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How I learn


In this post I want to have a break from the technical side of things and be more human, so given the current situation with social distancing and so forth, I’d thought I’d write about how I learn, and combined with the way we’re currently allowed to learn as a contrast to the past.


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  • AJAX – Asynchronous JavaScript and XML.
  • XML – eXtensible Markup Language.


In these difficult times, can we adapt to a new way of learning as the situation drives us towards having to be more distant and separated from our fellow beings? How can we cope? Perhaps the pathway to coping is to understand how we learn ourselves, then and only then will we know what we need to do and ask others to help us do that.

I’m not quite sure how I retain the information that I learn, but somehow I do. I’ve found that if I attend progressively every single class that’s available for the duration of the course, then the information sinks in. Revision has never really helped for me, I’ve never noticed that something I revised I did not already know and if I did not know it by then, it would be too late as I’d be panicking which causes what I needed to learn not to be learned.

When attempting to solve an exercise after first having actually done the example, i.e. from a programming perspective here, then I like to visualise what the solution should do, then break that down into the skills and steps needed to get from the start to the end point. Then the path to the solution is a less scary set of ‘stepping stones’ to be overcome. By reducing the fear, the confidence increases with more self belief that it can be done rather than ‘that mountain is too high’. If one of the ‘steps’ is really difficult, then I like to ‘dance around it’ and see if I can visualise it from a different perspective, such as creating a small ‘test program’ that explores the technology used in that step, then there is less risk as ‘what the heck’ if it fails, and if it works, then ‘great’ and even better ‘I can play around with it and make it more complex’, leading to improved understanding.

For example with ‘AJAX’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajax_%28programming%29 and www.w3schools.com/xml/ajax_intro.asp), it can be used to update a small part (element) of a web-page without updating the page itself. It does this by sending a request from the browser to the server, which generates the reply, sends it back to the browser, which then updates the element on the page. This you can break down into: Detecting when something needs to change, create the request, send the request, receive the request, decode the request, progress the request, form the response, send the response, receive the response, decode the response and update the element with the response. Each step has different skills and can be done progressively because you can ‘debug’ each step, so when ‘decoding the request’ you can output what was received to a log file etc. It does not matter if it does not all work yet, the key thing is that you can see the solution path beginning to work as it should even before you’ve reached the end.

The thing is, I self taught myself AJAX during my MSc project because I’d gained new overall skills and confidence on the course from the preceding months. I did my MSc full time and loved it, it was great to be learning full time again without other interfering concepts like employment, even though I was using up my savings to survive. But what if I was not able to physically attend and ‘be there’ to pick up on all the other forms of human communication that help us learn, to ask spontaneous questions on the spur of the moment and interact with my fellow students? Would I have not gained so much from the experience and the power of the ‘moment’? How many times have we said to ourselves ‘I had a thought earlier, but I’ve forgotten it now’? If we are distant and disconnected from our tutors both physically and temporally, then does this situation become more probable?

Online is great for connecting when the physical distance prohibits this. You’re able to connect to people with knowledge that you might never have access to. You can use forums and online meetings to ask the questions you think of. For example, I run several courses on MoodleBites, the ‘Theme design’ ones I’ve written and evolved from scratch (www.moodlebites.com/mod/page/view.php?id=3208 / www.moodlebites.com/mod/page/view.php?id=3210), using self taught skills and techniques picked up over many years. There is no way I’d be able to teach this subject area to the participants who are located all over the planet on a given course run if we all had to be in the same room. It would not be cost effective and indeed environmentally friendly, therefore in this situation, online is the best solution. But the courses do require that you have certain skills in advance and that is perhaps could be the stumbling block.


So, can online be the medium by which you learn everything? I’m not so sure. Without the human face to face element, then do we lose a bit of our humanity? I think so, life is a journey to be travelled with others, not all of the time, but moments of time connected along the same path. So without those connected moments in time, will we be as good in the future as we have been in the past?

I just hope that we can recover from the current situation and use technology as a supporting tool in our learning, but never a complete replacement.

Gareth Barnard
Latest posts by Gareth Barnard (see all)

Gareth Barnard

Gareth is a developer of numerous Moodle Themes including Essential (the most popular Moodle Theme ever), Foundation, and other plugins such as course formats, including Collapsed Topics.

One thought on “How I learn

  • Great post Gareth !
    Understanding the way we each learn is so important.
    From time to time I see online learners not engaging in forums, not ‘keeping up’ and interacting, and then trying to catch-up at the end of a course.
    But learning is a process, not just an outcome.


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