Tech Confession and the Purpose of a Teaspoon

Confession: I manage my volunteer mailing list on a Word document.

Glue Henge by sappymoosetree on Flickr
Glue Henge by sappymoosetree on Flickr

It’s true.  Even though I enjoy Excel formulas and mail merges, have harsh words for presenters who don’t know the ins and outs of PowerPoint, have actually built more than one relational database, and love to find the optimal information tool for a given task.  I am that person, and I copy and paste my mailing list from a Word document.

It didn’t used to be this way.  In my old job at the main office, my Outlook contacts list was a well-organized-frequently-mail-merged thing of beauty.  But when I got to my new job at the learning center a little over a year ago, I only had Outlook Webmail.  Managing contacts solely with webmail is pretty much impossible.  Word was there, I used it, and it worked.  Months later, my nonprofit helped me install real, actual Outlook Anywhere on the learning center’s laptop (I’m unable to install anything on the main computer, which is library property).  And months after that, I have yet to rework my emailing system.

Three thoughts on this:

Spoon theory by scribbletaylor on Flickr
Spoon theory by scribbletaylor on Flickr

And now to the teaspoon:

This type of situation leads me to think broadly about the fact that people need more than initial training and ongoing Q and A to work effectively with digital technology; we need support in the form of quality tools. Even the people who “get” digital technology are severely hampered by slow, outdated, and/or limiting applications and hardware. When we have to figure out how to make our antiquated or locked-down equipment be good enough “in our spare time,” it either just doesn’t happen or it happens at the expense of the rest of our jobs.

I wish that the demands put on educators, especially in this age of obsession with computer-based and distance learning, could be accompanied by thoughts like, “Do they have the tools to accomplish this well?” or even better, “We should ask them what tools they need to facilitate these desired outcomes and then follow through.”

If all I have is a teaspoon and you’re surprised I’m not hammering nails with it, there’s a problem and it’s not with me.

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Conference Thoughts

Rewired State Presentations by Ben Dodson on Flickr
Rewired State Presentations by Ben Dodson on Flickr

(At the end of this post I ask a specific question about my tone.  Please tell me how I come across!)

I recently attended a small conference (maybe 80 or so participants) for half a day.  There was some good information and valuable context, very little of which I absorbed.  In short, here’s why:

  • I was not on board with the theme.
  • I could not see the speakers or Power Points properly.
  • The answers we needed were not there during our small group discussions.

A bit more on these points:

Not On Board

The conference was about distance learning, mostly about how we’ll be doing a lot more of it.

Well, ok.  Yes, there are many benefits, and yes, there is potential for us to reach more students.

But what about the fact that most teachers teach because they love the in-person interaction?  What about the fact that many of our students attend class as much for the social connections as the content?  What about the interesting combination of emphasizing things like additional trainings and “designating a distance learning staff member” while talking about looming budget problems?

These were issues on the minds of everyone I talked to, and the conference did not address them.  They were talking, and the participants were thinking, and they were not necessarily about the same things. I think they really missed an opportunity here by not meeting the skeptics where they were at.

I Couldn’t See

saving lives in church basements by smussyolay on Flickr
saving lives in church basements by smussyolay on Flickr

Ok, full disclosure: I arrived five minutes after the program started.  Sitting in the back was my fault.

That being said, lots of people had to sit in the back – there wasn’t room for everyone in the front.  All of us sitting in the back trying to see the Power Points and speakers had to contend not only with the people sitting in front of us, but with floor-to-ceiling support poles.  Not the greatest space.  In the future, no poles.

And now let’s talk about the PowerPoints.  They had a ton of tiny text, often in colors that didn’t have much contrast.  The presenters appeared (from what I could tell) to use them as notes.  Where does the nonprofit obsession with Best Practices go when it’s time to bust out a PowerPoint? Seriously, we can do better.  Seth Godin has some great pointers.

The Answers Weren’t There

Thankfully, the organizers did not plan an all-PowerPoint program.  For the second half they broke us into small groups with facilitators and well-thought-out questions to discuss.

The discussions were very “Collective Intelligence,” intended to have us share our knowledge.  We discussed some common fears too:  What if my job changes in a direction I find utterly mind-numbing (i.e. computer/internet troubleshooting)?  How is administration going to support the additional trainings I’ll need?  What assurances do I have that my other work will be reduced when I start taking on this new distance learning work?

My group actually did a great job of not focusing on the negatives or the potential negatives.  Still, it would have really helped us to be listened to and have some of those fears assuaged (or at least noted).

We took notes, and the organizers collected them at the end to type up and email out to our groups.  I really liked that.  They never said whether they plan to read them for content and respond to them though.  I very much hope that our notes are taken as an opportunity to listen and reply – the higher-ups and our students both need us folks in the middle to be on board.

So… on the spectrum of whiny vitriol (0) through groundbreaking problem-solving (10), where does this post land?