"Green/Blue" by Alexander Steinhof via Flickr

As I read this week about the importance of successful transfer of learning to new realms, I thought about how much of the technology we interact with each day can feel transparent to use but opaque to any deeper understanding.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it? I can search the Internet without understanding the mechanism behind the engine — unless, that is, a server goes down and I get some cryptic error message from the site I’d like to visit.

Environmentalist and writer John Michael Greer has a great passage on transparent technologies, describing how one could look at a slide rule and figure out how it worked and even make new slide rules. The mechanism is clear and replicable. But a calculator — that’s a little machine composed of batteries and solar panels. You can’t look inside a calculator and figure out how it works if you have no idea what a calculator is.

Now, his point has more to do with the choices we as a society make about the kinds of technologies we invest in and perpetuate, and what the consequences of those investments may be in the future if we don’t have the resources to continue building ever-more-complex and resource-intensive networks that run on oil, rare earth minerals, and cheap labor.

I’ll borrow his idea this week to pose a question about something more mundane in comparison: What is the relationship between successful knowledge transfer and technological literacy in the context of library instruction? And second, what could or should librarians do to make technology less transparent in the service of making it more understandable?

What got me thinking about this is the phrase “cloud computing.” How would a class of fifth-graders define such a term? Charmingly, no doubt — but is this a term that conveys the reality of this mechanism? This example strikes me as an instance when a metaphor may obscure rather than elucidate the real meaning of the process. I bet we could think of other technology terms that mean something to insiders as functional metaphors but are utterly confusing to the uninitiated.

Just the other day, I was on the phone with a patron, trying to explain what a “window” was on a Macintosh. I quickly realized that this “window” makes no sense — it’s not a window at all! you can’t see through it, anyway! — and started calling it a box with text. There, that makes sense.

How People Learn makes the point that one of the toughest elements of the transfer of knowledge involves awakening and often challenging previously held knowledge or mistaken understanding of phenomena.

I think this element poses a challenge especially in library instruction settings, where librarians often have a short time to establish rapport with students, and students may be embarrassed to admit mistaken understanding of the tools they are already using — even if doing so would help lay the groundwork for becoming better users of those tools.

This is tricky territory, though: I don’t intend to argue that we shouldn’t teach the “proper” terminology for technologies, nor that we should even expect that all students (any?) necessarily want to learn how something works in order to learn how to use it effectively.

But I do wonder if other students feel as I do when encountering my own (mis)conceptions of how a complex technology works — that if I can just see the human mind, the human hands that shaped it, I can relate to it and feel some small hope at figuring it out.

What if, at an orientation session on databases for English paper research, the librarian tried the following:

Students are asked to share a detail — funny or serious — about how they organize some element of their lives.

Then they get into groups and look at a handful of short articles. They are asked to read the articles and then come up with a way to describe and organize them so someone else who had never seen the articles could find them. Could they, in other words, find the slide rule solution?

They would report back on how they solved the puzzle.

Then the librarian would lead a discussion on where their strategies overlapped with or differed from how a database is put together, and they’d go from there, the students seeing how their minds work and how the database — that often foreign machine — works, both of their strategies merely the work of human minds.

I drew inspiration for this exercise from this library lesson from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, but I’m curious about what you think. What does transfer in the context of information literacy look like for you? How do you make sense of new technologies?

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