An advisor on the Open University's Computing Helpdesk told me the other day that a major reason why students don't phone the Helpdesk when they have computer problems is that they're afraid they'll be asked questions they don't understand and can't answer.
It's obvious when you think about it. But it needs statng, for those of us fortunate enough to feel relatively comfortable with technology. We need to understand that the fear which paralyses many people isn't just fear of technology itself, but fear of the humiliation which comes from being reduced to a state of ignorance and incompetence.
There's a great Not-the-Nine-o'-Clock-News sketch all about that fear. It was made around 1980, when personal computers and mobile phones were still in the future, and it was hi-fi audio systems that were the geek's favourite cutting-edge technology. The premise is simple: Mel Smith walks into a hi-fi showroom and asks to buy a gramophone. The shop assistants laugh at him.
Just after that conversation with the Helpdesk advisor, I read about some interesting work by Clare Lee and Sue Johnston-Wilder on fear of maths: a close cousin surely of the fear of technology. Their aim is to find ways to develop "mathematical resilience" in children and adults - so this isn't so much about people not having problems as having confidence that problems can be solved. Their approach is based on collaborative working, mutual support, and a lot of talking. "Articulation of ideas improves learners' confidence in both their learning and their competence to use mathematical concepts. In other words, when learners have the opportunity to 'talk like a mathematician' they can become someone who 'knows and can do mathematics' - they begin to see themselves as capable." (OpenMinds, June 2012, p 47, www.open.ac.uk/openminds)
What this suggests to me is a language-learning approach to IT: helping people develop confidence with the technology by developing their capability to talk about it. This would be rather like the language-learning approach to academic skills, currently being pursued by colleagues in the OpenELT secton of my faculty. I wonder if anybody's tried this before?