Yorkville Media Centre teaches hands-on digital media skills for free

Jessica Laplante spent thousands of dollars on tuition at university to arm herself with the digital skills she’d need as a non-profit communications specialist in the modern world. But she found that education just didn’t cut it.

“We touched on learning HTML and Dreamweaver, but I didn’t feel confident using it or applying it in an actual real setting,” she says. So Laplante took on extra courses through the Toronto District School Board to sharpen her Web skills. But it still wasn’t very practical. It took the Yorkville Media Centre (YMC) to finally deliver the hands-on skills and application that she wanted.

“The things that we learned, I could very much apply to my job and see using a practical approach,” she says. “Whereas before I knew the backend of things, but didn’t really know how to apply them.”

Since January 2009, web development firm Bnotions has been running the YMC out of its downtown Toronto loft space above a Spanish instruction centre. The Bogaroo Inc. subsidiary invites about 20 to 25 students into their classes every Saturday, and charges them absolutely nothing. The nine-week curriculum covers everything from client acquisition and customer service and an overview of the digital media industry to designing a Web site and implementing its backend with publishing platforms like WordPress.

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Helping young professionals make the switch to a digital media career is the firm’s way of giving back to the open source community, says instructor Mark Reale (who is also director of research at Bnotions).

“It’s turned out to be a positive thing for us in so many regards,” he says. “A core of our business is based on open source technology and from our perspective, a great way to give back to the open source community that gave us so much is to encourage other people to look into these open source tools.”

Bnotions founded the educational program and has won over sponsors such as WordPress and Microsoft Corp. since its inception. Now in its fourth season, YMC classes focus on topic including project management, design and Web languages including HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Students work on real-world projects together as they learn about the concepts and apply them. This was done specifically to address criticisms of college courses being too hypothetical in nature, Reale says.

“When participants come to the YMC they’re being introduced to the whole process of what it’s like to go out and find clients and work on a client project,” he says. “We tried to make the nine-week project something is actually going to be deployed and used.”

Students drawn to the class range from those with an entrepreneurial disposition to those looking to brush up on skills and improve the capability in their current jobs. As pupils listen to Reale give a lesson about installing WordPress to a Web server, they follow along on laptops. Many trade their attention between the instructor and an open Twitter client, sharing messages about their experience in the class.

Laplante joined the class after hearing about it from a Web designer friend. She worked at Alternatives Journal at the time, which used WordPress to manage several Web sites and found she could immediately apply what she learned at YMC to her job.

“WordPress makes everything really, really easy, especially for a beginner,” she says. “It made me wonder why I had ever used anything else.”

With Microsoft’s sponsorship, YMC is now able to hire The Biz Media to do a video production of each of its classes. Portions of the classes are posted online and free to view.

The classes may not remain free in the future. YMC’s Web site states the opportunity is available for a “limited time” but doesn’t spell out plans to charge for the courses. For now, students like Laplante can continue to attend without paying a dime.

YMC is in part to thank for her new job as a communications specialist with the Daily Bread Food Bank, she says. The charity is transitioning its site to WordPress and has designated her as in charge of overseeing that move.

“The fact that I knew that and had experience and knowledge from this course I think was a big factor,” she says.

Laplante starts her new job in January.

Brian Jackson is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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