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?