December 7, 2012

Toward a theory of technology education

Impressive title for a blog, eh?

Well, I’m nowhere near that full theory, but I’ve got a few pieces that are starting to take shape. The ideas are based on my experiences providing technical support for many people over many years.

Smart, good people call themselves stupid because their computers and telephones block them from doing a simple task. We’ve created a culture of disrespect that’s the result of bad user interface and bad  software release practices (unannounced changes so that something that worked in one way yesterday doesn’t work today).

A generation was mocked by the flashing 12:00 on their VCR clocks because a) each VCR had a different way of setting the time and, more importantly, b) the manufacturers were too fricking cheap to include a 50¢ battery that would preserve the time setting when you unplugged the device momentarily.

It’s not likely that the industry is going to change its ways, so it’s up to us. That’s where this nascent educational theory is coming into shape. It has a few core principles that I’ll be developing over a series of blogs:

  • Language
  • Expectations
  • Community of learning
  • Context

I’ll touch on the first one, language, today.

If you don’t know how to spell a word, look it up in the dictionary.

How many of you, as nine-year-olds, stared blankly at your teacher when she told you to look up a word that you didn’t know how to spell? This moment may have been the beginning of your understanding that adults are nuts.

Second only to English language usage, English spelling rules are nonsensical and contradictory. (The phrase look it up, for example, uses the verb look in an archaic fashion as a transitive verb and sends us looking upwards. Perhaps a grammarian could help me diagram the sentence Look it up in the dictionary.)

The other day, a Mac user tried to explain her problem, that the thing with the pointer was missing from her desktop.

“I use it to navigate,” she said.

I asked about the mouse pointer, which seemed to be ok.

“I click on it to read the New York Times,” she said.

The icon for Safari was missing from her Dock.

If you saw the Safari icon in the wild, how would you describe it? A compass, right? How does that correlate with web browsing?

Once you make the association between an icon and the idea or activity, you’re most likely just to forget that you even know it. Trouble surfaces, however, when the icon disappears. Is the program gone? Probably not.

Recommendations

  • An icon dictionary that explains what each icon represents – what program it runs and what you do with the program. In the previous example, describing that icon as Safari wouldn’t have helped much.
  • People who work on the computer must document what they’ve done and why. The reason that the Safari icon was gone was that the Mac owner’s son preferred Firefox and wanted to make it the default browser for his mother. He didn’t tell her nor did he set it up so that she could get to the New York Times website as she’s previously done.