Risk vs Reward – Lessons from the Road

Open road

I spent a few hours this afternoon driving the nearly 200km from Sydney to Bathurst for a day of work in a Bathurst school tomorrow. As I crossed the Blue Mountains and went past Lithgow, the roads open up a little and there are longer, straighter faster stretches of road. On one particularly long straight stretch of road I noticed that my steering wheel hung ever so slightly to the right even though I was driving in a straight line. It wasn’t enough to really bother me, but I started to wonder why it was like that and what it would take to fix it so the steering wheel was perfectly neutral while driving in a straight line. I’m sure the reason had something to do with the camber of the road, and I realised that I do in fact have some level of understanding of how a vehicle’s steering system works. How did I know this? As I pondered the question I remembered back to my very first car and how I had – on several occasions – pulled the steering wheel off and put it back on again.

VW Type 3You might be wondering what caused me to remove and replace the steering wheel on my car.  I mean, who does that? As I tried to remember the reason for why I would be disassembling parts of my car, it dawned on me that I used to take that old 1970 Volkswagen Type III apart and put it back to together again not because there was anything wrong with it, but simply because I could. Yes, I used to pull things apart on that car and put them back together again just for the fun of it and to try to understand how things worked.

There were many times where I pulled my VW apart and couldn’t figure out how to put it back together, and it was off the road for a few days until I could work it out. Back then, that didn’t seem like a big deal. And the value in learning how my car worked seemed a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having it off the road temporarily.  Since the VW I’ve had several other cars that I’ve been quite willing to pull apart and try to put back together, simply because I wanted to know how they worked. Engines, gearboxes, diffs… I’ve had all these things in pieces just because I was curious about what was inside and how things worked.

As I drove along in my current car, a 2015 Mitsubishi ASX, I pondered the prospect of pulling the steering wheel off and putting it back on again, adjusting it by one spline and wondering if that might fix my steering wheel’s droop to the right. As I thought about doing this, I realised that I honestly wouldn’t attempt it on the Mitsubishi, not only because it was probably way more complex than my old VW, but it was more likely to be an expensive repair if I messed it up.  Could I work out how to remove and replace the steering wheel on my current car? Sure. But would I? Nah, probably not.

And I got to thinking about why that is. I’m still a curious person and I still like to know how things work. But the idea of taking my 2015 ASX apart and putting it back together again – for fun – is just not something I’d consider, even though I’ve done it to several of the cars I’ve owned over the years.

What was different? As I thought about this, I wondered if it was the fact that the newer and more expensive the car, the less inclined I would be to tinker with it just for fun. My ASX cost about $26,000. My first VW cost $800.  There was a lot less to lose with the VW if I got it wrong.

This got me thinking about the learning process and about the balance between risk and reward. Unless you are prepared to take the risk of breaking something, you’re probably not going to reap the reward of learning. I don’t really know exactly how the steering wheel on my ASX works because I’ve not attempted to pull it apart, and so I will probably remain fairly ignorant of its inner workings. That’s just a risk vs reward situation I’m going to accept for now. This car is simply too expensive if I fuck it up.

As a teacher, over the years I’ve done a lot of great projects with kids. Some have been amazingly successful and have dramatically changed the way I think about the teaching and learning process. And some have been total disasters. But the value for me as a teacher – as a teacher who wants to continually be getting better at what I do – comes from being willing to take that risk that even if things don’t work out, the value of what I learn from trying makes it worthwhile anyway.

For several years I worked in a fancy high-falutin private school. I won’t say that I was being completely risk averse during my time there, but I also don’t think I took as many big gambles and tried as many radical things as I once would have, simply because the stakes were a little higher if I happened to mess it up. This school had a reputation to protect, demanding parents to keep happy, and there were more policy-driven hoops to jump through to really try outrageous ideas. By contrast, I’ve worked in several schools that had far less to lose, and in those schools it was always much easier to try new ideas because it didn’t matter so much whether they worked or not. Most of the best innovation seems to come from situations where failing is most definitely an option.

It’s nice to be well resourced and have great facilities. But you can do an awful lot of great stuff in a school with very limited resources. You don’t need a lot of money or resources or fancy facilities to be innovative and try new ideas. You just need to be willing to try stuff, and to not worry about whether it works or not.

The other things that struck me as I thought about this idea is that some of the cheapest, shittiest cars I’ve ever owned – the ones I had no issue pulling apart and tinkering with – are the ones that gave me the fondest memories and the deepest emotional attachment. The last few cars I’ve owned have been brand new, reasonably expensive, “nice” cars, but I have very little emotional attachment to them at all. They are just transport. Yes they are comfortable, reliable and pleasant to drive, but that’s about it. The cars I’ve loved owning the most over the years were mostly second-hand, cheap, with lots of quirky flaws yet I look back at the experiences they gave me with such great memories and the knowledge that they even shaped me as a person.  I see some parallels with the classroom there too.

Sometimes you can put that steering wheel back after you pull it apart, and sometimes you can’t. The point is not that everything you do needs to work. The real point is that everything you do should be an opportunity to be a better learner.

The Power Of Spreadsheets

I had a knock on our front door a few weeks ago. It was a young English guy going door to door for an electricity retailer, trying to get me to switch my power company.  As it turns out, it was his first day so he didn’t really know a lot about what he was selling and couldn’t answer many of my questions in detail. To be fair, I can be a bit analytical about these things and I don’t think he was prepared for so many questions. His spiel was basically “You should switch to us because we are better”, but when I asked about the rates they charge, all he could respond with was “We have really good rates”.

If you ever come knocking on my door, whether you’re trying to get me to switch energy companies, or convince me that Jesus loves me, you better be prepared to engage. I ask lots of questions. You better have answers.

So I grabbed my most recent power bill, and asked him exactly what their rates were per KWh. He had never heard of a Time Of Use meter (TOU), which our house uses, so I had to explain the concepts of Peak, Shoulder and Off Peak rates to him. As we compared the rates, we both learned that his company’s “really good rates” were not quite as good as he had been led to believe.  Compared to what we were currently paying, they were slightly cheaper for Peak and Shoulder, and quite a bit more for Off Peak.  It was an interesting discussion and I told him I would take the data he provided and think about it.

When I think about data, I do it with a spreadsheet. I often amazes me how few people really understand the power of a spreadsheet to analyse numbers. Even with just a few simple formulas, it’s possible to dig into numbers and see what they really represent.  Especially with consumer level data – like knowing how much things really cost – it astounds me that more people don’t know how to make sense of the numbers for their basic expenses.

So I knocked up a spreadsheet in Google Sheets. I transferred the KWh usage from my last power bill onto the sheet (which was a little tricky as there was a rate change part way through the quarter, so I had to calculate the different rate amounts and add them together for the total) but in the end was able to correctly derive the exact same $429 figure as I actually paid. Just that part of the exercise was useful as it helped me understand exactly how my power bill was calculated. (Do you understand how yours is calculated?) I then projected the amount of my next quarterly power bill – $529 – assuming the usage was the same, but with the latest rates.

Then I copied the usage data and plugged in the KWh rates being quoted to me by my door knocking friend. His company was offering a 15% pay-on-time discount on the bill (but only on the actual power usage, not the supply charge, as I found out later by reading the fine print). As it turns out, his company – Simply Energy – was indeed cheaper than my current provider, coming in at $439 for the same usage and a saving of $89.88. Not bad.

But wait, it got me thinking. Could I do even better? A quick internet search turned up a power provider called Red Energy. Red Energy was highly recommended by Canstar, so I found their rates and plugged them into my spreadsheet. Their KWh rates were cheaper, however they only offered a 10% pay-on-time discount, but it was on the whole bill not just the consumption component.  Can you see why you really need a spreadsheet to analyse this data if you want to make any informed decisions? I’m sure that companies deliberately calculate their charges using different formulas to their competition, just to make it harder for consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons. Thank goodness for spreadsheets and knowing how to use them.

Red Energy was not actually the cheapest option, but they were close enough and the one I felt best about as they are a 100% Australian owned company. So I called them, and made the switch.

And then the fun started. Yesterday I got a call from Energy Australia, my current power provider, telling me what a valued customer I am and how much they wanted to keep my business. So much so that they offered an ongoing 26% (!) pay-on-time discount on my power bill. While that certainly sounded like an attractive deal, their actual rates were still higher, so how can you tell?  Yes, with a spreadsheet.

As the Energy Australia rep was wooing me with enticing offers I was able to say “Hang on, I have a spreadsheet!”  I quickly entered their data into the sheet and was now discussing the options knowing exactly what I was talking about. Having data is powerful.  Turns out it was a good deal, so I decided to remain with my original provider (although I was a little bit annoyed that you need to threaten to leave them before they suddenly discovered they can offer me a discount!)

Now I had to call Red Energy and tell them I was cancelling the switch. But, surprise surprise, Red has a customer retention department as well and they didn’t want to lose me as a potential new customer either. So they upped the ante to a 12% pay-on-time discount AND a $100 rebate on my next bill. Into the spreadsheet that new data went. And it turns out that when you take all of that into account, Red wins – by $6.34 annually.  So I decided to stick with my decision to switch after all.

You can check out the spreadsheet I made here if you are interested.

I think there are a couple of lessons here…

  1. If you want to be a canny consumer, you need to have the facts. Many companies give you information that is confusing, incomplete or just misleading. Take the time to analyse the data for yourself so you know the reality of their claims.
  2. If you want to save money on basic bills, then leave your current provider (or at least threaten to). Switching your power, phone, gas, or other service to a competitor is likely to get their customer retention department calling with a much sweeter deal than you currently get.
  3. Learn to use a spreadsheet! They are a simple tool, but oh so powerful. I can tell you, at least anecdotally, that most people I meet have absolutely no idea how to use one. Don’t be one of those people.
  4. If buying locally matters to you at all, do some research. Turns out that Energy Australia, despite the name, is a wholly owned Hong Kong company. Red is 100% Australian owned by the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Foreign ownership of Australian companies is an interesting can of worms.

Here the educational part of this blog post…

As a teacher, I see this kind of thing as a brilliant activity for students. What if you gave your learners the basic skills of calculating numbers with a spreadsheet, and then a bunch of different rates from different competing companies and simply asked “Who is offering the best deal?”  This process usually raises lots and lots of questions, and will certainly make them better consumers, better at understanding data, and better users of spreadsheets.

For an example of the kinds of ways you can take this convoluted consumer experience and turn it into a reasonably useful learning task for students, the links below are from a task I have used with my Year 11 students looking into how to figure out the best mobile phone plan. As you will see from looking at the task, it tried to take account of the complexities of the word “best” by introducing a user-centric approach (best for who?) and encouraging them to really dig into the information being provided to make sense of it. I’ve also included a grading rubric to give you an idea of how I graded this task.

A Bicycle for the Mind

I’ve been doing some work recently with a school that’s using iPads with their kids, and was asked to give a talk on the topic “The place of iPads in teaching and learning”. This post is just a bit of thinking out loud about that question.

Let me start by saying that I think the iPad is an amazing piece of technology. I dispute the common claim about iPads just being “consumption devices”. That’s a load of nonsense. Used wisely, iPads open up incredible opportunities for creativity. This point was driven home during my recent 365 project, The Daily Create, where I made a creative “thing” every day during 2014. Although this project wasn’t specifically based on using an iPad, the truth is that at least 80% of what I came up with over the course of the year was made on an iPad. Whether it was photo editing, making graphics, editing movies, composing music, building animations and 3D objects, or even just writing, the iPad was a perfectly credible tool for creation. And of course the actual management of the Daily Create project via a blog was mostly also all done on the iPad. So I know that the iPad can help people do amazing things.

Of course, that’s not to say it’s not also a great consumption device. For reading eBooks, watching videos, listening to podcasts or music, browsing the web, playing games and so on, the iPad is a convenient, intuitive easy-to-use device that, for the most part, “just works”.

So yes, I like the iPad. But just because you can do certain things on a device does not necessarily mean it’s the best device to be doing them on. So the iPad, as a tool, needs to be kept in that perspective. While it’s capable of most things, it’s great at some and not so good at others.

For example, I’m typing this post on a Chromebook. Why not an iPad? Well, as much as I like iPads, I prefer the writing and editing experience on a device with a real keyboard. I like the extra screen area, the ergonomics of sitting it comfortably on my lap, and having a physical non-modal keyboard.  Could I type a piece of writing like this on an iPad? Sure I could (and have), but if given a choice I prefer to pick the tool that works best for me for that given task.

This is one of the reasons my school has gone down the path of having a combination of both iPads and Chromebooks. There are times when one is simply a better option than the other. They both have such unique strengths, and to exclusively choose one over the other tends to just highlights the weaknesses of each. That said, if you only have a choice of one or the other, either will be perfectly fine.

So back to the original question… “what is the place of iPads in teaching and learning?” It’s a loaded question really, because it begs the bigger question, “what is the place of technology in general in teaching and learning”. And to take it a step further, I think you should probably be asking the much bigger question “what is the point of teaching and learning anyway?” Thinking about the place that a particular technology might have in the teaching and learning process first requires you to think about what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.

Figuring out the place of iPads in teaching and learning should be pretty obvious once you know what you want teaching and learning to look like to start with. If you’re clear on the big idea of why, then seeing how is easy. You simply ask yourself whether this technology is helping you get closer to your goal or not. If it is, it has a place. It it doesn’t, then maybe not.

The school that asked me this question seems to have a pretty clear educational direction for what they are trying to achieve, and how they believe the teaching and learning process should look.

For a start, they want their learning to be transdisciplinary. The transdisciplinary model for teaching and learning is highly inquiry based and values collaboration, teamwork, curiosity and interconnectedness. It’s more than just thinking about a topic from different perspectives (that’s multidisciplinary) or by thinking about a topic by combining different subjects together like maths and science (that’s interdisciplinary). The idea of making the learning transdisciplinary involves bringing together multiple subject areas in such a way that the learning transcends the curriculum and becomes more than just the sum of its parts. If you’re a PYP school this should all sound quite familiar as it forms the foundation of that program. By taking a transdisciplinary approach the aim is to bring a more authentic, open-ended, personalised, contextual learning experience to each student.

Threaded through this core model for learning is a highly inquiry-based approach, a strong belief in differentiation according to student needs, flexible learning paths, and a fundamental goal for students to build their own learning through a Constructivist approach.

Would an iPad help support that kind of learning? Yeah, I think it would.

Steve Jobs once described computers as a “bicycle for the mind”, a metaphor borrowed from a study on locomotive efficiency in animals. Apparently for humans, walking is incredibly inefficient. Other animals can travel much further with far less energy. Steve observed how humbling it was for humans to be placed so far down the efficiency scale compared to other animals. However, he observed, if you allow a human to use a bicycle they become the animal with the most efficient form of locomotion of all. The larger point is that the right tool can make a big difference to what we are capable of.

Being given an opportunity to learn on your own terms, in ways that make sense to you, about things that interest you the most, forms the foundation of great learning. But without an effective tool to help, you’ll be like a human without a bicycle. You’ll probably get there, but it will take so much more work than it should.

So all of that pondering just leads me to my main idea, that giving a student an iPad (or any other piece of technology that helps them think more efficiently) can be a powerful thing. I think we intuitively know that, but it sometimes helps to step back and think about why we know it. And I think the “bicycle for the mind” idea is a pretty decent metaphor for why technology in the classroom can help support the kind of learning that we want. It can helps reduce the friction in curiosity, wonder, creativity and inquiry, and makes that process more efficient.

On the most basic level, having a device in the hands of a student that places them one click away of the sum of all human knowledge is in itself a pretty amazing advantage. (and one that no generation before them has ever had, by the way). We talk a lot about these devices helping students “connect, collaborate and communicate” so the simple idea of just being able to “look stuff up on the Internet” may not sound very impressive. But even though this might not be the wow factor that makes these devices “revolutionary and magical”, it’s still a pretty useful thing! To be able to look up a word, find a definition, peruse a map, verify a fact, ask a question or see a picture of something – instantly – is amazing. Don’t underestimate the power of that!

If you’re running a classroom based on an inquiry model, the iPad truly can act as that “bicycle for the mind” machine that helps a curious kid instantly connect to any fact or statistic they need to keep inquiring. iPads are transdisciplinary in the sense that they don’t silo information into arbitrary subjects. A query is a query. Curiosity does not have to limit itself to whether something is “science” or “maths” or “art”. Picking up an iPad and asking “OK Google, what type of lettuce is used in a Caesar salad?” and finding out that it is Romaine lettuce, and then wondering why it was named Caesar salad, or where it was invented, or whether it’s less fattening than a regular salad, or how you make a crouton, or the million and one other questions that might spring to mind as your questions cascade from one to the next… that’s just one small reason why technology makes sense in an inquiry based classroom.

Of course it’s much more than that though. You can wonder something, learn about it, and respond to it by making something with that information. It can be the tool by which a student can respond to their own curiosity. An iPad is amazing because it is a not one thing. It’s a notebook, a camera, a recording studio, a stopwatch, an atlas, a sketchbook, an editing suite, a music synthesizer, an artroom. It lets you compose, create and explore ideas. It’s screen instantly changes to become whatever tool you need it to be. There is really nothing else like it in that respect.

Using an iPad you can publish a short story, compose a soundtrack or produce a film clip. You can build a 3D model of a house, record a timelapse of a science experiment, or add augmented reality to a poster. There are literally millions of apps in the App Store so whatever you might want to do, you can almost guarantee “there’s an app for that”.

Finally the iPad is an incredible tool for communicating and collaborating, from having access to email, to messaging, to videoconferencing, to cloud computing. The world truly can be your oyster. You can collaborate with amazing cloud-based tools that let students form crosscultural, transdisciplinary teams to work on projects that are authentic, meaningful and real.

Of course, in reality none of this is terribly new. In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published a paper titled “20 Things to do with a Computer” in which their key assertion was that computers are capable of doing so much more if we allow them to be used creatively, and that the real reason to introduce computers into schools is to empower students. If a computer (or an iPad) is not being used to give agency to student learning then we have missed the whole point of having them.

Introducing computers (or iPads) into classrooms is not about better forms of testing students or NAPLAN preparation or math drills. It’s not about data management, not about saving money, not about impressing parents and not about keeping up with the school down the road. It’s about giving students agency and independence to take control of their own learning. And with that simple goal usually comes a whole lot of change. Sometimes quite painful change, but change that has to happen.

Adding technology to a classroom without reimagining how that classroom works, and rethinking what your students can do because of that technology, is a waste of time and money. Providing technology to students gives them an opportunity to do not just the same old things they’ve always done, except now with a shiny new tool… No. we now have an incredible opportunity to do entirely new things that were never possible before, using an amazing array of digital tools designed to create, and reinventing the way the way we think about teaching and learning.

Giving students iPads and not making fundamental shifts in how we teach and learn would be like giving them that bicycle for their minds, but then expecting them to push it and walk along beside it.If they are to get the true potential from that bicycle you need to let them get on it, get the wind in their face and ride the damn thing.

Featured image “Speedy Bike” by Till Krech via Flickr. CC BY.

Breathing Easy

OxygenIt’s been said that you know when a 1:1 computing initiative is truly working in a school because you stop talking about it. The conversation stops being about the hardware – the computers, the tablets, the wifi, the network, etc. When all that stuff works the way it is supposed to, it begins to fade from the conversations that take place in the school. We stop talking about the devices and start talking about the learning that takes place with the devices. We stop thinking about the infrastructure required to make the technology work, and we just use it, fully expecting that it “just does”.

A good 1:1 program should be like oxygen. It becomes so ubiquitous that you start to forget it’s there. Students and teachers begin to blend the use of technology into their daily routine in a way that becomes so seamless that it feels natural. Taking the technology away would be almost like taking oxygen away. You don’t notice it until it’s not there.

How do you get to that point? Obviously the important infrastructure needs to just work. Wifi needs to be robust and ubiquitous. Servers need to be fast and responsive. Computers and devices need to be simple to use. Software needs to be intuitive and flexible. All that is important, and need to be the first priority of the IT teams that put those things in place. But once those things are in place, we need to stop talking about them.

Learning should be the goal of a 1:1 program. Not devices or wifi or policies or “the cloud”. That stuff is important, sure, but the primary focus of a school needs to be on learning, not technology.

In the excitement of putting technology into schools, it’s amazing how often we overlook that.

This post has been crossposted from its original publication on the Hot Topics section of the Microsoft Partners in Learning blog (http://www.pil-network.com/HotTopics/1to1learning)
CC Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/HAZMAT_Class_2-2_Oxygen.png

Changing the Bathwater, Keeping the Baby

Throwing the baby out with the bathwaterIt’s clear that there is quite a lot about this thing we call “school” that probably needs to change and that there are many schools around the world that are embracing and leading that change with some really innovative ideas about teaching and learning.

However, from what I can tell, innovation and genuine change for the better in education is still rather patchy and relies greatly on the passion and drive of individual teachers, many of whom fly “under the radar” in order to make positive change in their own educational circumstance. There are certainly schools that are, as a single organisation or even a whole system, making giant strides towards reinventing what modern education should be about, but if I was able to randomly drop you into one of the many millions of classrooms around the world to observe what’s taking place inside it, I think it would still be fairly hit or miss as to whether you’d find teaching and learning that was modern, contemporary and representative of the change that many of us want to see happen in education.

We talk a lot about reinventing school. We sometimes declare that school is a “broken system” and wonder about what it would be like to start with a clean slate. We feel the weight of tradition, of a school system based around an agrarian calendar, of a system that was born in a pre-digital age and we dream about changing it. We embrace technology. We build charter schools. We try lots of ideas for making schooling not only different, but hopefully better.

But you know something? Many of the smartest people I know are a product of this “broken” system. Many students emerge from their 13 years of schooling as perfectly normal, well adjusted, happy individuals, ready to embrace the task of making their own dent in the universe. So despite that fact that we like to declare schooling to be in dire need of an overhaul, it seems that it still produces many people who do just fine, thank you very much. This broken system, for all its faults, does actually work for some people. I’m well aware that it does NOT work for many others, and that it could probably work better even for those that emerged from it doing ok, but it got me wondering what aspects of school DO in fact work.

I’m as keen as anyone else to push education forward, to help rebuild it into something that is better and more able to meet the needs of even more students. To make it more “21st century”, if you will. Like so many of my colleagues around the world, I want to be an advocate for the change we need to drag our school system, often kicking and screaming, into the current millennium.

In the process, I’m wondering what, if anything, we should try to keep.

I once asked a group of students to imagine what school could be like if we could wipe the slate clean. What would “school” look like if we could start again, with no preconceptions about what school should look like. I was trying to prompt them to imagine what would happen if we took EVERYTHING about school, burnt it to the ground and threw it away, in order to rebuild the very notion of “school” from the ground up. Their answers were interesting; some were clearly unable to imagine anything that was much different to their current reality, and others really took to the idea of school with an axe, questioning everything and leaving very little that resembled school as we know it.

If we COULD wipe the slate clean, if we could just scrap everything about school and education as we know it, is there anything that you would keep? Despite the claims that our schools are not serving the needs of our current students, is there ANYTHING we do right now that we would NOT want to lose?

I understand that society, technology and the world around our students is changing at a pace greater than at anytime in history, and I appreciate that we really do need to get on with the task of reinventing schools to make them places of learning designed for our students’ future, not our own past, but perhaps we also have to be careful we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So let me ask you… What do you think are the valuable, enduring and timeless aspects of education?  What are the things that, no matter how much we end up reinventing this thing we call “school”, you would not want to lose?

The Software Conundrum

Many people I know struggle with technology. They bumble by, more-or-less managing to make their computer do what they want it to do, but often without that real sense of confidence that comes from feeling fluent with the software they are interacting with.  And let’s face it, when we talk about “technology”, we mostly mean “software”. Sure, there are some hard-to-use hardware devices but by and large when I watch someone struggling to feel comfortable using “technology”, it’s usually because they are out of their depth with the software they are trying to use, not the hardware.

It might not seem like it when you’re so frustrated you just want to throw your laptop out the nearest window, but companies who build software try really hard to make their tools easy to use. Of course, not all software is actually easy to use, but I do believe that all software designers really do try to make their software as easy to use as possible. It’s not easy… some of the things we expect software to do are incredibly complex, and designing software that does complex stuff while also making it easy to use, is really hard to do well!  But the next time you are struggling to use a piece of software, remind yourself that someone, somewhere, probably spent a great deal of time and energy trying to make it as easy as they could. And no matter how much it might feel like it, the software designer’s goal was not to confuse and frustrate you.

Because writing software is so hard, it takes a special kind of person to do it. Software developers are usually incredibly intelligent people because you really do need to be fairly smart to write software. Most developers also have very systematic and methodical minds, because, again, that’s just the sort of mind you need to write software. It’s this combination of high intelligence and methodical thinking we sometimes call an “engineer’s mindset”, and while you need it to write good software, it’s really not the way the majority of us think.

And that’s part of the problem of why there is so much “hard to use” software. The people who create it are often on a completely different planet to the people who use it.  For a super smart software engineer, the term “easy to use” might mean something entirely different.  Because most “dumb users” find it difficult to think the way engineers think, and many engineers are unable to put themselves in the shoes of the average end user, there is often a huge mismatch between the two groups that ends up making software seem much harder to use than it should be. (You might like to read The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper for a really good insight into this problem) Thankfully, software has gotten much, much better over the last few years thanks to much better development environments and more flexible programming frameworks, a greater emphasis on end-user usability testing, a greater acceptance of the idea of a “public beta”, and also the “appification” of complicated software in small, app-sized chunks on easy to use mobile devices.

So thankfully, things are improving.  But if software is getting better, and companies really DO try hard to make their software as easy to learn and use as possible, why do so many people still seem to find it so damn hard to use?

So here’s a few tips for becoming a much better, more confident and more fluent user of modern desktop software…

Mix it up!

This was one of the most powerful things I ever did to become a more fluent software user… I deliberately started using software that was different to what I was used to. If you use a software tool to do a particular task, find out what other software tools do a similar thing, and try them.

For example, if all your word processing is done in Microsoft Word, try using some other word processing tools for a change. Libre Office Writer, Google Docs, Zoho Writer, WriteRoom, Scrivener, AbiWord… the list is long if you look. There is something incredibly liberating about trying a different tool than the one you’re used to. It forces you to see things more conceptually – to understand the concepts of formatting text, rather than simply remembering where the Bold button is located. As you move between multiple tools that do the same task, you start to see the commonalities and the differences between them.

You realise that all tools in this category have certain core features, but you also see how different tools implement some of those features better or worse than others. You start to think in terms of function rather than form. You develop a better ability to scan your eyes over the interface quickly, spotting the buttons you recognise, even though they might look a little different.  You realise that the design of software is far more consistent and predictable than you maybe imagined it was. You start to see the ways that different programs handle the same common file formats.

Are you a PowerPoint user? Why not try Keynote, Google Presentations, SlideRocket, Libre Office Impress, Prezi or 280 Slides?

What do you use to edit video? Whatever you use now, take a look through some of the alternatives from iMovie, Windows Live MovieMaker, Pinnacle Studio, Sony Vegas, Adobe Premiere Pro or Premiere Elements, Final Cut Pro X.  As you might imagine, if you actually did try all these different video editing tools, you wouldn’t just know how to use a bunch of video editing tools, you would truly understand the core idea of what it means to edit video.

There is great alternative software in most of the major categories. Just go to Google and search for [alternatives to X] where X is the software you use now, and see what you can find. Much of it is free to try, if not completely free to use.  Using lots of different software tools that do more-or-less the same job makes you a far more flexible and adaptable user. You don’t have to permanently switch from your old faithful tool if you don’t want to (although you might be surprised at how good some of the others are!) Switching to a new tool is not the point of the exercise. But by trying lots of new tools you will develop a far deeper understanding of what software is all about, and your technological fluency will take a supercharged leap forward.

Trust me on this.

Check out your options

Whenever you work with a new piece of software, take a moment to explore the options or preferences.  On most Windows software you’ll find it under the Tools > Options menu, and on the Mac its in the application menu under Preferences.

Whenever I get my hands on a new piece of software, I go straight to the prefs or options and spend a few minutes looking through them. Those few minutes are always paid back in greater productivity through having a better sense of what the software is all about, plus I can usually find lots of little tweaks that make the software work the way i want it to work.

It astounds me how often I see people struggling (sometimes for years!) with some annoying behaviour in their software that can be easily changed simply by unticking a checkbox in the preferences. Don’t be one of those people.

What’s on the menu?

The other thing I will always do with any new piece of software is just take a moment to look through all the dropdown menus to see what’s there. Many of them will be immediately recognisable – obvious ones like cut, copy, paste, select all, etc – through to those that will give you some clues as to what the software might be able to do.

Seeing choices like Arrange, Group, Align, etc immediately tell you things about what the software can do.  The View menu often lets you change the way you see the software by accessing fullscreen mode, changing zoom levels, and so on. If you’re observant you can also pick up some great keyboard shortcuts as well.

Look for menu items than you don’t recognise too. For example, if you’re usually an Internet Explorer user you might be intrigued by options such as Chrome’s Incognito Window. Click it. See what it does. It’s software, you can’t really break it, so go explore!

Don’t be afraid to call for help

Every piece of software I’ve ever used has a Help menu. Someone, somewhere, went to a lot of time and trouble to document this software and explain what it does, how to use it, and how to get the best out of it. Why would you not use it?

And yet, whenever I see someone struggling with a piece of software, I can almost guarantee that the answer to “have you checked the Help menu?” is no. C’mon! Just use it… Look it up if you have a problem, or just glance through it to pick up some useful tips. Don’t be so helpless.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve showed someone some ridiculously simple time-saving tip that has totally changed the way they work, only to have them ask “How do you find this stuff??!”

Easy. I once got stuck on the exact same problem as you, and I looked in the Help menu to work out how to solve it. Just like you can.

If you really don’t want to use the Help menu (“It’s so complicated!”) then just Google your problem. Just type in something like [how do i merge 2 tracks in audacity]. Believe it or not, you won’t be the first person to ever ask that question. Someone has already solved it. Learn from their experience.

Putting this into action with your students

A task I’ve had my Computing Applications students to do several times now is to create a user manual, either in text or screencast format, for a piece of software they’ve never seen before. It’s not hard to find obscure software tools that most students have never heard of, so pick a few for them to choose from and get them to create a user manual for one of them. Not only do they need to learn a completely new piece of software, they also need to figure out how to clearly explain it’s features in a way that non-users can easily understand. They can’t do that unless they understand it themselves.

They’ll need to learn quickly, communicate clearly, have empathy with end users, and also learn new presentation skills. Try also to get them to run some real usability testing with other people using the training resources they’ve created in order to see how well they have communicated their understanding. Everytime I’ve done this, my students have found it a useful and worthwhile task.

Got any other tips for learning new software quickly? I’d love to hear them.  And if you’re a fluent software user, add a comment and tell us what the “penny dropping” moment was for you, when software started to make sense.

Push Me, Pull Me

It’s an interesting sign of how this connected world we live in actually works when I see people coming back to revisit an idea that was floated months earlier, still mulling it over and willing to come back and re-clarify things again in their own head, which in turn helps others (like me) to re-clarify things in mine. I’m referring to a post called Unlearning, Relearning, Learning by Graham Wegner, who was in turn responding to an earlier post written on this blog back in May this year.

The conversation had basically turned to the idea of how people learn. Graham referred to another post from Dean Groom, where Dean talked about the idea of people being able to learn on demand, when they need it, by accessing the wealth of available online resources that are scattered across the Internet, produced by the millions of members of the online community. This mass-sharing has produced what Dean referred to as “the scattered manual”, where the instructions for doing pretty much anything can be found and reassembled in order to learn, if only you have the skills to do so. I hadn’t heard that idea of the “scattered manual” before, but I really like it because that’s pretty much exactly what it is… a collective knowledge of many people scattered right across the network. When one has the skills and ability to decode, reassemble, aggregate the parts of the “manual”, then that elusive “independent learning” becomes a real possibility for anyone who wants (and knows how) to get it.

I think there are two very different and distinct aspects of learning something… one is obviously the learning, and that seems to be a “pull” activity initiated by the learner. Learners need to assume responsibility to pull information to themselves when they feel they need it.

The other aspect is teaching, and that seems more like a “push” activity, where information is pushed towards the learner, usually by a “teacher”, or someone who already has the knowledge, skills or understandings that the learner does not yet have.

As much as we talk about reinventing education by doing away with “teaching” in favour of “learning” (usually as a reaction against the industrial model of education where teachers taught and students were supposed to just absorb it, and in doing so restore learning to its rightful place) I think we need to be careful that we don’t push the pendulum too far the other way and marginalise the act of teaching altogether.

My feeling is that good teachers know when to actively teach, and when to allow students to independently learn. Good teachers know when to push and when to allow pull. They know when to say to a student “this is how you do it”, versus saying “you need to go away and think about this for yourself”. It’s not that Teaching should take precedence over Learning, or that Learning is somehow less tainted with the stink of the 20th Century than Teaching, but rather, we need to know where the balance point is, in various situations, for different students, and apply that balance dynamically so that every student is always right there on the edge of their Zone of Proximal Development. A learner’s reach should always exceed their grasp, but only by the appropriate amount, and perhaps the teacher’s role is to keep that gap at the appropriate amount.

As a teacher, I want to have the wisdom to know when to say to my learners (including when these learners happen to be other adults), “You seem to be struggling, let me help you”, and conversely when to say “I will not do this for you, as it only deprives you of the opportunity to learn it for yourself.”

I don’t think you should ever do for someone what they can and should be able to do for themselves. The “scattered manual” exists so readily that to deprive learners from the opportunity, and in doing so absolve them from the responsibility, to learn for themselves just shortchanges everybody in the long run.