Experts and Novices

On this page are a few thoughts about computing "experts" and "novices". At this stage, it's quite under-developed, but I can't get away from the need to make some reference to this issue ...

On one hand students of the present era are frequently described as “ICT savvy” or “digital natives”.

On the other hand, teachers are often heard complaining that "10% of my students have good computer good computer skills, eg can effectively use Word, can logically organise their home drive and understand the basics of naming files and folders etc. The other 90% range from very basic computer skills to knowing how to turn it on and open a program (5-10%)".

What's going on here, we might well ask? What do the "experts" know that the "novices" don't? We might well place our schools, our curriculum frameworks and our own teaching under some scrutiny and ask (a) what’s going wrong and (b) what can be done to fix it. One thing that we can do is to look carefully at whether there are some conceptual understandings which ‘the better’ computer users in our classes have that ‘the strugglers’ don’t yet have, and that we might be best off to make a point of teaching these conceptual understanding explicitly.

There is an interesting comparison made a Brian Will on

1) On one extreme, you have Aunt Tillie, the naive user:
  • Aunt Tillie not only doesn’t know how computers work, she has no working conception of their limits and so can’t form realistic expectations of how to interact with them.
  • Aunt Tillie uses a small set of apps which a relative once showed her how to use, and she treats each computing task ritualistically, never straying from her limited repertoire of actions, treating all tasks as ad hoc.
  • Aunt Tillie is afraid of any experimentation and so, when confronted with choices outside her comfort zone, Aunt Tillie becomes paralyzed.
  • Aunt Tillie sees neither commonalities nor distinctions: she is barely aware of the most basic interface commonalities between applications, and she cannot see the dividing lines between one application and another application and between an application and the desktop.

There are thankfully very few ‘pure’ Aunt Tillie’s in the world—or at least, very few users remain as pure Aunt Tillies after gaining a little bit of computing experience—but almost everyone exhibits some degree of naivety in some part of computing, and everyone is an Aunt Tillie in some domain of knowledge.

2) After the naive user, you have the largest group of users, the ‘User’ users, so-called because they may use their computers quite heavily but otherwise don’t think about their computers except as means to an end:

  • ‘User’ users are not sitting out the PC revolution and in fact may have been using a PC since the DOS days. They might be addicted to their computers, browsing the web and sitting on chat all day. Or they may use a computer once or twice a week.
  • ‘User’ users generally have no trouble using the desktop, and some (the longtime users, in particular) have a working mental model of hierarchical file systems, and may even place their files in proper folders rather than just dumping everything on the desktop or My Documents.
  • ‘User’ users may be comfortable in some complex applications, such as Photoshop.
  • ‘User’ users may or may not do program installs as long as they aren’t asked too many strange questions by the install wizard.
  • ‘User’ users get along fine with their computers until configuration changes are needed or configuration problems arise. These users hate spending time on anything not immediately relevant to what they wanted to do with the computer in the first place, so they throw up their hands quickly when system messages alert them about anything to do with drivers, etc.
  • ‘User’ users may think that the blue E is the Internet, or at least that the Web is the Internet. The idea that a TCP/IP connection is a service provided by the OS to its running programs is an unfamiliar notion, but they may understand the idea if you explain it to them.

Brian Will goes on to describe "windows power users", "windows PC builders" and "Linux power users", and I'm not sure that I'd agree with his hierarchy - the further he goes, the more "folksy" it becomes; but his purpose is somewhat different to mine (user interface design) and I use the quote for illustrative purposes only. The point that I'd draw out from this is that there are Aunt Tillies and there are Users. At some point or other it matters (as Brian Will comments on another blog entry) that users rely upon a conceptual understanding rather than a memorized set of particulars. What we need to be concerned with is how to move folk from being "Aunt Tillie" to being a "User". One part of the answer, I'm sure, is increased exposure. But what we don't seem to know much about is what the nature of the mental landscape of "Users" is, compared with "Aunt Tillie" - and if we did that, then our endeavors to help folk develop in their use of computers runs a better chance of being more efficient and more effective than it is otherwise.

Maybe part of the problem is that we have been too bothered with ensuring that the students have "the skills" rather than "the concepts". Maybe we have unquestioningly assumed that those students who perform well, when compared with our level of understanding or on the tests we give them, ought to be regarded as the computing elite. Do we have we have an accurate portrayal of mental spaces of those whom we think of as ICT savvy? Are there examples of students who one teacher thinks of as being "great" with computers that, when observed by an expert in the field, is found to be doing little more than the computing equivalent of "barking at text"? In the acknowledgment of this issues, there is a sound argument for making learners' conceptions of computing the object of study, and not simply being satisfied by their apparent skillfulness or capacity to produce ICT products.