I got an email from a former student: “Please do not take this as a comment on your age … but have you ever thought of writing a book on technology for the ‘over-50’ crowd? I only ask because a teacher at my campus, near retirement age, is an avowed technophobe, to the point that she hires younger relatives to do any tech work for her and doesn’t have an updated computer at home. I mentioned your expertise and how savvy you were, and she was ready to hire you on the spot for tutorials!”
First of all, this did not offend me in the least. I am proud to still be working at an age when many of my peers are retired. Second, the message surprised me a little. I thought surely the problem of educators who are afraid of technology was fading as devices and programs have become more and more common on campuses. Let me hasten to say here that I have never bought into the ageism that says older educators are most likely to be technophobes. I know it’s not true in my case or in the case of so many colleagues and leaders in the field of education technology. However, my former student’s plea made me wonder: Is the issue of technophobia still a problem today?
Technology … What?
According to a survey I conducted for this article, the answer is a resounding yes. I asked colleagues from various message boards if they are still seeing technology anxiety as a problem where they work. In less than 24 hours, I had more than 100 responses, with a final total of 185. Of those who shared their views, 96% acknowledged that the problem is still very real. Full survey results are available at bit.ly/techiephobes, and be sure to read the comments. This led me to stop and ask how I could respond to my friend’s request. I am not inclined to write another book right now, but I decided I could use this space to address the problem. It occurred to me that while I have written about technophobia before, I have never written anything addressing folks directly. So I decided to use that approach and write an open letter to people who find technology challenging, hoping perhaps this column might be handed off to professionals who still find technology off-putting and that it might offer encouragement. So here goes.
It seems that you are among the many who are not inclined to jump on the technology bandwagon in your school or district. You simply want to continue doing things the way you have in the past, knowing that you are doing a good job and have been successful in your career to this point. In all likelihood this is absolutely true. You are a good teacher. Your students do succeed. But pressure is increasing for you to use more and more technology even though you would rather not. I know how that pressure feels because I used to be a technophobe. I remember the nervous feelings I would have when I was called upon to do things on a computer, especially when others were watching. I still get a panicky sensation when I am presenting in front of a group and things do not work as they should. I also know how it feels to see a friend or colleague demonstrate something and click through processes so fast that I can never hope to follow. It’s frustrating. Here are some things I would like to say to you:
1. You are not alone. Ignore people who want to bring you down by saying how easy technology is or by suggesting everybody else is more proficient. Different people have different gifts. As preparation for this article, I conducted an informal survey of colleagues via my favorite message boards. As always I got great response, with 185 participants, either school librarians, teachers, or technology specialists. Ninety-six percent of them reported that they still have colleagues who are dealing with discomfort when it comes to using technology on the job. That means there are a lot of people who share your feelings.
2. This does not reflect on you. There are lots of reasons why technology may not be your forte. The most common reason is lack of time. A number of my survey respondents cited this as a complicating factor. The rapidly changing world of technology makes it hard to keep up even if you are consistently trying. In my case, once I fell behind in an area, I found it more and more difficult to catch up. I finally had to make a concerted effort through seeking a graduate degree in educational technology. This forced me to catch up! I realize this option is not viable for most people, but I do think seeking training that really works for you is important.
3. Lack of good training may be an issue in your district. That coupled with lack of time can make it harder to move ahead with new technologies. This is the stumbling block for many busy educators. My suggestion is that you look beyond your district for training opportunities
4. You do have lots of choices, though. While it’s true that training offered by your district may be less than stellar, there are lots of options out there. You will be well-served to look around for the one that best meets your needs and abilities.
5. You can do this! Many people make the transition from discomfort to comfort and even leadership using technology at school and for their own personal benefits. I see this transformation take place often with my students who are pursuing master of library science degrees.
Assuming you are on board with trying to move forward, what are some things you should consider?
1. You are not going to break the computer or other device. In working with many adult learners, both as a reference librarian and as a graduate professor, I find that some people are very tentative to use their equipment for fear of hurting it or causing it to crash. First of all, when your computer crashes, it’s not like when your car has a wreck. All it means is that the device has encountered an error that caused it to stop working. The solution is probably as simple as closing and reopening an application or turning your computer off, waiting a few seconds, and then starting again.
2. Start small. As with any other project, you cannot reach your goals all at once. The cliche “baby steps” is appropriate. Try to address first the one task that most hinders you from getting things done. For instance, do not try to master Microsoft Excel in one session. Learn how to create a list and sort the items. Tackle formulas or other features later once you’ve mastered some basics. Set yourself small and quickly attainable goals. Your campus librarian or tech specialist can give you direction.
3. Find the best ways to get help for your personality and situation. My survey respondents said again and again that the best training is one on one. If that sounds appealing to you, then seek out someone who can and will be your go-to person when you have questions about how to do something. This person should be nonjudgmental, patient, and willing to help. For me, that person is a younger colleague. She often beats me to the draw trying new applications, but she is happy to bring me along when I ask. For many people, that buddy may be someone in your family rather than someone at work. My daughter and I exchange computer tips frequently. Many of my students get help from their own kids and also spouses.
4. For most people, finding a buddy is a great idea, but there may be reasons why this does not work for you. Some people just like to do things themselves, and others may have difficulty finding someone to work with. In that case, another means of getting help is to do a simple internet search. You do not need to be a highly sophisticated internet researcher to find online help. Simply use a search engine such as Google and start asking for help. For example, maybe you hear people talking about making screencasts but you have no idea what they are or how to use or make them. Just do a search and you will get all kinds of help. There are tons of great free online tutorials to help beginning users with applications. Many come with videos to show you as well as tell you how to do something. YouTube is a collection of videos that offers many wonderful tutorials. Likely your first result from such a search will come from Wikipedia. Do not be put off by this research tool. One thing Wikipedia does best is to explain, in simple terms, new and emerging developments in technology. For something as simple as a quick definition, Wikipedia is a super resource. Beyond this, you are likely to find that your simple search brings up all sorts of resources related to your query. The first item in the results for my “screencast” search brought up Screencast-O-Matic, which I find to be the best and easiest way to make and share these creations. That site gives you very simple and clear instructions on how to proceed, and you can find yourself making and sharing these in less than 30 minutes. Give it a try!
5. Put aside reluctance to get help from students. When I first started teaching at the graduate level, I was just out of doctoral studies and wanted to make sure my students knew I was qualified. When several students in my first basic technology class were clearly savvier than I, it made me feel uncomfortable. If you have similar feelings, you need to banish them! Regardless of the age of your students, you are likely to have those who are doing with ease things that you find difficult. This does not need to be a threatening situation. Students know that you are the teacher and that you know your subject better than they. By opening up and allowing them to help you out with technology, you can pick up new information and they can have the affirmation that comes from helping you. My experience is that students love to be asked for help. Their scorn is more likely to be directed at adults who refuse to try to learn and instead try to hide their lack of expertise.
6. There are books and online tutorials that can really help you. I just came across a book called Is This Thing On? A Computer Handbook for Late Bloomers, Technophobes, and the Kicking & Screaming. The author is Abby Stokes, and the book is geared toward true novices. It is very readable with great tips. There are also some wonderful internet sites that offer ideas and support.
7. Don’t be intimidated by superstars. There are likely colleagues who love to talk about their successes and perhaps indulge in a bit of bragging. Some people who are enamored by all things techie may rush from one new tool to another, always seeking the latest and greatest one to adopt. Sometimes they abandon a perfectly satisfactory application that their kids already use, in favor of something newer. This is not the goal of all educators. Your subject matter is what you need to teach. If a certain way of doing so, with or without computer use, is working well, then there may not be a need to change or feel second-best because someone else is.
8. Reconsider privacy. Some people feel uncomfortable about technology, especially online activity, because of privacy concerns. I am going to be frank about this. Privacy as we once knew it is no longer an option unless you are willing to go off the grid entirely—and as a teacher you really cannot do this. While you want to keep your private business to yourself, the truth is that a certain amount of information about you is already online. The best way to protect yourself is to never, ever share anything online that you are not willing for everybody to know. This includes any pictures you post as well as comments you make online. Just remembering this one rule is the best way to protect privacy. Beyond this, you should make sure any passwords you have are strong and unique, and change them from time to time. Never respond to online offers for deals that sound too good to be true. Be very protective of your personal information—especially phone number, address, and credit card data.
9. Communication is a great starting point. Suppose you really do want to expand your computer use and find some ways to enjoy life online. Many users find that communication is the entry point that works best for them. Probably you are already using email and finding it essential both at work and at home. Learn how to do a few new things such as send attachments and forward messages. Next for lots of people is to enjoy an online social environment such as Facebook. If you haven’t explored this option, take a look. It’s true that your postings will be accessible to many other people, but if you never share anything you want kept private, this is not a problem. Because many of my friends are educators, I learn new things every day via Facebook. If you are already Facebooking, you might try Twitter. The key to happiness using Twitter is to follow people who are experts in your field. They will be sharing links and information that will interest you rather than mundane trivia. I don’t care what somebody had for lunch, but I do appreciate tidbits about technology and librarianship that I glean from Twitter.
10. Try out a new application that will be easily mastered and give you quick positive results. I asked colleagues for ideas, and one person recommended asking yourself if you are a left brain type (logical) or right brain type (creative). Logical folks will find Evernote a great program, free and online, for organizing your world. Learning to do some basic operations in Microsoft Excel, such as sorting lists and making charts, is rewarding too. What about right brainers? You will likely enjoy something that gives you results you can see and share. An easy and fun start is to get to know Microsoft Office drawing tools and word art. They can jazz up things you are already doing. Get to know your phone camera or any digital camera. Then find ways to use and share pictures with Photo Story, Animoto, or Instagram. Don’t worry if these programs sound unfamiliar. You can use them freely online, and they offer their own easy tutorials. If your school has document cameras, get to know these nifty devices also.
11. Read! Of course since I am a librarian I am going to promote reading online. You don’t have to have a Kindle or NOOK to enjoy ebooks. While I do have a Kindle and an iPad, I do a lot of reading on my phone. Like most people, I love the feel of a real book in my hands, but I have learned to read in any format. I love downloading books, many of them free, because I get instant gratification. I can start reading that book I just heard about without waiting to order or get to a bookstore. While you’re online, consider joining a social reading site such as Goodreads. It’s a great way to share opinions about books and get ideas for what to read next.
12. Have fun! If you like to play games, play away. You don’t have to be competitive and play online opponents. You can just enjoy a break now and then with some computer or phone app that you enjoy. I play a phone game called Paper Toss every time I am stuck in a supermarket line. It really helps the time go by.
13. Reward yourself. Set the goal of learning a given thing that you have been postponing and promise yourself that you will do something special to celebrate. I didn’t allow myself to read the novel I had in progress until I finished a rough draft of this article.
What’s so great about technology that you should immerse yourself in it when you have a pretty happy life right now? I submit that you will enjoy the satisfaction of learning new things. Like many of my students, you will begin to find that people come to you with their technology questions. Your efforts will result in better performance and satisfaction at work, and you will feel good about yourself for having overcome past discomfort about technology.
Contact Mary Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org