Don’t rely on technology to give a good first impression of technology

ICTworks links to this account of teacher training in Haiti, and how a simple email address can be a major ICT4D barrier. I squirmed in sympathy when I read it, because I’ve also been let down by Yahoo! Mail when attempting to sell people on the wonderful world of ICTs. And I’ve been let down by Hotmail. And Gmail. And Microsoft Office and the internet. Computers in general, actually. This is the problem: technology makes a lot of promises – or rather we make a lot of promises about what technology can do. People come to it with anything from terror through apprehension to high hopes and expectations of amazing things. And having seen several peoples’ first exposure to ICTs, the result is often confusion, disappointment and frustration – for all concerned.

The first time I took a class of Cambodian students to an internet cafe in town, I had high hopes. ‘They’ll take to it straight away’, I thought to myself. ‘What’s not to love about the internet, it’s amazing’. We’d gone through some basic principles, and I was keen to expose the students to the real deal as quickly as possible. So around twelve of us took over a small internet cafe.

Here was the first problem. Twelve people trying to do stuff online through one 256Kbps connection. It was a shambles. The students, some who had never spent any serious amount of time on a computer, sat patiently, and sat, and sat, while things moved at a tectonic pace. The computers were knackered. The internet connection was feeble and a dozen people were trying to use it at once. Googling stuff became about the only viable activity after attempting to sign up for Yahoo! Mail went about as badly as it could. Yahoo! Mail was chosen as most people in Cambodia at the time were using it – it seemed to make sense to go with what other people know. The signup process was horrific. Floating animated characters chipped in with confusing messages, themselves taking more time to load, slowing everything up. Though most people managed to follow instructions and get themselves an email account, they really didn’t know how the hell they’d managed it, and seemed relieved when the class was over and we all piled back onto the pickup truck out of town.

I realised how difficult it must have been for the students. I’d been practically raving about how awesome computers and the internet were, and all they saw on their first proper exposure to it was slow, painfully slow and utterly confusing (how do I type in Khmer?) – but they’d been told it was all amazing so they were being incredibly patient, and possibly thinking it must have been their fault that none of it worked.

Of course, the reality if you’re a tech native is that you have years worth of training in how to, if not use technology, then take an educated guess how to use it. You’re able to compensate, in real time, for badly designed tech, quirks, bugs and crashes. Counterintuitive interface design, confusing buttons and icons, double-click this, right-click that, wait while this loads, wait longer, know when to restart, know when to quit. The things you take for granted fade into the background. These are things you need to constantly be aware of and plan for when you’re training ‘newbies’, because you know the capacity of badly-behaved technology to make you look like a fool at just the wrong moment.

Things with my students got better over time as I scaled everything back. A few people to each of a couple of PCs playing team-based typing games, getting familiar with the keyboard, enjoying simple activities without diving in to email and spreadsheets. Tying computer lessons in with other offline activities and projects so that mastery of the computer was less a be-all-end-all but an extra enabler, a tool (as is the case in real life, surely). Choosing an achievable objective and working towards it, going back and repeating the steps to get to it. Testing everything before trying it on students. Adapting on the fly.

A short while ago one of those students from the Yahoo! Mail shambles, now at a university in Phnom Penh, messaged me on Facebook asking me a question about Debian. I was very happy to be able to tell him that he probably knew more about Debian than me and I couldn’t really help.