In this week’s WP-Tonic round-table discussion we have a great panel of WordPress educational and development experts where we discuss the latest WordPress news and one chosen topic which we talk about in some depth. This week’s topic is “Resources for Continuing Your WordPress & Web Education!”
Morten Rand-Hendriksen: from Lynda.com
Jackie D’Elia: from Jackie D’Elia Design
Kim Shivler: from Whiteglovewebtraining.com
John Locke: from Lockedown Design
Jonathan Denwood: from WP-Tonic.com
This Week’s Round-table Discussion Stories
1 – The future of eLearning
2 – Apply for the Kim Parsell Memorial Scholarship
This Weeks Main Topic Is “Resources for Continuing Your WordPress & Web Education.”
Episode 132 Summary and Show Notes
The first WordPress article we discussed was Chris Lema’s article, The Future of eLearning. Morten said there is nothing incorrect in this article, but starting your e-learning site was not a trivial matter, and there are many large players in this space already (Lynda, Adobe, Microsoft, universities, social media platforms). Morten said all these sites need authors, and the trick is to find how to fit into these larger machines.
Morten mentioned Wes Bos and Zac Gordon as success stories of people who are doing this on their own. Morten said to succeed on their own, it takes a lot of planning. His advice if you are making training videos for clients is to embed them in the WordPress Dashboard, to make them easy to find.
Kim said her takeaway from the article was to not necessarily create your own e-learning company, but to create individual bits. She agreed that our collective attention span as a society is getting shorter all the time. Kim said that many people want to see a video that explains what they are out to do very quickly, and break down the steps without a bunch of filler.
Kim thought Chris’ article didn’t go far enough in some regards, as most people don’t just want an interactive experience, but a full experience. Not just a video, but also the written steps to accompany the video. She said don’t try to build everything yourself if you want to build an online course. Focus on the content, use plugins where necessary, and be sure to take care of the marketing.
Kim said many of her clients are business coaches, with their audience already coming to them. If they can offer online courses on top of their regular offerings, that is a big success for them.
Morten says at Lynda, if he has to make a video longer than seven minutes, he has to justify it. He said most videos that are effective are three to four minutes long. Kim said if you can fit the info into a minute, then that’s what you should do.
Jackie said it depends what courses and content you are trying to learn from, when it comes to mobile vs. desktop consumption. This is one aspect of the article she had a slight disagreement with. She says everyone is on mobile, but if you are taking a coding course, it is difficult to see on tablet, much less on a mobile phone. Jackie said she like Treehouse, and how they have quizzes at the end of each lesson.
Kim agreed with Jackie that not every online course would fit well on a mobile phone. She said if it was something like a fitness course, then it would fit mobile phones perfectly.
Kim said e-learning and online education were tough to define. Even a blog post could be educational. But she said a course, whether it is online or offline, needs to have certain levels of options. A course must have interaction and concepts presented in different ways. In a recurring theme of this episode, Kim noted different people learn in different ways. Some people need video or audio, while others need the written text to refer back to. She said this was one of the big differences between educational material or a course.
John agreed that the type of content would determine the place where it would be learned. He suggested that the larger sites would have their own apps, so they would be mobile-friendly and device-agnostic.
John talked about a point in Chris’ article, that e-learning courses should allow users to take their own path. He said the bar was raised when you talk about gamification at both a local and national level, as the article suggests. John mentioned Swarm as an example of an app (not e-learning) where you compete against your own circle of friends. He said some larger e-learning sites already had “learning tracks” where you can bundle different individual courses to get to a final outcome.
Morten talked about where people consume information, recapping the shift from desktop to mobile. He said the talk in the UX (user experience) community has changed from designing to fit the devices people use to designing for wherever people might be. He said web designers tend to make educated guesses as to how and where people use the internet.
The problem is all assumptions can turn out to be wrong, and frequently are incorrect. Some people only have access to the internet through one device, so whatever we choose as the “primary platform”, it can end up excluding someone. There are some learning experiences that are not ideal on a mobile phone, and this is the challenge. If someone chooses to take a course on a platform or device that is not ideal, how do we serve up the content and experience in such a way as to not take away from the learning experience?
Morten says he will often watch courses on his TV, if possible, if they are theoretical courses. If they are practical courses, he will take them on different screens, including a tablet. The hurdle is how to handle this in all circumstances.
Morten relates a story of a friend who sent him links from very large websites of some very well-known brands. In each case, the drop down menu button would work on some devices, but not others. Morten said there is a new design pattern that is completely broken, because web designers assume they know how people are using a site and what devices.
In this case, the menu button was triggered by the presence of a touch screen. The drop down menu would only work if you would touch it. If you had no touch screen, you could hover over the menu to reveal the drop down. Here’s the problem. Many Windows computers have a touch screen, and are desktop computers. You would have to physically touch the menu (or click it) to reveal the drop down. Hovering over it would not work on newer Windows computers. This is bad user experience, and betrays the ugly truth that many designers only consider a subset of users when building sites.
The lesson is we should not make decisions based on devices, because we don’t know what devices are coming out two weeks from now. We should allow the learning experience to be unhampered and not make drastic decisions about experience based on our limited knowledge of our user’s devices alone.
Our second WordPress new story was from the WordCamp US blog, about the Kim Parsell Memorial Scholarship.
This is a scholarship for any woman who is a WordPress contributor, who has never attended WordCamp US. This scholarship covers the cost of ticket, flight, and lodging. The WordPress Foundation encourages older women to apply.
Kim thought the main benefit of the scholarship was networking and meeting people. There is a real difference between meeting someone in person after only knowing them from their podcast. It isn’t necessarily a way to learn a ton of new skills in one weekend, but it brings you closer to the community.
Jackie thought the age declaration made it sound like no one under thirty should bother applying, and someone should have proofread that. Kim and Morten thought the term “older women” was a can of worms.
Morten said it was very important to include marginalized people in the WordPress community. All of the decisions in the WordPress community are being made by people who feel comfortable enough to contribute. Meeting the other people in the community is part of overcoming that hesitation to contribute. He said by meeting people you could see maybe you thought they were crass, crazy, or stern…but perhaps they just have a bizarre sense of humor, or are no-nonsense people. These are things you would never find out unless you met them in person. He said we need every type of person who would choose to use WordPress in our community. We need to remove encumbrances – whether those are financial, social, or otherwise, it is incumbent on us to make sure those hinderances are removed.
The Kim Parsell scholarship is step one. Morten said the next step is for all the major companies in the WordPress space to sponsor a person to come to WordCamp each year. For every one person that gets the scholarship, there are thousands that can’t. But if all companies that have the money spend it on bringing people to a WordCamp instead of spending it on sponsoring T-shirts, the whole community benefits from their inclusion, not just the person coming to the WordCamp.
John said our strength was in our diversity of experience as a community. He stated that technology as a whole has a real problem with diversity and inclusion, and this was a way for WordPress to be better than the other web communities out there.
Main topic: Resources for Continuing Your Web Education
John asked the panel, if you were a brand new person to web development, what path would you recommend?
John asked Kim about her start on the web, and differences between learning then and now. Kim said there wasn’t even CSS yet, it was plain HTML markup. FrontPage wasn’t even a thing yet. She joked that she has successfully forgotten all of that except for a couple of commands in Vi.
She said you have to look at the bigger picture, and she has used Code School and Codecademy. But if you want to be a web developer, and not work for a bigger company, you need to go out and get some business classes. You need the business experience and knowledge; not just the technical knowledge.
Kim sees so many developers that know the technical aspects, but don’t know how to talk to customers, or do discovery, or price correctly. She recommended Judi Knight of New Tricks who has a class for developers who want to learn the business part of making a living.
John said a lot of web developers have a glaring weakness, which is that they have never done anything but web design or web development. They have not necessarily had to run a business or learn about business.
Jackie said Lynda and LinkedIn Learning have a great library of learning material about a broad range of subjects. She said it was good to refresh the concepts in your mind from time to time. She said she learned coding while running a business all at the same time, back in the days of dBase, before the web. She worked there for eight years, then sold the company, then worked at an IT firm for four years, then came back to web development.
She said there are tons of great business videos on YouTube. She agreed with Morten that learning the basics is important. She says many people in the WordPress community got their first experience coding within the WordPress space, so they don’t know anything else. When it comes to writing HTML5, Sass, or Gulp, people can be out of their element.
Jackie says she likes Treehouse, and says she has learned a lot of CSS animation there, and says the classes by Guil Hernandez are particularly good. Jackie also highly recommends Know The Code for leveling up on your WordPress and Genesis coding. These are both video based learning, which Jackie says fits her learning style. She says she doesn’t read as much as she listens or watches videos or audio. She says it is important to get your information from sources you trust, as opposed to random videos on YouTube, that you don’t know who recorded them or when. John mentioned multiple intelligences and how those affect your learning style.
John asked Jonathan how he first learned web design and development. Jonathan said he used to knock out websites in Dreamweaver, and originally took a class at university in Multimedia (this was what they used to call web design and development in the primordial days). He said the program they used back them was Director for Macromedia because at that time, everyone was still obsessed with CD-ROMs. He says they also threw in some Flash and Visual Basic. He says his first paychecks as a freelancer were doing Flash animation.
Jonathan says after the dot-com crash of the early 2000s, a lot of work dried up for web development. He said he was lucky, because he still had his main business. After this is when he moved to America, and he took some community college courses to brush up, but he found out he knew more than his instructors. This is when Jonathan got into WordPress.
Jonathan said it was difficult to find your own path. He said John pointed out to him if you worked for a small web agency, the reality is you would be expected to be a multi-tasker. Not only would your pay be dependent on budget, but you would be expected to be the graphic designer, coder, and SEO expert all in one. John just grinned and nodded. Jonathan said it was nearly impossible for someone to be excellent at all of these things all at once.
John said he learned was different than many people. He said with a lot of younger developers, one of their parents may have been a programmer or designer, or otherwise connected to technology. John says he only had a semester of computer lab in fifth grade learning BASIC, then when he was thirteen, his neighbor had a Commodore 64 where they copied a couple of programs onto a cassette drive. Aside from that, he didn’t even own a computer until he was 28. He did not get into web development until 2009. He didn’t know about Lynda or Treehouse (it may have still been called ThinkVitamin at this point), but he did online school at University of Phoenix, which he doesn’t recommend. He says that did accomplish one thing, which was keep him on the path. He said community college is a better option, but accredited schools take a long time to approve curriculum because of education regulations, so they are always a few years behind.
John says he picked up several books that he was hearing about, including Designing with Web Standards, and the A Book Apart series. He followed early web pioneers like Jeffrey Zeldman, Andy Clarke, Jeremy Keith, Chris Coyier, and Ethan Marcotte. He built things in flat HTML and learned responsive design, because that was brand new. He did additional learning from Treehouse, Code School, Codecademy, and the site Digging into WordPress. After a while, he found WordPress and has been here ever since.
Jonathan asked John how long it takes to go from learning stuff to being able to charge enough to make a living. John estimated a minimum of two years. He says it took him about that long to learn how to build websites while working full-time before going out on his own. He adds it is vital to learn the business aspect, because the first sites he sold were for a pitifully low amount, and he would slap himself if he tried to sell those sites for the same amount today.
John says it may take a couple more years to get things to a level where things are okay (business-wise). He stresses you should charge a decent amount, even if you don’t think you are worth it. A lot of it comes down to experience, but learn from mistakes other web developers have made. He says many people don’t charge enough to live off of, and have to revert to working for someone else.
Jonathan says he has learned a lot from CSS-Tricks and has a soft spot for Chris Coyier. He recommends The Lodge, which is a series of courses on web development offered on the CSS-Tricks website. Jonathan also recommends the book Professional WordPress Plugin Development by Brad Williams, Ozh Richard, and Justin Tadlock, stating he learned a lot about WordPress from that book.
Jonathan also praised the plugin development courses from Pippin Williamson. He tells a funny story about someone whining about paying three dollars for a course. John said Pippin showed a lot of restraint.
Jonathan asked Jackie why she went with Genesis as opposed to plain WordPress. She said it was easier than regular WordPress to configure site for her. She said she preferred using hooks and filters to build a site, and there was less to worry about than with regular WordPress. When she first started, she used the StudioPress site and Sridhar Katakam’s website as resources for code tutorials.
If you were starting today, Jackie says you could start with Tonya Mork’s Know the Code or Carrie Dils’ Lynda courses on Genesis. She mentions a course where Carrie Dils built a site in Genesis, and Morten Rand-Hendriksen built a site on the Underscores blank theme, and though they got to the same end point, you could compare the differences of how they got there.
Jackie said you should follow bloggers who write well, and ask people on Twitter who they follow. She mentions Tom McFarlin as someone to follow for advanced WordPress development, and Rebecca Gill as someone to follow for SEO knowledge.
Kim added that if you are going to do WordPress development, it would be a good idea to take a course on databases, to understand how they work. Kim points out that Jackie was a dBase programmer, and Kim was a database administrator, and as the dynamic sites came into prominence, she received many calls where just a basic understanding of databases would have solved the problem.
Jackie relates a story of a client who needed 300+ posts marked as Draft, and being able to save them hours of work by knowing how to do this in the database. Jackie mentions taking a course on data serialization and how it helped her. Kim said there are some free classes for SQL from universities (we will link these in show notes), and everyone developing in WordPress could benefit from taking a SQL course.
Jonathan asked Jackie, what were some of the important things she learned along her journey to running her own web design business?
Jackie said just learning how WordPress worked was important. Building a static website is very different from working with a content management system. She also mentioned learning the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org, the templating system, how variables worked in WordPress, PHP, and the different frameworks in WordPress.
Jonathan asked both Jackie and John their feelings on CSS frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation. Jackie said Genesis has a bit of Bootstrap in there already. She said it makes things complicated to follow or change in your Sass files. Unless you need it, it’s better to refrain from using.
John said it is really hard to override the default styles in Bootstrap. He said it is fine for putting something up really quick, but not necessarily recommended for long-term use. John said he prefers to use a very small CSS file for simple grids. Jackie mentioned that the CSS Grid spec is coming, and while it is not 100% supported in all browsers, it will bring another change to page layouts.
Jonathan asked how Flexbox was different from the CSS float layout system. John said Flexbox Froggy is a game that will help you learn how Flexbox works. He said he now that you can use flexibility.js as a polyfill for browser support for older versions of IE, he uses Flexbox for all his projects instead of float layouts. The things to look out for are the different browser prefixes (Webkit and MS) and syntax for Flexbox properties. Internet Explorer and Webkit have some different ways of writing Flexbox rules that you need to include in your CSS for full browser support.
Jonathan asked Kim if it was important to know some educational theory to build a course. She said you need to something about it, even if you don’t have a Master’s degree. You also have to understand your audience, and produce content for them. She noted that if a course has multiple touchpoints, the retention of learning is much higher. Make sure they have the knowledge retained by giving them some sort of quiz or test. She said some sort of forum, like a Facebook group (or Slack channel) is a good way to follow up the learning with more information.
John had some final recommendations: the books Million Dollar Consulting by Alan Weiss and Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port for consulting and business; and The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst and On Web Typography by Jason Santa Maria for typography.
Jackie, Jonathan, and John added that the written word should be legible, and cited Medium and ChrisLema.com as examples of good, legible typography. Jackie noted that gray, thin text is hard to read, and should be avoided to provide better user experience.