Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"How" versus "why"

Eszter Hargittai, sociologist from Northwestern University, is interviewed in the "Wired Campus" section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find the interview here.

She asserts, in this interview, that students aren't as Web savvy as we believe that they are or as they claim to be.

Hargittai makes an argument throughout this interview that loses me. She seems to be arguing that because users don't know how technology works that they are Web-skills deficient.

I read this interview think that she was trying to make the argument that it's like having keys to a car without ever having had any formal instruction on how to drive.

Students are taking their cars on the road and learning how to drive by successfully (or not) making it to their destination.

A student learns how to navigate the Web through successful (and unsuccessful) searching.

I buy that. What I don't like is that she seems to imply that the job of instructor or librarian is to to teach the student the mechanics of how a particular tool works instead of why a user should use this tool to access information.

It's teaching the user how the car works instead of how to drive it.

Hargittai says "Most students don’t know that wikis can be edited at that moment. Their eyes just open up wide when they find out."

I'm not sure the how of Wikipedia matters much to most users. Maybe it should, but it doesn't.

I think that what's more important is the why, especially when teaching students to look critically at Wikipedia as a reference source.

The how is the mechanics of the car. The why is the Driver's Ed. lesson.

Earlier in the interview, Hargittai also says "Ask your average 18-year-old: Does he know what RSS means? And he won’t."

I appreciate her question, but I think she's asking the wrong one. Instead of asking a student what RSS means, ask him if he uses Bloglines or Google Reader to read some of his favorite blogs. I suspect the answer might be "yes."

Should we spend our time, then, explaining the how of RSS? Or should we teach students the why of RSS: how to use feed readers to subscribe to sources of information that might be useful to them?

Again, it's teaching a user how the car works vs. teaching the user how to drive the car.

It is true that as librarians we might be more tech savvy than the users we serve. We should know how each part of the car works in order to help our students drive it better. But I think the burden of learning how the car works lies on us.

The truth is that even if users don't know how technology "works," they're using it. So, it's our job as librarians to help empower our users to be better consumers of information. We may never move from teaching students the why of a technology to teaching them the how, though we may aspire to.

But why, not how, is where we should start.