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Tech Changes, but Teaching Doesn't

September 05, 2017

Even though it was published in the earliest days of the internet, this 1996 article about helping people learn to use computers still rings true.

Do you find yourself falling into any of these traps when you're teaching users about your systems? This was written at a time when people were logging onto the network using modems and operating systems that are primitive by today's standards, so obviously things are quite different now. In a lot of ways, things are better now. Twenty years ago, few people outside of IT knew much about computer basics or getting online:

Computer people are fine human beings, but they do a lot of harm in the ways they "help" other people with their computer problems. Now that we're trying to get everyone online, I thought it might be helpful to write down everything I've been taught about helping people use computers.

First you have to tell yourself some things:

Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
You've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner.
If it's not obvious to them, it's not obvious.

Have you forgotten what it's like to be a beginner? Most users today have literally grown up with computers, but that doesn't mean they really understand what goes on under the hood. Pretty much anyone under the age of 80 can get online--and quite a few octogenarians can, too! However, simple access to mobile devices and user-friendly operating systems doesn't make anyone a techie.

And don't ignore the learning curve for actual techies, either. Not all of us come from UNIX/Linux backgrounds and have spent decades working from a command line. You may be comfortable with AIX or the VIO server, but these environments can be intimidating to newbies:

Beginners face a language problem: they can't ask questions because they don't know what the words mean, they can't know what the words mean until they can successfully use the system, and they can't successfully use the system because they can't ask questions.

You are the voice of authority. Your words can wound.

Computers often present their users with textual messages, but the users often don't read them.
By the time they ask you for help, they've probably tried several things. As a result, their computer might be in a strange state. This is natural.

They might be afraid that you're going to blame them for the problem.

The best way to learn is through apprenticeship--that is, by doing some real task together with someone who has a different set of skills.

Your primary goal is not to solve their problem. Your primary goal is to help them become one notch more capable of solving their problem on their own. So it's okay if they take notes.

Personally, I love WebEx and other screen sharing technology. There's nothing better than getting on a shared screen session and a call and walking through an issue. There are multiple ways that I can coach them through it. They can just watch me, or even better, I can watch them figure it out for themselves:

Don't take the keyboard. Let them do all the typing, even if it's slower that way, and even if you have to point them to every key they need to type. That's the only way they're going to learn from the interaction.

Try not to ask yes-or-no questions. Nobody wants to look foolish, so their answer is likely to be a guess. "Did you attach to the file server?" will get you less information than "What did you do after you turned the computer on?"

Take a long-term view. Who do users in this community get help from? If you focus on building that person's skills, the skills will diffuse to everyone else.

Never do something for someone that they are capable of doing for themselves.

Take the time to read the whole thing. And if you like that, you may want to peruse this archive of articles on a variety of interesting topics that were published from 1994-1996.

It's interesting to see not only how technology has changed over time, but what hasn't changed. I can't help but wonder what it will be like 20 years from now. What will be different? What will be the same?

Posted September 05, 2017 | Permalink

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