When working with a beginner, it’s not better to go simple. It’s worse–far worse.
I’m on lunch break from teaching a PVP class how to edit. Some of them have barely used computers before, and none have touched an editing program.
Conventional wisdom would be to start them off slow and simple – first a program like iMovie, designed for beginners. It’s got less scary buttons, less choices. You could give the mouse to a monkey and have her throw it at a wall, and somehow you’d come out with a decent birthday video of your kids.
But in limiting options, we’re doing just that – limiting options. Proficiency in a baby application with no flexibility is not nearly as useful as 1/10 proficiency in a pro application. In striving to understand the complexity of the whole thing, even as students master basic tasks they are paving the way to a comprehensive understanding.
It’s very similar to learning a language – people pick up the subtleties of a language best when they are immersed in it – a period of intense frustration gives way to spurts of understanding. Those who are spoon-fed a language in class, however, never really seem to get this complexity. Math education is a great analogy as well – as alluded to in Lockhart’s Lament, there is no point in having somebody memorize arbitrary things like cosine and arctangent if they aren’t slowly gaining a fundamental understanding of how the subject works.
Is it as smooth a ride? No, not at all. My students constantly click a button they didn’t know about, use the right mouse button instead of the left, or drag when they should click. For now I correct the mistakes without explaining – too much information would be overwhelming. If I were teaching for months, I’d slowly begin to explain these more advanced features. Also, when I say that everyone understands I exaggerate. Everyone is at a different level.
But the greatest challenge here is not intellectual – it is emotional. Working trough a steep learning curve is difficult, and it’s most of all important to train people to attempt things they do not understand – that’s how computer learning works.
So keep your iMovie at home. Don’t download apps using the new Mac App Store. Don’t settle for software and solutions that rob you of power by promising simplicity. Support software that offers choice and embraces complexity. There is a difference between simple software and dumb software, and Apple provides good examples of both: Mac OS X is simple, but it’s fantastically complex. iMovie is a one-trick donkey. I don’t like the glass ceilings these applications perpetuate..not at all.