Saturday, August 11, 2007

Appropriate Tools

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." ~ Albert Einstein

I'm preparing for a series of workshops at a Maine school next week. On Monday I'm scheduled to teach Dreamweaver. On Tuesday we'll be doing iPhoto, and on Wednesday and Thursday I'll be working with teachers on collaborative projects for their classrooms. I'm looking forward to Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday - but, by no means, Monday.

Let me first of all admit that I very reluctantly agreed to do the Dreamweaver session. Reluctant for a couple of reasons: First of all because I'll admit I'm not as fluent in it as I should be, not using it regularly; and second, because I think it is the wrong tool for the job. While Dreamweaver is a powerful and polished professional web editor, it is too complex for beginners and, in most cases, completely unnecssary for creating functional classroom web sites. It is like learning to fly using a 747 rather than a small airplane. There are just too many buttons/options to confuse the beginner.

I guess I'm of the school that would start neophytes with a hand saw before they moved up to a power saw. I would have them hand mixing the batter before I introduced the power mixer.

I've just completed my 2-year training with the wonderful eMINTS people at the University of Missouri. I've been very impressed with their organization, their resources, and their conceptual framework. Terrific educators . . .they have it together! But . . . Dreamweaver was their required editor, and it was one of the few things with which I disagreed.

A better web editor for the job would be one similar to Nvu, a free download that covers the basics in an understandable way while still allowing for very effective websites. Who could ask for anything more? :) My view is that there is a need to match the appropriate tool to the context in which we are working, so I'm struggling on how to meet my commitment and, at the same time, do what I know is right in terms of keeping the focus on the learning rather than the specific tool.

I would like to start with Nvu in order for beginners to have a better understanding of the pure basics, but on the other hand, presenting two menu schemes in such a short period of time could simply add to the confusion. So what I'll probably do is simply work with a pure white canvas using Dreamweaver, and eliminate as many extra windows as possible. I'll show the templates later. Anyhow . . . a good part of the session will be on planning pages, evaluating pages others have done, and discussing reasons for having a web page in the first place. In other words, what can a web page bring to the classroom?

Let me admit that I also have concerns about tools that are being promoted in other areas, such as online classroom environments. Is the tool easy to use? Will its design enourage implementation? What is it really needed for? Will it be used?

"The Simplicity Paradox refers to the fact that one always want a powerfully functional object which by nature of its very potential belies a complexity of operation. To make something simpler, often means to make something less powerful. How do you make something powerful, but simple to operate at the same time? This is the challenge."
~ The MIT Simplicity Consortium Challenge

The Beauty of Simplicity
The Laws of Simplicity
Simplicity Consortium
Simplicity Blog
The MIT Press: The Laws of Simplicity

That brings me to the essential question:

How do we decide what the best tool for the job is?


Ed Latham said...

I agree with your concerns about getting people tools that are appropriate to thier skills/comfort level. Part of the issue with full feature software like Dreamweaver stems from the training individuals have received and the experience level of the trainer. Most of the complex programs can be presented in a very basic way that is uncomplicated to get people up and running. As they are successful with their basic examples, the learners are free to expand their knowledge without learning a new, more advanced tool. All they need to learn is what that button over there does and why do I care about it. In fact you can edit the pallets of almost any software to only have the basic options listed in any tool bar or menu so that operation is simple for new users and not so overwhelming. Then as they get experience, show them how to edit the toolbars and menus to include new features as they need/want them.

I do love your suport of programs like Nvu tho as I am a very strong supporter of open source free apps that are increasingly becomming competative with commercial software. I have always contended that commercial companies should be paying schools for advertising their product over 12 years rather than offering a measly "educator discount". My solution is to support those that offer tools that educators can use free to help out students learn. Administrators need to ask themselves what is more important for their staff: Ultra powerfull tools that cost a bundle or free tools with tons more training money and support with the money saved? I have talked and worked with tons of teachers and the one or two day workshops are fun but limited in how well the teachers feel they can implement what they learn. If the money is put into conistant training (say once a month in the classroom with the teacher or more) then the teacher will feel supported and the beauty is that the money is there to support that training because of the use of the free tools out there. That is my 2 cents on some of the issues you raised Jim.

George said...

Simplicity is important when teaching software and concepts to people. I myself have always liked if I have just to write something quick, ClarisWorks and Mariner Write for the Mac. Both are simple programs that help you get the job done without a lot of fuss but they require more proofreading. You can concentrate more on the writing.
Simplicity is also teaching concepts and skills but not programs. The importance of this to kids is important. Everyone wants their kids to learn on Microsoft Office products but teaching the kids the skills needed to word process, do presentations, etc. can also be done in other programs such as NeoOffice or OpenOffice or even better AbiWord.
The teaching of skills is important because the programs used change over time. Not too many people use WordStar or Professioanl Write anymore. We have adapted with the times. Though my brother in law still likes Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS!
Working against simplicity is the common experience or commonalilty. Learning DreamWeaver may be overkill for beginners but there are probably more people that are familiar with it as a local resource. Jsut like if I have a question about Microsoft Word there are probably people close by that can answer it. If I have a question about Mariner Write then I need to depend more on myself or find the answers.
It is just like getting a car fixed. If I have a Chevy or Ford I can probably get it fixed at the garage down the street. If I have a Ferrari or Porchse or Volkswagen, my mechanic may be able to fix it but he or she may have to find more information.
Simplicity is great and I would rather use the Keep It Simple Stupid system but complexity and commonality are forces that undermine it.

Joe Makley said...

The simplicity issue is one of the biggest deals in leading technological change. I've been a part of so many initiatives where goals were not reached because a complex tool was chosen, and even after expensive training, wasn't used. I did a chart (pyramid) on staff development, putting "ease of use" as number 2, with reliability as number 1.

I do feel we need to be very careful about what kind of tools we roll out for teachers, and how we support them. What's different is now we expect everyone to use them, where before, the use was optional and could be left to scouts and pioneers. As a district level administrator (maybe the only one in this little on-line community?) I do have to take costs into account. It costs $20,000 in salaries for one workshop day at Jay. If we run United Streaming, Google Earth, FOSS medley, etc. during that day, I know it's going to take a lot of attention and follow up and just-in-time support to get that money back in classroom practices. It's better not to run it at all, than to run it for just a one-day event without good scaffolding practices locally. And those cost money, too. My point is, rolling out the right tool (one that can be learned and used easily) saves huge dollars and I think often saves a project from failure.

In the more specific sense of web design for teachers, what is the best strategy? I enjoyed your reflections on DreamWeaver training. I am facing exactly the same situation here. And of course the industry (even the mid tier and small designer) is moving away from table-based pages to straight css. (What's the problem, Dad? It's just a bunch of "DIV" tags.) And web 2.0 means they don't really need to do page design any more, right? So why don't we just roll out WordPad on our server or something, and get them started with Google Docs, De.lic.ious, and tools like that? Or just do a moodle or some other FOSS CMS?
I'd love to hear everyone's thinking and what they are doing in this area...