To make tech interesting, watch how people use it

By Bill Buchanan

The times require us to stay open to new technology. So what's a good way to learn about it?

A couple of events I experienced this summer make the case for learning through humor, observation and plain talk among colleagues.

The first event was simple. It centered on an email I received on a Friday afternoon in August from my 15-year-old daughter. Our family had already decided to see "Hairspray" that night, but then Megan decided she also wanted to bring a friend and get dessert downtown afterwards. She knew she had to contact me at work to see if I'd agree in time for her friend to make arrangements.

Call me? No, I was trying to get stuff done and would probably give her a parental brushoff, like I'm too busy, not now, we'll talk later. I learned how to fend off ill-timed phone calls decades ago.

But she knows I like humor and stories. So she sat down at our Mac at home, wrote a short satirical letter--can't share, sorry, she's a millennial, she'd probably retaliate in some form of media I don't know about yet--teamed with her 10-year-old sister for some melodramatic photos, attached them to the email, and sent the whole thing over unannounced with the title "movie dessert OPEN."

Of course I opened it. How often do you get an email like that when it isn't spam? And of course I liked it. I showed the photos to a few people I work with--a couple even seemed to enjoy them--then emailed her back and said, Sure!

Lesson: The smart use of technological tools can surmount traditional barriers. This time the tools were very modest--just digital photos and email, if email even still counts as a technological tool. And the barrier was small--my aversion to personal phone calls when I'm trying to finish work and get home.

Still, point made. Insight delivered.

Event No. 2: The Summer Institute on Teaching and Technology.

SITT, put on by the Teaching Resources Center, presents a week of sessions and seminars largely on the subject of how to use technology to teach more effectively. The target audience is UC Davis instructors, which doesn't include me, but I've gone for two years in a row to write about the institute for TechNews.

The agenda always includes straightforward discussions about how various tech tools work. And each time I come away with insights about how to do my own work better.

One session this summer, for instance, looked at clickers, which resemble TV remote controls. Students use them in classes to electronically answer questions posed by the instructor, who can then assess the answers to see if the lecture is getting through. The interaction is appealing, and the devices engage students who won't otherwise express an opinion in a crowd.

So, if you want students to participate, clickers beat a show of hands.

The clicker session wasn't a sales job, just a review, led by instructors who have used them to teach on this campus and can talk honestly about their benefits, drawbacks and cost.

I don't see a use for clickers in my job, but learning about them expands my technological vocabulary. Maybe eventually I'll become fluent.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has that goal.

It's much, much easier to understand new technology when the example is appealing or interesting, instead of dutiful, thick or unconvincingly cheery. New technological tools keep coming at us. The need to experience them in accessible, genuine and engaging ways cannot be overstated.

And if you learn it right, you get dessert.

Bill Buchanan, a senior writer and editor in the Information and Events area of Information and Educational Technology, writes this column for the IT Times each quarter. Write him at