The Journey of Learning: Five Important points

Alex Mazonowicz is the editorial director of Packt’s Workshop Learning program. Prior to joining Packt, he worked in business intelligence publishing and as a teacher. A strong proponent of life-long learning, here Alex tells us about how challenges in previous projects inspired the teaching methodology in Packt’s Workshop publications.

The issue, according to my managing editor, was that they had to start ingesting the data into a platform, but to do this, all the spreadsheets needed reformatting — all 10,000 spreadsheets.

We had looked at the possibility of getting freelancers to fix the spreadsheets manually, but that would budget at around 30,000 euro for the whole job, and it would take approximately six months. We needed another solution.

They say necessity is the mother of all invention, so it was time to get creative.

Luckily, we had been using Google Drive to contain all sheets. I had already been using Google Apps Scripts (GAS), which is the Google Drive scripting language based on JavaScript, but only in the form of add ons with cut and paste code. Up to that point, my main coding experience had been with C++ as part of my undergraduate degree, and Python in my spare time. It was time to roll up my sleeves and learn how to code for real.

Multi-modal

I’ve always thought of learning as a journey. At the beginning of the journey, you can’t do something, and at the end, you can. If you don’t understand your starting point, you don’t know which way to go; and if you don’t know your destination, you won’t know the right path to take.

It is with this simple idea that Packt has built our Workshop Learning catalog. I like to think of it as a selection of journeys, offering travelers a variety of destinations such as building exciting data science projects with Python, professional web development with JavaScript, or even highly functional and dynamic databases with SQL.

Back to my spreadsheets

So here I was, ready to learn some JavaScript. But how was I going to approach it? Of course, as an editor, I love reading. But just as I’m not going to become a nuclear physicist simply by reading Marcus Chown’s latest book, 100 pages of computer science theory was not going to help me with my 12,000 spreadsheets.

Here is the first thing I found out about myself — I learn by doing.

The first thing I did in my journey was to look online for examples of simple scripts that would do easy stuff like copy information from one spreadsheet cell to another or move sheets between folders. Copying this code and seeing all the different things GAS could do taught me form and function. When I say “form,” I mean the all-important syntax of the language, and with “function,” it’s what all the different commands do. I learned syntax typing in the script (or even mistyping!), and function when I saw it work.

In Packt’s Workshop Learning Products, you will be coding from the very beginning. All new concepts are demonstrated in exercises, which our authors have designed to give you as much hands-on experience with the new technology as possible. By regularly and systematically typing out your code either into the integrated coding environments on our websites or onto recommended coding environments such as IDE or Jupyter notebooks, you learn and remember the right syntax and see the tech come alive right from the start.

I do need SOME theory

Of course, we all need some help. Even languages like Python can seem baffling and counter-intuitive at times. Staring at code samples and knowing what they did only got me so far. Concepts that now seem so familiar (such as the difference between a while and if clause, or why I kept adding up 1 and 1 and getting 11) were baffling.

But when I turned to traditional textbooks, I found myself wading through reams of useless information before I got to what I needed, described in obscure ways. Neither memory diagrams nor the history of version development were of much use to me. Just like I don’t much care how my car engine works when I’m driving to the airport, I don’t care what’s going on under the hood in a programming language.

In workshop learning, we have directed all theory to what you need to know to achieve your goals. Theory sections are clear, with ideas covered in a concise but complete way. This brings me to my next point.

Context, not history

In my learning journey, I once saw a 10-line program that used an array to print out integers from 0 to 20. It was more than pointless…I felt as though I unlearned things I already knew. Programming, development, and data science are real, tangible, useful skills, not abstract concepts. (Not that I have anything against abstract concepts. I’m all for a conversation about string theory over coffee.) But when I was learning JavaScript, I wanted to know how things were used in the real world because that was how I would be using it.

The best theory and coding examples I came across were not from academic texts but from the perspective of problem solvers — that is, people who do meaningful work with languages to create things that are used every day. My boss wasn’t going to be happy with an amazingly complicated program that did nothing useful while thousands of spreadsheets went unformatted.

This is why we have worked with industry professionals with real experience to create our Workshop Learning courses. This is also why we have filled them with examples of how technology is used in real life. Realistic examples and scenarios show how the concepts and techniques are applied to create efficient and useful outcomes. And this is what keeps us engaged and learning.

I’m not a parrot

Of course, learning is more than merely copying code. I couldn’t simply look up the exact script needed for my spreadsheet problem. It didn’t matter how many times I showed my boss how to turn all the cells in a sheet rainbow colors, I had a problem to solve. So, I started small. How do I create a script to list 10 sheets and add five rows to each one?

It’s with small challenges like this that we begin to discover how far we’re actually getting in our journey. After all, this is the point of learning a technology. To find solutions to problems. Once I’d solved a small problem, I worked out how to categorize different sheets for different formatting, how to format in bulk, and how to check formatting is correct.

And, of course, you’ll find Packt’s Workshop is full of challenges to help you on your journey. Each unit of learning includes an activity that sets up a real-life scenario with some (minor) hints set out to help you keep your bearings. The activities build on what you know but also allow you to practice problem solving skills. And don’t worry if you get stuck; all solutions are provided in text and video form.

Mixing it up

Once I’d achieved my goal (12,000 spreadsheets reformatted to much relief in the company), I realized two things.

Firstly, there isn’t one magic key to learning. Learning is a multi-faceted activity, including repetition (completing exercises), well-structured theory, real-life context, and of course, setting challenges to build those all-important problem-solving muscles and track my own progress. But not only that, I had learned from a variety of materials. I used text, official documentation, public forums, videos, and guided coding environments all for different parts of my journey.

All of these ideas are present in Packt’s Workshop Learning courses. The books set out a structured, hands-on, guided journey in learning new languages, but they also give access to an online learning environment with videos, coding environments, assessments discussion forums, and customer support. You can even earn a certificate upon completion.

But the second thing I learned was the most important: This little JavaScript project was simply the first path on a much longer journey. Since then, I’ve completed projects in web development and data science (with Python) and am looking at more areas.

Summary

With all the skills I’ve picked up and the lessons I’ve completed, those spreadsheets seem like a distant memory; but like everyone else, I had to start somewhere. So, make that first step and dive into some Workshop Learning, and then when you’re done with one, keep going. This is a long and rewarding journey. Sign up for your workshop here!

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