I’ve heard a number of baby-boomers mention how difficult it is to learn technology. They look at the younger generations, and seeing how familiar they are with new technology, they decide they must be wired differently. “It’s easy for kids because they’re born with the chip,” I’ve heard them say.
Being a member of this younger generation, I’ve had a lot of experience with technology; I’ve built computers, written software, and spent the past year working on the Support team at Subsplash (which means I answer lots of tech questions). I’m also aspiring to be a university physics teacher someday, so I eagerly look for better ways to explain difficult concepts, whether they’re in physics, technology, or elsewhere.
I recently read an article by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in which he outlined what he considered to be the main difficulties students have in learning math. As I read, I noticed some interesting parallels between people I know who have difficulties with technology. He noticed three main difficulties. First, students are led to believe there is only one right way to get to an answer—any other method they employ is wrong and will result in a bad grade, even if they get the right answer. Feynman strongly argues against such formalism as it reduces the student’s ability to explore, learn, and enjoy the subject. Second, he notes that much difficulty arises in learning complex terminology when simpler and more accessible words could be used—and indeed, such simpler words are used by engineers and physicists alike. It was only the math books that used this terminology. Third, he insisted that students need to know the purpose and reason behind what they’re doing. Unless they can see the purpose behind it, or see some way in which it might be applicable, the method is irrelevant.
To parallel Dr. Feynman’s outline, I will address three main reasons why I think people have difficulty learning technology.
1. Fear of doing it the wrong way
I often notice that those who struggle with technology become paralyzed or held-back by a fear of doing something the wrong way, whereas tech-savvy people expect to make mistakes and hit dead-ends—but they know everything will be OK and they will quickly find the right way to do a particular task. To them, learning new technology is like solving a maze. They often hit dead-ends, but are successful because they are quick to recover and try other approaches. (I confess, I don’t know the answer to many questions people ask me, but I know how to find the answer fast, and I expect to hit several dead-ends along the way). As a side note, Feynman exemplified that successful theoretical physicists have a similar experience.
Of course, there are certain limitations; a cell phone is not capable of launching itself on a path to Mars and landing gingerly on the surface. Successful users of technology come to understand the limitations of their platform and play hard within the boundaries.
-Backup your computer and give yourself freedom to make mistakes.
-Don’t be afraid of going down the wrong path. Become an explorer.
-Try to understand the limitations of your platform.
2. Learning the lingo
Techno-babble is a headache for many people trying to learn technology. At some point during your journey in Rome, you must do as the Romans do. But to a large degree, it is the software designer’s responsibility to make terminology accessible. Apple has done a great job with this on their iPhone platform. And here at Subsplash, we are striving to make our lingo accessible and accurate for our users; we recently revamped our app building system with this goal in mind, and the results are rewarding for both our users and our team!
On the user’s side of things, the most helpful thing to do is learn the most important and most common words first so you can communicate with others, whether they’re people on your own team or your friendly Support Team.
-For common terms, a quick internet search is often the best remedy.
-For more local terms, like terms we’ve created here at Subsplash, you’ll likely be provided with a decent Support Page or list of Frequently Asked Questions.
-Beyond that, I strongly recommend using word-association. (I had a high-school Spanish teacher who taught us “yo soy” by having us toss a container of soy sauce to one another. Lesson learned: toss soy sauce at your own risk and bring a change of clothes.)
3. Understanding the reason and purpose of the technology
Tech and software designers have a large problem to address: they have a list of features their users want, and many possible ways of incorporating those features into the user experience. They hope to anticipate how their product’s users will think and what they'll expect, but they don’t always get it right. (I’m staring at you, Windows XP balloon tips.)
Being able to understand where developers are coming from is tremendously helpful in learning new technology. Take a cell phone for instance. The feature which lets me connect to a WiFi network is probably more important than the ability to change the background image on my phone. I can expect to find it in a more prominent place in the phone’s settings. I can also assume that any nice developer wouldn’t bury my phone’s settings more than one touch away from my phone’s main screen, so I know to look there first.
It’s always a great pleasure for us to hear from our users that our system is so intuitive—another way to say that is that they can guess where a feature should be, and they’re usually right. It can also mean that they’ve really come to understand what’s important to us, and what main features our system was built around. The more they understand our goals, the easier they will navigate our platform.
-When using a piece of technology, try to discover the developer’s main goals.
-Try to think about where you would put those features if you were the designer. How might you break features down into categories?
-Realize that there is often more than one logical place to put a feature. The feature may not appear where you most expect it, but it will likely be where someone should expect it.
1, 2, 3 Go!
By now, we hope you're eager to get out there and explore both technology and mathematics. But if you wrestle with technology and only take one thing away, take away the mentality of becoming an explorer of technology. Wander through all the options on your phone. Right-click different things and discover what quick-access features you have at your fingertips. Learn to put a little trust in the developers and try to look for a feature where you expect it to be. Learn to explore on your own and find comfort in the fact that many tech-savvy people are fellow-explorers; they didn’t have their knowledge downloaded into a chip in their brain. They discovered how to do things by trial and error—sometimes lots of error. Don’t give up, and you’ll soon discover the joy of this gift we call technology.