The first step in teaching technology is to break down myths
Watch any movie or television program with a storyline that has the protagonist or antagonist writing a few lines of computer code to either save or end the world and it’s easy to see why some think technology works like magic. Between pop culture’s over-simplification of computer programming and the instant gratification available on the Internet, students often enter the online courses I teach with unrealistic expectations. My job, as instructor of several online introductory survey courses in the University of Phoenix College of Information Systems and Technology, is to tear down those misconceptions. Before we can begin lessons on what technology is, we must first establish what it is not.
First, technology is not easy to absorb and it does not always seem to be logical. There is a difference between everyday logic and computer logic, which is based on arrays. Some students expect to be able to download some sort of matrix and instantly be able to say, “I’m a master of programming.” This mindset is not conducive to a deep understanding of the technology. There is no instant secret, no “Wizard of Oz” hiding behind a curtain. You have to follow the directions, just as you would to make a sandwich or bake a cake. We must debunk any misperceptions that get in the way of learning. Only then can students dig deeper into theory so we can prepare them for future hands-on courses.
Build a foundation
Once we’ve established a clean slate, or baseline of sorts, the next step is to build a foundation with basic concepts. Students must learn to identify the difference between a computer and a terminal. They need to learn the symbiotic relationship between clients and servers and the specific tasks they perform. It’s also important to present technology as non-monolithic. As a society, we tend to look at technology as a whole rather than breaking it down into subcategories. In my introductory survey courses, we parse it out into hardware, software, processing and more.
Wiping the slate clean can also pertain to students who are self-taught and might have brought in poor habits with process, documentation or coding. While having some experience can be useful, it can be just as challenging to break bad habits as it can be for technology novices to create good ones. Sometimes, the differences in students’ abilities are not readily apparent. At the beginning of each online course, each student posts a brief biography outlining their prior experience and a few things about their personality so we can all connect on a personal level. When their assignments begin coming in, I can view the code. But during online conversations that take place in discussion or chat forums, I cannot look over their shoulder and read their body language to be able to tell if the information is clicking. I have to tease that out in conversations to make sure everyone is learning. By developing a rapport with each student, I am able to find ways to reach them individually regardless of whether they are starting from scratch or refining existing skill sets.
We also build confidence in students that they can succeed. They may post in their bio that this is their first tech course and they have no experience in computers. We show them that they were able to get online, post their bio and do all of the other tasks they might not have considered as being pertinent to the course. We break things down into chunks so they can believe in themselves.
History holds lessons
It’s important for students to recognize where technology has been to be able to understand where it is now. This includes taking a look at some of technology’s most famous failures as well as successes.
For every success attributed to computer moguls such as Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple®, Inc., and Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft®, there have also been giant failures. Students need to learn about them and why they failed.
One prominent example involves a good idea that went horribly wrong. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation proposed a virtual case file system so any agent anywhere could pull up data from each other’s files to share information, generate reports and more, it seemed plausible. An all-in-one machine, however, doesn’t do any one thing well. They wound up scrapping the $170 million taxpayer-funded project because it turned out to be completely useless.
History can also inspire creativity. For instance, students are introduced to DOS, an older operating system requiring a basic knowledge of specific commands to operate a computer. The ability to communicate between machines was born when someone discovered Netsend, a DOS command line prompt that could be entered in a Windows® environment along with the recipient’s computer’s name. This was really cool in the mid-1990s to be able to send one-way messages, even before instant messaging had been invented.
Then, instant messaging came along. Someone took a look at the existing technology and wondered “What if?” Now a huge part of our everyday contacts involve instant messaging. I use this example to teach students to look at what’s out there and think about how it could be repurposed. It tangibly helps them understand how things have progressed from the days of small networks of computers to today’s global interconnectivity and the associated possibilities.
Finally, I encourage students to investigate specializations such as fighting cyber crime. There are a lot of options. Being a generalist is not a bad thing, but we plant the seeds that only doing one thing can limit their future. It’s always better to be prepared for future growth.
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This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, UOPX Campus Viewpoints section. To review our current faculty articles, visit: https://chronicle.com/campusViewpoint/University-of-Phoenix/29/.