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Ironica's Journal: The problem with how we teach people technology 7

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When you learned to drive a car, you probably knew a little about it. There's an engine, it burns gas, that causes the wheels to go around. The gas pedal must have something to do with that burn rate. The brake makes the wheels stop.

Now, imagine that we all treated that "under the hood" as a black box, and that typical people commonly confused the engine with the carburetor. Some cars would even come with holographic stickers closing the hood shut, so you couldn't open it without voiding the warranty. When someone teaches you to drive a car, they say:

"Turn that key. Now, press in this button and move this lever until it clicks four times. Turn the wheel about 60 degrees, and slowly press on the right pedal. Turn the wheel back 60 degrees, but slowly... SLOWLY! See, you almost ran into that car! Now give it a little more gas... I'm sorry, I didn't mean to fall into jargon. Press harder on that right pedal. Use the big one on the left when we get to that white line on the pavement up there."

This is how people are taught to use computers. Click this, press that, drag here, type there. Meanwhile, when the computer tells them it's running out of memory, they start deleting stuff from their hard drive to free up space, because they don't know the difference between RAM and the C: drive.

If we (meaning, those of us who know this stuff) all took a different tack, instead of teaching people procedurally how to get through a particular function or application, we might have a much easier time educating folks about not running trojans. But as long as we (again, speaking to the community that has the knowledge) keep acting like people can't and shouldn't be taught this stuff in the way that we learn EVERYTHING ELSE, we'll keep having this problem.

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The problem with how we teach people technology

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  • There are very few people alive today who did not grow up with cars. So there is a level of ingrained knowledge that is not present for computers. My house has had a computer since 1984, but I would guess that it was the late 80s or early 90s by the time they really became common. Before that in schools, depending on the district. So there is nowhere near the level of ingrained knowledge.

    This being the case, there is a tension between two modes of software operation: the power-user mode, and the ke
    • You have a point that we've had longer to get used to cars than computers. However, I'll bet even in the '60's (when cars had been in common usage for about 20 years... they really took off after WWII) people knew some of the basics when they learned to drive, i.e. gas burns to make you go, brakes apply friction to make you stop.

      They typically do not want to know more. I do "family tech support", and they don't want to know the difference between main memory and the hard drive. The common refrain: "just
  • You realize that in car terms you're one of those people who buys car magazines, knows detailed things about gear ratios and torque, and constantly tweaks your car to get better performance. As such while you may be frustrated with the level of general knowledge of computer technology knowledge, you should realize that joe average, while he should have a basic understanding between RAM and disk storage (try using the whiteboard/filing cabinet analogy) he's never going to have the kind of detailed knowledge
    • Yes, in terms of technology, I'm the equivalent to those folks who change their own oil and tighten their own spark plugs (which they replaced with after-market plugs that give them better performance).

      But in terms of *cars*, I wouldn't accept knowing as little about using them as most people assume they will ever know about using a computer. It wouldn't even be safe.

      Imagine this: car accidents are blamed on the fact that the interface isn't user-friendly enough. It's too *hard* for people to know when
  • Working Code (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Doc Hopper (59070) <slashdot@barnson.org> on Sunday February 22, 2004 @06:55PM (#8357805) Homepage Journal
    A common phrase associated with the Internet is that the Internet runs on great ideas... and working code.

    How do you take this from an idea to implementation? Your average car has several hundred parts. Your average computer has many millions of parts. In a car, you're just one level of abstraction (usually) from what's going on under the hood. Your gas pedal, in an older manual transmission vehicle, connects directly to your carbeurator, literally opening it up and allowing more fuel and air to enter the combustion chambers. Your brake pedal has a more-or-less direct correlation to the pressure applied on your discs or drums to stop the vehicle.

    How many layers of abstraction is your average widget on a computer? Pretty dang far. I started to write it out, but my response got pretty long.

    I agree that, as we become more reliant on information infrastructure, some sort of "driver training course" will probably become necessary for people to safely participate on public networks. But even in driver training courses, the focus is on safely operating and maintaining the vehicle -- not on how it works. I think you'd be surprised how few people know the difference between a catalytic converter and an exhaust manifold.

    I guess I think of computers more like household appliances than vehicles. We don't manually thread the tapes through the reels on a VCR. We don't evaluate the performance of our refrigerator to determine if it's operating at optimum compression levels (usually). Most times, we're not interested in how something works until it breaks.

    And in the case of a computer, when something is broken, with millions of parts, how does one even begin troubleshooting without specialized knowledge?

    I don't think it's beyond average people, but fully understanding the operation of a computer in the way you suggest seems a lot like training someone in auto mechanics before they start driving. I'm not dissing the idea -- I think it's an excellent idea for people to become more trained in computer fundamentals before "driving" them -- but a computer is so much more complex than an automobile, that it's fairly overwhelming to the uninitiated.
    • Your average car has several hundred parts. Your average computer has many millions of parts.

      Cars have far more parts (and parts of much greater diversity) than a PC. The only moving parts in my computer are the fans and the disk drives. My entire *car* moves. My computer runs on a single 110-volt power cable. My car requires gasoline, which it burns to convert to kinetic energy which powers the wheels, and also uses to keep the battery charged, which then powers all the electrical parts.

      This is why
      • Cars have far more parts (and parts of much greater diversity) than a PC. The only moving parts in my computer are the fans and the disk drives.

        Moving parts, yes. Total parts, a computer wins, hands down. Moving parts have a higher failure rate, while non-moving parts are far more sensitive to certain types of interference and static electricity. It's unfortunate that comparing cars and PCs is a bit like comparing apples and baseballs.

        This is why a much larger percentage of computers are maintained a

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