Learning “Computer”: A Task for the Age(d)?

My mother, 87, is more proficient that most users her age– undoubtedly because in her son-in-law and granddaughter are software engineers, her son is highly regarded in the computer systems security industry, and her daughter–me– has been involved in internet culture and education for decades. Still, she scolded me the other day that it is more difficult for older people to learn “computer.”

Although I pressed her repeatedly, she couldn’t offer many reasons. Maybe it’s age, maybe the brain doesn’t work as it used to; she thought it was more likely that we , her offspring and some mysterious  Others, just expect our lives to be involved with technologies of all kinds.

In other words, I thought, culture.

* * *

Ways of thinking, knowing, being in the world most accurately fall under the category of epistemology. But thinking and knowing are surely part of what makes up culture (citation?). What about attitudes, beliefs? These, too, seem founded in epistemologies. Specifics: the role of educational settings and teachers of a particular time and those places, and the values and behaviors they privileged. Notions of knowledge as fixed, learning processes as defined and linear, knowledge categorized as correct or incorrect, as determined by an authority (teacher, government).

These are not representative of the theoretical constructs– the mindsets— of internet based communications in internet-influenced times (Lankshear & Knoble, 2008). They are outside of understandings of communication as both multimodal (Kress, 2010) (Kress, etc.) and easily partitioned into chunks to be mixed and remixed into new communications (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011). They do not exemplify notions of learning as driven by individual need and interest (Ito et al., 2013) undertaken by individuals who see themselves as the powerful agents in their own learning and living (boyd, 2014; Ito, 2009; Ito et al., 2013) all of this taking place in a society where individuals are suddenly able –and expect– to voice their views, be heard, and provoke action (Jenkins et al., 2008).

Is it any wonder that computer, as my mother characterizes everything related to the internet, hardware, software, tasks, is so impossible to learn?

How many teachers were educated in times like these? Even more specifically, how many English teachers? I have never forgotten the grief in one of my graduate students’ voice as she moaned, “But why can’t we just teach literature?” Or the quasi-defiance in some students’– as young as 22– assertions that they will never let go of the tactile pleasure of holding a book (as if someone suggested that internet-impacted lives would ever demand that choice.)

“Digital natives” are such a myth; it’s not just “old people” that struggle with computer. Or, technology, the equivalent catch-all in today’s world of education.



Walking yesterday, I was explaining my thinking to my husband. “What is so different about that culture that makes learning technologies so hard?” I demanded. He shrugged. “Why don’t you ask them?” he said.

And right there, clear as day, the rationale for an ethnographic study. The instruments? A survey, both by paper and via an easy online interface ( think: Google forms). Interviews. Maybe a video group interview to get the juices flowing. Maybe a few invited folks, perhaps some who have expressed surprise or otherwise commented on their participation?

The issue to address: how do we move teach people born, raised, educated in the mindsets, culture, and social constructs of the industrial age to embrace computer and all that comes with it?



boyd,  danah. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.

Ito, M. et al. (2009). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. MIT Press.

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected Learning. BookBaby.

Jenkins, H., Purushotoma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robison, A. (2008, March). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF

Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. Routledge.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2011). New literacies: Everyday practices and social learning (3rd ed.). Open University Press.

Lankshear, C., & Knoble, M. (2008). New literacies and the challenge of mindsets. In New literacies: Everyday practices & classroom learning (2nd ed., pp. 29–62). McGraw Hill.


2 responses to “Learning “Computer”: A Task for the Age(d)?”

  1. Connie Knapp says:

    I love interviews. The data is rich, even if it is harder to analyze. Just my two cents.

    Many years ago I worked with a graduate student who was writing a paper on the desktop metaphor–how we just took our desks and moved them to the computer screen. There are many ways in which that helps–we know what to do on a desk, for example–but it also hinders–what might we do on a computer (or phone, or tablet) that we could never do on a desk?

    There’s so much to this. Sigh. The constructs we use to help us understand, the metaphors we employ, the things we ignore–all of this is part of the story.

    As I used to tell the students in the introductory computer class, the goal of this class is for you to never again accept the excuse “the computer is down.” What does that mean–the hard drive failed, the internet connection isn’t available, what?

    Nice work you’re doing here my friend, getting us to think about all of this.

    • Karen says:

      You asked your students such great questions, Connie. I take them into my own thinking with gratitude.

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