One woman's journey to understand technology

How do the '80-percenters' - the majority of the population with no technical knowledge - grapple with technology?

What's it like to grapple with the language and manipulations of technology in detail for the first time? Most Computerworld readers have probably forgotten when they first tried to penetrate a wall of jargon, plug together unfamiliar equipment and obey at-first-obscure instructions to download and install software.

ICT Minister Amy Adams highlighted the fog of incomprehension between a technology vendor and a non-expert customer when she called last month for "full disclosure" of the terms under which technology, particularly telecomms service, is sold.

A lot of us started with technology that today would be regarded as simple and have upgraded our knowledge gradually as the technology has advanced. Those moving into today's technology from a near-zero knowledge base have a different experience.

The woman who inspired my column on the "80 percenters" -- the majority of PC users who have little or no technical knowledge -- decided a few weeks ago she was no longer comfortable treating her PC as though it were her television, a gadget that Should Just Work. So Jo Moon booked herself in to a one-day introductory course called "Computing with Confidence", at Wellington High School.n --

The course begins by explaining the functions of various parts of the computer and the keys on the keyboard. Moon says she discovered some of the uses of the escape key that would get her out of some snarl-ups for which a crude reboot of the PC via the power switch had hitherto been her only remedy.

Then comes the usual fare of word processing and spreadsheet training, based on Microsoft Word and Excel. Asked why students should be taught on such expensive software, rather than a free open-source product, community course director Colin Wharton says Microsoft is what the school has in its computer suites and it's what most students will be using at work.

So why does Moon want to learn? "If I wanted to get another job I'd probably be required to have [desktop computer skills]. It's just the way of the world," she says. "And it's useful if you know how to operate a computer, so you can then learn [more easily] to operate other devices, like smartphones."

She can't remember anyone raising the topic of OpenOffice/Libre Office in the class -- "though we did talk a bit about other operating systems, like Apple and -- when one of the students raised it -- Linux."

I advised Moon to install Libre Office on her machine at home and practice with it, comparing the operations with those she has learned using the Microsoft applications. She will find a lot of similarity. However, that's another challenge for 80-percenters who don't use computers in the workplace -- finding something meaningful to serve as practice material. Repeating sterile exercises, she says, becomes boring and unless you're very self-disciplined you don't give yourself the needed reinforcement.

The tutor, Helen Waddington, was exemplary when it came to answering students' random queries, Moon says -- and gave students her email address for further inquiries. A major problem, Moon says, is that as an 80-percenter "you don't know what you don't know; in some cases you don't even know the right questions to ask."

One of the other students wanted to know how to construct a hyperlink as part of a Word document and this was covered. Ironically, it can be done rather more easily -- in this writer's opinion anyway -- in Open/Libre Office.

One of the most useful lessons of the course, Moon says, was "the whole business of organising work into files and folders and the several ways of searching for anything you've lost, in the file store and the recycle bin. [Waddington] told us it's really almost impossible to lose something irretrievably; I'm not sure I believe that."

Discussion of internet and email followed; students were taken through the process of setting up a Gmail or Yahoo account -- which Moon had already done.

What comes out is that you need practical experience and that one of the bedrock pieces of knowledge is the terminology, says Moon. People experienced with computers unthinkingly use terms that are not exactly jargon but are still unfamiliar to 80-percenters. "I didn't know what 'favourites' were in a browser and that another browser calls the same thing 'bookmarks'; and when someone asked me whether I had an Android, I didn't know what they were talking about. Now I know an Android is one kind of smartphone and an iPhone is a different kind." A whole different course is probably needed just to establish those taxonomies in the minds of 80-percenters, she says.

This, Moon suggests, should be the "foundation", followed by further specific courses for more in-depth understanding of specific technologies and their application.

"I'm thinking more and more that the course I went on will be subsumed before long into the need to know more about new technologies as a whole and how [the various devices] interact," she says. And thereby hangs a considerable tale. Relatively tech-savvy friends have been trying to help Moon with an ill-starred saga of establishing a reliable internet connection. The most recent solution -- so far holding up -- is that she acquire a smartphone and a voice-and-data plan with 2degrees and tether the phone to her PC for the infrequent occasions she needs internet and email access and a large screen -- or internet music with the PC hooked to the stereo.

Tethering, even with the help of friends and the 2degrees and LG helpdesks, was "a nightmare", she says. One vital part of the setup was missed -- possibly because everyone concerned thought she would just know -- and in the end she figured that element out for herself.

Computerworld has not been privy to the whole of the tethering saga, and we don't want to prejudge the standard of 2degrees' or LG's help service, but it sounds like good ammunition for Adams's campaign for full and clear disclosure of everything that will be involved when 80-percenters take on new technology.

However as a consequence of the smartphone purchase, Moon has discovered the joys of surfing and emailing while mobile. "I haven't done justice to the info from the [PC] course yet," she says in an email. "My smartphone seems to be more relevant and compelling!"

There could be a lesson there about the maturing of technology and interface design. Perhaps "computing" courses will become irrelevant in time as the 80-percenters move to smartphones and tablets, that don't expose them to so much of the off-putting guts of the technology.

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