Digital Tools, Foreign Lands, and Flying Machines*

by Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies

How would you prepare to visit a foreign country where English is not the primary language? How would you prepare to take along children?

traveler in a foreign country

How do your ideas about preparing to travel compare to how you prepare to use digital tools? Does the analogy extend to how you prepare others to use digital tools?

You may have gotten the point, but, I will try using another set of examples. How do you learn to operate a new vehicle?

Here is a video explaining how to drive an auto-rickshaw in India:

Here is a video of how one person learned to fly a helicopter:

Which one of these clips provides the best analogy of how someone starts learning to use digital tools?

I would certainly prefer the second example. But that’s not how most people approach digital tools, do they? The data transferred to this fictional character’s mind was comprehensive. She instantly knew everything necessary to operate a complex tool. Helicopter pilots don’t merely learn the controls. They learn physics, mathematics, and meteorology along with a whole host of technical and legal protocols that apply to operating a helicopter.

The first example of the auto-rickshaw is more typical of how people approach digital tools. They will simply start driving. More savvy folks talk to local users, as did the fellow in the video, in order to benefit from some of the received and invented knowledge about the tool. While this scenario is more typical, it is certainly not ideal.

Why is it that people learn digital tools by doing? The answer is often about design and user-friendliness. They are built to specifically avoid presenting their complexities to the end-user (i.e., you!). Digital tools are just like helicopters in one specific way: their inner workings are largely foreign to the people who use them.

Let’s go back to the travel scenario and ask whether the best, most savvy world travelers will invest time and research towards creating a travel itinerary along with considerations of spending options, immigration laws, medical considerations, and language comprehension. Those with the means might pay a travel agent and trust all these issues are handled; and, the travel agent will likely work with local agencies to arrange for a concierge or fixer. I suspect that planning to bring children demands a new level of attention to detail.

There are useful analogies between travel preparations and those for bringing digital tools into education. Those who “learn by doing” are unlikely to also research and plan. The outcome is that they very likely expose themselves and others to a variety of harms related to security and privacy.

The work of learning by learning is not onerous. Doing so is sensible and safe. And that’s the point of this blog post.

How might you prepare to use digital tools if none of us are directly plugged into the web? A single blog post is not the best place to list everything. Plenty can be learned from the folks at HASTAC and Hybrid Pedagogy. These are resources written by academics whose scholarship aims at equipping people to minimize harm while maximizing learning opportunities.

A good start would be to closely read the Terms of Service and all its related policies. Jade Davis asked me these questions at a 2018 workshop on digital literacies:

  • Print a paper copy of it all, and then take the time to annotate:
    • What do you not understand?
    • What do you find confusing?
    • What concerns you?
    • What do you need to learn more about?

After some discussion, our workshop asked these follow-up questions:

  • Inquire about the economics of the tool?
    • Who owns the tool?
    • Who are the investors?
    • Which other tools and companies are affiliated with the tool?
    • Why do you think these stakeholders would be interested to have you use the tool?

That’s a start. What do you think are the next steps?

* The workshop was supported by Dr. Christine Taylor, the Vice-President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Alabama.


Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences