Learning path

This week I have concluded the last two courses for this autumn semester. Although I have always promoted “lifelong learning” I had not really done courses the last years beside some hands-on training in my field. After finishing my studies I have started to teach, and the preparation of these courses always resulted in staying up to date. But this autumn I started taking classes again.


This autumn I discovered the Massive Open Online Course. In total I have finished four courses, three at coursera, and one at the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. In the start it was a bit strange. Would I still be able to study, do homework on a regular base, pass the quizzes? After two weeks this fear was fully over. Classes by a number of video messages of about 12 to 15 minutes each, is good (in total about 1 hour per course each week). Doing the weekly assignments, sometimes multiple choice on the course material, but also assignments with a lot of maths, drawing, building, and designing. I even managed to build a prototype of a juicer!

design assignment

In the end I have done 4 courses, and although the subjects were all different I see a very nice learning path. Let me tell you about what courses I did:

  • Model Thinking, coursera, Scott E. Page, University of Michigan
    “Why do models make us better thinkers? Models help us to better organize information – to make sense of that fire hose or hairball of data (choose your metaphor) available on the Internet. Models improve our abilities to make accurate forecasts. They help us make better decisions and adopt more effective strategies. They even can improve our ability to design institutions and procedures.”
  • An Introduction to Operations Management, coursera, Christian Terwiesch, University of Pennsylvania
    “In short, you will learn how to analyze business processes and how to improve them.”
  • Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society, coursera, Karl T. Ulrich, University of Pennsylvania
    “The course marries theory and practice, as both are valuable in improving design performance. Lectures and readings will lay out the fundamental concepts that underpin design as a human activity.”
  • Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, Knight Center, Alberto Cairo, University of Miami’s School of Communication
    “How to work with graphics to communicate and analyze data.”

Although the courses all look very different I found a very nice learning path in it. There have been some moments where ideas from the one course came up while struggling with the other course. For example, when needing to make a presentation on business processes in the course on Operations Management I have chosen to create an infographics to present the data and the outcomes. The model thinking course on the other side helped a lot in data organization and further exploring a way of thinking.

In my professional work I can make use of all four courses, that was in first instance not the goal. Another thing is that I have used a number of new tools to make and order my course notes. Among these tooling is Evernote and Tableau Public, tools that I had not used before and has proven very valuable. For other tools that I have used already for a long time, like Freemind and Inkscape I have found new ways of applying them.

Plans for 2013

In 2013 I have subscribed to new courses: Computing for Data Analysis, Game Theory, and Creative Programming for Digital Media & Mobile Apps. Besides I have started to work on my teaching materials to create my on-line course, an introduction to GIS and Geospatial data. For this course I have started on udemy a platform for on-line courses in a wide range of subjects.

So… On-line courses and lifelong learning, it will continue.


So we have 10 seconds, and design matters

After a long period I decided that my personal homepage needed an update. And so many opinions exist on the perfect layout of a webpage. Recent studies point out that I am not the only one considering to update. A large percentage of users tend to change their webpage every two and half years. Is this dramatic? I think it is not, redesign is a big job. But when you read that already in 2010 about 42% of online shoppers base their decision on the first impression of the website it looks like the design of your landing page matters a lot. I am wondering will that be the same for personal pages?

Web design guru Jakob Nielsen states: “Users often leave Web pages in 10–20 seconds, but pages with a clear value proposition can hold people’s attention for much longer”. Ten seconds is not much. So I read more on the arguments and research results of Nielsen, for example about the F-shape in webpage reading. Reading all this you may consider not to work on your personal page any longer. Am I going to succeed in keeping my readers longer? But there is hope. Nielsen writes: “Only after people have stayed on a page for about 30 seconds does the curve become relatively flat.”

Are you still with me?

Writing for the web is different. Like with blogs we see that we need to get to the point very fast. No long introductions, but directly posing your statement, and then in short blocks telling the why and how. Knowing that people are not going to read long blocks of text on your first page you need to get their attention fast. Short paragraphs, using bold texts to point out what is important, and headline like headings.

But back to the design of the ideal page. I start of with the first question: What is the perfect width of your webpage? At least this is one of the first things to code in my CSS or body-tag. In the starting days, when I wrote my first HTML for Mosaic and Lynx there was not that much choice, monitors and resolution dictated the width. Now the range is wider and more complex. Smartphones, tablets, the mega-screens, and the average home user screen. When it comes to this subject I also refer to Nielsen who refers to StatCounter in coming to the conclusion that after 8 years this screen size has been dethroned. We should now design for 1440 pixels wide. And although 1024×768 is not any longer the standard, we should keep in mind that a website that gets wider then about 1024 pixels becomes more difficult to scan quickly. At least, if you do not divide it into columns, like newspapers do.

The Variables

So there is much to think about when it comes to the perfect landing page: the different grid systems, should the menu bar be left or right on my page, shall I use responsive web design?  Two things seemed important to me: the 960 grid, and responsive design. The blogs by Ryan Boudreaux that appeared this summer at TechRepublic to my opinion are a great starting point when it comes to responsive design. The 960 grid is perfectly explained on their own website.

All in all there are a lot of variables to deal with; ten seconds, 1440 pixels, 12 columns preferably spread over 960 pixels. And above all we are confronted with a visitor that wants to be entertained and on the other hand behaves like a tot.

I cannot come to a different conclusion: web design is challenging!

To be continued…

NB. A small note to this blog, in the first paragraph I mention the 42% for the shopping. Although this 42% gets refered to a lot, including some recent mentions, I can trace its source back to 2010, a long time ago in Internet terms. I have decided to crowdsource this question at Quora and LockerGnome. So far without results, many people read the question, and people even start to follow, but no answers yet.