One of my favorite TV shows of all time is the American version of The Office (before it jumped the shark). I find it clever, funny, and endearing. The show follows the fictitious characters of a Scranton, Pennsylvania, paper company. Many of these characters are interesting and entertaining because I can relate to them. A few episodes in season four focused on technology. The Office staff was a combination of older and younger members, but the prevailing thread within them was their lack of technological proficiency. As an educator who is still learning his way around technology, I can relate to that.
As an example of The Office staff’s lack of technological know-how, Michael Scott, the branch manager, would post a stick-on note on his BlackBerry smartphone screen and then ask his secretary to hand it to the person that the message was for. In one memorable episode, Michael was supposed to give a presentation to his staff on PowerPoint use. Ryan Howard, his corporate boss, was in the audience. Michael, who didn’t prepare, fumbled around the home screen and was prompted to register and update PowerPoint. At that point, Ryan became angry:
Ryan: Is this the first time you ever opened PowerPoint?
Ryan: You didn’t prepare a presentation at all, did you?
Michael: OK. Honestly, it was unlikely I was going to figure this out anyways.
I think Michael’s response rings true for a lot of educators. Michael dismisses the idea that he can figure out PowerPoint and doesn’t solicit help to try and better understand the program. Instead, Michael is overwhelmed because technology seems hard, the terminology is foreign, and his boss, who asked him to showcase technology, is already proficient. Technophiles, like Ryan Howard, have prior knowledge which allows them to continue to construct, make meaning, and further their technological understanding. Technophobes, like Michael Scott, have prior fear and slim prior knowledge (if any) that impedes their ability to learn, thereby turning them off to the learning process.
The fact that technology hardware today is ever-changing does not help a technophobe. Computers are now the size of a marble composition book or a two-pocket folder. You can write on it with a computer pen (called a stylus) and save what you wrote. You can see and talk with someone halfway around the world, stream movies, and draw on the person’s face you’re talking to and on the movie you’re streaming (and your computer will save both). I can see how an educator would be intimidated when someone takes out a wafer-thin flat screen monitor, connects it to a wafer-thin keyboard, and when he’s done using his computer, takes it apart and puts it in his wafer-thin tote bag. This is LEGO blocks on steroids.
So, how do we assist people like Michael Scott without making them feel uncomfortable, as Ryan Howard did? I would suggest we focus on their soft skills: perseverance, grit, determination, and an understanding that failure is just a first attempt in learning. These are the skills we expect our students to embody, and we create classroom climates where this belief system can occur. Technophobes need to remind themselves that they already have the soft skills necessary to comprehend technology. It is just a new language. And, it takes years to master a language. Technophiles, on the other hand, need to demonstrate the skills necessary to be successful as members of a group: patience, collaboration, active listening, and understanding. To truly differentiate and meet the technological needs of all our educational lead learners, we will need to meet somewhere in the middle and go slow in order to get there. Otherwise, we’ll have too many more exchanges like the one Michael Scott and Ryan Howard had. And that didn’t end well.