Ability to Learn from Computer Screen
My traditional education consisted of textbooks and blackboards. Working on a DEC PDP-11 with punch cards doesn’t really count as ‘computer time’. I was also taught how to read a book, absorb information, and to process that information. In fact, this is so vital to most education systems that most people don’t even understand that your ‘mind’ has been effectively ‘programmed’ to ingest knowledge from a book or paper medium.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, all computers came with an enormous printed manual. Computer rooms had entire walls of bookshelves devoted to Operating Systems and Software manuals. When we wanted to learn something, we got the manual from the shelf and started reading. Successful companies had good manuals, bad companies usually did not. (1)
Then, we started to see the documentation on CD from Cisco, Nortel and DEC / Digital Equipment. So when I started something new, I would often print the entire manual, then read. Depending on the quality and the what I needed to do, the manual might get a deep reading, or more a scanning over to absorb the information.
And that was fine until I started travelling. Carrying several kilos of papers wasn’t much fun so I started to read the CD versions. It was slow and gradual, but the CD’s were portable and updated reasonably often. Certainly much more often than the printed versions were. Errors and omissions were fixed much more quickly. In the field I could quickly get to the documentation.
The Internet Effect
Then the documentation switched to being online. Cisco was very early to putting their documentation online. This led to them providing sample configurations and design documents. This was a real advance, as we could tap directly into the collective wisdom of Cisco resources, instead of having to experience ourselves in a project.
A few years back I made a decision not to print anything that I needed to read. I would force myself to read it online. I had a few reasons for doing this:
- reduce my environmental footprint
- reduce clutter in my study – its hard to throw things out
- I discovered that Mac OSX was indexed. I could search for ANYTHING using Spotlight, and find it
- reduce the weight in my backpack
I needed to be hard on myself and archive material on my laptop, and not on the bookshelf.
Signed up to Safari
The other big decision I made was to sign up to Safari on the O’Reilly web site. This cost me about £230 (USD440) for a year, and gives me access to every book I could ever need. I wasn’t entirely convinced at the time but took a chance and I have been very pleased that I did.
I now have access to EVERY Cisco Press book. Not only the books released this year, but also the books that are out of print. For example, you cannot buy Cisco Press EIGRP Network Design Solutions by Ivan Pepelnjak (which is the best book ever printed on EIGRP) but you can read it at Safari.
Not only Cisco Press, but every other text ever printed. I needed to write a Perl script the other day, and there are about twenty different books on how to do that. I needed to do some research on VMware, and there are dozens of books on that.
The more I read safari.oreilly.com, the more I am adapting to reading from the screen.
Some people had told me the most significant problem is that you can be easily distracted by email, web surfing and so on. I don’t have answers for this, you need to be disciplined to study and learn. You need to be disciplined about this too.
It has been painful, like most forms of learning (in this case more like unlearning). At the start my concentration span was much reduced, but over time I am getting better at processing information directly from the computer screen. For certain types of information, I am now more able to process it from the screen.
Occasionally, I will still print a section of manual, say no more than twenty or thirty pages of material that I can read when I am waiting for something (and hoping that the iPhone can do this for me).