Tag Archives: learning

Lessons from new user workshops

At August’s WordCamp San Francisco I helped organize and run a new user workshop on the Friday and Saturday of the 3-day conference. The next month I did the same thing for Portland’s WordCamp. There’s a lot that we can learn as creators of software by doing events like these. I think we need to do more of them.

New user workshops teach us so much about how users actually approach software. There’s not a more honest way to know how difficult or easy your software is to use than to try and walk a roomful of people through how to use it.

With a maturing project like WordPress this becomes even more true. It’s at a point where it can do so much that it is overwhelming to many people. They don’t know where to start. Somebody with no prior experience using your software is remarkably effective at finding the areas that are not easily understood. They are not shy about telling you what’s broken.

These workshops taught me that things need to be simpler. There are so many options to click on after loading the Dashboard. It’s too much. The first Dashboard load in these workshops was greeted, in many cases, with a look of overwhelmed confusion. Many people were lost and they hadn’t even started.

One thing that held true through the workshops was that the easiest features to explain were those most closely aligned to concrete actions on the site. Screens like the discussion settings and custom menus were almost impossible to comprehend. Others, like the Typekit font preview on WordPress.com, were immediately grokked and loved. Too many things in the Dashboard are abstracted from what they actually do on a site. Publishing shouldn’t be done in a control panel.

By gathering dozens of new users into one place you can also learn how people use software on various devices. We had people at the workshops using everything from a netbook, to MacBook Pros, iPads, and more. It was actually amazing how much of the workshop people could follow on nothing more than an iPad and an external keyboard.

Not only can we learn about the strengths and weaknesses of software, but we also learn how invigorating it is to have people using the tool we work on. At Automattic, I spend all of my day working on user support. Helping people publish on the web is what I do. To that end these workshops were refreshing. I had the opportunity to help everyone. From eleven-years old to a seventy they all walked away with a great looking blog.

I’m cleaning up the outline we used for each workshop into a curriculum of sorts that could be used by anyone to run their own new user workshop. The more events like these we can hold the better WordPress will become.

On Learning and Teaching

When I’m learning quickly everything is great. I feel good about myself and my abilities and I throw myself into learning as much as I can.

On the other hand when I’m learning slowly (hitting a “plateau”) I often get frustrated or discouraged. Nothing I try seems to speed up my ascent out of these plateaus. It seems like the only thing that works is time and practice of what I already know.

I think the reason for this is that once I learn a bunch of new concepts my brain needs some time to process them. I can learn the concepts and use them if I concentrate, but it’s not effortless. I think the reason I finally start learning quickly again after some time is that I’ve internalized the previous concepts and now I can move on to more difficult ones which build on the previous ones.

Steve Losh – On Learning and Teaching.

Construction of space in computer labs

I was reading this article about online courses on the MindShift blog today. It starts off with this image.

What a horribly depressing vision of a computer lab. While it is how the lab in my high school and those at Whitman were set up it nevertheless seems like such an utter failure at creating a place where students can collaborate around digital content.

In addition to the great firewall problem of web access in schools perhaps a large reason why online courses and digital initiatives fail is because they are forced into spaces like this.

This is what makes me most excited about the role iPads could play in schools. The opposite of a desktop machine, an iPad would allow students to engage with content without having to sit in straight rows with nothing in front of them but a monitor.

If a school could create socially designed spaces for their computers they might be surprised by the type of learning that happens.

The attention-span myth

Virginia Heffernan disputes the traditional notion of an attention-span. Good to see someone confront Nicholas Carr’s notion that technology causes brain damage.

I’m surprised that anyone ventures so far into this thicket of sophistry. I get stuck much earlier in the equation. Everyone has an attention span: really? And really again: an attention span is a freestanding entity like a boxer’s reach, existing independently of any newspaper or chess game that might engage or repel it, and which might be measured by the psychologist’s equivalent of a tailor’s tape?

If material is engaging people will focus on it, regardless of what their supposed attention-spans are.