TESOL, Technology, and EdTech

Interface Metaphors for Teachers

Don't Treat Your Word Processor Like A Typewriter!

This is the second in a series of posts about using technology in education. This article deals with computer interface metaphors and why we care.

Too often, teachers make do with the software equivelant of a swiss army knife. That is, they learn one program and use it to do everything. For example, I've seen worksheets created in spreadsheets (such as MS Excel) and posters made with presentation slide software (usually MS PowerPoint). The most common example, as you might guess, is teachers using MS Word to create anything and everything: worksheets, fliers, photo albums, seating charts, grade trackers, even yearbooks. In many cases these teachers did not really choose the software — they just are using the software they know. They certainly aren't using the best tool for the job. Just like a swiss army knife can be good enough for a lot of tasks, but is rarely the best tool for any job, a program (for example, MS Word) can be good enough without being the best program to use for a particular job.

Why should we care about the best tool for the job? Well, you can use a swiss army knife to put in a few screws if you need to, but if you use a proper screwdriver, you are going to finish that job more quickly and more easily. For a bigger job, you will definitely want to switch to a proper screwdriver if you can. With a real screwdriver, you'll probably also have better results. The same is true with software. Yes, you could make a yearbook in a word processor, but that really isn't the best tool for that job. You will have much better results, faster, and probably more easily, if you use desktop publishing software to make that yearbook. But, desktop publishing software is usually massive overkill if you are just making a one page worksheet. In that case the word processor might be the best tool.

But, how do you find or decide on the best tool? If you have never heard of desktop publishing software, how are you supposed to find it, much less use it? For that matter, how are you even supposed to know that a word processor isn't the best tool for that yearbook job?

One thing that can help you think about the software tools you use is to understand their metaphors. Software's graphical user interfaces (GUI, often pronounced gooey or gooeys for the plural) use metaphors to help people understand how to use the software. Good GUIs have effective metaphors to help users intuitively use the software. (There is a saying that the only truly intuitive interface is the nipple. I can't speak to the accuracy of that, but I think the general idea is fair — have to learn how to do everything.The purpose of GUI metaphors is to make that learning easier and faster by linking it to things the user already understands. How many readers are thinking about schema right now? Pretty much the same idea, for the same reasons.)

Think about making a physical poster in the real world (not on a computer). What tools would you use? What supplies would you need? You make a poster on paper (sometimes letter size, sometimes bigger) maybe with some text and some pictures. So, to make a poster, you need at least paper, scissors, glue, and some markers or colored pencils.

What actions do you take? You either hand write in, or glue in, text. You paste in pictures, perhaps after finding them online, printing them out, and then cutting them out. If you need more than one of a picture or a piece of text, you might make some copies of it, either by hand or on a copy machine (or more likely, by printing out more copies).

Do any of those verbs sound familiar to you in a computer context? Words like cut, copy, and paste? There is a reason the icon for cut is scissors — the people who designed the GUIs used real-word metaphors in their software. In this case, the metaphor is pretty straightforward and closely linked to the real-world actions, even today.

But, think about what you don't do when making a physical poster. You don't treat the poster board like a piece of paper in a typewriter. You don't (figuratively) hit return or use the space bar (or the center button) to place a picture on your poster. Moving a picture does not cause the text to move. With a physical poster, the text only moves if you move it.

Now, think about a word processor. The word processor literally acts like there is a piece of paper that you can only access one line at a time, from top to bottom. To go down a line, you press return, also known as the enter key. The metaphor that word processors use is the typewriter (anyone remember those?). No one ever used a typewriter to make a poster.

How do you add a picture when you use a real typewriter? You don't! Not in the typewriter, at least. Instead, you leave some blank space for it on the paper, then you take the paper out and place the picture on the page manually.

When you try to use a word processor to make a poster, the metaphor breaks down, and you get many problems. When you add pictures and other graphics to documents in word processors, you are going against the metaphor; that is a hint that the word processor is not the best tool for the job, if the job is making a poster or other document with a lot of graphics or text spread out all over the paper. A word processor is good for documents that a typewriter would have been good for — documents with lots of words that pretty much just go from the left side to the right side in a straight line.

Going back to our yearbook example, if you understand that the word processor uses the typewriter metaphor, it is easier to see that maybe it isn't the best tool for the yearbook. Yes, it could do the job, but it isn't going to do that job as well or as easily as software that has a more page layout or poster metaphor. You may not know what software you need, but you know you need to go looking for some.

To be honest, metaphors are only part of the system that computer interface designers use to help people use their software. Icons, colors, font choices, etc. also are important in helping users figure out their systems. And, as is not uncommon in the real world, some things continue despite not being appropriate any more. A current, somewhat famous, example is the picture of a floppy disk for the save action. Most younger computer users never used floppy disks and many don't understand the reference. Thus, the icon picture is not really helping any. But, it has been around forever, so everyone knows that that is what to press to mean save.

On the newer side, the metaphor used in modern smart phones is not really tied to the real world in the way that the original desktop computer metaphors are. Instead smart phone metaphors are sort of a mix of new ideas — like swiping, pinching, etc. — and things brought over from the desktop computer world — like icons and apps (from application, another word for software or program).

At the end of the day, why do we care about all of this? We care because if we understand GUI metaphors, even just generally, we can made better decisions about what software to use for specific purposes. We can probably also use that software more productively. That should give us more time for ourselves and our students, as well as (hopefully) decreasing our stress levels a bit.

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