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The learning buffet

Businesses and technologists have more options than ever when it comes to lifelong learning. Self-paced training feature hed: The Learning buffet dek: Businesses and technologists have more options than ever when it comes to lifelong learning. dek: Many worthwhile online courses are free. dek: Don’t underestimate books as a training resource. by Maggie Biggs

Fifty years ago, the most common time frame within which to complete an undergraduate degree was four years. But in the past couple of decades, this standard timetable has climbed to five years. In response to this trend, many universities are moving to year-round schedules. Colleges and universities also are recognizing the need for life-long learning, and many are moving aggressively toward leveraging technology to make learning anytime, anyplace a reality.

During a recent lecture I attended at the University of California at Santa Cruz, one of the professors spoke about these changes in higher education. His comments have a direct bearing on the approach businesses and technologists need to take when it comes to ongoing skill building. “The volume of knowledge that has come about over the last 100 years is enormous, and more is being uncovered all the time,” he said. “We need to adopt the philosophy of constant discovery that spans our entire lives.”

Those words ring so true for those of us who use technology to support business, or who have chosen the technology field as our livelihood. Architectures and the manner in which we use technology to solve business problems are changing so rapidly that if we do not adopt the philosophy of lifelong learning, we risk being left in the dust.

For example, do you have the knowledge today to implement peer-to-peer technology in business applications? Do you know how to adapt business applications for post-PC devices? There are clear business benefits to both of these technological strategies, but being able to implement them demands technical ability.

The good news for businesses and for technologists is that there are now more educational options than ever before. Many of these options are flexible in terms of cost and pace. However, taking advantage of these options means implementing personal and business strategies that embrace the idea of never-ending learning.

This strategy needs to fit both your schedule and your unique learning style. Not everyone can make the time to attend day classes. And some people prefer self-paced learning on their own schedule, as opposed to classroom training. Fortunately, if you believe that education is a lifelong pursuit, there’s a veritable cornucopia of learning materials that can help you implement your learning strategy.

Know thy self, and thy company

Adopting a philosophy of constant discovery means continuous assessment. Whether you own a small business or you’re a technologist, you should be assessing the skills you have and those you need at least once a year. Some companies and individuals assess themselves more frequently. For example, I analyze my skill set about twice a year to see what education might be beneficial.

The next step is to determine what methods of learning work the best. There are many learning methods available, including Web-based training, computer-based training (CBT), books, and audiotapes. We’ll talk more about some of these methods in a moment. Choosing the best learning methods is usually not difficult for individual technologists. Most people can readily tell whether they thrive on learning from a book or prefer a classroom setting or a technical seminar.

However, business leaders who want to embark on a voyage of constant discovery will need to do some additional legwork to ensure success at their company. An annual survey of employees is a useful way to identify the most preferred learning methods. And obviously, you will need to take your budget into account.

Free and low-cost online courses are one obvious, easily accessible resource. You can also purchase books and CBT programs and create a learning library at your company. The materials will be used by more than one person, which makes this approach fairly economical.

It’s also important to tie education into annual performance metrics. Challenge your employees to learn one or two new skills each year. Also, encourage them to help each other out in the learning process. The outcome is a win for both the employee and the company.

Learning options

Once you’re ready to step up to the learning buffet, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of options you see. The Web has opened a multitude of doors to those seeking knowledge.

As I mentioned previously, many universities offer online courses for continuing education. One example is San Francisco State University’s online courses in HTML, Flash, and Photoshop. Students who attend these classes meet online at certain intervals and interact with other students and their instructor via discussion groups and e-mail. But most online courses involve a fee.

There’s a variety of other online courses and tutorials available, and many are free. For example, you might visit Google’s Web directory listing of free online courses to get an idea of what kinds of budget offerings are available.

After identifying which skills are needed, you might seek out educational materials from the supplier of the technology. For example, if you need to gain Java skills you might take Sun Microsystems’ free online tutorial. Or, if you want to become a Cisco-certified networking professional, you might visit Cisco’s site to peruse the company’s course offerings.

But what if you just don’t have the time or opportunity to spend hours online, or if you prefer to absorb materials through the printed page? Not to worry. There are learning options that meet these needs, too.

One of my favorite learning methods is CBT. I’m currently plowing through the NetG Skillbuilder Tutorial on Java 2 in preparation for the Java 2 certification. I’ve found the Netg CBT particularly helpful in that it offers pre-assessment and post-assessment testing with each chapter. This lets me know right away if I’m grasping the material or not. Netg offers a wide variety of coursework, from networking to C++ programming and more. Take a peek at the firm’s catalog.

Keystone Learning also offers a bevy of CBT courses. Its catalog is chock-full of useful topic areas, such as learning Linux or gaining Oracle skills. CBT isn’t free, so you’ll need to budget for it.

Books are another obvious academic resource. These days, books are a sound investment because many come with CD-ROMs that include useful tests, sample code, operating systems, and more to help you get going. You can patronize general book-related Web sites such as Amazon, or visit your local bookseller. But I also like to visit the Web sites of technology-specific publishers such as Peachpit Press; they often offer books and other types of technical content that may not be available elsewhere.

One of the best technical book publishers is O’Reilly. At this site you can locate a wide variety of books on topics such as Perl programming, security, and network administration. But, you can also visit the O’Reilly network through the company’s main site and stay up-to-date on emerging technologies, such as JXTA.

Other useful book publishing sites include Wrox Press, Sams Publishing, and Wiley Computer Publishing. And there are many other technical book sites, including one of my favorites, Opamp Technical Books. Google also maintains a list of technical book publishers that you might reference.

Endless voyage

The list of learning options grows longer every day. It would be impossible to cover every single option in the course of this article. Whether you’re a technologist who wants to spruce up your skill set or a business leader trying to formulate a corporate learning strategy, you’ll need to invest some time in identifying the choices that best fit your needs.

The good news is that there’s an educational method for most any budget (including many freebies) as well as learning formats that are flexible enough to fit hectic schedules.

Individuals and companies must be constantly alert to learning opportunities that endorse cradle-to-grave education as an essential ingredient of life in the 21st century. When was the last time you assessed your skills or the skills of those at your company? What will you learn when you do?

Strategies for lifelong learning

Lifelong learning can be critical for businesses and individuals in our knowledge-based society. Develop a skill-building strategy by:

Identifying skills that you need to gain and assess them annually Choosing learning methods that are best for you (or your team) Locating resources that match the skills you wish to obtain and your preferred learning method. Setting reasonable goals.

Contributing Editor Maggie Biggs is a lifelong learner. She is currently studying human-computer interaction and preparing to take the Java 2 Programmer Certification this fall.

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