Wednesday, October 28, 2009

COETAIL Course 3, Reflection 3

Transferable Skills

Last Saturday’s discussion really got me thinking.
Sometimes it is very hard to articulate wisdom or principles gained by experience rather than instruction. Successful habits become “second-nature” or “unconscious”. When you are taught explicitly you have the memory of the lesson and you often have been encouraged to reflect on your experience of learning. Both of these provide easier access to ways you can describe a particular skill you have acquired to someone else down the road, but more importantly for this post I am skeptical about the notion that these transferable skills can be disseminated. I think they have to be ingrained through experience and practice. I think the transferability really comes in to play as a result of acquiring mastery.
“from one thing, know ten thousand things” — Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings
How is this possible? Very general principles apply across disparate domains. For more specific principals there has to be some kind of conceptual mapping between the two domains. The Book of Five Rings was written by a master swordsman* and it is full of wisdom about prevailing in a conflict. The book became a popular read for businesspeople because there is, arguably, some congruity between the two domains of conflict and competition. Notice that the person seeking wisdom from this book must have great familiarity with their domain to know how to apply the principles.
What I fear we are asking our students to do in teaching information literacy in the structure I presently understand to be is analogous to the following.
Teaching a bit of violin, a bit of piano and a bit of drums at different times, in different places, just-in-time for performing specific songs. The songs themselves have been chosen primarily to teach or reinforce other core content. From my own personal experience, I was forced to learn one program inside and out as part of a job**. Subsequently I find it to be interesting, fun and often easy to pick up new programs. I don’t know if this analogy holds and water. More importantly I doubt it even matters because it is not fluency or expertise here that is our goal, it is more an attitude we are trying to foster. (Mindset vs Skill-set distinction)
All right, enough naysaying, here is my list of little tech attitudes/skills that I have acquired over the years. May they be at least of interest to you, if not benefit. :)

Attitudes & Distinctions

Appearances Are Only Part of the Story

I already mentioned one area where this is true: pasting from MS Word into a Web App. There are these things called character encodings and it is beyond the scope of this post to explain them. Suffice to say, I had some jobs with deadlines that forced me to learn about them and the behavior of text across various applications is a lot less mysterious to me now. Another quick anecdote on this, I was forwarded an email the other day and asked for my opinion about the layout of the email. The original email was one of those fancy ones, like a newsletter with lots of html and images and formatted text, but that did not show up in the forwarded email. So I took a screen capture and sent it back asking if was supposed to look that way. The recipient insisted I did not send an attachment at first, then later tried to select text appearing in the image. Opps, this doesn’t sound like it is of any use.

Interface Conventions

There are certain things that are similar across many different programs, particularly on the Mac since Apple publishes guidelines for interfaces. Quoting from the intro to them on the Apple website:
Users will learn your application faster if the interface looks and behaves like applications they’re already familiar with.
Users can accomplish their tasks quickly, because well-designed applications don’t get in the user’s way.
The second one there is a double edged sword, it says much of the less frequently used functionality is going to be hidden. If you can begin to master the intricacies of one program you will begin to notice that the extent to which functionality is hidden and the hiding places are common to many programs. This is particularly true of programs that share some kind of kinship like all being word-processors or all being made by the same company.

Webapp vs Desktop App: NOT the Same

I do a bit of one-on-one training for adults who are new to computing. I also have small children, Pre-K and 3rd grade. One thing they have in common is they don’t make a clear distinction between Webapps and Desktop apps. Occasionally this can lead to problems so it can be good to get clear on the difference. The biggest offender here is web-based email because if that is primarily what you use the computer for, and you have always used a service like YaHoo for your email it can be confusing. To make the distinction clear, Yahoo is a webapp which you use in a web-browser, such as Firefox, Safari or InternetExplorer— all of which are desktop applications. The difference is a web app can be used in different browsers, with varying degrees of success, and it relies on an internet connection. The code of which the app is made resides on the server, somewhere on the web. In contrast a desktop application runs from a users computer and does so regardless of whether there is an internet connection.
An important consequence of these differences is that the costs of operation are different. If you are ever trying to get an intuition about whether it is possible to do something with a particular webapp it is good to know how its creators make money. For example, powerful programs that doesn’t cost the user any money directly is often crippled in some way and hoping to entice payment for a fully functional version.

Little Things Matter

Designers try to put a lot of functionality into software interfaces. There are sometimes subtle distinctions between where you click. For example in a Macintosh Finder window, while in list view (accessed via the short-cut cmd-2) click-dragging is sensitive to where the initial click is.
If you are not on the file’s icon or filename text you will begin selecting multiple files in a continuous selection.
finder subtlety: click and drag outside name text
If, on the other hand, you click on the icon or text you will begin moving the file:
finder screenshot
Another example: Adobe software contains many, many function buried in for which the only access is a tiny icon.
illustrator palette
Therefore it pays to be observant small details of what you do and what you see when working on computers and to consciously hone your intuition of what constitutes a small detail.

Neither Hardware Nor Software Are Alive

Tempting as it may be, it doesn’t do any good to personify your computer or a piece of software.
Skype is acting up.
My computer hates me.
Blogger doesn’t like text pasted from MS Word.
Unless the sentiment is followed by a reality-based explanation or at least the curiosity to find one, you are not going avoid frustration.
Are other network services slow, note the time of day/week to see if there is a pattern.
My computer does not run smoothly when the hard-drive is almost full.
Don’t ever paste from MS Word into web-based application and expect it to work 100% of the time. To be on the safe side, paste into a text-only program like Wordpad (PC) or TextEdit (Mac)

Be Systematic

When you are trying to learn a new program or tackle a problem be systematic. Keep track of what you tried so that you don’t repeat yourself and so if you get help from someone and they say, “Have you tried X?”, you can answer with confidence. By all means take a stab at it, but guessing randomly is hard to manage.

Expert Use Is Efficient Use

Be eager to learn to use the software or the service the way the pros do, don’t shy away from it thinking it will be a lot of work. If you have ever seen a framer hit a nail in with 1 hit you know what I mean. Why wouldn’t you want to be able to do it like that? The ah-ha moment for me was when I was when I got a quick family portrait done last-minute style in a Taipei subway and watched the clerk retouch our photo in seconds. I had previously refused to learn keyboard short-cuts. I would have taken me an hour to do what this guy did. I told myself that day I was going to learn all the keyboard short-cuts in all the programs I use. Opps, that was fail. This conception of becoming an über-expert eroded down to the more manageable maxim: learn short-cuts for the functions you use the most. Start with cut, copy and paste.
keyboard shortcuts are next to the commands
What is this you say? You already use those? You ever switch between programs? Command-Tab (mac) Alt-Tab (PC) switches applications. If you do the job repeatedly, learn the short-cuts. On mac programs the short-cuts appear next to the commands in the menu. Here is a handy legend that shows which keys those funny symbols stand for.
mac keyboard shortcuts legend
This is not meant to suggest that short-cut usage equals expertise, just saying do it like an expert because it is easier in this case. Over time you will get an intuition for what the modifier keys do and what shortcuts are going to be in new programs.
*He had over 60 duels in his life, killed a man in a duel at age only 13 and never lost a duel.
**Adobe Illustrator, spent two years as a technical illustrator at a small company

1 comment:

Harvey said...

Rather than learning bits of the uses of various instruments, I like to think of what we are doing is adding tools to our toolbox. The musical instruments idea suggests people are tending to be more generalists (with a variety of instruments) than specialists (concert performers). The generalists have their place in society and I tend to think they are what most teachers are.

You suggested the businessman is an expert in his field. This is the area that concerns me about the education of our students now. We may be making them generalists at many things and specialists and very few. They may end up not having a passion for anyone thing, not having a depth of understanding on any one thing, and lacking the depth of commitment that comes with this experience.

The toolbox idea works for me because when we are looking for ways to best help students learn, knowing bits of various "programs" helps us know what can work best. Hopefully, the human resources relationships we develop in this course gives us support when we want to carry it a step further and use it in our instruction. I agree with you, though, that forging ahead and taking risks and trying programs out to see how they help and fail IS the best teacher for learning the effectiveness of a program.