Skip to content

Free software that changes learning

Around four years ago I read a book called the E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber. It suggests that the way out of the trap of working all hours of the night and day in your business is to write everything down in manuals so that, should anyone suddenly leave the business, of if you got sick, or exhausted, or just needed a break, a new person could come in, read the manuals, do the training and crack on with the job. The book does make certain assumptions about the quality of the new candidate that don’t apply baristas, but I thought the advice was pretty good and set about sorting standardising the training for our cafes. The first thing that I wrote was the induction to the company. It covers pay, work expectations, service culture etc. Naturally, before doing this I searched out examples of what others had done, but the examples were awful – just google ‘cafe induction manual.pdf’ to see for yourself – so I had to write my own. After that I decided the next logical thing to cover in a coffee business was barista training.

Up until this point, barista training had consisted of working side-by-side with enthusiastic baristas and everyone, including myself, learning by osmosis. We’d have the occasional training session on anything coffee related but there was nothing systematic. This worked fine when I had just one cafe, but by the time the third opened and I’d finished the designs for the fourth, I was far too busy trying to run the operation. I had got as far as developing seven workshops and an exam for the guys, but I wanted to spend the time with the guys practising and tasting coffee, not throwing lots of theory at them and hoping some would permeate into their long-term memory.

According to Michael E. Gerber I needed a barista training manual.
A barista training manual wasn’t something that I wanted to write: I had training notes for the seven workshops that I ran for the guys and just writing those had taken me quite some time. Besides, I had my work and three kids to spend time with, so I tried to find a textbook to complement the workshops. The best book on the market back then was still Scott Rao’s The Professional Barista’s Handbook, which was excellent for the time it came out, but that time was 2007 and a lot has happened in coffee since then. I got by by pointing the guys to blog posts by James Hoffmann, Tim Wendelboe, the Coffee Collective and Matt Perger and a great couple of courses from Chef Steps. However, this felt quite fragmented and I really needed a comprehensive barista manual to backup the workshops – so I had to write my own. What Michael E. Gerber failed to mention in the E-Myth Revisited was that writing these manuals takes such a bloody long time – four years to be precise.

Part of the reason that it took me so long was that manuals aren’t just text any more. Some of the best manuals going are on YouTube. If you ever need to know how to hand temper chocolate or fluff up a soufflé, YouTube is a fairly good resource. And it speaks to people, literally, in a very different way from traditional textbooks. But textbooks aren’t traditional anymore. Textbooks now include video and interactive content like quizzes to ensure that the reader is absorbing the subject matter. They can link to YouTube, Vimeo or any website on the internet. They can offer up extra information depending on what answers a student gives in order to help them understand a subject better or automatically skip forward if the student already understands a subject. The best piece of software out there to help design this kind of textbook is free for people with mac computers and is called iBooks Author.

To sum up the process of getting to this point, I’d been taking the guys on seven workshops to get them ready for their exam:

  1. Induction into Artisan Roast: history of the company, culture, standards etc, etc.
  2. Retail: how to sell and make long-term customers.
  3. Flavour perception
  4. Grinding for coffee
  5. Handbrew
  6. Espresso 1
  7. Espresso 2

Before each workshop I’d go to the printers and make sure that I had enough handouts for the guys. This was always more rushed than was healthy for me and often the printers were too busy to print right away. Perhaps, you’re thinking, I should have just printed off heaps of the notes and had a stockpile of handouts that I could nonchalantly throw into my backpack while leaving to set up the workshop. The issue was, my notes changed after every workshop when one of the guys would ask me something that I didn’t know to the answer to or after grading an exam, when I’d realise that I hadn’t taught something well enough for the guys to grasp the concepts. Sometimes what I’d taught had been wrong and I’d have to go to everyone who’d already taken my workshops, musterer’s hat in hand, apologise and give them the updated notes on more dead tree.

Notes, notes, notes, reams of notes. Being a devote greenie, I felt ill printing on all those trees and started casting around for an electronic solution. I looked into many learning management systems (LMS) and spent weeks fighting with configurations of Moodle, Kineo, Adobe Captivate and Articulate. Finally, I discovered iBooks Author, which was full of bugs, but by far the easiest program I’ve tried and, importantly, got the message across best to the guys.

The idea of using text or even video to teach something that is, in its essence, a flavour might seem counterintuitive. But learning about coffee takes time and I’ve found it’s better to spend workshop time associating flavours with theory rather than teaching theory. More time tasting; less time talking.

Writing with iBooks Author was maddening because it was buggy, constantly crashed and took up to 15 minutes to start up again (the bugs have now mostly been fixed by software upgrades and the crashing was greatly alleviated when I finally bought a new computer). Moreover, there’s no function for tracking changes, so that a copyeditor can easily show where she’s made corrections. However, I’m fairly convinced that writing in iBooks Author created a book that I wouldn’t have written had it started in Pages or Word. Having the pop-up pictures, video, interactive content, 3D models, and quizzes in place while writing allowed me to preview the experience that the reader would eventually have and changed the way that I wrote. This helped me write something that centred more on the reader’s perspective, which is important.

My goal is not to teach; it’s for people to learn. It a subtle, but important distinction: I don’t need a boost to my already over-inflated ego; I need baristas to understand difficult concepts and be able to communicate those concepts to customers. Although many are, not all baristas are naturals when it comes to learning chemistry and physics. But using text supported by graphical explanations really seems to get the message across. An example of how a multimedia textbook is better than a simple textbook is an animation that has a magnesium ion dissolved in water, which increases the ‘pulling power’ of the water. Some people will understand a paragraph that explains this concept, but everyone understands the animation.


This animation is part of an animated presentation that allows the student to progress at their own rate. Many people learn better visually, but, better than video, a multimedia textbook can engage the reader, making their learning active instead of merely passively watching a video or reading a book.

The big disadvantage of iBooks Author is that the iBook that it produces can only be read by the cult of mac. If the student has a Windows computer or an Android device, they won’t be able to read the iBook. It is possible to convert the project using Amazon’s Kindle Textbook Creator to create books that will work on Kindle HDX, but the only interactive elements that survive this conversion are videos and the resulting book is a fixed format. I spent two months converting the iBooks version to a Kindle version and I’m very disappointed with the results. I go into this in detail in a later email. However, iBooks Author will also create and export ePub books, which convert much better into Kindle format. These books can contain no interactive content other than pictures, but they can link to videos on YouTube or Vimeo, which can be played on Android devices, Kindle Fire, iDevices and desktop computers instead of just Fire HDX. I suspect this is something that I will be doing in the future.

Why bother? Well, as I mentioned before, a book like this is what I was looking for to act as a reference book to help my guys learn the theory behind their craft. I needed to write it for my business because there wasn’t something like it when I needed it, so it’s probable that other baristas and trainers might also need it. I also thought that it would be an easy thing to throw it onto the iBook and Amazon stores. I was wrong. It was a year ago when I thought that I had finished the project. However, editing what I thought that I’d finished took me over ten months. Editing is the subject of the next two emails.

But it wasn’t just this that took so long: coffee keeps changing and we never stop learning about it. Since initially publishing the iBook on 20 May 2016, I’ve already made four updates to the book and a fifth one is coming, which brings me back to one of the reasons that I decided to go digital in the first place: updates are inevitable. And I’ve learned a lot along the way about the tools and techniques to write and teach, edit, animate, layout, publish and market these books. I’ll be sharing all of that in the following posts.

Found this useful?

Put your email in below and get it delivered to your inbox.

I'm not going to send you any spam. Unsubscribe anytime. Powered by ConvertKit
Published inPublishing