Teaching about technology and the trouble with our metaphorsPosted: 18 Mar 2013
I spend a lot of my time teaching basic technology workshops at my library. Many of the participants in these workshops have never had the opportunity to learn about computers or technology. For some, sitting down at one of our laptops may be the first time they have even touched a computer.
In my first workshop I always warn them away from frustration. Think of it, I say, like you’re learning a new language, which in many ways they are. This usually puts them at ease. When learning a new language there is never an expectation that the student start out at a certain level or with a basic understanding. If someone takes a beginning French class, no one is going to judge them for not knowing the meaning of merci. This starts to erase the stigma around technological illiteracy and relaxes the classroom. Things can progress (slowly!) from here.
However, there inevitably reaches a point where we get to the more abstract terms. Everyone has heard of the “cloud” but how can I explain it to someone with a very basic understanding of technology or the Internet? More importantly, how can I explain it without making them feel stupid? How can I explain it well?
My answer to those questions are as simple as they are obvious: First, with patience. Then, with repetition.
But sometimes it’s more complex than that. Here is where language comes back. Many of our terms – our metaphors – are so abstract that they are difficult to understand. Like the “cloud”. It’s a catchy term but it misses a lot and confuses our understanding. Emails are not floating around our atmosphere.
But confusing our understanding isn’t the most insidious thing that some of our metaphors do. Frank Chimero reminded me of this the other day. He says:
I think there’s a strong likelihood that metaphors like “The Cloud” and sayings like “It Just Works™” reduce a user’s appreciation of the software/hardware they are using. “Magic” is a great word for selling product, but it also can cheapen all the sweat it takes to get there. If the seams have been covered, you can’t admire how things connect.