How to not make photocopiers from humans

If you teach online you encounter the challenge of digital communications and “content” on an intimate basis. I have noticed that a large number of emails and time is spent on integrating – what I am calling – ‘digital machines’ in to use.

Digital machines can be a spreadsheet used to organize some activity, they can be a University course laid out in a certain way that students aught to navigate in a certain way. They can be a new bit of micro-software to log something. They can be a big bit of software used to mediate video, audio or written interactions. In sum, by machine I do not just mean a physical machine, but a digital artefact of any scale or longevity that is designed for a user to interact with in order to navigate it and achieve some preplanned outcome.

There are a number of other challenges to digital machines beyond integration of them by users, such as whether pedagogy should be readied rather than planned or why monolingual (closed system) rather than open system software are used. However, for now I am just focussing on the question of what to do when faced with decision of introducing a new machine in a given context you don’t necessarily have power to change the deeper economic, political or cultural approach of.

Within these constraints of thinking about everyday-use rather than reinventing the context of the use or the concept of use itself, every time a new ‘machine’ is introduced to users (eg teachers) or users introduced for the first time to an existent machine (eg students) I think it would be helpful to consider the following footnote from Lucy Suchman:

“As Balsamo succinctly points out, “to design an interface to be ‘idiot-proof’ projects a very different level of technical acumen onto the intended users than do systems that are designed to be ‘configurable’” (Balsamo in press: 29). It should be noted that this argument carried with it some substantial – and controversial – implications for technology marketing practices as well, insofar as it called into question the assertion that technology purchasers could invest in new equipment with no interruption to workers’ productivity and with no collateral costs. On the contrary, this analysis suggests that however adequate the design, long-term gains through the purchase of new technology require near-term investments in the resources that workers need to appropriate new technologies effectively into their working practices. Needless to say, this is not a message that appears widely in promotional discourses.” (2007: 10)

Based on my own practice and learning from others, what this means in practical terms is (1) if you are introducing new machines don’t start from the place of thinking users are idiots or that a machine is self-explanatory. As Suchman notes:

My point was that making sense of a new artefact is an inherently problematic activity. Moreover, I wanted to suggest that however improved the machine interface or instruction set might be, this would never eliminate the need for active sense-making on the part of prospective users. This in turn called into question the viability of marketing the machine as “self-explanatory,” or self-evidently easy to use.” (2007: 9-10)

Furthermore, (2a) if you are introducing new machines – handbooks, course materials, new software – that are required to be used, and they are new because users have either not been introduced to them adequately before (e.g. they have received handbooks before but no one actually introduced, did sense making, or made space to make sense of them ) or they are in fact a new kind of machine for them (e.g. the first time you encounter a handbook), do not assume clear signage of advice written in humanised language to help users navigate the machine is adequate because:

“The main observation of the latter [expert advise on using a machine] was that human conversation does not follow the kind of message-passing or exchange model that formal, mathematical theories of communication posit. Rather, humans dynamically coconstruct the mutual intelligibility of a conversation through an extraordinarily rich array of embodied interactional competencies, strongly situated in the circumstances at hand (the bounds and relevance of which are, in turn, being constituted through that same interaction).”

That does not mean not including FAQs, they are a key step, especially when written in dialogical form. Nor does it mean machines are hopeless and we can’t have things like online learning. In addition much of what Suchman is noting arguably applies whether it’s online or not.

What it does mean is that the humans (teachers) who facilitate ‘the situation’ or learning in the digital environment – specifically when it is not about mathematical ways of thinking – are doing a lot of carework in terms of “sense-making on the part of prospective users”. This needs to be acknowledged more clearly. Otherwise if not then they may not make that space, and then they are by default asking their users/students to become more the photocopier in Suchman’s research than a human:

“the machine could only “perceive” that small subset of the users’ actions that actually changed its state. This included doors being opened and closed, buttons being pushed, paper trays being filled or emptied, and the like. But in addition to those actions, I found myself making use of a large range of others, including talk and various other activities taking place around and in relation to the machine, which did not actually change its state. It was as if the machine were tracking the user’s actions through a very small keyhole and then mapping what it saw back onto a prespecified template of possible interpretations. Along with limitations on users’ access to the design script, in other words, I could see clearly the serious limitations on the machine’s access to its users.” (2007: 11)

It is perhaps unsurprising then if the work of a student or teacher ends up in part sounding like the way a photocopier functions: simplified flow diagrams of a limited number of causal interactions that can be changed through directive policy inputs towards achieving a defined output.

In my experience, to adjust for this, means that users, firstly the teachers but also the students, need to be able to access the design script and be able to reconfigure their digital machines in feedback loops that do not take inordinate amounts of time that the same users cannot mediate the feedback or sense that the reconfigurations implemented were even what they meant. That does not mean hiring tonnes more IT staff or overworking them. That misses the point.

What it might mean at minimum is being plain and clear to the degree a teacher knows about how the course they are teaching works. Being open about its economics and design.

In addition, before any formal interaction with the host of machines that constitute the course happens a moment of trial by error of the inherited machines should take place and investment placed in that. Otherwise the course becomes more a training in learning how to navigate it rather than something else. And in doing so becomes a form of habituation into having little agency over the medium you are living through.

In short onboarding needs to occur, rather than making assumptions about users or rushing them onward. But more importantly, the ability to reconfigure should be aimed for. This does not mean everyone becomes an IT expert, but that instead of following several layers of protocols via several layers of people to get a reconfiguration, reconfiguration capabilities can be available during on boarding, facilitated by IT experts and teachers, to get a best fit for each group with its own unique human configuration. And where possible reducing the numbers of platforms and machines. And increasing to some degree the ability for users to adapt the platforms themselves.

If this is sounding complex it’s not. It’s a question of decentralizing adaptation rather than centralising adaptiveness. Which in simple terms means starting sense making with teachers, support staff, students and machines and finding not where they all need to be forced to end up, but where they are at and where they might want to go, with the understanding that where you want to go will adapt as you proceed toward it. All the external standards and so forth that need be met can be bootstrapped on to this process rather than vice versa.

I know it might still sound quite a leap, but it’s really not when you work it through. It’s the opposite. It’s grounding and then sometimes flying, rather than remaining lost in abstraction. And finally I am no great example of any of the pros and cons here, just trying to reflect on our current limitations and how to build on our grounded strengths.

I am really open to adapting and updating this line of thinking as it’s still a bit raw. Please comment below with your own experiences and thoughts based on those.

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