Podcast: Real Time Document of One to One Teaching in Digital Literacies

This is the first one to one IT teaching session after moving from a group drop in model which proved to be too problematic to work with.  The podcast is a real time document of the problems an 82 year old women – Bella Stewart – encountered with using her laptop computer.  Alex Dunedin walks through the problems and solutions that were apparent at the time. 

Perverse incentives
Perverse incentives

This is a shift of emphasis from wholesale teaching to person centred teaching. Doing the group drop in session model provided opportunities for ‘perverse incentives’ where rooms were being filled by community organisations to get outcomes for funding. This was distinctly problematic as in one session it was discovered that four people out of eight were there without knowing why they were.  Two people had turned up to learn English, and two people had turned up because they had been told it would be ‘good to get out and do something’…
This resulted in boredom amongst those people and chatting over what direction was being given to the other four people attending.  Of the other four people who had turned up for learning computer skills, two of them had non functional computers, meaning the major issues represented were to do with simply getting the computers into a working state.
This kind of maintenance and fixing task is not something which lends itself to groups who are yet to be inspired about computers being in their lives.  As tasks, they are uninspiring – despite being important skills.  Thus, in this group session described, only two had clear ideas of what they wanted to get out of attending.  One who wanted to see how he could use an ipad to identify what events were going on in the locale, and a woman who wanted to learn how to make music using digital tools.
It became quickly obvious in this model of digital literacies teaching in the community that the logistical task of teaching across several varying interests was resulting in failing the people attending.  When asked to do a regular IT drop in session, I responded that the model itself was not suitable to moving people forward in terms of capabilities and that we needed to rethink how we were perceiving of the phrase ‘digital divide’, and also how we were to deliver useful interactions for the people who had identified needs.

Do Fewer Things Well

The thought came to mind that we can either try to do lots of things badly or fewer things well.  After many discussions, and taking into account the various piloting experiments over the years, the model of one to one teaching was arrived at.  Labour intensive, but absolutely necessary…

Teaching in the community context is massively different to formal settings.  In the community context people are seeking more than simplistic utilitarian direction – they are seeking a humane interaction, kindly empathy, conversation, holistic support.
If we contrast this to say formal education or a professional circumstance, these elements are often left in the shaddows by the necessity of deadlines and curriculums.  Also, the impetus is very much more on the individual seeking help to perform the tasks structured and issued by the teacher – if they dont do the tasks set, then they fail themselves.
I see working in community settings more akin to working with friends and loved ones.  We have to find ways of exploring each other in comfortable, non-invasive ways; we need to take time to have conversation to establish rapport; we need to understand the knowledge, which is a focus, as an integrated part of the individual’s life – of which all parts are of equal import.  Simply issuing instructions and tasks is not sufficient. I believe that these interpersonal arts are very much a part of formal education, but however, they do not have such an equitable status nor do they manifest in the same form.
This is a key stage in the development of the digital literacies project between Ragged University and People Know How.  It is a challenging one too, and discussing it with Glenn Liddall (CEO People Know How), he agreed that we needed to move from a group drop in session model to one which is focused on individuals and identifiable needs.  It takes more work, and the ‘throughput’ is less, but as I mentioned earlier in this article – we either do lots of things badly, or fewer things well…

If you listen to the podcast you will hear the whole conversation which took place between myself and Bella. So, who is Bella ?  Bella is a lovely woman who lives north west of Edinburgh.  She has a lifetimes experience traveling and working across the work in a variety of circumstances from Palestine to Papua New Guinea.  Her husband has passed away and all her children are grown up and flown the nest.  She is an adventurous soul and now sometimes goes backpacking in Australia.  She is great company and at 82, has more life than I did at 18.

IT and Biscuits

She had originally come along to a group session to the Ragged University IT and Biscuits pilot (inspired by Jes Haley) where she wanted pointers on using her ipad tablet to access her emails.  She both wanted a proper human interaction and to get some computer skills so that she could fully embrace the adventures that life have to offer.  That was easily dealt with, and she enjoyed the experience.  Also she wanted some help with getting her mobile phone working to her needs – this also was sorted.
Sometime later, I put out a call to people in the Ragged University for any old computers which could help furnish People Know How in it’s good work.  She responded by getting in touch and saying that her laptop/house computer was not working so we could have it.  I suspected that the lifespan of the computer had not come to an end and that the redundancy that she was encountering was to do with the operating system rather than hardware failure.
So, this was a great opportunity to move to the one-to-one way of working, away from the unsuccessful drop-in group model which predominate in our social landscape.  Thinking about how to create a legacy, the idea was to respond to individuals who had identified a clear need, spend the time in one-to-one conversation and working through issues stepwise, record the conversations so that others could understand the process, listen to the discussion and also provide a real time resource for all those interested in digital literacies training.
Bella was happy with this, so we did so.  I was quick to discover that her laptop was indeed perfectly good for her purposes, and that there was no need for her to get rid of it and buy a new one.  The problem was specifically Microsoft Windows.  I initially replaced Windows with the flagship version of Linux – that of Mint 17.1 – with all its bells and whistles.  If it could handle that, then I knew that we could get even better results with smaller versions of Linux which were designed to upcycle computers and optimise the use of their hardware.

Linux Mint 17.1 Cinnamon Desktop
Linux Mint 17.1 Cinnamon Desktop

Thus, once installed, Mint 17.1 worked but was still slightly unresponsive.  We knew it was better than Windows, but it was not as quick to respond to commands as we would both like.  Often I have noticed that people get very frustrated waiting for a machine to execute a command, so end up issuing another command to the computer by clicking the function again.  This frustrated impatience which we all suffer from, and which we all need to learn our way out of, can be dealt with simply by putting a smaller operating system on.

For these purposes I chose Linux LXLE, a version which is specifically for upcycling old pc’s.  Here is what they say on their website:

“LXLE is based on Lubuntu which is an Ubuntu OS using the LXDE desktop environment. It is designed to be a drop-in and go OS, primarily for aging computers. Its intention is to be able to install it on any computer and be relatively done after install. At times removing unwanted programs or features is easier than configuring for a day. Our distro follows the same LTS schedule as Ubuntu. In short, LXLE is an eclectic respin of Lubuntu with its own user support.”


In short, it is designed to go fast on old computers – it has all the software you need, it looks good, is secure and functions well.  Once installed on Bella’s laptop we had a perfectly responsive laptop and had eliminated the need for her to ‘upgrade’ or buy new.  I was raging inside when I heard the call out charges which were being thrown her way and feel that there are quite a few predatory businesses which people not-in-the-know can get stung by.
After we had got the computer working, then the next step was to start learning how she would want her computer customised to her needs in visual terms.  She wanted email facilities and also wordprocessing facillities.  A lot of the work simply involves listening, and walking through how she was approaching tasks so that glitches could be observed – for example, making her aware that the Caps Lock was interfering with her inputing the passwords etc properly.
Much of our conversation is to do with reframing how she is conceiving of the virtual environment.  For example, getting her to understand that her email is with google – therefore it is Gmail; also, that her email is not stored physically on the computer but on ‘the internet’ – and that we use the internet browser to navigate to the emails.  Gently reinforcing that – in general – the instructions for the next given step are somewhere on the screen (either in text or image form) and that taking some time to read/think through what she is looking at is the key skill.

Obvious to me is the uncertainty that is involved.  Being there on the end of a phone is also an essential component of this area of working.  Simply starting and stopping at my own leisure is not a reciprocal relationship, and without a reciprocal relationship I dont believe that any deep learning can go on. This will take multiple sessions which are non-instrumental.  It takes time and energy to help people; and also a significant understanding that learning happens both ways.
I am learning how to be a better communicator, I am learning about whole parts of life that I had no knowledge of before (her stories of working with native tribes in Papua New Guinea are amazing); I am learning to contextualise what I am communicating in terms which are immediate to her experience; I am learning that the world does not revolve around me but we are all on a revolving world.

As far as ‘outcomes and measurements’ go – the quagmire of bureaucracy and money is something which I am ignoring as these things are only going to get in the way.  My key goals for Bella and myself are:

  • to have a functioning computer which she can use
  • for the computer to be safe, licensed and responsive
  • for the computer not to cost her any more than it needs to
  • for the computer to facilitate her joy of life and sense of adventure (I have introduced her to Meetup)
  • for her not to fear using the technologies which should be accessible to her
  • for us to enjoy the journey


That is about it for this installment.  I invite people to listen and leave comments on how well you think I identify the issues, how well I approach solutions, how well I manage to communicate what I know in a humane and pleasant fashion.  This is the beginning of a repository of documents for teaching digital literacies in the community.