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An Autodidact Learns From the Web

March 27, 2009

An autodidact is someone who learns outside of regular school settings, someone who teaches herself (or himself). It used to be a kind of demeaning label, meaning someone who had spotty and uncertified knowledge. I claim the label “autodidact” as a badge of honour! I used to learn from books, even sometimes from tv, but now we have the web. I love the web. I learn so much from what I find on it.

Recently I gave myself a task that requires me to learn more about how to create web pages. I’d heard about CSS and knew, theoretically, what it could do. But every time I tried to do anything using it I hit THE GAP. THE GAP is the point where I get stuck and can’t go any further, even though I can see what I could do two steps along the learning path I’m on. When I hit THE GAP, I’m stuck. What I do then, is ask a knowledgable friend, if I can find one, or, more often, find a workaround. For a while, my workaround was wikis. I love wikis but they’re meant for sharing, not for using as your personal website, although they can work, sort of, as one.

One of My Wikis

One of My Wikis

Sometimes I find something a lot of the design work has been done for me, and I use that. Blogger had templates, and so does WordPress, which I graduated to.

My Blog

My Blog

But my design vision just isn’t satisfied.

I used tools like the old Netscape Composer and currently its grandchild, Nvu, both of which are WYSIWYG web page creators.

My Domain

My Domain

But my reach exceeds my grasp because I want something I have more control over. I want to produce the kind of website that says to readers “this person has powerful content: you can tell by the appearance!” (I’ve read the research on how people are reading before they decode a single word. The appearance of the text and page gives information that signals information to readers which profoundly affects how they take in the content.)

I’ve learned a little HTML code, and I’ve bookmarked sites where I can find more. But I’ve never taken a course in it, and a lot of it just looked bizarre and unreadable to me. (I was a text person initially, and not technically inclined, but I want to communicate on the web so I have to learn how to do so wholistically.) And using “View Source” and copy/paste seemed to me like a kind of plaigarism and theft. (What can I say? I’m old-school.)

Sometimes I think I learn backwards. I know my desired destination but I keep getting blocked at THE GAP. But I continue to struggle to build a little further out into the unknown territory, and I learn something from each struggle. Each struggle closes THE GAP a little more. I read manuals and follow instructions but I think most people who are inside the knowledge bubble have trouble being aware of what those outside the bubble might not know. The instructions are crisp and clear until they mention going to the “terminal shell” or some other ‘obvious’ term. Huh? Wikipedia tells me what it is, but I don’t get how to use it in this set of instructions. (I’m not the knowledgable audience they were writing for.) So I stop and try some other path. Till I get frustrated with it, because I’ve found THE GAP in it. I’m really good at finding THE GAP. So when I find someone, often on the web, who explains things in a way I can understand, someone who gives me the practical aspects of the concept, I am delighted, excited and grateful.

That happened to me today. I found Chris Coyier’s video on HTML & CSS – The VERY Basics. 32 minutes of pure pleasure. He shrank the gap – till it virtually (no pun etc.) disappeared for me.

He has a gift for teaching and I’m a grateful student.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2009 11:07 am

    Joan, I’ve often experienced something like the gap. And I’ve also felt the jolt as things clicked into place to cross the gap–that mixture of insight, surprise, and possibly frustration as you say to yourself, “Now I get it!”

    Kind of like a whole-body version of the electricity flying across the synaptic gap.

  2. March 27, 2009 12:09 pm

    Yes! And I forgot to talk about how cycling around from tool to tool adds little pieces so that when you do get a tool that works for you, you’ve picked up bits of know-how from all of them. I’ve been playing with WordPress, Joomla! and Nvu, and picked up the CSS info from the video so that I have finally got the beginnings of the business website I was trying to get to ;->

  3. April 7, 2009 9:03 am

    Hi, I studied web design and development for 18 months and was buried at times in CSS etc, I don’t have a site up at the moment, just closed it and taking some time before redesigning an alternative.

    Waffle aside, you may not need now and I can’t guarantee 100% on competence / expertise but if you ever have any questions on html/CSS, please do feel free to ask anytime, I do know what its like to be staring at lines of code and wondering why it doesn’t seem to do what it should.

    Nicola

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