The Right Question

As a Technology Integrator and Teacher, I constantly hear both students and teachers come to me with the statement: "IT won't let me _________ (fill in the blank with: open the application, type my password in, delete, quit, copy, paste, click, find my file, open my file, save my file, sync my file, make a good cup of coffee, etc., etc).

The "IT" of course stands for "That dang COMPUTER!" (or in the case of adults, sometimes, "That @%$!& COMPUTER!"). "IT" can get frustrating. Trust me: I know. (And by the way, I was joking about the "good cup of coffee" mentioned above; that usually has nothing to do with the Computer, but I hear teams of scientist are working on that problem even while I write this).

Here is the cold hard fact however, because, unlike Jack Nicholson, I believe you can handle the truth: It's not "IT;" it's You."

Really. Out of all the problems brought to me about the "IT," 9 out of 10 times it is the user's problem and not the Computer's (note: this number is in no way scientific, but trust me: it's close).

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying it's the user's fault. It's simply a case of not knowing the correct information... yet. But I do find it interesting that most of us will first blame the problem on the Computer before we blame it on our own lack of knowledge. This illustrates many issues that others may choose to parse, but I am most interested in this observation: many of us have yet to reach a relationship of trust with our Computers.

Yes, Computers fail us. Yes, Computers disappoint us. Yes, Computers betray us. And no, our Computers are not man's best friend (dogs will always be; apologies to cat-lovers). They don't love us or even like us, but they do offer us an indefatigable promise until their last bit of RAM comes crashing down: they can make work easier for us.

That's the whole point of Computers. They are there to take humongous, laborious, tedious tasks from us and serve up results in milliseconds that might take us all day (or even years) to do.

With this understanding, perhaps we should reshape our statements of distress from, "IT won't let me ________ (fill in blank)" to a question: "What do I need to know so that IT can make work easier for me?" With that simple rephrasing, we will not garner any more affection or favors from our Computers than already exist, but we will change our relationship with our machines from adversaries to comrades as we constantly rekindle the original purpose of alliance: that our work is supposed to get easier, not harder.

It's easy to blame an inanimate object because (usually) it won't complain, but I believe this impedes the path to resolution of the current problem that has us pulling our hair out, as well as all future frustrations with the machine. And so my fellow humans: ask not what your Computer can do for you; ask what you can do for your Computer.

And that question would be: "How can I control this fine machine to serve my needs to its best ability ---namely, to make my work easier?"

I fear that at this point in the conversation many readers are throwing their mice at their screens or preparing scathing retorts for the comments section below. Hold on! Before you damage your screens or waste your time writing epic comments that I might forget to read, hear me when I say, "I'm on YOUR side!" I understand; I've been there. There is no shame in using a Computer incorrectly if you've never learned a correct method or "trick" to using it properly. I myself spent the first five years of my formative computer years by putting two spaces rather than one after a period in a document until I was educated by reading Robin Williams' first edition of The Little Mac Book. To this day, I still see documents come my way with two spaces after periods, or without proper "tab stops," or with tabs for first lines of paragraphs rather than using the indent option on the "ruler. These are habits carried over from our typewriting days, and unfortunately, are being passed on to generations that have never even used a typewriter.

There's a simple rule to remember when using a Computer: if you're working too hard, then you're doing something incorrectly.

Just today, I had a friend that after years of typing in her personalized signature on every single email that she sent out from her business, decided that there must be an easier way and asked me to show her what the solution was (answer: setting up "signatures" in your email client). Initially, she expressed her embarrassment that she had been doing it the "hard way" for all these years. She professed her "weakness in technology" when she asked for support. But, the complete opposite is true: she herself had figured out the answer when she realized that she was working too hard and that there must be an easier way. In my view, this demonstrates proficiency in using technology. The next step is to ask, "What is the easier way?" and then simply find the correct resource that will deliver the answer (Google Search, the manual, the Help Menu, your brother-in-law-geek, etc.).

I recently used Lego Digital Designer to drive this idea home with my 4th graders. I use this application as a stepping stone to a more difficult piece of software (Scratch) in order to allow students to figure out an application completely without support from me. When they learn new things by playing with the program, then they come up to the overhead projector and share what they've learned with the rest of the class. Eventually, a student will figure out how to make a "Lego Man." This is a bit cumbersome as you need to put the head on, then the torso, then the legs. It's a lot of dragging and correcting to get things to line up.

The minute a student shows this, I butt in and ask, "Okay, now how would you make 5,000 Lego Men?" Students quickly realize it would be "crazy" to try and build each of the 5,000 Lego Men in the same way they built the orignal ---piece by piece. It would take forever. They immediately start problem solving with each other and realize that there must be an easier way! (FYI: there are many solutions to the problem, but most students start to use what they've already learned in other applications like "copy" and "paste").

When they start asking, "What is the easier way?" then they have reached symbiosis with a machine that has the express purpose of providing limitless answers to that question.


image credit: Horia Varlan