In 1986, I wrote technical documentation for a startup that manufactured a PostScript controller upgrade for laser printers. I was tasked with actually using the product myself and writing a manual that was user-friendly by the two talented co-founders of the small company. I had a Mac and a PC on my desk and they were connected so I could send files back and forth. I had a copy of Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Data for inspiration. Looking at the Mac, I was pretty excited about having a UI and WYSIWYG though using PostScript to write technical manuals worked pretty well. I remember when Microsoft won "look and feel."
Back in the day.
So I liked this classic Steve Jobs video making the rounds at G+. In it, Jobs deftly handles a rough question when many doubted his ability to lead Apple. [UPDATED: Steve Jobs has passed away and I am willing see clearly the shadow side of our technology and corporate business models;still, it is sad that Jobs passed before he reached the age where many attempt philanthropy; he might have done something remarkable there also. Philanthropy is also in a huge rut.]
In the video, Jobs explains why it is important to focus on the user experience and work back from the user to technology instead of working forward from the technology to the user. And under Jobs, Apple would indeed focus on the user experience and good design, a supposedly unimportant part of providing computers, a business where design was considered superfluous and silly. Steve Jobs set the tone and creativity and innovation were valued.
The Users of Public Schools
I wonder if anyone ever notices that in education, we never focus on the user. We have an education system where the user experience is considered trivial. Users have no voice. They are children and families.
The design of our public schools is remedial in complexity and industrial in tone and approach. We try hard to ensure that every human user is homogenized and standardized, in fact, that's our goal -- even though diversity is a strength. It doesn't fit with an industrial ed model. We plan to pump out a standard product. And in the hard and budget-conscious world of public schools, good design and user experience are also viewed as fluffy and impractical.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: Bill Gates is still running around focused on the installed base though it hasn't always worked. He has spent for smaller classes and now for larger. He is also spending on improving teachers. He has access that regular parents and kids never get but he isn't advocating for the user.
Why not ask the users what they want?
The Current Use Case
What is the user experience in our public schools? How do we use our resources? For kids within the system, these are universal aspects of the system every user will navigate:
- grading of all learning experiences
- forced passivity and obedience
- grade-level ranking
- few to no choices
- repetition for the benefit of others
- mass socialization
- heightened peer influence
- narrow access hours
- poor quality food
- not much time to eat
- school bus dysfunction: from bullying to boredom
- lack of input
- few choices of any kind
- massive textbooks
- massive amounts of paperwork
- herds and hierarchies
Users are not right in the school system, as they are in business; users are to be passive and absorb and perform on cue. Users are used by the system itself. If a school works really well, every single user has the very same credential at the end of the process.
Changing the User Experience
Users don't really want much: see how basic are the requests of most users. Are we working from what families and kids really want and need back to what we provide? No, we work from a set of standards and rules and fit kids in.
Changing the user experience in schools is even harder because the users are not considered old enough to be able to choose and participate. The users of the schools have no union and the people most likely to advocate for them, their families, have no real input. The users of this system are ignored and powerless. And this is education, not manufacturing.
Homeschooling works from the user out in most cases especially in the long run. It is just hard for a parent to engineer a kid to a spec: it is much easier to support the kid and provide resources and facilitate the process. There are many different kinds of homeschoolers but even the most school-at-home approach is usually a custom fit that includes student input and modifications of many kinds.
Homeschooling families have been learning lessons about education that can fundamentally change how we approach education in our time. Schools could move toward supporting all families by allowing the families to get what they need and want in learning services. That model isn't used now but it could be.
Schools that were all about providing learning resources and services would be flexible, student and family-centered, and able to handle diversity and complexity like many high-tech companies do. We need to focus on the users. And we need good design in a system that is outdated and remote from the people it should serve.
ed reform the apple way
make public schools truly public
what's wrong with the schools?