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How can we better empower learners during consultations?

In my position as an Instructional Technologist at the University of Michigan Libraries, I get to work with a diverse range of students, staff, faculty, and community members. One of my primary job roles is sitting one-on-one with leaners, also referred to as patrons within the library, to show them how to use an application such as Photoshop or Camtasia.  Since our patron community is quite diverse, so are the levels of computer, technical, and communication skills that patrons possess. I would consider a large part of my job is not providing instruction of the application or tools, but empowering my learners to believe that they can use said tools.

I provide instruction for many visual products, including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Final Cut Pro, Camtasia, or WordPress. Most of these applications are technically rich and are often intimidating for beginners. The most common phrases I hear patrons say to me during these consultations are a flavor of  “I am bad with technology” or “computers hate me” or “I’m a digital immigrant”. This made me realize that these people are coming into the consultation with these beliefs about themselves or their skills before they even touch a computer. This has become a barrier in instruction and I wanted to know how could I potentially alter these beliefs.

The one statement that most sticks out to me is that so many people refer to themselves “digital immigrant”. The terms “digital immigrant” and “digital natives” were first coined by Marc Prensky in his 2001 article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, featured in the On the Horizon journal. Prensky uses this terminology to distinguish a technical engagement divide between those who have grown up immersed in technology and those who haven’t. In the article, he focuses on the education of digital natives and how digital immigrants – as instructors – are not meeting the needs of their digital native learners with engaging pedagogy. I believe that some learners use this language incorrectly to discredit themselves and technical skills, but it’s not the incorrect use of the term that interest me, but rather the fact that they identify with this term.

Understanding that some leaners have these personal identities and see themselves as being a person who exhibits “poor” technical skills, helped illustrate why so many of my patrons would discount themselves before touching the computer. I believe that identifying as a “digital immigrant” or other term is much more powerful than just having doubts about one’s ability. I began thinking of small ways I could alter my consultations to help empower the patron more and avoid confirming any negative doubts or identities they may have about themselves. Below is a brief list of some of the tactics I have developed.

Get to know to the patron.

Before I begin any instruction, I take a few minutes to get to know my patron, their skills, and understand their needs. I clearly outline what we will be covering in the consultation and give them an opportunity to express any concerns and fears they may have. This is a chance for me to manage their expectations and let them know exactly what to expect. I find it important to continue this dialog throughout the consultation, especially if things are not going as planned.

  • Introduce yourself with your name, title, and pronouns so that patrons know how to address you. Also provide some background of your skills and expertise, especially if it is specific to the consultation.
  • Talk to the patron and have them describe their background, goals, skill level, and any concerns they may have.
  • Do not make assumptions of anyone’s skills or background.
  • Break down the consultation process for your patron. Let them know exactly what you will be covering and have them set personal goals/objectives for the consultation.
  • Keep dialog open, especially when things do not go as planned.

Give them control.

One-on-one consultations are a fairly personal form of instruction and I try to be aware and respect boundaries and personal space during these sessions to ensure my patron is comfortable and feels in control.  I keep communication open and continue to check-in and ask how they’re feeling about the process and will adjust my instruction, personal space, or make any other necessary changes to better suit their needs. I try to encourage my patrons to acknowledge their personal learning styles or workflows and I try to provide them with choices to help them work as closely as we can within their skill-set and comfort zones.

  • State your boundaries. Let them know if they can interrupt you with questions or
  • Always ask before taking over their computer, mouse, or devices – even if it’s just to show something quick.
  • Make sure the patron sets the pace of the session and allow them them have control over their learning.
  • Encourage patrons to take notes, record the consultation, or do whatever it takes to ensure they are comfortable and confident in their learning.
  • Empower patrons of their personal learning styles and workflows and steer the consultation to fit their needs.

Make mistakes.

Back when I was a teaching assistant during graduate school, I was terrified of saying something wrong in lecture or making a mistake during a demonstration because I was worried that it would discredit me in the eyes of the learners. Years later I realized that this strive for perfection had actually alienated some of my learners. I never realized this until I had separate occasions where I would make a mistake during a consultation or workshop and a person would say something along the lines of “I’m happy to see that you make mistakes, too”. I didn’t realize it, but through my “perfect” instruction I had created an unattainable expectation of my learners. If I didn’t make mistakes then how could they? I now embrace mistakes and even use planned mistakes as examples in my workshop sessions. I will also write some of these workshops centered around the most common mistakes and frustrations within an application.

  • Do not be afraid or upset when you make mistakes in front of learners. It’s actually a good thing! Let the beginner know that experts make mistakes too.
  • Use mistakes to your advantage. Mistakes are a great way of learning and taking advantage of them could lead to very positive teaching moments.
  • Purposely make mistakes. Consider using them as part of your instruction.

Shift focus.

I noticed that learners will often take the blame of something that is actually not their fault, but the fault of the software of equipment. This is the most heart-breaking to me because it is completely unnecessary. I always try to let a patron know when it was not their fault and illustrate the problem and how it happened.  I will occasionally take it a step further and blame the application for minor things that the patron has done. For example, when making an illustration using Adobe Illustrator you use multiple, tiny points to create a drawing. Patrons often quickly understand how to create and select points as it’s an easy concept, but often times they struggle in clicking the right spot to select a point. Instead of blaming the patron and explaining how to click points once again, I will remind that the points are quite small and how Illustrator is very specific about where you click. This is also when I will bring up screen resolution and the zoom tools. It would have been easier for me to tell the patron they were doing it wrong, but they would not have been empowered to change the settings of the application to suit their needs.

  • Shift focus on the learner and not the technology. The technology should work for us and not visa versa.
  • Don’t let learners take the blame of things that were not their fault, specifically technical issues.
  • Show the learner how a mistake happened and center it on their needs and not the technology.
  • Blame the application or equipment if needed. Some things are not friendly to every user, so acknowledge this and place blame on poor design. Thankfully Photoshop, the office copier, and your new cell phone do not have feelings that can be hurt.

Provide a safety network.
Patrons are sometimes nervous when leaving a consultation because they are worried they may forget an important detail. Let them know that it’s okay and that they have a safety net, which could consist of another consultation with them, directing them to online guides or handouts, referring them to the university technology center, or giving them your direct office phone number. Do whatever would help the patron feel the most confident and comfortable upon leaving the session.

  • Make yourself available and let them know when it is best to ask your questions or come in for a consultation.
  • Provide any online or physical resources that may be useful to the patron continue or strengthen their learning.
  • Schedule follow-up appointments or send check-in emails to make sure things are going well after a consultation.

That is everything from my list, but I am interested in hearing what others do to help improve their one-on-one consultations or instruction session. What other tactics can be used to help shift learner identities from being negative to being empowered? How do you empower those who feel technology is not for them? Please feel free to comment or email me with some of your feedback on this topic!