I teach a course at Azusa Pacific University called Introduction to Music Technology. It’s a required course for all music majors; at some point, all of our students have to come sit in front of me for 15 weeks and struggle with the content of the course.
Some struggle more than others. With any subject matter, there are some students who, by virtue of intelligence, experience, or motivation, are better able to navigate the ideas and make them a useful part of their body of knowledge. There are others who struggle through the same content, and frequently either abandon the field of study, or scrape together just enough competence to pass, and then never use that knowledge again.
Reticent Technology Learners
With technology, there is a particular kind of student who struggles. I’ll call them “Reticent Technology Learners”. They might excel in other areas, be intelligent and curious students, but when it comes to the field of technology, they have real and persistent barriers to learning that prevent them from mastering the tools.
I’ve noticed some common characteristics that these students share. I’m listing them here for comment, for you to consider and refine. Reticent learners aren’t just in school, they’re all over the place – some of you probably work with them, or live with them, or you might be one (hey Bobby!). I’d love your feedback on this list, and your help in expanding it where appropriate.
Here are some common characteristics of Reticent Technology Learners (RTLs):
1. A belief that technology behaves differently based on the user.
“I already tried that! It works for you, it just won’t work for me.”
The RTL believes that the same steps will produce different results based on the person doing them. If they encounter a problem, and someone else is able to fix it, they identify the solution with the person, and not the steps taken. This might manifest in phrases like “I’m just not a computer person”, or “Technology doesn’t like me.”
2. Low tolerance for risk and experimentation
“I didn’t try it, because I didn’t know if it was ‘right’ or not.”
Suppose you are using a slide presentation program (like powerpoint, or keynote), and you want to insert a new slide. In the menu bar, you see an icon with an image of a slide and a large plus sign. Most users would try clicking the icon, on the assumption that it is probably going to do what they intend for it to do, add a slide. The RTL will not take that risk – if they aren’t sure that something is “right”, they will not experiment with it. This low tolerance for risk and experimentation means that all new learning for an RTL must be the direct result of specific training.
3. Task/Step organization of ideas
“To attach a file to an email, I do these 6 steps.”
An RTL approaches technology as a set of tasks, and each task consists of a set of steps which must be perfectly executed in order. The result is a lack of conceptual learning. They may learn to follow 6 specific steps for attaching a file to an email, but this doesn’t translate into understanding the concepts of file location or reference.
The obvious problem, then, is that each new task requires a total relearning of all the steps. The concept of file location and reference doesn’t carry over into the new task of adding a photo to a flickr uploading program, they have to relearn it as 4 new steps that are unrelated to the steps in the task of “attaching a file to an email.”
4. An exaggerated presumption of malicious or faulty technology
“Well, my computer must have a virus.”
The paucity of conceptual understanding for the RTL means that most of technology is a mystery to them. They have an exaggerated tendency to fill this gap in with malicious or faulty technology. They tend to see viruses, online security fraud, and malicious code everywhere. Any recurring problem with their computer is a “virus” or a “bug in the software.”
Any encounter with actual malicious or faulty code reinforces this perception, while any solution to a problem that does not rely on fixing bugs or removing malicious code is seen as the exception.
5. A perceived fragility to technology
“I didn’t install the updates because I didn’t want to crash my computer.”
Many RTLs have reached a kind of antagonistic truce with the technology they’re forced to work with – they reach a point where they can be minimally functional with it, and they perceive this state of functionality as tenuous and fragile. They are unwilling to risk upsetting this delicate balance by installing security updates, upgrading software, or removing unneeded accessories.
6. A generally pessimistic expectation toward technology
This is no surprise, given the other 5 characteristics, but many RTLs have developed a pessimistic expectation toward technology; they don’t expect it to work, and when it does work they don’t expect it to be useful. As a result, they will usually choose the non-technical solution to a problem, even in situations where there is a clear advantage to the technical solution.
In developing this list, with some input from Gretchen, Stick, and June, some additional questions kept popping up.
Do RTLs have these same characteristics in other learning environments (learning to drive, learning a new language, etc.)?
There is a perception that age might be an indicator of RTL tendencies, but I’m wondering if it’s really age, or if it’s better to think of it in terms of familiarity with technology?
And finally, and I think most importantly, are there concrete training tools that can transform an RTL into an avid learner, willing to take risks and able to learn conceptually about technology? I think there are, and if that’s true, it has significance for how I structure my class.