It was announced in several states that the schools would not resume for the 2020 school year. This is probably heartbreaking for some (seniors in high school) and maybe a sigh of relief for others (teenage boys wanting to play Fortnite all day). School is not done. Instead, it has been permanently moved to the kitchen table or the bedroom.

I join a Zoom meeting every Tuesday morning for the parents of Wheeling Country Day School students. I get to hear the opinions and concerns from many parents all over the Ohio Valley. Some parents are taking it better than others. The same can be said about the students.

Lainee online school for Star Wars Day
Zoom meetings are extra fun on Star Wars Day.

I have been fortunate and my daughter has adapted to online learning. I’ve always said she was a little mini-me (and it’s not just because we have that ‘Hersey’ face). Lainee takes every opportunity to learn – regardless if she is in a classroom or laying in bed.

Early Days of Online Learning

Where many are adapting to our new way of learning, I was an early adopter of online learning. I finished up college in the mid-’00s with three associate degrees. Over the years, I contemplated going back to get a bachelor’s. I jumped around in professions and finally had the opportunity to do what I love – web design. I developed a client list and wondered if it was worth going back to college to just get a degree.

Working on websites requires a lot of skill and training (if done properly) but I’m not sure you actually need a degree. I started making websites during my sophomore year of high school. I had a passion project and toyed around with programs. I found snippets online (the early days of the web). Making websites was a hobby I enjoyed.

Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life. Mark Twain
Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

I subscribe to that statement. I spent my high school years making passion projects and acquired a ton of knowledge – not for a grade – but for results. If I wanted a form on a website, I had to learn how to build that form, whether it was easy or not. The trial and error forced me to learn.

Learning After High School

I completed my college education in 2-years and hustled to get my Web Design, E-Commerce, and Graphic Design degrees (for FREE under a statewide trustees scholarship). All projects and assignments came right out of a book. I would figure out the answer and submit the project. Even though I did the work, I wasn’t committed to actually learning the material. I wanted the degree, not the skill.

Belmont Technical College Web Design Degrees for Eric Hersey

Fast-forward about ten years, most of my graphic and web design skills came from High School and passion projects. There are very few (if any) jobs paying for web designers so I worked in management. I had several side jobs along the way, keeping me active with web design. Most of the website jobs were easy and I didn’t challenge myself to try new things.

As my real-world jobs started getting more and more annoying, I wanted an out. This is when I debated on the bachelor’s degree – again.

Learning from Podcasts, YouTube, and More

Right before I pulled the trigger (I had several applications out for online schools), I had the opportunity and was promoted to a stay-at-home-dad. This was perfect. I could go back to school and get back into web design. The landscape of the Ohio Valley didn’t change (still no web design jobs), but I was willing to travel to Pittsburgh if it meant having a career that I enjoyed.

Over the last year, I was working in Pittsburgh (Greentree to be exact) and would start listening to podcasts about web design. I stumbled upon one that was sponsored by a company called I didn’t think much of it until I asked the major question…

Do I need a bachelors degree for web design?

Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates didn’t complete college. They were all computer nerds like me that had an idea and a skill and went for it. That piece of paper was never going to be more important than the grit and hard work they put into their passion projects. I wasn’t practicing medicine. There is no test or certification that you must pass to make a website. If so, Squarespace and Wix would be extinct.

Over the last few years, I learned how to use WordPress as a self-hosted solution from reading blogs. I watched YouTube videos on how to make a custom WordPress theme. After hours of podcasts, I was becoming a web design UX (user experience) expert. I didn’t need a degree, but I still needed training.

Online Learning Platforms: Team Treehouse and Lynda

I was at home with my 3-year-old daughter. I would wake up early and play a few games of Madden. When she woke up, we would go about our day. I found myself getting the itch for a project. After searching for web design online training, I came across I signed up for the month trial and got to work.

Team Treehouse

Team Treehouse was impressive. They had training courses for everything web-related. I hammered out some HTML5 basics, CSS, and got my first taste of SQL. The lessons were arranged systematically and you joined a learning path that helped you transition from one skill to another.

Online learning with Homepage

The interface was clean and I distinctively remember the flat design icons and badges for each course. There was a mobile app, so I could listen/watch courses while roaming around the house.

I went on to pay for Team Treehouse for nearly a year and used it every day. My task was to pick a few projects and mirror the lessons. I made a wrestling website from scratch so I could learn MySQL, PHP, and Bootstrap. Then I went next level with my Fantasy Football website by really diving into web development (and even boosted my graphic design skills in Illustrator).

I loved the website and the mobile app – but found myself wondering why there wasn’t an app for my Apple TV. When I searched the app store, no Team Treehouse – but there was a recommendation for Lynda. (LinkedIn Learning)

I wanted to walk on a treadmill and watch training courses. Lynda had an app on the Apple TV and Team Treehouse didn’t. It was time to make a switch.

I finished nearly every web related course on Treehouse and I noticed that Lynda was the same price (monthly) and had training classes for TONS of different subjects. Now called LinkedIn Learning, Lynda offered courses in time management, marketing, and various professional development. I dove right in.

It took me a while to realize that it was more of a free-for-all with Lynda. Team Treehouse had specific learning paths outlined. For example, you might be interested in web design. There would be a course filled with thirty individual videos called HTML. When you finished that, it would then push you to a course called CSS with another thirty videos. By the end of the learning path, you would have completed several courses and hundreds of videos.

Lynda promoted the courses, but there wasn’t a specific path that allowed you to seamlessly move from one course to the next. This may be different today, but my hack was to create a playlist. Playlists for Eric Hersey is the best for online learning

I created playlists (much like YouTube) where you can add courses and get easy access to the set of courses. I searched their library and added any course I could find on the given topic. If there was a tool or topic mentioned in a video, I would add it to the specific playlist. The instructors also did a great job recommending new courses at the end of most videos.

Getting My Online Learning Degree From Home and Paperless

I was committed to learning and practicing these skills. It wasn’t long before I started to finish up with many of my passion projects and started getting paying gigs. I started freelancing with a Steubenville advertising agency and would put good use to his new knowledge. Not only was I making and updating live websites, but I was also really getting to learn about digital marketing.

Once I watched every known video about search engine optimization and digital marketing tools, I found out that there are thousands of podcasts out there. Much of my Lynda training was done with just audio, so podcasts were perfect. From the podcasts, I would get recommendations for YouTube channels. I had myself a hybrid learning experience and some of the best professors you could ask for.

  • Listen to podcasts and watch training videos to learn new concepts. (Lectures)
  • Create projects and websites practicing new concepts. (Homework)
  • Receive real-time feedback from clients and agency partners. (Tests)

For $25 a month, I was getting an online education. This sure beat the thousands upon thousands I would have to pay to get the same education from attending a school.

College or Self-Trained Online?

If you stumbled upon this article and are looking to get into web design, should you fork out the money to attend a college? I really think it depends on your personality. You absolutely can be an amazing web designer or digital marketer without ever stepping foot in a classroom, but you have to get the skills from somewhere.

My success for online learning really comes down to a few things:

  • Hobbies: I have a ton of hobbies that I can use as a muse for projects. Tough subjects and tasks are a bit more enjoyable when you mix in some of your loves. Honestly, I would have never got through making a complex database if it didn’t spit out my win-loss record in fantasy football.
  • Discipline: I wanted to learn. I leveraged my passion projects to force me to work every day. I could either watch Netflix or work on a project. If you have a hard time making that decision, paying for college at least forces you to act (or you are just burning your money).
  • Motivation: Motivation and discipline are a bit different in this scenario. I was motivated by not wanting to work retail ever again. I was disciplined enough to keep pushing forward even though I wasn’t getting a monetary reward (which ties back to working with hobbies).
  • Learning Style: There are a lot of learning styles. Some people need to be hands-on. Others need to be able to ask questions. I tend to be able to sit back (watch or listen) and play around on my own. This works perfectly for me but won’t work for everyone.

The students of America are going through some of the same struggles I went through when I first started my online training. Some will adapt a bit easier than others. Before this pandemic, I would find my daughter watching YouTube videos on makeup tutorials and craft projects. She is made for online learning. Although we put money back for her college, if she tells me she wants to make websites for a living – maybe we turn that 529 College plan into an investment into the next Facebook, Apple, or Microsoft.

Lainee at her home desk getting ready for online learning.