Learned helplessness

This isn't something we see with most kids when they sit in front of a computer. On the contrary, they just help themselves.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

This isn't something we see with most kids when they sit in front of a computer. On the contrary, they just help themselves. Sure, we might see it in a math class, but learned helplessness is a phenomenon almost exclusive to adults when they encounter a keyboard.

What do I mean by learned helplessness? I mean that deer-in-headlights response that all too many of our adult users (including parents of our students) get when an interface changes, a new application is rolled out or they are asked to do something new on a computer.

Our guidance secretary is probably one of the greater secretaries on earth. You know the type: anticipating your needs, proactively solving and/or deflecting problems from you, genuinely competent with technology. She never calls me for help until she's really dug into a problem with her computer or an application and exhausted a set of troubleshooting steps. She knows when she's in over her head, but isn't afraid to get neck deep before consulting me.

Students are generally the same way, although they often lack the experience to know when they're neck deep. Not so, though, for too many of our users. I ran training this morning for a group of teachers on some specialized elements of our student information system and remembered the term "learned helplessness." They have learned, somehow, that computers don't like them, they don't like computers, and that it's not OK to think through a problem on the computer. These are the folks who call tech support first and then don't really know what to ask because they haven't dug deeply into the problem. You know the phone calls, right? "The Internet is broken." "I can't print." "My computer won't turn on." "Where is the any button?"

Maybe I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps the best thing we can do for our users is empower them to solve their own problems, to be fearless in exploring new applications, and to play around first before they call tech support. You know that our students would do it and many would stumble upon a solution themselves. Many of my users are surprised when I suggest they muddle about for a bit and tell them that they won't break their computers (well, maybe they will, but it's not anything that can't be fixed).

Certainly, I'm here to help. However, often our users are so worried about using the computer, they can't see that the steps they need to follow are laid out right on the screen. It's most obvious when you tell a user to click a certain button and they can't find it onscreen, no matter how prominent it might be. A deer in headlights doesn't know how to avoid an oncoming truck either. If our users are so caught up in their inability to use a computer, it will never become natural for them to use a computer.

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