I’ve Got a New Way to Walk

I sent another aggravating email last week. In this particular case, the provocation was a reminder to check on something important. The email was accompanied by detailed directions: log in to point A, go to thing B, find header C, click the link for report D.

I thanked the sender, and explained more people might actually review their status given a more direct link, which I demonstrated in the email. (A truly direct link wasn’t possible, which dates the technology somewhat). The sender doesn’t seem convinced.

My struggle illustrates a problem emblematic of the Information Age—we let technology’s metaphorical antecedents constrain our thinking. We “navigate” the web, because physical movement is a helpful metaphor that grounds our experience with the new nature of the Internet. It’s natural to use the protocol for literal directions when you’re trying to help someone online.

But one of the hallmark capabilities of hypertext is that I can move from one document to another without traversing the space “in between” them. It’s text with a fourth dimension, a tesseract that shrinks the gap to virtually zero. If that doesn’t blow your mind, go repent and read A Wrinkle Time.

My millennial brain was still squishy when I started wrinkling time, so I don’t expect directions, I expect a portkey/wormhole/transporter, because I know that in the domain of internet content, that’s a reasonable expectation.

The same pattern led to this vintage 1998 beauty from Southwest Airlines, courtesy of archive.org’s Wayback Machine. (I first heard this example at the Front product/design conference in 2015):

18 years later, this design seems hilariously myopic, but it probably made sense at the time. It mapped new functions to familiar features of real-world experience. It made a complex new domain accessible to a lot of newcomers.

We’re equally shortsighted when it comes to learning materials. Here are three examples.

First, we cling to an ancient format. Why don’t academic articles incorporate more visuals? Because the page layout and printing is too costly. If only there were a technology robust enough to automate the arrangement and reproduction of arbitrary elements according to a simple set of customizable conventions. Alas.

Second, we’re stuck on antiquated business models. It used to be that if I had a textbook, you couldn’t have it, because there were only so many books in the world. Now we can throw a PDF online and literally anyone with a decent connection can have a copy without depriving anyone else the opportunity. Solution: create DRM to make these magically unfettered unbooks more like “real” books—because nothing drives progress like artificial scarcity.

Finally, even given rich educational media and legal permission to do tesseract-level magic with them (via open licensing), we tend to use them like normal textbooks. As my professor David Wiley puts it, this is like driving an airplane down the street. He advocates increased effort to pilot and study open pedagogy, defined as pedagogical techniques that like flight, are suddenly within reach through the wonders of open.

Sometimes we use new tools in very old ways.
Sometimes we use new tools in very old ways.

Naturally, we’ll struggle at first in the face of any domain that boasts a new dimension. Initially, our intuition will lead us astray. But if we’re willing to accept bumps and bruises, we can learn to move forward in qualitatively different and transcendently superior ways.

After all, that’s why we made the airplane.

Author: Zane

Zane is a learning experience designer passionate about the intersection of education, software development, and human-centered design. He manages a language acquisition app for missionaries and studies instructional psych & tech at Brigham Young University.

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