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Teach Yourself Anything Online

We live in a wonder world of thousands of online topics in any subject one can imagine. Some are free, some are paid, some are good, some are not so good – but in the end there is a limitless supply of information available online for the taking. Or so it seems.

There are times when the information just doesn’t seem to be there. Perhaps it’s partly there, perhaps it’s not organized properly, or perhaps it’s just more expensive than you can afford to pay for. Whatever the reason, there is still lots of opportunity for improvement in MOOCs and online courses. You might find yourself without a class that exactly matches what you want to learn.

This happened to me today.

And so the thought occurred to me – can I teach myself this topic with free resources available online that are not courses? Is there enough information I can gather together from multiple sources to put together a good overall course so that I can learn the topic I wish? I think so.

Now before we get into it, understand that it’s not the ideal situation by any means. Having a great expert instructor, who is a great communicator, who goes over topics in the exact right order, and builds up concepts at the right pace – you’re not going to get that by building yourself a course. You might find yourself reading articles or watching videos from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about, or assumes a level of expert knowledge in you that you do not have. You will have a wider range of communication styles. And perhaps you can’t find the exact right resource that meets your needs. But it’s a start.

Step One: What is the Topic

questionOK, so you’ve decided to not go the traditional “find a course” route, but to “make a course” for yourself. What is it you want to learn? Programming? Graphic Design? A new language? Applying the skills you have in a new way? The history of bubble gum? You have to start by knowing what it is you want to learn.

Step Two: Set the Scope

set-scope“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — credited to Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher (604 BC – 531 BC)

“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.” — credited to Creighton Abrams, United States Army general

Let’s say you want to learn how to be fully fluent in German. That may be your ultimate goal, but you’re not going to get there all at once. It may make more sense to set a more realistic scope with what you hope to accomplish in a set period of time. I don’t know what that is for you, but perhaps it’s to learn 200 words in 6 months. Or perhaps you want to be able to order your favorite dish and drinks at the local German restaurant down the street without saying any English. Or perhaps it’s to prepare for your upcoming trip to Germany and not feel so lost when the plane touches down. Whatever the goal, make it attainable in a period of time you can plan for.

Another example might be learning how to program. That’s a vague goal, actually, because how do you measure success? If you can write a single line of code, can you program? If you know 5 programming languages well, but don’t know 95 others at all, can you program? So make your goal more specific. Perhaps you want to start a website that is yours, and your goal is to get your website launched to the world without much embarrassment. Or perhaps you want to make one tiny video game for yourself based on an idea you had. That’s setting the scope.

Step Three: Break the Scope into Parts

base-campNow we are starting to drill down to break the learning into components. For your topic, what is the first thing you need to learn? By the end of the first week, what would you be very happy that you accomplished?

Just like climbing Mount Everest is broken into several Base Camps, what are the base camps for your journey? For learning German, perhaps learning some basic greetings is the first step. Like hello, goodbye, how are you, I am fine. If you can learn 5 or 10 basic greetings, and commit them to memory, you can be happy that week 1 of that journey was a success.

Likewise, for creating your own website, perhaps setting up your computer for the task is the first step. Getting a good text editor, finding a good graphic program, and putting together a basic Hello World! web page, and understanding each and every element in the code, might make a good day 1. Through some basic research, you should be able to set some achievable goals.

Work your way roughly through the period you have to learn the skill, week by week, and define these base camps. The second week might involve creating and finishing the home page, and the third week might involve putting all of the other child pages. This can progress until you have a site you can upload online.

Step Four: Research Places to Learn

google-itThis might be the hard part for some. But now you have to get knee-deep into the Google search results and find the resources to learn each of those things. Youtube would be a good place to start. Perhaps your resources are more specific to what you are trying to teach yourself – like a free English-German Dictionary site for learning German. Or the MSDN web pages for web programming. Search for tutorials, walk-throughs, how-tos, introduction-tos, and for all of the types of content that you need and gather them all together in a document to sort through.

Now you might find some resources are extremely compatible with what you’re trying to learn. You might find a Duolingo course on German, and going through that single resource will take you most of the way toward your goal. Or you might find resources that are too confusing and not well suited for you. This is where you start to try to fit different websites, videos, articles, PDFs, and podcasts into the various spaces of your learning plan.

Keep it bite-sized. If you want to learn 10 words of German in week 1, giving yourself 40 hours of reading and watching to do has a chance to hinder your success than help it. You want to find the BEST resources, that help you learn the fastest the way you learn best, and don’t waste your time with a lot of overlap and repetition.

Step Five: Assign Yourself Homework

code-sampleOne of the best ways I learn is to “do”. That means homework, that means practice, that means doing what it is you are trying to learn. Doing reinforces learning. So don’t just watch videos on how to create a web site – start creating one. Open the text editor, paste the HTML in there, change it, break it, fix it, test it. Most courses have some type of assignment component. There’s nobody to give you an assignment. Give yourself one.  Try to put what you learned into practice, and judge yourself on how well you do at that.

One of the benefits of making your own course, I guess, is being able to change it as it goes. If you find a particular module on the basics too easy (for instance, one week where you wanted to install some software and learn how to use it) , keep going to the next week’s topics. If it takes you 20 minutes to do the entire weeks’ task, you need to make it harder. It happens. Everyone overestimates the amount of effort it takes from time to time (or underestimates). Adjust your learning plan to give yourself a proper challenge.

Or in the reverse, if a week is too challenging, you can stretch that week’s work to the following week as well – break a week into two. Now, don’t use this as an excuse to avoid doing things that are hard. Doing difficult things is what stretches us, teaches us, and helps us grow. So you have to challenge yourself, but it is possible you have accidentally set an impossible challenge in a particular week, and so just adjust the workload accordingly.

Some Final Thoughts

Putting a course for yourself together is in itself a challenge, but a potentially rewarding one. While many restrict themselves to learning things that are packaged neatly as a course, and even pay for that, you’ve cut your own path through the forest, found your own way to the finish line without being lead there, and are better for that experience.

Perhaps you can turn that into a course that others pay you for? Recall that Udemy is a good place for people to put their own courses up for sale. Now perhaps pointing people at Duolingo and Youtube is not itself a course, but it’s a learning plan. If you found it a good way to learn, you can put that learning plan up online and show others the way you did it.

Best of luck with your online learning journey. If you find courses, videos, and other links to things that help you to learn something, I would love to hear about it. Tweet me, or post in the comments here.



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