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Overcoming technophobia with ninja skills

June 22, 2011

Here’s a common stereotype of a technology user I’ve encountered more that a few times in my life:

I just don’t get technology. Computers hate me. Doing things on my computer seems like such a hassle. I never know where it saves my files. I need a lot of handholding, and step-by-step directions.

To me, this sounds awfully familiar:

I just don’t get math. Word problems scare me. I don’t really see the point of math anyway. I never know how to do the problems. I need a lot of handholding and step-by-step directions.

As one of the earliest members of the Vi Hart fan club, I believe everyone can understand and see the beauty in mathematics. When I hear someone make comments like these above, I instantly wonder about whether a traumatic math experience in that person’s pass caused these feelings. Was this person taught by a teacher who felt math was only for the gifted? Did this person learn that math is just a procedure to be memorized and not understood? Was this never shown or given the opportunity to explore the beauty of mathematics?

I think a similar argument can be made about the technophobe comments I first mentioned. Was this person been taught that the computer is a tool that does exactly the things that you instructed to do nothing more? Was this person shown that the computer is a tool of near limitless creative expression? Was this person encouraged to explore and play? Or, was this person inhibited––perhaps by an ancient computer and operating system, locked down by IT, a fear of making mistakes, or by a understaffed help desk that never had the resources to offer timely help?

Given my love for technology, which includes both the incredible power of the things I can do with a computer, but also the comprehensible wonder at how computers work, I’m saddened every time I hear expressions like those above.

As my school embarks on a 1-1 initiative, I’m trying to find ways to help users move past these feelings of technophobia, which just like in math, can be a larger impediment to learning than any deficiency of skills. I truly think the largest part of this to use the ideas of the Park Service IT department, and the “You can do this; we can help” approach I’ve written about before.

My basic approach is that, just like math, learning technology isn’t about memorizing or recording long lists of procedures, it’s about exploring and making new discoveries, always with a sense of the power and potential in mind. But to make this happen, as a teacher, I have to move beyond simply showing you how to do things and providing lists of procedures. I need to show users why they’d want to try some of these things.

Today, I gave an optional half-day professional development workshop titled “How to Become a Websurfining Ninja” with the following description:

Would you like to waste less time searching and randomly surfing the web, and MORE time finding useful things that will improve your teaching and personal life?

In this session we will explore the following topics:

  • How to search for things and find exactly what you want
  • How to save and organize your personal bookmarks, and how to share and browse awesome bookmarks from other educators using Diigo
  • How to read the sites you visit most frequently more easily with RSS and google reader
  • How to navigate your browser more quickly using tabbed browsing and keyboard shortcuts
  • How to extract and save things you want to use in your classroom, like images and youtube videos
  • How to save articles and videos you’d like to read later for viewing on your smartphone or ipad using instapaper and watch later
  • How to find new tools and services to save you time, ease collaboration, and supercharge your teaching.
  • and much much more

This description managed to convince 11 brave souls to take morning out of their vacation and come to school to learn more about how to use their computer. The level of expertise of my class of teachers spanned a pretty significant spectrum–from the somewhat technophobic to the already a very comfortable power user just trying some new tricks.

To accommodate all users, here’s how I tried to set things up. I started by creating a written document (pdf link), embedded below, that would describe all of the things we would do in this session in enough detail that someone fairly comfortable with technology would be able to skip ahead and try out new things on his or her own.

View this document on Scribd

Next, I aimed to make the start of our class gentle and welcoming to every user, regardless of his or her background in technology. As the class progressed (and I got a bit more crunched for time), I tried to move from leading step by step instructions to showing the class the particular skill/trick that I wanted to highlight, and then discuss ways in which you might use it in class, which would hopefully encourage users to want to make the effort to dig into the resources they have to master this skill.

If you’re curious, and you’ve really got some time on your hands, you can see for yourself how this went:

First 90 minutes

Second 90 minutes

The feedback we collected after the workshop was tremendously helpful. Almost everyone found the workshop to be very helpful and left enthused wanting to try new things and learn more about their computers. A few left a bit overwhelmed, feeling that they had a lot to learn. If you happen to watch all or part of these videos, or read the handout, I’d appreciate any feedback you might have—I’m probably going to be doing a similar workshop again, and would love to make it better.

After considering this workshop, particularly in light of my pondering whether confusion is a necessary part of learning, and a great post I saw today on how “you don’t understand something until you think it’s obvious“, I’m wondering if, at least to some extent, those feelings of confusion and being overwhelmed are good things, that should be indicators of learning. If so, what we can do to make more users (and students) comfortable with these feelings?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011 6:31 am

    John – Thanks for sharing the Websurfing Ninja tips. I’ve learned what I know by the seat of my pants and from reading “Rule the Web” by Mark Frauenfelder but would love to become a more savvy user. But even more importantly, I’ll share this information & your presentation with my son(s) so they can help their old Mom later when I get confused.

    Speaking of confused — I’m certain that the feeling is a sign that one’s cognitive set has been challenged and a necessary element for a certain kind of learning. While it might not be the only kind of learning, it is probably the most exciting kind of learning since it means that previous boundaries are challenged and new perspective is emerging. Seamless learning occurs too. For example, spelling for my younger son comes naturally. He just reads and “poof” he knows how to spell. Some have this same seamless ability to pick up math facts or reading or other “skills” without much apparent effort. It is probably a good thing that some things are easily, or seamlessly, learned or we would all just throw in the towel by the age of 2 months. But the most satisfying growth, I think, comes from pushing past the previous cognitive set & that usually takes some serious effort.

    I always tell my students that the uncomfortable feeling of confusion is a sign that their brain is making new connections & if they keep at it their neurons will actually create new paths — just like if they do more push ups or run farther & it hurts or burns a bit they are making more blood vessels & strengthening their muscle cells/fibers — so this is true of confusion and brain cells.

    Our family are big fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — so our motto when confusion sets in is “Don’t Panic”.

    “You don’t understand something until you think it is obvious” is probably a sign that you’ve made a leap but of course there is always more to understand — so, in my opinion, revelling in that feeling should be temporary — just to feel good about passing your previous set — but then it is probably healthy to start questioning your understanding. In my lifetime there have been countless times when new scientific understanding has led to shakeups in our previous understandings — this is probably happens more so in certain fields than in others — but still — there is likely something we have not discovered in almost any area that can color the world a shade differently than our previous view.

    All the Best, Marilyn

    • June 22, 2011 11:25 am

      Thanks for the tips—I downloaded the first chapter of “Rule the Web” and took a look, and was amazed by how ancient a book published only 4 short years ago looks. This sparked me to realize another big lesson we need to teach (and not just about technology)—everything changes, but if you focus on mastering big ideas rather than lists of procedures, and keep a flexible mindset, you can keep up. You can tell that Rule the web was written at least in part with this mindset, which is also a large part of the “Maker” ethos. Mark Frauenfeilder’s helped to create. Of course, he’s never going to be able to predict cool new tools like Hipmunk’s flight search on the ipad (so awesome—I will buy all my future plane tickets using this), but the Maker ethos does communicate the big ideas–things change, so keep experimenting. This also links to the your point about not reveling in the obvious—that’s often a good sign that its time to move on, branch out and explore new things.

  2. June 23, 2011 11:54 pm

    Hey John,

    This teacher collaborative tool just came across my FB newsfeed – MIT has created a teacher collaboration space: and You Tube Demo: . Was not sure if you’d heard about the project but thought you might be interested if you had not yet heard since you’ve shown an interest in sharing/cross pollination, so I’m sharing in case it turns out to be of use. It looks like the project was headed by Math dept but intended use is for other disciplines as well???

    • June 23, 2011 11:56 pm

      Thanks for pointing me to this—I hadn’t seen it before. It looks very interesting—a set of tools built upon wordpress sounds like a great way to build a collaboration platform. I’ll check it out and add it to my ever growing list of things to blog about. 🙂


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