Yup, my 75-year old stepmother.
In my work with teachers and learners of all stripes, I read extensively, listen carefully to experts, and experiment with methods to most effectively coach the smart use of computer technology, social media, and online interaction in learning. My goal is to arrive at useful principles that inform teaching and learning. But lately, I’ve realized that some of the my best material comes out of paying attention to my stepmother’s experience with her iPad.
To back up, she started three years ago with a desktop PC. That was a complete and utter failure. Not intuitive, unreliable, subject to mysterious update requirements and outages, and tethered to a room she rarely occupied. But everything changed when she got her iPad. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from her:
Power of Portable. The fact that she could access the tablet where ever she was – in the kitchen (for a recipe), in bed (to read the headline news), in the living room (to look up the name of that movie on television), in the car (for directions). Lesson: The value of computing power when and where you need it.
Consider All Tool Options. The red magnetic case I purchased for her came with a stylus. I would have never purchased a stylus for her (because I don’t use one with my iPad), but it turned out the stylus was a breakthrough. A germ thing? A connection to a familiar tool (pen)? The pressure or size of her fingers not working reliably? Maybe all three, but the stylus turned out to be key. Lesson: Avoid the mistake of assuming everyone shares your preferences.
What You Call Things Matters. Unfortunately the basic architecture of the internet and her computing device are complete mysteries to my stepmother – and, quite honestly, she really doesn’t want to know. For the most part, that’s ok. But occasionally her lack of understanding trips her up. For example, comprehending the difference between connecting to the internet via a nearby wireless source versus cellular data; the concept of storing documents/photos/videos online; or the mystery of “cookies”. When she stumbles on these gaps, I’ve found it’s best to construct an analogy that has nothing to do with computing. A similar situation carved from her other interests in life. And in the conversation, completely avoid the use of acronyms and techie terms. Lesson: Meet the learner where they are.
The Fluster Factor. When things go wrong for my stepmother and her tablet (and they do, oh lordy, they do), I’ve discovered that it’s unwise to intervene immediately. By the time she calls me, she’s been at it for awhile, trying to figure it out on her own. She’s flustered. Upset, frustrated, and ready to chuck the whole thing in the garbage. My strategy has been to suggest she put it away and we’ll talk about it tomorrow. Give her a chance to recover her composure and get some distance from it. Once we do go at it again (typically over the phone), it helps for me to have my iPad in front of me and walk through the situation right along with her. That way I can attempt to translate the diagnostic information she’s providing. It was only when I had my iPad in hand that I could correctly connect her lament that “Google won’t come up” to the fact that the icon for her browser had disappeared from the task bar. Lesson: Best to solve problems with cool heads and calm psyches.
Reflection and Pride. Over time I’ve learned to remind my stepmother of what she’s mastered. When a new problem crops up or there’s a new function she wants to learn, I start by reminding her of the path she’s been on and asking her for insight on her achievement . “Remember when you started with the iPad and you were nervous about using the camera? Those photos you took of your grandson’s soccer game last week were quite good – how did you take that action shot?” When she reflects on her success, she inevitably comes up with some insight that would have never occurred to me (for instance, it was important to her picture-taking to completely remove the iPad cover to lighten it and find a way to steady her hands). I’ve noticed that she likes to bring the iPad (with its bright red cover) with her to events – in part to take photos, but also to let people know that she has one – and uses it. She takes tremendous pride in mastering this piece of 21st century equipment (as well she should) and wearing her accomplishments like a badge of honor is deeply rewarding for her. Lesson: Attagirls and reflection on successes deepens satisfaction and leads to insights.
Personal Motivation. I repeatedly made the mistake of introducing a new app to her because I thought she’d like it. I finally figured out (doh) the importance of leading with the need and then introducing the app as the solution. My stepmother wanted to talk with her friend in the U.K. Perfect vehicle for introducing Skype. Her desire to communicate with her friend carried her through the difficulty of learning a new application and persevering to figure things out. She doesn’t think in terms of VoIP or of Skype, she thinks in terms of the blue button that allows her to talk with Sue. Lesson: A learner will persist longer and with more diligence if they are motivated by what is important to them.
So, there you have it. I’m grateful for the chance to learn right along with her.