help me make technology empowering
May 7, 2011 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me increase my technology/computer knowledge and resourcefulness so I may help others in my community get the most out of digital tools. Or: How do I apply the DIY/empowering/hackerly approach to computing in a way that benefits others?

I'm going to be serving as a technology instructor in the local library system over the next year. This position involves working with a population of many low-income folks and recent immigrants. I'll be helping people that are looking for jobs, teaching classes on basic Office suite skills and possibly some more inventive programming (podcasting!) of my design, and building capacity for these kinds of classes across the library system.

This summer, I would like to really expand my skills and experience with computer programs and technology so that I can serve in this capacity in a way that emphasizing that democratizing, empowering potential in computing. When I was younger (elementary/middle school) I learned some c++ and visual basic, made robots with mindstorms, and in general was far more techy than I am today. I now mostly navigate the internet, record and edit music and radio documentaries, and sometimes use software like Gimp or VLC. I recently ordered an Arduino starter kit and a bunch of related tools but have yet to delve really deeply into that.

I'd love to hear some suggestions of a game plan to immerse myself in the right tools, methods, and ideas for making the most of this experience. I know a vast majority of the work I'll be doing will be "here's how you enter stuff into this form, now you can apply for this job!" But I would like everything I'm doing to occur within a personal framework of technology-as-empowerment, and I might have the opportunity to organize some pretty sweet intermediate/advanced classes and events where I could work with these ideas more explicitly.

Any and all suggestions appreciated. Thanks!
posted by elephantsvanish to Computers & Internet (4 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Hi, I sort of do this for a job and I recently wrote a book about how to do sort of specifically this. Basically technology instruction in libraries is a really complicated thing since you've got patron expectations, institutional expectations and often don't have too much control over either. People who aren't using computers in 2011 are usually this way for a reason. Often it's because they're from another country or don't have access to technology and broadband. However, other times it's because they've had bad experiences in the past or are otherwise technology or change-avoidant and sometimes need some sort of encouragement in order to get there.

I spend a lot of time teaching librarians how to send the right messages to novice technology learners who often are getting a lot of the wrong messages from the media. Think about what you'd know about computers if all you knew was reading about them in the paper or seeing how they worked on tv. You'd think they were capable of magic and that having one would instantly make you more productive, popular and social. You'd ALSO think that you were in constant danger of getting a virus [without knowing what one was] and of getting your identity stolen. So in order to be effective, you need to address these concerns without being all oogy-boogy but also helping them realistically approach technological problem solving.

A few things that I've found very helpful, feel free to email me to chat more.

1. Making sure the library has a good collection of books on the topics you're teaching. Many people feel comfortable with print information and are unnerved that computrs don't come with manuals. The "missing manuals" series and the Dummies guides are both really good. Have these books available in the room you're teaching in so that people can check them out on the way out.

2. Vocab and repetition are both really important. I don't think it's useful to teach people a bunch of arcane lingo, but I do think it's important for them to be able to have a working vocabulary so that they can talk about technology. So words like menu, scroll bar, click, double-click, desktop, etc, are all good for them to know. I tell students that if I use a word they don't understand just wave their hand and we'll stop and explain it, that's part of what class is.

3. Open source is great (and I'm a huge advocate personally) but it doesn't always solve problems for people. If they're looking for work, teaching them Open Office is not the same as teaching them the Microsoft suite. If they need free software to take home, OO may be it but I'm not totally sold on all the free toold [Firefox with Ad-Block = YES, VLC = YES, I'm not totally sold on Gimp for novice users]. I did a class that was basically "Free software you can take home with you!" with applications on CD and that was popular, but I don't know if I'd use OS stuff right off the bat with people who are learning stuff at a basic level. The most important thing is to not tell people that their technology choices are wrong. I dislike IE but I'm not going to go on a big rant about it in front of a student, I'll just try to give them options and then help them use their tools effectively.

4. Empowerment is tricky. I do a regular drop-in time at a computer lab at a local high school after school lets out and I find that it's useful to have more than one or two students because if I'm a little busy, the students are often good at helping each other, but they might not do it if I'm right there. It's tricky because I don't want to say "Hey ignore them!" but sometimes a little selective attention works. Some of the novice users I've worked with are incredibly hesitant to do things on their own and I often have to go through a big "you can not break it!" routine, bashing everything around before they become less timid. I do try to do the basic things oulined in this pamphlet: don't take the mouse, don't loom above them, don't say that things are easy when they are merely "uncomplicated" [it's amazing what a difference word choice makes] and I remind them that the computer is mostly a giant calculator. Not that smart, but sometimes inscrutable, so we are learning how to talk to it and make it do our bidding.

One of the things I do that seems so basic but really seems to help with recent immigrants is saying that technology skill is just one of a lot of skills people can learn. Many of them are bilingual [a skill I'd love to have] and I'm good with technology. We can all teach each other. Additionally, finding resources in people's native language [Wikipedia is great for this] can often help people who are literate in their own language but only so-so in English. Also if you're teaching Office skills, I've had good luck starting the class with starter documents. Some novice users are terrible at typing and so having a class that is going to be about bullet points of something start with ten minutes of typing can be tough for them, tough for you. Have a sample document that they can work from that already has some words and some formatting in it. I'll often start the next class in an Office series with some "here are some things we learned in the last class" and have some sort of a group quiz to repeat stuff and also make them see "hey you learned some stuff!"

5. It's okay and sometimes useful to tell people they are dealing with bad software or a bad website. A lot of the job application websites are, frankly, totally awful. If a student is struggling it's useful for them to know "It's not you, this is a difficult website. However, we have to figure out how to get through it, let's get started..." Novice users assume that anything that isn't working is their fault and this is rarely true.

6. I'll often talk about the things I like about technology in a "this works for me" way. So not a booster "everyone should be on facebook!" but more like "I found out about this local event on facebook" so that people can understand the things technology might do for them. I find that people are more engaged when they're solving problems for themselves and not doing repetitive tasks just for the sake of doing them.

Beyond this, there's the hackerspace idea. Have people come with questions and projects and be a person who can help them with them. The "drop-in time" that I do aspires to be sort of like this. People come to do software updates, or print mailing labels, or make powerpoint slides or download an audiobook. While they're there, they see other people doing other things and they get ideas or get inspired.

I have a stack of the handouts that I've made up on my website, feel free to check them out, reuse them, whatever is useful.
posted by jessamyn at 10:58 AM on May 7, 2011 [21 favorites]

If you're not already reading Lifehacker, be sure to start reading it religiously. You'll find lots of great ideas, both for yourself and to share with the patrons of the library system. (If you find the website layout annoying, as I do, subscribe to the RSS feed through Google Reader or your reader of choice.)

Also, the current (June 2011) issue of Maximum PC magazine has a great feature on lesser-known features and apps from Google. Whether you think Google is evil or lives up to its "Don't be evil" motto, it's front and center in the online world right now. So, getting in touch with everything it's offering, and learning how to maximize some of its more popular apps, could be useful.
posted by maxim0512 at 1:40 PM on May 7, 2011

Personally, I'd skip the Arduino routine unless you want to target college bound youth, or maybe youth who are on the fence about college. The majority of people I've spoken to who own an Arduino say it's collecting dust. Mine too. I don't really see either taking off outside of programmers with aspirations of leaving their job to do something 'with real things'.

From the "job skills and employment perspective", the big thing that will aide people is basic Windows UI and touch typing. Lots of clerical jobs have a words per minute filter, so being able to type faster will open up more doors. Computer systems in the US are surprisingly varied, but they all have QWERTY keyboards.

A big challenge non-IT people face is data preservation. Computers die in a surprising number of ways, and backups are rare. Hell, it took me two failures to learn the lesson, once as a high school student and once as an CS undergrad. In collegiate settings, students can be provided with network storage, but you'll be provided no such instructional support. There is, however, the cloud. It's not perfect, but its still dramatically more reliable than a single disk or USB thumbdrive. When I was a student, emailing something to yourself was the common tactic. Kids nowadays have dropbox, or maybe some browser UI tool. This is especially useful in your audience, who may not even have a computer at home. Random free cloud services:
* Dropbox
* amazon EC2 offers a free micro server for a year (for your advanced classes?)
* pandora offers free personalized streaming music
* mozilla offers free browser sync to save bookmarks, history, and passwords. might not be suitable for PC nomads that wander from public lab to public lab, but I self host a personal sync server.
* bajillions of free mail hosting sites. I use gmail, but perhaps you can try out MS's outlook web thingy. I tried it out just long enough to prove to my manager and director that we couldn't replace self-hosted exchange with it.
*, but i personally don't trust that kind of stuff to anything but GNUcash
* countless blog services, and a few online feed reader tools. Also yahoo! Pipes, which is sweet and a plausible 1 hour Programming Is Empowerment class topic.
* flickr
* Ubuntu is integrating more and more stuff into Ubuntu One, like contacts and bookmarks.

I do have one incredibly mundane suggestion, but you could try a series on using computers as planning tools. Showing folks how to build and store plans can give them an edge in personal and professional life. Todo lists, calendars, budgets, spreadsheets, etc. Many American institutions seem to profit from those with weak planning skills. Late fees, overdraft fees, expired licenses, credit card grace periods, last minute gift shopping, etc. So try making your example files relevant to them in this way. So many spreadsheet/excel books focus on how to format stupid corporate quarterly reports with a black box, when an amortization schedule of credit card debt is far more relevant to students. Worst case scenario, you can at least get them to use task lists as reminders to return books they check out ;)

So rereading your question, you're looking for a game plan for a summer of preperation. My suggested game plan is for you to try this stuff out, and live life in the cloud for a bit. Use a calendar to plan out your every moment for a week or two. Every work meeting, every TV show, podcast, and commute. Put every important date you're not supposed to forget into a recurring event on a calendar. Set up a blog about your experience. Build a time series budget of every purchase you plan to make in the next month, compare that with the BLS averages, and calculate the minimum future balance of your checking account. Try out EC2 and see if there's a showstopper I don't know about (I'm a Linode customer). Install greasemonkey and learn jquery (another feasible Programming Is Empowerment).

Also see if you can find and take a course offering like the one you're prepping for from someone else and talk to the people there. See how many of them carry thumb drives, what kind of cell phones they do or don't carry, and so on.
posted by pwnguin at 7:25 PM on May 7, 2011

Knowledge is empowering. Your local Adult Ed. program may have had cutbacks and might welcome a good teacher. You can offer courses in How To Buy A Computer, How to Stay Secure on the Internet, Delaing with Malware, Using Text Messaging, Using Facebook, Getting the Most out of Your Smartphone/iPad, etc. When I taught Adult Ed courses in computer applications, I had seniors, welfare-to-work moms, refugee immigrants and various community members. It was really fun and rewarding. Got some time? Volunteer at a retirement community and teach people the basics, as well as giving them some company.

You could work with local companies to rehab equipment for donation, but this is difficult; Windows and other application licenses are generally not transferable, so most companies can only give you a wiped pc. In some states, recycling laws mean that a company is responsible for proper disposal of the machine for its lifetime, so donation is risky. I find that people are often able to acquire a machine, but not able to afford to pay for A/V software, and are prey to malware. You could be an alternative to the rather pricey Geek Squad.

Perhaps most important, you could advocate for Internet access for everyone. The Internet is critical for information, job seekers, social lives, etc.
posted by theora55 at 8:28 PM on May 7, 2011

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