is it plugged in? / by Jeff Herrity Artist

In my previous existence, well, in one of my several previous existences, I was responsible for bringing the Children's Defense Fund into the realm of technology and then to teach/train everyone how to use it all. I the networked the organization, as well as gave everyone their first email addresses, but then came the hard part....teaching everyone how to use the new stuff. Keep in mind that most of the equipment that I worked on, and then taught on, were all donated PCs. Old PCs. We are talking DOS prompt old. BUT, on the bright side, this equipment was much newer than the typewriters and the few PCs with WordStar on them. It was a win-win for me...everyone was eager to use their new insanely powered computers with COLORED monitors! No more blinking amber or green screens. During my time at the Children's Defense Fund, we realized that I had a 'gift' to teach people things - I could teach anyone anything.

Unless it involved a keyboard. All bets are off for something that is completely foreign and TECHNOLOGY. Forget trying to explain the mouse at this wasn't yet a verb.  And "click here" mentality?....forget about it. We had to start at the basics.

How do I, as an educator, explain the most basic elements while knowing that many people will have different levels of familiarity with the tools.

So, I spent weeks, maybe even months, talking to everyone in the office and what their needs were with their new digital co-worker. Because computer and digital technology was so new, people didn't know how to even BEGIN to use it to streamline their work, let alone try new things or understand that the way they did things could be done quicker. Quicker. No more IBM Selectric produced mailing labels. I was about to teach everyone some new tricks.

Not so fast.

I spent the better part of two months creating my lessons for my first series of 'Training' sessions with the administrative staff. I made the first fatal mistake by assuming that everyone was on the same ability level. Even though I did my 'pre-assessment' of their skills, I later realized that anytime someone comes around the office with a 'survey' about skills and job effectiveness, people will lie.

You'd be surprised at how many people who responded with 'experienced' to describe their comfort level with computers did not know how to turn one on.

I think that anytime there is a lab-style learning experience, there are bound to be people who not only learn differently, but know different things. When it comes to teaching something in the digital realm, I think that the most important thing to start with are the basics - the basic basics - how to turn something on and understand the basics of the tool/hardware that you are using. Students will have different equipment, so making sure that everyone understands the common elements of the computer, then learning the common elements of software would be easier. As an educator, it will be my responsibility to make the information as accessible to the broadest range of people. (Of course, this would be for 'intro' level courses)

The key to learning a program, and teaching the program is to 're-learn' along with the students - not 're-learn' meaning you have 'no clue', but 're-learn' in the aspect that this information could be 'new' to someone. You must put yourself as a teacher back in the bucket of learner. I think discovery is the key to learning programs, not necessarily trial-and-error. As the educator it is important that I provide those moments where something 'clicks.' This can be easily achieved by shortening lessons and repeating tasks. Over and over again.

Once you have spent enough time teaching - truly teaching, not just showing - you can speed up the remaining lessons because you don't have to spend as much time with the basics.

At this point there may be a divide in the learning curve - some people are getting it, and some are not. As we progress in our teaching the basics to the more advanced stuff the classroom dynamics may shift. There will be more demos that are geared towards the levels that people are at - there is nothing more frustrating than an advanced learner being forced to re-learn something for the sake of someone a little slower.

It's easy for me to reflect on how to teach digital technology, but the thing that will always keep me current is that - as a user - I must keep current with the tools and technologies - and most importantly how these things are being used. Keep in mind that in my early PC tech days I spent several hours trouble shooting a tricky printer. After giving up and calling my boss for assistance, her first question to me was:

Is it plugged in?

It wasn't.