Can App Design Really Eliminate Professional Development?
— Tom Murray (@thomascmurray) July 14, 2016
This quote has gotten retweeted into my feed almost half a dozen times in the last two days. I’d say every six months or so I see or hear something similar. You know, “if the app is designed right nobody will need training on it.” Um, right. Or, “why do we need to roll out training with this, it’s so intuitive?” Sure, OK.
I’m not saying good app (or web site) design and user experience testing (good old UI and UX) won’t make things easier. They certainly will. The need for professional development when using a tool has more to do with the complexity of the problem you are trying to solve than the tool. So when you compare Pokemon Go to edtech solutions, you’re comparing apples to interplanetary satellites. Sure, 21 million people have used Pokemon Go with no formal training. But when the point of the solution is to collect little imaginary creatures there isn’t actually a great deal of complexity to that. When the point of the solution is to help students comprehend, remember, and use information and knowledge, you can bet there’s a small amount of complexity.
Let’s assume for a moment that the complexity doesn’t matter. I downloaded Pokemon Go (thankfully after they patched the “mistake” of asking for complete access to Google accounts). After a brief tutorial, I was off! See, no professional development needed. Then I got to my first pit stop thingy. OK now what. Click around at random until something happens. Yea!? More wandering around. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Some list of creatures with footsteps under them. OK, but no idea what to do with that info, or even what it means. Are some of them three steps away, or three miles? I have no idea. After 20 minutes I’m sweaty and frustrated. I come back to my office and start googling. After another 15 minutes on Reddit, I finally understand how to find and catch a Pokemon. Which I do. And then I quit.
Two things. First, if I designed an edtech experience like the one I just described, I wouldn’t just be fired. I would be really, really fired. If I provided students an experience where they have to stumble around on their own and then quit (unless they are persistent enough to find someone who figured out the secret sauce), that wouldn’t be a failure. It would be an abdication of my professional responsibilities. Second, I did end up getting professional development to use Pokemon Go. Sure, you might not call it “formal” but it was there none-the-less, and it was the only way I was even a little successful. But it came after I was already frustrated (and did I mention, sweaty), so I wasn’t in much of a mood to learn.
Now back to the part where the complexity actually does matter. Education is an inherently complex and messy thing. Not only do you need to understand how to use the tool, you have to understand the strategies to get the best impact out of the tools. You could certainly do that by semester after semester of trial and error, but to me it makes more sense for the institution to hire people (whether faculty or instructional support staff) to provide professional development to faculty UP FRONT so we can help our students succeed now rather than later (assuming any of the student’s manage to persist long enough for there to be a later). It also makes sense in some cases to provide the students some orientation to the tool. Yes, they might figure it out, but the cognitive energy they spent figuring out the tool could have been used to have them actually learn something.
There is an important place in education for experimentation, failure, frustration, peer support, and ultimately hard-won success. But it should be an intentional act, not one created because we thought our app was designed so well and so intuitive that nobody needed our guidance. The old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” True, but if you never lead the horse to the water at all, then there’s no opportunity for it to decide to have that drink or not.