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September 7, 2007 / Ben Chun

Non-Robust Users

For being the “digital natives” or whatever, many of my students are incredibly non-robust when it comes actually getting around on the web and their computers. Some students will take ten times longer to do an assignment than others because of some fiddly thing. In the end, I’m left wondering how you teach these tiny, seemingly discrete bits of knowledge that add up to an understanding of how to get things done on a computer. Here’s some things that take up a ton of time or make students’ lives (and mine) way more difficult:

  • Trying to log in to a Google account with a Yahoo email address (which works fine) but forgetting to put the
  • Repeatedly forgetting the password to an email account
  • Because of forgotten passwords, creating a new email address for each assignment and then never checking it again
  • Not understanding the idea of a “verification message” being sent to their email account
  • Not reading anything that looks like an error message, but just clicking whatever link or button is most prominent
  • Major difficulty understanding the concept of “sharing” versus “sending” a document
  • Not realizing they can close the “explorer bar” that takes up half of the left side of their browser
  • Never checking the “don’t show me this anymore” box in the annoying IE dialog boxes
  • Not knowing the difference between the address bar and a Google search box

Each of these reveals a possible deeper misunderstanding about how computers and the internets actually work. In many of these cases, I’m torn between trying to teach them some semantic or technical detail, versus just trusting that they will figure it out. Not only will they naturally gain skills as necessary, but the technology will continue to adapt to what the majority of users can understand and deal with. In this constantly-shifting landscape, it’s difficult to decide what’s important enough to make into an entire lesson. Thoughts?



Leave a Comment
  1. Lukas / Sep 9 2007 2:45 pm

    The fact that your students all know about suggests that they can learn relatively non-intuitive technical concepts if they’re motivated to do so. Do your students use social networks? That would get them used to remembering passwords.

    I guess I’m positing that the first question to ask is not “how can I get them to learn what I want” but “how can computers help them do things they want to do”. The initial goals would have to be really compelling, like making friends and attracting potential romantic interests. As they become more comfortable with computers those goals can become increasingly far afield.

  2. Ben Chun / Sep 9 2007 10:12 pm

    I suppose the symptoms all reduce to the problem that, often, academic achievement does not fall into the “really compelling” category. But it’s weird to me that anyone would put up with an annoying box taking up a bunch of the screen, or repeated warning dialog boxes that they continually have to click away. Do they not care because it’s “just school” or do they not know it’s possible to actually have control over the browser interface? I guess I ought to ask directly next time I notice it.

    I trust that student are already using computers the way they want to based on what they know — my job is to help them push those boundaries and develop some new skills and acquire some new knowledge. User behaviors are definitely one factor going in to the process of deciding which skills and knowledge I want to emphasize. Their interests are certainly another, and I feel like I can often use relevant content to teach the skills I want them to learn. For example, last week I had the 10th grade class building PowerPoints about their favorite bands. I required them to use slide layouts and learn how to do custom animations, but they were so into creating a presentation about their favorite band that they didn’t seem to mind gaining some extra skills along the way.

  3. Lukas / Sep 10 2007 11:13 am

    I trust that student are already using computers the way they want to based on what they know

    Yeah, makes sense. To your original question about how to overcome the barriers posed by students’ not knowing or caring about certain techniques web developers take for granted … I don’t know, but I have one really wacky idea.

    Personally, I never really feel like I understand something until I can build it. Would it be possible to have a class devoted to having the students design a really basic web app? You could either build it in Ning in real time or (more likely) draw a flowchart on the board. That might be an interesting way to introduce concepts like confirmation emails: “ok, so now people can create a page. how do you stop people from creating fake pages? how can you make sure they are who they say they are?”

    Then you put a prototype together based on the flowchart for them to play with (or I’m sure you could get a friend to do it for the price of a six-pack.)

    Probably impractical in this form, but maybe the core idea sparks something somewhere else…it would be cool to de-mystify app creation somewhat.

  4. orange / Sep 13 2007 2:40 pm

    what about having a lesson or two in which you talk about the general topic of time-efficiency in relation to computers. ask the class for examples of things that they’ve done to simplify their use of computers at home; ask them what bugs them and how they’ve made shortcuts; and then build on that with some of the things that you’re specifically concerned about.

    maybe even pair kids up to do a show-and-tell about how they use google or gmail or such–everyone’s got a slightly different way of doing things, and everyone finds different shortcuts as they learn how to use programs.

    having a lessonplan that stresses the idea that it’s possible to save a bunch of time and make things easier for yourself will hopefully get kids thinking about the applicability of that subject in their own lives.

    my suggestions aren’t quite as relevant for the passwords issue. that’s a quandary that i’ve heard danah discuss too, and i think she’s got some posts on it. seems to me like password management by itself might be an important enough topic to tackle on its own–part of a security-on-the-web lesson?

  5. amy.leblanc / Sep 24 2007 4:31 pm

    when you get done teaching all of these things, could you compile them so i can give it to my boss?

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