The User-Friendly Classroom

March 2, 2015

Mike Caulfield’s recent post about “users” has gotten me thinking about why I hate the phrase “user-friendly”:

People say they want a world of “producers not consumers” or “makers not takers”.  Peel back the assumptions under those statements and you’ll find some disturbing stuff.

And so it was when I returned to instructional design in 2009, fresh off the OCW experience, that I found these phrases, which used to seem so normal, now strange.

There was a time, after all, that we used to call lurkers “readers”. Users were “doers”.  These things had respect.

Mike’s point is that sharing and curating someone else’s work should be valued every bit as much as creating something from scratch. That’s a fair observation, but there may be other reasons why readers tend to “lurk.” As the term insinuates, reading can be a form of intellectual spectatorship, consuming others’ ideas without generating your own. Indeed, Marshall McLuhan considers print a form of “hot” media.

Hot media usually, but not always, provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus. For example, print occupies visual space, uses visual senses, but can immerse its reader. […] Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. —Wikipedia

Print tends to spell things out a little too much for people. It provides “complete involvement without considerable stimulus,” leaving less room for active participation on the part of the user. We should not judge “readers” for lurking, but we do need to consider if the medium itself is pushing users away from active participation. A lot of OER apologists will jump in here to point out that open educational resources aren’t limited to just print; they can include hypertext, images, video, and so on. That’s a fair point, but the reality is that most OER is just copy-left textbooks distributed through a digital medium, and even videos and hypertext are not “cool” media.

A lot of OER comes packaged as courseware modules that instructors are intended to remix. Pasting together modules does not make a textbook, and indeed, part of what makes this content so difficult to use is it’s inherently prescriptive nature. We are saying, “here’s a finished module. Go make a course out of it,” which is sort of like saying, “here’s an automobile. Go make a custom vehicle out of it.” OER needs to be “cooler,” more abstract, rougher around the edges. We can’t give “users” a finished product and ask them to be “makers.”

Union Docs has been running an amazing series on spectatorship called What You Get Is What You See. My favorite DJ, Jace Clayton, contributed a talk in which he told a sweet story about how he got into DJing. He was attending Jungle dance parties in dark Boston warehouses. The warehouses were so dark that you couldn’t see the DJ, and as it turns out, this was a good thing. In the absence of any visible performance, people danced carelessly together in the dark. It created a sort of shared space that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Right now, the value of DJ’s is a hotly contested topic much akin to the “makers” versus “takers” debate.

It seems that everyone is a DJ these days. Technology has made beat-matching as simple as pressing the “sync” button on a laptop, and without tour vans full of heavy equipment, DJ’s are cheaper and more versatile than a live band. The problem with DJ culture is that (as Derrick May has said) “it looks like people are checking their email.” It’s not fun to watch someone hide behind a laptop, and it calls into question how much the DJ is really doing beyond selecting the tunes and pressing play.

I’ve always valued musicians that blur the lines between DJ and live performer. To the extent that a DJ plays records, everything is literally rehearsed. In a live performance, there is no “sync” button. You are taking greater risks, and so there is a raw energy that’s missing with DJ’s. James Brown is definitely not “checking his email” on stage.

Two years ago, during LAMC, I saw Rafi eL perform live in a small bar in Williamsburg. He’d sketched out various pieces of his songs in a sequencer, and he triggered them live while singing over the mix. It was an invigorating performance, but midway through his set, a well-known DJ behind me commented that “he just ruined it by picking up the mic.” Whenever a musician sings, people stop what they’re doing to watch. They become instant spectators. As this DJ pointed out, “you should be dancing or hitting on someone, not watching the DJ.” The problem is you can’t get rid of spectators without getting rid of the performer.

Part of what made Jace Clayton’s experience in those Boston warehouses so great was that the DJ became invisible. A live performance demands your attention; it provides added stimulus, and in doing so it amounts to a “hotter” media. Spectatorship is the price we pay for that added stimulation.

Going back to the topic of OER, we talk at great length about making things “user-friendly,” and we take for granted that this is a good thing. The assumption is that the less someone needs to understand about how something works, the more likely they are to engage with it. Certainly, if something is easier to use, you will have more “users,” but how much depth of use does this invite? I’ve found that “user-friendly” is usually a coded way of saying “spectator-friendly.” To make something easier to use, we “provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus” so that “users” are encouraged to be “lurkers.” In McLuhan’s terms, “user-friendly” usually means “hot” media.

As a community college professor, I spend a lot of time designing class activities, and my number one concern is usually how to get students involved as “active participants.” Spectatorship is not a valued asset. If we want “readers” instead of “lurkers” and “doers” instead of “users” then we need to be invisible like the DJ’s in those Boston warehouses. We need to give students tools that are abstract and unfinished, and invite them to make something out of those tools. One thing we definitely do not need is a “user-friendly” classroom.

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