Learning SharePoint at USPJA. Part 1: A Change in Learning Paradigms and Why Learning is Hard

Since I began thinking seriously about USPJA back in December 2009, I’ve been struggling to convince people what the idea behind USPJA is. Well, it’s about teaching SharePoint, certainly, but what makes us different from what everyone else does?

I saw a video today, and I’ll show you that in a moment, but before I do, I would just like to attempt to explain the ideas I had.

First of all, I strongly believe that traditional learning methods used in schools and universities around the world are fundamentally wrong. I never attended school myself, or rather, I attended but never completed anything. In fact, I’ve attended cooking school and music school, as well as a programming college-level school (a school who later hired me as teacher), and an online US college on eBusiness management.

None of these schools, I believe, have taught me a considerable amount of practical skills.

I am fairly certain that if diagnosed as a kid today, I’d be put on Ritalin as an ADHD child. I never was, nor have I become in later years, able to concentrate on a single task for very long.

That’s why today, I have two monitors on my workstation in addition to a laptop, and I actively work on at least three different OS’es at any given time; my workstation for browsing, email, and business stuff, my authoring VM set up to host my creative efforts (books, videos, presentations, journals, etc.), plus my ‘social’ VM where I do interaction like Skype, the odd game, and shady stuff where I need to protect my other VMs (testing browser plugins, evaluating system software, and similar stuff is about as shady as I get, though).

Can you imagine, with my attention span, the agony of sitting in a classroom learning for hours about stuff that really doesn’t interest you? To me it was like sitting for a week intensively watching grass grow, only to learn that yes, grass grows, it is green, and in five minutes, I’ll have forgotten all about this.

I have no idea about you, though. You may be the best student at any school you attend and love the stuff I hate. You may also hate the stuff I love. It doesn’t make you or me better than the other, it just makes us different.

So, when I started to think about USPJA, I wanted something that would cater to those differences. I have absolutely no idea how you best learn. You may be like me or you may be the complete opposite. In fact, I believe that if I were to force the students at the academy to learn the way I learn, well, at least half of the students would not learn anything.

The first philosophy of USPJA is to teach on the students’ terms.

I can’t, nor do I believe anyone can, set up a training program that will make you an efficient learner. Personally, I would and do hang around in the library, reading books, watching videos, read lectures, and consume new information at my own pace. Perhaps I’d do the odd self-paced course in a particular subject, but frankly, I don’t have the endurance to sit through an entire course on a single topic. For that, my mind wanders too quickly to how I can utilize this new knowledge which often leads me to completely different areas of SharePoint.

Others, I know, really need the structure and semi-fixed tracks that collaborative classes, lead by a facilitator, provides. Perhaps they need not just that single track even, but a fully planned series of courses that will give them a predictable set of skills at the end. For these people, sitting down and gaining random knowledge leads nowhere, and they quickly lose motivation.

You, or anyone else, may be a combination of these opposites, or you may be your entirely unique type of learner.

If our learning is to be efficient, we need to have content and learning methods for all of these types and any combination thereof.

Let me point out two things I believe are wrong with traditional class room learning.

Traditional class room training forces all students to adopt the same content. It doesn’t matter if it is a ‘Learn SharePoint Development in a week’ courses offered by training centers or if it is traditional schools and colleges.

This uniformity is perfectly OK if you want a set of skills that are similar among all of the attendees. However, especially for SharePoint, creativity and independence is key. SharePoint isn’t suitable for conveyor belt manufacture, so teaching everyone the same skills doesn’t make sense, at least not to me.

Second, and somewhat related, people learn in different ways, as I have elaborated before. For some, learning in a class room setting means they have the predictability they need, but for others, sitting in that class room is boring and uninspiring, regardless of the topic taught. The presenter can be as skilled as Chuck Norris, but the form of learning simply doesn’t fit everyone.

SharePoint isn’t about production, it is about adaptability, and education in SharePoint needs to be modeled after that.

The major problem then is that the training offered caters only to those who prefer that specific knowledge delivered in that particular way.

Try getting a traditional course provider to tell you: Here’s everything you need to learn SharePoint, regardless of how you want to learn, when you want to learn, and what you want to learn, and it will cost you around 500 bucks per month.

I’m going to mention the features of USPJA now, not because I want to promote the academy, but also to show you what I mean about providing training on students’ terms.

First of all, everything at the academy happens asynchronously. There’s no bell that rings students into class. There’s no lunch break, Christmas holiday, Sunday’s closed, or anything like that. As I often say in interviews with students, it’s always 2 a.m. somewhere, so forcing students to be in front of their computers at specific times makes no sense. We do break this rule occasionally, but always make sure recordings are available afterwards, and participation is never required.

Further, there is no specific amount of time you must spend in a class. Traditionally, a class would last for anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes. Bollocks! I say. If you grasp the material in 30 minutes, why should you be delayed by everyone else? If you need three hours to fully understand a topic, why should we cut you off after one hour?

We have the traditional collaborative classes. Students work as a group, in some cases even sub-groups, towards a common learning goal. They help each other out and thus exposing each other to knowledge that each individual student may not learn individually. A SharePoint expert faculty member oversees the progress and points students in the right directions if they get lost. This is perfect for those students who lean towards the traditional classroom training.

Then there are self-paced courses. These courses allow students to work independently of anyone else and cover only the material they feel are necessary to learn. No assignments to submit, no deadlines to meet, but also no team to back you up. Some people, like me, don’t have the attention span to dedicate myself to a single topic over several weeks, and the self-paced courses caters to those.

We also have an extensive and continuously growing library. Our main challenge there is finding better ways of finding content, but we’re working on it. Students can pick up the books, articles, videos, webcasts, journal issues, and presentations from any class or course from the library to create their own ála carte training menu. In addition, there is a ton of material not covered in courses, but serve as deeper dives into selected topics. This feature allows students to dive deeper into any topic the learn through other means, whether that is through collaborative classes, self-paced courses, or out-of-school activities.

We also invite SharePoint superstars to hold lectures or webinars on their favorite topics. This allows students to gain knowledge from proven experts with field experience. This interaction is not just valuable to students, but also to faculty members, who are frequent attendees in these webinars. We also utilize our own faculty members because, after all, they are also highly skilled experts. All lectures are recorded as well so students can later revisit these lectures to refresh their skills.

Then we have ‘the playground’ where all rules are off. The USPJA Labs allow students to safely experiment and learn without having to invest in costly hardware or spend hours reinstalling their VMs just to test a new piece of software. Students can even share their labs between each other to facilitate even more collaboration.

All of this is possible because we adopt the college or university way of learning; that of primarily doing research rather than being fed the answers to predetermined questions. No, we don’t have individual teachers for each student who can instruct the students individually, at least not all the time. Students are explained what they should learn and given the tools that may help them learn, but we don’t sit down and create recipes for specific tasks that the student should memorize.

Here comes the ‘Hard’ part: This may not be for you. If what you want is a traditional classroom where you can sit for eight hours a day, five days in a row, and learn how to perform the tasks listed in a book, then we may not be the right place for you.

Even if you adopt the way of learning that we provide, it may still take some time getting used to the freedom and responsibility you are offered. If you are used to the class room, force fed approach, then you’ll probably need some time getting used to having to do most of the research on your own. You may find yourself lost at times, or you may be surprised at the amount of work it actually takes. All of these things may make the USPJA model hard for you.

However, I strongly believe that when you’ve embraced the freedom and accepted the responsibility, that you’ll find learning a lot more pleasant than what you may be used to from school, and if nothing else, allows you to learn on your terms and not terms dictated by someone else.

Oh, and I promised you that video. Here it is:

RSA Animate–Changing Education


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Bjørn Furuknap

I previously did SharePoint. These days, I try new things to see where I can find the passion. If you have great ideas, cool projects, or is in general an awesome person, get in touch and we might find out together.

4 thoughts on “Learning SharePoint at USPJA. Part 1: A Change in Learning Paradigms and Why Learning is Hard”

  1. Speaking as an USPJA student, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Academy. My knowledge has skyrocketed and I’ve been attending less than 6 mos. I really enjoy the flexibility of the course structure and the content is some of the best I’ve seen. I don’t say that lightly either. I’ve taken a few courses of SharePoint training before finding the USPJA and there’s simply nothing out there that compares.

    The video at the end touches on some key aspects I’ve found to be integrated with USPJA. Collaboration is critical to learning anything and Bjorn and the staff have found a way to pull that off in an online environment. Even though there are assignments in the structured courses, you have the option to do self-paced courses. So, if you think laterally, then you can breeze through content like a wild fire.

    I definitely recommend trying the USPJA out if you want to bump your SharePoint knowledge up to the next level.

    Matt Bramer

  2. I was just looking at Laura Doherty (USPJA too) her video material when I got distracted 😉 by this great animation at the bottom.. I think the ADHD epidemic is not only explained through the development of the educational system but also through human learning through all time.

    We are used to relate cause and effect over and over again. The longer the time is which seperates both, the harder it get’s to stay interested and learn from the experience. The senses play a big role in this. If we can a) stimulate senses more effectively and b) shorten the period between cause and effect it will contribute greatly to our learning.

    That’s one of the reasons the animation works so great together with the text. Allthough my first dip in the USPJA pool is a pleasant one. I see e-learning developing a lot over the next years.

    USPJA is a bit of a front runner in this. I had to explain others and said : you know how people suggesting e-learning (or e- anything) would change the world. Well it didn’t, but this USPJA thing seems to be one of the first getting it right… So also from me : worth your while to check out.

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