It’s Thursday night and I’m doing my homework for week two of Udacity CS253 Web Application Engineering. I haven’t even started doing CS387 Applied Cryptography content for this week. I may have bitten off a little more than I can chew for this run.

My struggles cause me to think a lot about learning. This evening I’m seeing what I missed in the lectures. All the little nuances, the cautions and the very important details when trying to program. It’s not that I breezed through the lectures . I took my time and actually made sure I understood each one before I moved on. It’s certainly not that I don’t care but I’m noticing I don’t have the background to see the details.

I remember a  “Star Trek, The Second Generation” episode where Captain Picard encountered a race that only spoke in parables. By the end of the show he had become part of a new parable. At the time I thought it was a very inefficient way of communicating and dismissed it. As I’m pushing myself harder in my learning, I’m beginning to see the truth in that show now. The way we see the world, the way we learn is built around what we’ve already experienced. An example of that would be my hatred of poetry. In grades four through six, my teachers did everything they could to suck the very life out of poetry for me. It wasn’t that they hated me, it certainly wasn’t they hated poetry. On the contrary, they loved it so much that they did not explain the virtues at levels I could appreciate. The more they extolled virtues that were invisible to me, the more I hated what I could not comprehend.

My wife has actually helped me a lot in understanding some of these issues. I’ve mentioned before that we come from different worlds. She trains animals while I design and sometimes program computers. To me, file structures, bits, memory, processors are all elementary knowledge. To my wife, horse nutrition, behavior, conditioning are all elementary knowledge. When I start taking about a computer problem, it’s not that she doesn’t care, she doesn’t have the background to understand what I’m saying. The same applies when she’s trying to explain something about the behavior of a horse. Each of us has a basic set of knowledge that allows us to see and correct small nuances in our specialty. Communicating that to someone without the same background is very difficult. I have to take the time and really think about how my message is being perceived. Am I speaking at too high a level or too low a level?

The instructors at Udacity are faced with a similar problem. Do they teach at a low level and make the content worthless to everyone with a reasonable background or do they teach at such a high level that only a few students understand. Personally, for the most part, I like the compromise they’ve selected.  I like challenges and this is certainly proving to be a challenge. They warned me with the course numbers. CS253 is certainly going to be more challenging than CS101 and you would expect CS387 to be even harder. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing twice as much work trying to build the background I need for these courses, especially as I do my homework.

At the end of all this I will have put in a lot of effort. Certainly not  for the certificate but for the feeling of accomplishment  that comes with succeeding. Of course, if you take a close look at the picture for this post, you’ll notice it’s the certificate I got for CS101. I’ll admit to being very proud of it.

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