The ideas for this article came out of my reviewing the whole Rome process and the resulting software. What I could not stop thinking about was the question, what exactly do educators want… in software, in the digital world in general, in any way?
I was immediately struck by the huge assumption, and therefore the huge error, built into the whole question right from the get go – “educators” are not a homogeneous group. You can ask what we want any way you wish, but, unless you are prepared to understand just how diverse and downright different we are, your question will never really be answered. That is why any good designer / engineer / problem solver will start by asking, who are we… not, what do we want. There are dozens of books out now that discuss the value of the design process and design thinking which places the target or audience of a product ahead of the product itself. First understand your clientele, then build the product.
Let’s start by looking at a typical high school. Our school has approximately 1500 students and 100 teachers. Of those 100 teachers we have about 20 teachers who are already immersed in various aspects of digital technology, another 15-ish who are wading into the waters in varying degrees and the rest. The “rest “ represent widely varying perspectives. At one end there are those who would venture forth with lots of support and mentoring (hand holding is required). At the opposite end are those who are angry and or afraid… it really doesn’t matter which because the end result is the dismissal of digital technology and all that is has to offer. I cannot give you numbers or percentages for these two groups at this point. I can only tell you they definitely exist and that those against are vehement about their anti-technology point of view. I strongly suspect, based on the war stories I hear from other schools, that we are pretty typical of most high schools. To put this into perspective – if you are building software that appeals to somewhat experienced users then you are building for about 35% of our teachers. That means you are not appealing to 65% of them. It is that simple, and these figures may be overly optimistic.
I offer this insight into our mix of teachers because what the most involved would want in their software is quite different from what the others would prefer. And you are going to tell me you are going to create one software product that appeals to everyone equally? And serves them equally? Interesting… (I am told it’s good to have dreams. )
I suggest we start with the most basic aspect of any technology – the names of the tools themselves. As I saw with Rome, applying very technical names to these tools may be perfectly logical for the engineers and for those who are very well versed in the technology but even those of us who consider ourselves immersed in this digital world do not know all of these terms. How, then, will new users ever figure them out? More to the point, don’t you want to make every aspect of the technology inviting, easy to access and use? Calling a tool by a technical name is a quick way to push a new user away, while using a term from common language makes the tool more accessible and appealing. Oh – one more note – do not make the names cute. That is worse than technical – at least technical assumes we will figure it out (rightly or wrongly). Cute is just insulting. Straightforward works well, it assumes normal intelligence and is accessible to most folks.
When planning the software, think like a new user. Keep the operations simple, the result clear and the process direct and easy to use. For example – explaining how to adjust, add or subtract keyframes will not make a new user happy – too many concepts at work here, and way too much to know right from the get go. Instead, think… the story opens with ______; then this happens_____, then this ______. Finally, it ends when this happens ______________. End of story. The sounds will be _____, and so on until its built. Make it simple. All of that will work wonders for the teachers and for any users in fact, that want as close to drag-and –drop story telling as possible. Now – to add an underlying power to this software, you would need to make the resulting timeline fully accessible to those of us who play with such things… but not up front. Tell us how to lift the hood, so to speak, so we can access these details. I liken the whole thing to operating a car. Most folks do not want to know the details. They want the car to start, go and stop easily with simple instructions, not complex technical explanations and controls. Assume that the new users know virtually nothing and want to know only a bit more in order to make it work, at least in the beginning.
Now – if you are able to create software that works like this, go one step further – make it so it runs on old and new systems equally. Our school is running Windows XP on a variety of machines. The old machines have slow processors and about 512 Mb of RAM. The new machines also run XP and have 1 Gb of RAM. Our best machines in the school have fairly fast processors and 2 Gb of RAM… and nowhere are there any signs that point to better machines running Windows 7. Having said that, I know there are schools running brand new computers with tons of RAM and Windows 7… makes it quite a challenge, doesn’t it? We are never on the same page digitally, and you must assume the worst scenario possible. That is our reality and since there are no programs anywhere that are stepping forward with the billions of dollars necessary to not only equip schools with better computers but to also maintain those labs at that level indefinitely, this situation is not about to improve. I suppose you could go one step further and add that certain governments have education budgets on their radar screens – they consider them excellent sources of revenue. How they manage to also sleep at night is quite beyond my comprehension. I always thought that it was society’s job to invest in its own future, but apparently I was wrong on that point.
So – building new software for touch-pad technology? Great – schools may have that by 2020… if all goes well. Schools, which should be so much closer to the cutting edge of technology, are still fighting the belief that buying good computers is a luxury, not a necessity. And you want to create software that serves all educators equally? As is said at the outset, it’s good to dream. Therein lies all of our hopes for the future.
The picture shows us looking down – is that where we are headed, or is that where we have come from? I prefer the latter – you?