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Designing a new type of tech PD-feedback wanted

November 12, 2011

From experience, I can say one of the least useful professional development workshops out there is Learn to us software package X in your classroom. When I attend these sessions, I usually find myself bored within in minutes of hearing what it’s possible for application X to do, and really struggle to focus through the rest of the presentation and I get dragged, step by step, through the application.

But is this type of professional development useful for less technically savvy teachers? Teachers who really prefer to have things explained to them step by step and often keep a pad and pen next to them to write down the steps on how to do something with a particular application? I would argue no, particularly when that application is some rarely used program like Garage Band or iMovie. That faculty member is likely to leave the session feeling like they’ve really got the application down, and then they’ll slip back into normal life, not use it for a month, and then when they try to create a movie in a month later they will find themselves nearly as confused as they would have been if they had never attended the session.

So what is one to do? Here’s my thought, and it isn’t unique. Let’s stop teaching applications and instead start teaching teachers how to problem solve and explore (I think this lesson applies equally well to students, too). Here are the central lessons I want teachers to take away from the professional development I’m trying to design for my department:

  1. There is almost nothing you can do from the keyboard to harm or permanently damage your computer.
  2. You will be amazed by what you can learn if you simply begin to explore your machine. Take a look to at menus you don’t normally use. Dig around system preferences. Just click on that application you haven’t heard of in your applications folder and try it out.
  3. Your machine and the world around you are filled with useful help. Starting with the application help (which is often poorly designed), but most often with simply googling “how do I do X?” or simply googling the error message one receives from a program. And this says nothing of the incredible forums, twitter, and all the other avenues of help that are available.

My principal challenge right now is to figure out a way to teach these three ideas, keeping in mind that the PD sessions I am running aren’t really meant to be tech how-tos, and instead, they need to be focused on helping faculty use technology to implement our learning for life vision statement. Designed properly, I think a lesson on how to learn to use technology can be a big part of this goal.

Here’s one quasi-success from this week that I think may be a template for how to do this. In our Physics PLT, we’ve been exploring the program OmniGraphSketcher, which is a phenomenal tool for making graphs. A colleague in my department shared with me a kinematics test he had created, but in a number of places, he had resorted to printing the graph and modifying it by some way by hand—changing the axes numbers, rewriting a axes label so that it is more visible, etc. He told me he knew the program had to be able to do this, but he couldn’t figure it out, and so he thought it would be faster to do what he did.

At our next PLT, using that test as a starting point, we tried to figure out how to do all the things he had to do by hand using Omnigraphsketcher. A number of the things he wanted to do were thing I didn’t know how to do either, and so we walked through process of thinking aloud what menu might offer that option, how to select the axis, and how to make the change. In the end, we had solved all the problems, and along the way discovered a ton of new features, like being able to save a particular layout of the graph as a default. In the end, I hope that what stuck wasn’t how to make a particular axis bold, but instead that process of problem solving and discovery.

This has me thinking about how I might be able to replicate this experience for our next department professional development session (which is unfortunately coming up very fast this Tuesday). What if I created a number of scenarios of new things (like using the instant alpha tool in keynote to remove the background of an image, or setting up word wrap around an image in a word document) and simply challenged faculty to try to use the help tools at their disposal to figure out how to do this, and then share those lessons back in some way? What do you think? Might this be a useful approach to teaching how to explore and problem solve on the computer?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. jsb16 permalink
    November 12, 2011 6:31 pm

    I absolutely think challenging the faculty to find the help they need would be useful, but… Keep the mindsets of your audience in mind. If you have some “I’m really not a tech-y” types, you’ll want to give them something easy to find and share.

  2. November 12, 2011 7:26 pm

    John, I think your idea is great. In theory. I’m not so sure it will work quite so well in practice. Here’s why, I think that teachers who write everything down step-by-step need to practice more and more before they will get to the place where they will rely on their notes less and less. So even if you teach them how to problem solve, which I think is a great idea, they will write down your steps and use them. That will help them reach a place where they can figure out a new software but I still think it will take time. There’s a lot to be said about experience.

  3. November 12, 2011 11:44 pm

    Love this train of thought. This strikes me as the same problem as the student who writes the steps for vector addition (or whatever) step-by-step. I’m not convinced that more practice will help — I should say, I’m concerned that it helps make them better at that game, but does nothing to help them change the game they’re playing. What do we do to help them play a different game?

    It’s also a classic example of the “but I thought I knew it” phenomenon that causes people to feel even worse about themselves — because now they have to face the fact that they are still confused even though it’s all been “taught” to them. Formative assessments are in order here, and they will have to be well-designed in order to help people solidify their ability to discern patterns and predict organization, not just memorize where the (whatever) feature is located.

    1 — people need to take a hard look at the source of their fear. Especially their fear that they will break their computer. If we asked people to be as specific as possible about what they worry will happen to their computer, I wonder what they would say?

    2 — maybe this really is the place for screencasts — the ones that the faculty themselves could make to remind themselves of something they have particular trouble with.

    3 — Knowing something about the operating system conventions might help. In my long-gone days of doing tech support for extremely intimidated end-users, I found that their level of anxiety often went up because they had no vocabulary to describe the window elements. This made it hard for them to talk to each other and made people feel stupid when asking for help. They also did not seem to know that there were common conventions among applications (notably, that right-clicking in Windows brought up a list of commonly-used useful tidbits that relate specifically to the thing you are pointing to, or that a dotted line around something means that it is “selected”).

    To be fair, it’s not at all obvious that there’s a difference between “options” and “preferences.” Also, as you mention, software documentation is sent from hell to torment us. Everything from tool tips to help files are often badly written and, worse, badly organized. I wonder if having people critique an excerpt from a help file would help them understand that it’s not them — it’s the technical writing. Software docs are bad in specific and predictable ways, though. Knowing what those ways are might make it less scary to try to bend them to your will. I agree with you that googling “how do I do X in MS Y version Z” is more likely to turn up an answer. However, that means people will need some basic skills in evaluating tech websites. Forums are often filled with answers written in the same jargon the people are trying to escape from (and that’s not to mention the flame-baiting a-holes). This can be taught: scanning the Google results list for the domain name of the manufacturer is a big help. This requires recognizing what a domain name is. All worthwhile!

    There’s no question that learning to take control of a user interface is a crucial step for “learning for life.” Using a scenario that someone is struggling with right now seems key. Maybe you could survey your participants for their most-wanted list? Good luck, and keep us posted.

    • November 12, 2011 11:48 pm

      Love the idea about surveying the faculty to see what their current challenges are. Then I can turn those into scenarios to problem solve.

      • November 15, 2011 6:06 pm

        So here’s the link to the resources I ended up putting together. I ended up surveying the faculty for their lingering questions about their computers. The problem solving session went ok. Some people found easy solutions to their problems, and others found their problems were more complicated than they (or I) had thought. Overall, I’d say it went ok, but it definitely is not the magic recipe for getting users to understand that they can solve most of their own problems with technology.

        • November 15, 2011 9:34 pm

          Interesting — would love to know more sometime. What was your sense of the level of skill in the group? People with a wide range of skill levels will describe themselves as “not good with computers” so I’m curious about your take on that. For those who were not comfortable with poking around, how did they respond to the idea that it was helpful to poke around? What was it like for them to search forums (if they did)? I’ve sometimes wondered about offering a workshop like this (“How To Learn A New Software Program” or something like that) and I’m curious about how it was perceived by the participants.

  4. November 13, 2011 12:34 am

    “There is almost nothing you can do from the keyboard to harm or permanently damage your computer.”

    Ah, if only that were true. It took several days of debugging to get my son’s account working on our Mac again, after he did something seems innocuous: changed “Sharing and Permissions” on his home directory and did “apply to enclosed items”. He had done it, because he’d created a new crippled account for himself with parental controls that prohibited his favorite time wasters, but he wanted that account to have access to all his files on his regular account.

    We spent a lot of time trying to figure out why almost every application program was broken and how to fix it. just figuring out that it was changing the permissions on the home directory that broke everything took a while.

    It turns out that Apple did one of the worst possible implementations of Access Control Lists (ACLs), so that changing the permissions on your home directory messes everything up. The secret fix is to remove all the ACLs with
    chmod -R -N ~
    And you won’t find that advice from Apple, but from disgruntled users trying to figure out why their user-friendly Mac no longer does anything right.

    This is not a new Lion bug, but one that has been around for a while. I’m amazed that they have left something so damaging in the system for so long.

    • November 13, 2011 9:50 am

      You are right, but your son is also way more curious and willing to explore than the typical faculty member. I also operate with the assumption that we are getting faculty to back up regularly (which we mostly are) and if the problem can’t be fixed in a reasonable amount of IT time, the machine is simply re-imaged.

  5. November 13, 2011 7:17 am

    Resource material, courtesy of xkcd.

    • November 13, 2011 9:49 am

      I forgot about this excellent comic. I’m definitely going to use this. It’s perfect.

  6. November 14, 2011 12:57 pm

    I agree for the most part. I have certainly played around with applications. Having said that, not all learners are starting from the same place. There is a learning curve that is much bigger for some than for others. If you don’t know there are videos available, if you look and the info is not reliable, out of date or incorrect (like trying to delete AOL and Myspace- which I still have not managed to do- I have to contact AOL, I believe, and Myspace???). Some times just a push in the right direction can mean all the difference. As you did for me on the video taping my screen with Quicktime.
    has some good instructional videos.

  7. November 14, 2011 2:44 pm

    I think for many who feel they are outsiders or beginners with a tool or technology, they’re just uncomfortable with the whole concept. I think it’d be a good idea to be explicit with them that your goal for them is to become comfortable playing with tools they’re unfamiliar using- however I think many may just feel too much out of the comfort zone to jump right into that. I know I still have to consciously convince myself to click unknown buttons or try unknown things- and I’ve held “technology integration coach” positions myself.

    My preferred method for teaching teachers about technology is to make sure (1) there’s a decent chunk of time set aside to learn and play (even better if there are regular meetings spread out over several months), (2) spend very little time introducing tools- instead have teachers come with units, lessons, or projects they’d like to design or tweak, (3) work as a community to find the tools and resources they need to make they’re lesson or project exceptional.

  8. November 14, 2011 8:56 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Ben. Just like the students we need to work as a community. In groups we can learn together, share together and then come together with white boarding- share with a larger group what we learned.
    The time thing is important. It does take time, so does modeling. I vote for more time to collaborate and learn more technology and more days in school for students to develop their understanding of any subject.


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