Friday, November 12, 2010

Information Overload: Creating Your Own Curriculum

Learning can be overwhelming. With all the resources, on and offline, I found myself overwhelmed and constantly feeling left behind. It is often difficult to pinpoint the right learning tools, stay on track, and avoid desire to jump from subject to subject.

Books, webinars, online Tutorials (free or subscription-based), personal/business blogs, magazines, graduate classes, and mentors all have unique methods of conveying valuable information. If used all at once without set goals in mind, you may develop a strong case of information overload, which can be a productivity killer.

Define your learning style.
First and foremost, you need to define the way you learn best. If you haven't considered this before, then you're in for a treat. Take a couple online quizzes and read some articles about learning styles and in less then 20 minutes you should have a good idea of your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to absorbing information. I am a visual kinesthetic learner; if I am not interacting or seeing connections happen, I will quickly fall asleep to the sounds of droning audio tutorials. Here is a simple quiz to get your started.

Outline your goals.
Simple--write down three main goals that you would like to adhere to throughout the learning process. These goals may be specific subjects or short statements that narrow the scope even more. For example, I would like to learn more about web design best practices, wireframing, and current trends. When I come across an article, book, or webinar that fits this criteria I quickly bookmark it, put it on my wishlist, or register.

Get Organized.
Work smarter, not harder. I use Google Reader to organize and update all my blog subscriptions. I also only subscribe to those blogs that meet my learning goals. In this reader you have the option to "star" blog posts to easily access later on. On my mobile app I can also email them to myself, tweet or post them to Facebook, or even add it to my url bookmarking program. I have been using Delicious as my social bookmarking tool for a while now. You can add websites, create tags, and search your library to find what you need. There are now several more programs that allow you to quickly add and organize your resources while sharing with an online community. Here is some more information regarding social bookmarking.

My curriculum toolbox.
By creating a tool box you will have some consistency and become familiar with your learning flow. You will then be able to create learning patterns and finally establish habits.

Here are some of my main learning resources: for books
Top Design blogs (20)
Magazines (3)

It seems pretty simple, but within each category I have a listing of tutorials, books, and articles. I have even created a spreadsheet for that lists all the relevant tutorials and the amount of time each will take--then I check them off as I go!

Schedule your classes.
Plain and simple. I have class every Tuesday and Thursday for 2-3 hours. I also listen to a tutorial in the car on a long drive, read articles while I walk the track, and keep myself current when waiting in a long-line. I will also read a little before bed and get up early in the morning on the weekend to map out next weeks goals.

Assignments and grading.
This can be difficult, since you don't have the pressure of externally imposed deadlines. On the other hand, I understand my schedule best and know when assignments can actually be completed. Make a deadline for an assignment that reviews what you have learned while doing something positive for your portfolio or business (two-for-one). Grade yourself and consider sending your project out to a couple colleagues/friends for a critique. There are also a lot of online forums where you may post to receive feedback. I suggest doing this eventually since professionals are always happy to help, you can make some online connections, and with this type of assignment you have the a luxury of a revision phase.

Overall, by using these tips and tricks you will have a easier time taking the self-taught route. You will also be able to track your progress and comeback to useful resources for assignments or for eventual client-based work. I suggest creating a larger curriculum calendar that breaks down an evolution of your learning goals; have them drive you towards a "graduation date" where you will "complete" your coursework. The great thing is that through this process you will have created learning habits that are oh so necessary for a budding freelance professional.

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