Friday, July 11, 2014

How to Be Good with Tech - Part 1

Photo from Kevin Jarrett from Flickr -
I’ve been working with computers for over 30 years. I have also worked with teachers and students as an instructional tech coordinator for the past six years. Helping them use more technology (and working with some who resist) has driven home one point time and time again:

Being “good with tech” is largely a way of thinking.

There’s no magic involved. I'd even argue there aren't hours of training sessions involved. Instead there are mindsets and resulting practices that make it easier for some to pick up the new tools. In other words, these are things anyone can learn and improved tech skills will be the result.

So in this series I will point out a few myths the tech challenged believe that hold them back. I’ll also explain some approaches the rest of us use that give us an advantage in keeping up with the never-ending stream of new.

Since I work in education, I’m often thinking of the teachers and students I encounter there, struggling or resisting to use more technology for learning or sharing ideas. Beyond that, though, I’m writing to anyone who finds digital tools to be an obstacle, but knows the tools can help them accomplish more of what they want to.

If you read through this article and, at any point, can't accept what I'm saying, please leave me a comment or send me an email. I hope to use any feedback to improve this series.

And for now, I will start by tackling the biggest myth of all:

Myth #1: Technology is hard to learn.

I start with this myth because:
  • For as often as I hear it and the thoughts resulting from it, I don’t believe it for a second.
  • Believing it leads directly to some of the other inaccurate thinking I’ll address later in the series.
When a new tool comes along, maybe you fall victim to a very real fear because of this myth. It’s hard to learn and no one wants to look dumb, right?

And of course many have discovered this view of technology makes an easy excuse to avoid the necessary work of learning or using something new. A good share of the population heartily agrees that computers and all those gadgets take more effort to learn than they’re worth. Point out just one instance when time was lost, more problems arose or someone was frustrated by a new tool and nearly everyone in the room agrees: There’s no time for learning that complicated stuff. Back to the old way!

Regardless of why you’ve held to this notion, until you get past the false perception of how hard it is to use technology, you’ll always see yourself in the ungifted group. You’ll keep waiting for some convenient time when you have days to learn and nothing else to do. In other words, you’ll never start.

I hope by the end of this article you'll be open to this simple fact: Learning to use technology effectively is not as hard as you think.

A simple first step

So let’s start with an exercise. Next time you’re amazed when you see a person (maybe even a child) do something impressive with a new tech tool, don’t immediately attribute it to a gift you'll never possess. Instead, be open to the possibility that digital tools are simpler than they used to be.

I feel like I’m giving away a secret here. I like to appear really smart when I help teachers with new programs. I love it when I’m the hero that bailed out the teacher in front of the whole class. (Early elementary students will break into applause for these feats. It feels amazing.)

But I’m just trying to be honest. Instead of new tools confounding me now and then, I am regularly amazed at how much simpler they are.

Yes, I remember how long it took me to hook up a new printer or connect to a new internet service years ago. New software was hard to configure, and that was if I managed to install it correctly.

I understand that many adults of a certain age had years of those experiences (or maybe, years of witnessing others going nuts with those experiences). This formed the idea that technology is hard to use. 

Now, relatively speaking, that’s simply not true.

Photo from Brad Flickinger on Flickr -
Think about this for a minute. I mean no disrespect to your kids or grand kids, but isn’t it possible that all those young people who quickly learn to work the new gadgets simply don’t hold this myth in their minds? They come at the new stuff thinking it’s meant to be intuitive and work effectively. They act accordingly and success is the result.

Technology is wildly popular and used throughout our society now not because the younger generation is so much smarter. It's largely because the tools are easier to use. Nowadays if a new tool is hard to use, you’ll never see it survive the market long enough to reach the masses.

But what about...

Before you hit me up with recent horror stories of incompatible software destroying your meeting or network failures that brought the office to a standstill, please keep a few things in mind.

First, I’m talking about technology that’s working as intended. Realistically speaking, that happens the vast majority of the time. Organizations dealing in a day with hundreds of times more money than you and I make in a decade trust their fortunes to this fact. It doesn't let them down in any significant way.

I’m also talking about average use. The amazing wizardry we see from people who live in front of their computers, have budgets for the what’s beyond the cutting edge and who work in specialized fields is difficult to replicate. That's why they are paid good money to do it.

But I’m taking about common tools that allow normal people to achieve more than they do without them. And that's an important goal I'm glad to help people move toward.

And if you’re still doubtful, I’m not saying the skills are so simple that no brains or effort is required. My later articles in this series will address what and how much is required to become competent.

Examples of positive change

To get specific, here are a few ways I regularly notice the tools have become easier over the years:
  • Language in the apps is far less technical than it used to be. Menus, buttons and even error messages use common words instead of all the specialized terminology we used to see.
  • Help features of programs are written better and many are making excellent use of video to explain exactly what you need to know. I’m very impressed with the quality of virtual training involved in much of the new software I encounter.
  • Apps only do a few things, so options are limited. It used to be software companies boasted of all the things their programs could do. I guess the goal was to make tools like Word, Publisher or PowerPoint so flexible they could be used to turn out many different types of content. That made software complicated, with features buried in menus requiring many steps. Now apps are specialized. You find out what you need to do, look up the best app for it and it does just that with a few taps.
  • There is more consistency across tools. Yes, we still have the PC versus Mac and iOS versus Android divides, but overall similar icons and terms appear across many common programs. Once you realize this, it won’t look so mystical when your teen figures out your new iPad app within seconds of opening it. 
  • If common problems and questions weren’t addressed in the Help features of the software, they are only a web search away. Anyone who works regularly with technology will tell you the power of a simple Google search when it comes to using a tricky feature of a new program.
  • You can hook up most new hardware by plugging in a cable. Sometimes you have to download a driver first, but do I even have to give examples of how difficult this used to be? I am continually grateful for these improvements.

I’m not expecting now that you'll sit at a computer and churn out an amazingly easy, yet visually stunning video to upload to YouTube. I’m just hoping when the next person bails you out a tech bind you won’t immediately attribute success to his or her mad skills. Instead, think...

Maybe the tools are easier now. Maybe I could learn to do that too.

Try thinking that way for a few days. Once you’re open to that possibility, you’ll be ready to take the steps I’ll address in part 2.

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