Learning New Technology
Written: April 9, 2009
Despite the fact that really don't like teaching, I find myself doing a surprising amount of it. Usually, it's in the form of helping older/less tech-savvy people learn how to use new (to them) technology. Most recently, I had to help my grandma figure out how to use a cellphone.
Now, my grandma is a pretty smart lady, and very active, but she's also rather set in her ways. But, the basic phonecall functionality of cellphones isn't overly complicated, so I didn't think it'd be a big deal. I thought wrong.
Things started out rocky when the first thing I had to show her was how to unlock the keypad, since it's not a flip-phone. This is a very simple concept; to keep keys from accidently being pressed, the phone locks itself after 30 seconds, and to unlock it, you have to press two specific keys in sequence. Not exactly rocket science. Yet, she spent the bulk of our conversation confused about this aspect of the phone. The display even says "Keypad Locked" when it's locked, and displays exactly which keys to press to unlock it.
Speaking of reading the screen, another aspect that she had extreme difficulty with were the softkeys. Nearly every cellphone has these, they're the unmarked buttons next to the screen that do whatever the screen labels them with. It's a very handy concept used in all sorts of electronic devices now, and most people don't even think about it. Grandma simply could not wrap her head around this. I swear she asked me a dozen times "What do those two buttons do?", and I had to keep telling her "The screen shows you what they do". Now, I can understand her difficulty with this a little better than the keypad lock, because I don't think she owns anything else with softkeys, except her cordless phone. But still, is it really so difficult to understand? Especially for someone who spent the last 30-some years working with computers?
After awhile, she started taking notes. Notes. On the usage of a device that is easier to operate than the business desktop phone she's been using for longer than I can remember.
Throughout this whole process, I noticed a common theme. From the start, when we first mentioned the word "cellphone", she was absolutely, 100% convinced that it was a complicated, mysterious device that would take an semester of classes to learn how to use. And every time she actually did comprehend something (like, the power button), her reaction would be a very surprised "Oh, that was easy".
In fact, any time I have to explain new technology to someone who's not very tech-savvy, they usually approach the subject with the same perception of extreme, impenetrable complexity. They go into the subject already convinced that they'll never be able to understand it. And, while some people (usually these same people) will insist that it doesn't affect one's ability to learn, I think the opposite. No one can force themselves to learn something, you have to want to learn it on some level. Hence why the average school student can't find the city they live in on a map, but can tell you the entire cast, premise, and plot recap of their favourite TV show.
My experiences since high school have given me a unique perspective on this, in my opinion. After high school, I took one semester of classes at the local community college, barely pased them, and haven't taken a real college class since. Certainly not a history I'm proud of, and something I struggle with on a constant basis in my search for employment, but in the years since, I've long since learned from my mistake. I've since started taking a new approach to new information, technology, and skills; for me, anything can be learned and understood. Whether it's a new programming language, a new spoken language, or how to fix something on my car, I never let myself think that I can't learn it. All I need is the interest. This approach has been instrumental in my web design career, and my training leading up to it, and while I have a natural skill for programming, that alone is not enough to build a career on. One must also have the ability to learn and evolve along with the industry.
They say that age affects one's ability to learn, and while I agree that it can be a factor, it's not a major one. My mom, who's in her 40s, takes a similar approach to learning new things that I do, and she rarely has trouble picking up new skills. There are things she struggles with from time to time (like her new DVR), but in all such cases, her difficulty seems to stem from a preconceived idea that what she's about to learn will be difficult and complicated, and she gets over it very quickly.
Unfortunately, I haven't yet found a way to convince those who think that can't learn that they can, in fact, learn new things. I guess if I figure that one out, I'll have a new career in adult education.