Tuesday, October 01, 2013


Not Everyone is a Digital Native

The political news is too depressing for words, so I’ll just note it and focus instead on something a little closer to home.

I’m wondering how different campuses or organizations out there handle helping out students or clients or customers who need really basic computer help.  In a college context, I’m talking about things like emailing papers to instructors as attachments, or downloading files.  Believe it or not, we have some students who need that level of help.

It’s easy to assume, from middle age, that everyone younger just automatically knows this stuff.  Many of them do, of course, and some of them are able to make technology do handstands without seemingly breaking a sweat.  But it’s not universal, and sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know until a point of abrupt need.  By that point, they don’t know who, or even how, to ask.

The usual default mode in colleges is to set up either course requirements or workshops, on the theory that you have to complete task A (figuring out computer basics) before doing task B (emailing a file as an attachment).  That can work, but participation tends to lag simply because people know intuitively that the workshop format is overkill.  If all I need to do is to email a paper, I shouldn’t need to devote a month of Tuesday afternoons to two-hour workshops.  It’s the kind of thing that could be picked up in a few minutes, if only the right resource were available.  Besides, it may not occur to me that I need to know that until it’s suddenly required for a class, and I realize that I have no idea how to do it.

(I’d also argue that the “first you have to do task A” method is oversold generally.  But that’s another post altogether.)

We have a helpdesk, but it’s largely devoted to password resets -- do NOT get me started on passwords  -- or higher-level issues with Moodle.  It’s not built to handle the volume of requests on subjects like “how do I download a new browser?” or “where’s the ‘save’ button in the new version of Word?”  (Full disclosure: when I got 2010, I had to google “how to save a document.”  Not a fan.)  

Off the top of my head, I’d love to have some work-study students who are relatively tech-savvy staff some sort of “ask me anything” version of a help desk somewhere on campus.  They could refer the really hairy or specialized cases to the pros, but they’d be there to help with the more fundamental stuff on an as-needed basis.  

I could envision some possible issues with student privacy, but those don’t strike me as fatal.  If the “ask me anything” staffers were given some simple training and basic supervision, along with an orientation around privacy and intellectual property, those strike me as solvable.

Has anyone actually set up a system like this?  If so, did it work?  Or is there some sort of fatal flaw that wouldn’t necessarily be obvious from the outside?

Once upon a time, students were required to take a typing class in high school. Many colleges would benefit from having one required class (first semester) that covered basic word processing, note taking, speed reading, use of the library, and other essential skills. Students could test out if they pass some sort of online exam. I taught at a cc where students were required to take Freshman comp in a computer room, but half of them didn't know how to type.
Oh, you'll love Word 2013. NOT. (And Excel 2013 is even more of an issue for me, especially formatting charts. Which I do a lot of.) I had to download it when I replaced my hard drive ("Hard drive failure is imminent...") and my institution--from which I still have faculty priv1leges for software--no longer offers Word 2010 as an option.
I will say that a basic computer class is a requirement where I used to be, But for some strange reason it has math proficiency at the level of HS algebra as a pre-req...and I can't think of a reason why...
Ugh, we had a basic computing requirement. It was a joke. Most students found it to be a serious waste of their time and money.

Yes, everybody could probably improve their skills, but making students sit through a 15 week course is too painful for words.
Some students truly do need more help, but even they probably don't need a whole course.

Why not develop some SHORT online video tutorials for some of the basic questions that seem to repeat a lot, and make those available for free somewhere on your IT website? This is how I teach my intro stats students to use SPSS (not the most user-friendly program) and they appreciate it, because they can go at their own pace and re-do the sticky parts if they need to.

I can't claim it is an unparalleled success, but we have just what you describe: tech-savvy work-study students who provide support for things from using digital drop box to e-mailing files or just changing line spacing. Part of what makes it work is that we have a few areas (one in the library) that provide support for writing and math classes so these students can be located where people need the help.

Best of all is that this job provides the best kind of financial aid to our better students!

BTW, "doc" gave me a terrible insight into the future of software in the lease-don't-buy model being implemented. What if you are automatically shifted to the Newest And Worst version whether you want to or not? Could get ugly.
Oops. That last post was mine but didn't get signed.
If you do get yourself started on passwords, here are a few online places to begin.
Now that computer labs tend to be located in libraries, a lot of librarians probably have great ideas for efficient ways to provide this help.
I would bet that there are already tons of web tutorials on stuff like this. I bet you need a good curator (e.g. librarian) and someone with the time to sit down with people guide them through a website with many helpful links to the one video to get them over their rough patch quickly (student work-study help), and you'd be set.

Also, if you do write a post about how doing A before B is overrated (outside the context of developmental math), that sounds like a joy to read.
One addition to the work-study help desk idea: try to have at least a few of the helpers be older people. I'm guessing that a fair number of the students with questions are older. Getting help from someone their age would be a good thing not just on the basis of comfort level, but because older helpers will be less likely to use vocabulary that is jargon-y or too technical or too in-the-moment. And they will be comfortable operating at a slower pace in their explanations.

Also: please, not too much emphasis on researching thru Youtube and Google. Those are skills in and of themselves, and there is a steep learning curve when figuring out good search phrases. In-person works far better.

Can you tell I'm over 50?
We have something like that. There's a help desk in the library that seems to mostly be staffed by work-study students. As far as I can tell, it works fairly well, but I haven't looked into it carefully.
Two things: first, check with your local public library about what they do in the basic computer skills area: public libraries handle these kinds of situations all the time and generally have established programs and protocols for doing so. They may have either a) computer classes that you can refer students to, or b) handouts, etc. (and paper handouts, please, not online tutorials for someone whose grasp of "online" is shaky at best!), or both, that they would be willing to share.

And then second: please, for the love of all that is holy, do not dump this problem on your college librarians! Academic librarians are fabulous people, but we have not generally been trained in, nor do we have extensive experience with, teaching basic computer skills to underserved populations. Public librarians are fabulous at this; academic, not so much.
Our CC hsa a 1 credit class for 1st term (less than 18 credits) students. Among the issues mentioned in your post, the class also covers how to navigate our on-line platform, academic success strategies, finacial aid, academic planning. I teach my course in 3 hour blocks the first few weeks of classes (we are on quarters so it is only 10 hours). The course is taught by FT faculty so it helps students make connections with FT faculty.

This is our third year of offering the class and institutional research suggest it has increased student retention.
At my library we have a shared service desk, where there are a couple of library work-study students, for book checkouts and basic "where is room X?" questions, and a couple of campus computing work-study students, for exactly the kind of "how do I download a new browser?" question you mention. Full-time staff are on call for the harder questions.

A lot of students confuse research questions with computing questions. "I can't get a PDF in this database" can mean their browser is out of date (i.e., refer to computing help) or they aren't using the right keywords and search strategies (i.e., refer to librarian).

So by far, the trickiest part of this is making sure the front-line student workers are highly trained and know when to refer a problem. You don't want the frustrated, non tech-savvy student on a deadline transferred to three different people just to solve a simple problem, so the frontline folks have to be really good at sussing out where exactly the problem is. In my experience, to make this sort of model really shine, you have to invest good time into staff and training.

For relatively simple questions like "how do I attach a file?", it's a great source of walk-in or phone-in help.
At Macaulay Honors College-CUNY, we have a model which I think is fairly unique. (I didn't invent it, so I feel free to brag about it). Our Instructional Technology Fellows are doctoral students who have a Grad Fellowship specifically to work with students and faculty to enhance teaching and learning through technology. Because they are graduate students with technology skills and teaching experience, too, they can help with those basic tasks, but they can also work on syllabus development, support of creative multimedia assignments and projects for class, and help students and faculty to really engage some of the deeper pedagogical and philosophical issues which the new digital tools bring forward.

It's a great combination of just-in-time-learning and deeper engaged pedagogy. More than that, it gives us a way to support our graduate student that goes far beyond the common TA position, providing the grad students with a terrific credential and level of experience as they enter the academic or alt-ac job markets. And we get to give our students the opportunity to interact with mentors who are right in the thick of doctoral research...an intellectual pursuit which for many undergraduates is not something they have really explored or imagined.

Work study students can be great for tech support...but I always argue that the Instructional Technology Fellowships allow us to put the emphasis on the Instructional, rather than the Technology...so students and faculty can get that basic "how do I...?" help, but also get some of the thoughtful critique that will help them understand "why should I...?" and help them be more adventurous and adept at figuring out future problems themselves.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?