Before I start I want to explain that this may sound like a self centered rant all about myself but if you will bear with it you will find it does have a point in fact.
I went through web design school in 1999-2000, I got out of school three months after the "Dot Com Crash" flooded the market with experienced designers now unemployed. I never did get a really serious job. What I did was struggle with Freelance design to get a portfolio (which has now shrunk to 5 sites, two of which are mine as one after the other went offline for one reason or another) and I did so with no connections or friends to bounce ideas and techniques with.
Now I can say that my schooling was not the best. We learned to do nothing more with CSS then replace tags, it was in fact a mere 2 hour class in that time. I was taught that HTML was dead and XHTML had replaced it and that XHTML is simply HTML that works with XML. We also no how wrong that is. This lead for me to what I consider "Stagnation." That is what is what I did, I stagnated. I kept the level of knowledge that I had and went no further, I merely did the same things wrong as I was taught for 3 years because it was taught that way and the school must know what they were doing.
About 2003 I landed the job of creating a web portal for my District's Youth Services (I was living in Berlin Germany at the time) and this needed to be accessible (I thought I knew what that meant back then) according to the German BITV laws. Well this was a big deal and trying to figure out how to do it with tables I came across two articles and a old Bookmarks file. The articles were from Gez Lemon (Juicey Studios) & Patrick "Redux" Lauke and both pointed to a web site named Accessif.com and it's Forum. The Bookmarks were mine and I discovered a site called Killersites that I had been to a few times based on the book of a big name designer.
Well Killersites had changed, a new fellow was running in named Stefan and it now had a forum. So I joined it and quickly was linked further to a web site named CSSZenGarden - my Jaw hit the floor! CSS can do that? I still do not know if my school was so bad or at that time CSS support was just so poor, but it opened a new world to me and I jumped in feet first. Stef and David Mead were a great help in those early days. David has since dropped off Killersites due to spending time with his fairly new child but stops by once in a while.
Accessibility did not exist on KS, but as I became more proficient I brought it up more and more and Stef supported me and was open minded to changing his ideas of web design and I finally became a moderator here ...ok, the fact I was in Germany and online when he was offline likely helped to *grin*. not only did I learn allothere about web design but having to then find ways to describe these new ideas to other regulars and new members helped me focus and consider options for arguments and teaching web design and accessibility here taught me as much as anything.
Now I find members such as Im, Tpatterson, Thelma, Billy and many more who came here with either no experience or limited experience with accessibility and such now answering the same questions they used to ask and many more pointing out accessibility issues and the likes. I see my answerers online before I even have a chance. This is not because I am a super designer or teacher, it is because these people were open to new ideas and counter points to what the believed when they came here. They have reached the point they are now at, being respected by newbies they help because they were willing to listen to some unknown guy named LSW with just as much or maybe less years in the business as they themselves had. But in the end, they are now where they are because they got involved in a forum where they had contact with Stef, David, myself and each other.Because they had a place they enjoyed where new ideas and old myths were discussed among experts and beginners and all as equals. It is Forums that brought us where we are today.
I walked into Accessify Forum thinking I knew what I was talking about ... whoa was I wrong. I did not know beans about accessibility in the real world. That was quickly pointed out to me and once I toned down my postings and began asking more, those in the group accepted me and I have learned from some of the best in the business including but not limited to Joe Clark , Patrick "Redux" Lauke, Isofarrow, Malarkey, Tommy "Toolman" Olsson, Brother Cake, Gez Lemon, Diva, Nigel Peck, Molly Holzschlag, ... also contact with people who work with and/or represent the W3C, RNIB and many others like Universities. The vast majority being from Europe and giving me another way of looking at the web.
I even today read more than I answer as people there are far above me in the learning curve. This time I started and remained a beginner in may ways and as a user and not admin or moderator can say that it is also invaluable as a resource, Many of the best links I share at Killersites come from threads at Accessify. Although it like every other forum is about learning, it tends to be more discussion oriented with points and counter points as accessibility is not a s clear cut as HTML and CSS. It is harder to answer with yes and no answers as at KS. So their is more discussion about peoples views and understandings of guidelines and real life real time discussions about what works and what does not. The best blogs out there post here quite often before going live to get feedback from other big names.
Accessify Forum put me in contact with the Guild of Accessible Web Designers (GAWDS) who's membership I joined and discovered (members web sites are first examined to ensure that they truly understand or support accessibility) that my "Accessible web site" had more barriers then you could shake a stick at and that I did not know the first thing about accessibility. But Mel Pedley of Blackwidow Designs not only pointed out my failings but how to fix them and with her help the LSW of that time became accessible and I was accepted as a member.
I still find myself slapping my forehead over there when I discover some accessibility consideration so logical I should have seen it myself ...so I am still learning today. As above, the acceptance of the regulars and in this case industry leaders and their patience mean that once again a Forum opened up new worlds for me and "brainstorming with the best" has boosted my knowledge in these last 3 years far beyond the first year and I have learned more then I ever did in school.
There are other forums out there, each with a specialty, SitePoint is a great general forum with more knowledge in the direction of programming and business oriented things. Computer Arts Forum gets more into the artistic and software oriented with allot of 3D, Flash and artistic subjects. I just dropped out of actively going to these forums as they are very big and somewhat hard to deal with as well as the move, real life and more duties at killersites. It does not reflect on their usefulness, simply on lack of time to spend there.
It does not matter what forum you join, the point is that forums are a must for web designers just to keep your creativity charged and keep you up to date on recent changes in the industry. Whether you are a beginner or advanced, learning or teaching does not matter, it is the participation that matters that keeps you at your best for your customers and helper or "helpee" you will find your self learning and improving either way.
Although not directly related to forums, face it, you can read tutorials, blogs, books or forums and it does no good if you cannot turn around and put it in use now or later. Bookmarks are a must! Bookmark everything! And do so logically and under different labels so you can find it again when you need it!
So projects are a must, private or customer, actual or make believe ... you need projects to support you in the forums. Like I say above, my knowledge has multiplied beyond belief since joining KS and accessify. Here I made the jump in a short amount of time between beginner and now the expert here for accessibility. All because I had projects that challenged me and required things I have never done before.
But since my contract with the portal ended I have had no real challenges and although I spend allot oftime at KS some may have noticed that I am not so vocal, I help less then before, I basically chase Spam. It has become somewhat boring as the challenge is gone, I learn little new and we have a flock of regulars now faster with the same answers then me. I find myself once more in a slump, once more stagnating. I am now finishing up on a re-code of my Host's site, it was harder than expected but the only real challenge was working with Data Tables. But again i turned to the forums to get help, advice and see what I have missed never having done serious data tables before and for a short time it was fun again. So i will likely write another post on the correct creation of accessible data tables.
So that is my rant, maybe self centered but I enjoy seeing Thelma and Susie now helping others as David and Stef likely feel about me having seen me improve here. It is easy to get caught up in the web and forget your real life, I see that every time my daughter wants to play and I say no. But just burying yourself in projects or real life can be the death of a designer as well. If it is even just one, choose a forum you like and hit it regularly, at least once a week for a few hours just to help and see what is changing as it is changing to keep from stagnating. If you have no time for forums then try at least a news mail list or a few important blogs, preferably allowing comments. Stagnation is death in this field.