable. For everyone one positive review of a language or path, there were three others telling me that that language was garbage, and that I shouldn’t waste my time.
I was standing on a pier, looking out at a sea of options, with no one to guide me.
This is where I found that latching on to a curriculum, an actual written document, with deadlines and evaluations, was a godsend. Udacity has some flaws, but the structure was something familiar from my grad school days. There are projects. There are deadlines. Someone will tell you where you went wrong. You will achieve these milestones, or not. And that works well for me.
By having a structure to latch on to, I took myself out of the “which language!” debate, because that debate will never stop. By learning a few bases, I’m going to have the confidence to jump in to another one, and another one, and another one, eventually. But for now, I’m building a foundation.
I’m being pushed, further and further, away from my comfortable HTML/CSS/JS pier…but I’m still afloat.
The Owl Problem.
What I’ve discovered in my learning is that web education has what this meme illustrates…an owl problem.
There is no shortage of “getting started with [insert software acronym jumble here]!” tutorials, classes, and blog posts.
There is also no shortage of “[Insert software acronym here] masterclass!”. But it is the middle sketchy bits that are missing.
And those sketchy bits are some of the best bits to learn. Students are curious from learning basics, but have more questions than answers. Asking them to swim in a masterclass without bridging from a four hour taster session is like asking an 8th grader to do a doctoral dissertation.
Exhorting people to “just learn to code!” is not going to cut it either. Students are rarely told “just learn to calculus!” They’re stepped up through the process gradually, building a foundation to fall back on when they encounter a new problem. Why should web education be any different?
Can I get an English major?
Web education might also benefit from bringing in some humanists, or for pete’s sake, force those software engineering majors to pass a couple humanities courses.
Even with a curriculum guided education, students are often told to “go read the documentation!” OK, great, but what if that documentation is written in what effectively amounts to cuneiform? When we are teaching students, let’s think about words. Let’s value communication. Assume no expertise, and focus on clarity and form. Acknowledge what needs to be in place before doing [whatever this thing is]. And remember:
We are teaching people to build things for people, people!
Economically, we value technical skills over humanistic skills — just look at the pay of programmers versus…well, anyone else in an organization. But I think that the real value is in a humanistic technologist — a person who builds and writes things for the humans that encounter them, not for the technical glory.
Where is that in web education? Where is the teaching of human interaction with code and documentation? That’s the solution to the owl problem — realizing that people are not computers, and they don’t make calculated inferences from A to B. They need to be taught A, B, and C before reaching D.
Where to next?
Web education, I’ve gathered, is never done. There’s always another language, another challenge, another problem. It’s an ongoing process.
This is the other place where we need humans. We need humans to critique (humanely) our work. We need humans to give us permission to explore our skill set, to grow in our knowledge, and we need humans to mentor and be mentored by.
I think that by growing the human element, the actual interpersonal, messy, sometimes awkward element, of web education, we can bust the owl problem.
Because it’s about people, people.
Now, go high five your junior. Or better yet, hire one.