Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

As a Curriculum Director at Pluralsight, I get more than a few comments form our learners that they’d like “more advanced” courses. We try to accommodate that as much as possible… but, if you’ve ever thought that same thing to yourself, there’s something you need to understand.

Entry-level classes are easy. They’re obviously a need, the things they need to cover are usually pretty well understood, they’re relatively straightforward to create, and so on. Almost anyone who is experienced in their field, and who’s good at breaking down what they do, can point to the fundamentals. From there, it’s easy to build intermediate-level content, too – meaning, content which assumes you already know the basics. In fact. training is usually pretty easy to design so long as you’re sticking to the 80% rule. That is, when you’re covering the material that 80% of the people use 80% of the time.

But move into “advanced” training, and things get squishy.

First, you deal with the problem of imposter syndrome. This is where most people, much of the time, feel that everyone around them must know a lot more than they do. They realize how much they do know, so they know they’re not beginner or intermediate; ergo, they must need “advanced” training. They don’t necessarily know what that is, just that they don’t know everything, and so “advanced” stuff must be next.

Second, teaching only works in a generic sense. That is, I can teach you something, but only insofar as what I’m teaching is broadly applicable to the everyone in the field. I can teach you advanced IP network design, but only to the point where you start saying, “yeah, but in my company…” at which point a class starts to turn into consulting. Fact is, if you’re at the point where you need a lot of specificity for your situation, you probably are already advanced, and what you really need is a consultant, not a class.

Third – and perhaps most importantly – is the bigger picture. It’s a picture a lot of people don’t like. Let’s be honest: the human brain learns best through experimentation and failure. Teaching is literally nothing more than a shortcut, where someone else tries to share their experiences, experiments, and failures, with you. Some people can’t even learn that way – they have to experiment and fail on their own. But so many adults are conditioned against failure that, for them, a class becomes the only way they’ll accept learning. These folks are, sadly, destined to remain at an intermediate level.

There comes a point where you’ve learned everything that can be taught to you. You’ve eaten everything that can be brought on a platter. Now, you have to go out and catch your own food. Or, in the training sense, you have to build your own knowledge. At a certain level of advancement, knowledge becomes so tied to application that the two are inseparable, which means you have to research, experiment, fail, and adapt, until you’ve figured out whatever it is you need for your specific situation. Sure, you could make a class on what you figured out, but it would very likely be useless to anyone who wasn’t in your precise situation.

This is why I’ve long been an advocate for an instructional design style called constructionism. It doesn’t work well with traditionally-taught adults, who’re conditioned to more on-a-platter styles of delivery, but it works great with kids. In this style, you don’t give kids a single fact. You give them the broad strokes of concepts, point them toward resources like documentation, and make them figure it out on their own. Kids are still willing to experiment, haven’t yet learned to fear transitional failures, and usually thrive at this kind of thing.

And people who’ve learned that way – who are, essentially, self-taught and assisted by a facilitator – are invariably better prepared to be lifelong learners. They’re not afraid to watch a quick course to pick up some concepts and shortcut the basics, and then strike out on their own to form their own learning constructs. These folks can switch careers more easily, pick up new skills, switch projects, and so on, because they have a skill set built on adaptability, not rote memorization. They don’t just learn, they understand. 

For everyone else, it becomes a matter of forcing yourself to take this approach. If you’re not a good researcher – well, that’s Job 1 in the IT biz. If you’re not a willing experimenter – well, that’s pretty much Job 2 in the IT biz. Sure, foundational concepts and core tasks can be picked up through education, but once you hit the “advanced” level – once all your learning needs are targeted to a specific, of-the-moment application – you need to construct your own learning models more and more.

4 thoughts on “Why Don’t You See More “Advanced” IT Classes?

  1. Czadd says:

    Good observations, Don. I would attend a class–or at least watch a video–on research techniques and places to start. A lot of people, even professional IT folks, don’t know much about search operators and techniques to filter search results.

    Love your work!

  2. sumdog says:

    In my university, there were people who graduated without knowing what a SCSI controller was. They had only programmed in Java and nothing else. They only did the course work.

    There were others who turned in each assignment in a different programming language. Once you get past your 200 level classes, unless an assignment requires a specific learning tool or framework, many teachers don’t really care what you write things in, just so long as everything needed to run it is an apt-get and a README file away (and so long as it isn’t something like LISP).

    You get out of any program what you put into it. A good teacher doesn’t instruct you to go to the text book. They show you how to read the API. If you’re a student that cares about your field, you need to be reading up on it and watch it evolve.

    I personally haven’t bought a programming book in over ten years. Documentation has improved immensely. Where it fails for more complex things, there are mailing lists, IRC chat rooms and StackOverflow.

    I agree with this post. Once you get past the basics, a lot of the stuff you want to learn will involve diving in.

    Another interesting thing to note, in the American education system, many PhD programs require some coursework + tests (comps, quals, etc.) before you start your research. Many European graduate schools have little to no course work, and are mostly research based.

  3. Mark says:

    Your insights are spot on. This is the basis for autodidacticism and for some of us the exact way we do learn. Personally, I like to start with a book, video, or introduction level class to get a base or foundation in what I’m studying. Then I just dive in and research what I need to know as I need it. The old adage of learning more from your mistakes than successes can certainly be a real asset when you’re willing to test boundaries and make those mistakes forcing you to learn to fix them.

  4. Josh says:

    Personally, when I look for more advanced courses, there are two things I think of.

    The first is common and easy: case studies. Here’s what we ran into, the steps we went through and some ideas that came from it.

    The second is a lot harder and I’ve never seen it done: pre-broken labs that you troubleshoot and fix. This is where I learn most of what I would consider advanced knowledge, in the fire of a major outage. The problem is that making these courses requires having fallen into this situation (or being good at making up horrible scenarios) and understanding it well enough to consistently reproduce it. It’s also difficult for the learner to dive into a complex environment, not knowing the context on any of the setup they are troubleshooting, but I’d say that’s a positive. Then there’s​ the cost of setting up a complex environment for every learner to use, which can really add up if you want to present a situation including 5+ integrated apps with load balancing and maybe even hybrid cloud mixed in.
    If pluralsight could bankroll that without a significant up charge, I’d be very surprised (and interested)

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