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How to Teach Technology: Ten Tips for Effective Instruction
How to Teach Technology: Ten Tips for Effective Instruction
Dana Pergrem and Simon Grist
Whether you are giving your first technology training presentation or are an "old pro," there are always things you can do to hone your teaching skills. For many of us, mastery of the subject matter has always been what separated us as leaders. We are experts at the Internet, Web page design, digital video, desktop publishing, etc. But let us not forget one very important fact – knowing how to do something well and conveying that information to others in ways that they can readily understand are two distinctly separate endeavors. In other words, knowing a lot about a topic does not necessarily equate to automatically knowing how to explain that topic well, especially to people who know very little about the subject matter to begin with. That takes work and planning.
Others of us are veteran educators skilled in instructional techniques. We understand that the job of a teacher is to continue to be a learner first and are always looking for new ideas to incorporate into our repertoire of skills. We pride ourselves on exploring different viewpoints and approaches, and strive to be lifetime learners who keep up with the latest technology innovations. However, there are still occasions when we feel like we need to inject something novel into our teaching routine. Other times we just need some good old fashioned validation that what we are doing is sound instructional design and it is working.
Both Simon and I have been teaching technology in various capacities for over 12 years and it has been quite an adventure to say the least. Sometimes things go well. At other times, well, let us just say that it was a "learning" experience and most of the time what we learned was that we will never do it that way again. For all of us, however, no matter how proficient we are, there is always room to improve. Just as you do, we continue to make mistakes, learn, and incorporate new strategies into our arsenal of educational ammo. Therefore, we embrace any opportunity to exchange ideas with our brothers and sisters in arms.
Whether you are providing written documentation, giving a training presentation, or designing a Web site for training purposes, these specific and easy "Top 10" tips can help make the process go smoothly and earn you rave reviews. Hopefully these guidelines will be helpful as you continue to enhance your instructional activities.
Top 10 tips for effective technology instruction:
10. Plan before you stand
Survey the situation and have a plan before you start writing, designing a training Web page, or speaking. Before anything else is done, you must first decide what to cover. This is accomplished by:
Establishing what you want your audience to know. That is, determine the purpose of the training session and identify what the audience should be able to do at the end of the lesson. Write this out and use it as you plan your strategy. For example, "I want my audience to be able to create a distribution list in Outlook 2000 by the end of my session."
Covering only those things your participants will need to know. This is called "just enough" training. Resist the temptation to tell them the history of the subject, what's coming in the future, or what they would do differently in some other situation. This will only serve to confuse them if they are new to the subject matter.
Knowing your audience and putting yourself in their shoes. Identify who your audience is and what their level of expertise is in the subject matter. Do not automatically assume they will know what you are talking about as you go through a set of instructions. Be sure to include each step of the process and do not skip steps because you presume they are a given. For example, if you are working with people new to Web page design do not assume they will know what you mean when you say "preview the page in your browser."
9. Make training easy on you
Do not reinvent the wheel. Look for public domain Web sites that have the information you need and use them instead of creating your own materials from scratch. Has someone else already done a handout, presentation or Web page on this subject that you can borrow? Learn who normally does training at your institution and ask them for materials, or call on your colleagues from other institutions to see if they have anything you can use. If you have a lot of information to convey but only a short amount of preparation time, consider hitting only the central points. Then provide links, handouts, references, etc. to allow participants to get more information later.
8. Keep it simple
This is not a Nobel Prize winning endeavor. While you certainly do not want to put out sub-par material, you do not necessarily have to create the best handout in the world or the best Web site ever with Flash and digital video. Your job is to convey the information simply, quickly, and well. Don't get caught up in the cosmetics, this is a big time waster. If you want to get elaborate, ask yourself "why." Will it truly increase the understanding of the information or will it just be cool?
If the latter is the answer, let it go if you are pushed for time. If you are designing a Web page to deliver training, be sure it is easily navigable and simple to use. Make sure links are well-marked and the navigational strategy is easy to follow.
If you have questions, many Web sites offer free information on the principles of effective and efficient Web page design.
7. Organize – it is the key to success
Whether you are verbally presenting information or creating a handout, organize in a way that is easy to follow. Preview what you will be talking/writing about, say it, and then recap the main points at the end just like you did in English 101. In other words, "Tell'em what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell'em what you've told them."
Think about order. Ask yourself, "If someone were telling me how to do this, what order would make the most sense to me?" and order your information in this way. Examples of ordering information include chronological, function/task, problem/solution, etc.
Remember to set the stage for your training. Do not just launch into your presentation, use some form of introduction. Explain why you are doing the training in the first place (system upgrades, changes in procedure, updates, etc.). Recap what you are there to accomplish, the equipment needed, and about how long the process will take. Let your audience know how you have organized your presentation and hit the central points in succinct, clear phrases. Always let your listeners know how and when questions are appropriate.
If you get sidetracked, so be it, but be sure your audience knows where you are in the presentation when you get back on track. For example, "OK, I believe we were discussing point 2, creating a distribution list."
6. Make it easy to read and understand
Whether creating a handout, PowerPoint presentation or Web page, your work should be easy to read and follow. This can be accomplished in several ways:
Use bullet points, not complete sentences. Bullet points are much easier to read at a glance and create the illusion of a less-cluttered presentation.
Make use of bold, italics, etc. to separate and add emphasis. Bolding easily leads the eye to the main points and helps them to stand out. Italics can add emphasis to a particular word or phrase. Capital letters can also be used for emphasis but be wary of using all caps, which tend to be more difficult to read than a mixture of upper and lower-case letters.
Proof read for comprehension and spelling/grammar mistakes. Proof read diligently and just when you think everything looks great, proof read again for good measure. So often we know exactly what we mean "in our heads" but our words do not adequately convey that meaning. Sometimes, it helps to listen to someone else read your handout back to you out loud. You will soon hear if there are "flow" problems because the person reading will have trouble reading what you have written. Strive for absolute clarity in your wording choice and in your grammar.
Consider numbering your steps. For example, "Step 1, start FrontPage, Step 2, click Insert, Picture." Also include what action to take and what happens then. For example, "Click 'OK' and the password box displays." This helps remove any doubts in the users' minds about whether they are on the right track or not.
Use an "easy to read" font. One personal favorite for hardcopy material is Comic Sans, since the letters are widely spaced, easy to read, and the feel is very casual. Verdana and Georgia are nicely visible on Web pages since they are "screen" fonts (fonts created to be viewed on the computer screen). You should also use screen fonts when projecting on a laptop screen.
Leave lots of white space on the page or screen. Do not try to cram too much information on one page. This looks cluttered and is difficult and confusing for the user to sift though.
Screenshots work wonders to help the audience understand what you are talking about. Description of the process is fine but actually being able to see the information to which the instructor is referring is an extremely valuable explanatory tool. SnagIt is a personal favorite for capturing and editing screenshots. ScreenCorder or Camtasia can be used to capture motion on a PC screen.
Use a video screen to demonstrate exactly what you are doing so that the audience can see your key strokes.
5. Practice a trial run with a small audience
Run through your presentation for concept and structure (does it make sense?). If you do not have an audience, consider videotaping yourself. Next, run though for delivery/timing (am I in my time limit?). Finally, do a full rehearsal with visuals. This step is extremely important. We cannot tell you how many times we thought to ourselves, "I'll do fine, there's really no need to waste time running through this beforehand. I know this stuff." But sure enough, we always find something we want to change or improve about our presentations and in the end we are always glad we took the time to practice. One of us habitually goes outside the lecture building before presenting and walks up and down delivering the paper out loud (to amused looks by passers-by).
4. Present well
Although glancing at your notes is fine, look at your audience; do not read to them word for word. This is the kiss of death for a presentation. If you are using PowerPoint, do not turn around and read from the screen and do not block the screen by standing in front of it. Use an outline style and bullet points in your notes rather than complete sentences. This helps you to glance down easily and keep your place while avoiding the temptation to read.
If you will be working on the PC to demonstrate, consider standing at the back of the room and having the screen in the front to avoid squinting into the light of the projector. However, some people prefer to stand in the front of the room so the participants can see them. Try to make eye contact with each member of your audience if you are in a small setting and try to maintain a conversational tone. After all, that is exactly what you are doing – having a conversation with several of your colleagues to show them how to do something.
Do not rush. Give your audience time to assimilate your ideas. Speak loudly, clearly and with feeling. If you start speaking too fast, take a breath at the end of each sentence to slow yourself down. Finally, be yourself. If you are naturally a cut-up, let that come through. If you could not tell a joke if your life depended on it, do not try to use humor in your presentation. Both you and your audience are always more comfortable when you let your natural personality shine through.
3. Calm those public speaking nerves
Use outlines, notes, or cards if they help or make you feel more secure but use them as cues, not to read. Remember, you are the expert and if you did not have the knowledge required you would not be speaking in the first place. These are your colleagues and they just want information; they are not critiquing you to see if you have the speaking skills of Cicero. Keeping these things in mind can be comforting if you start to get jittery. Most of us get "pre-presentation jitters," but, in general, you will find that once you begin your presentation, your nerves will calm themselves as you get caught up with the task in hand. Also, do not forget to breathe. Breathing calms you and helps with focus and voice projection.
2. Avoid sneaky pitfalls that can kill your training endeavor
Always have a backup for your technology. In a worst case scenario, you should be able to do most of your presentation in a blackout. Do not rely on the network or even your computer to be working properly. Have handouts as a backup for PowerPoint, save Web pages to a CD or your hard drive, etc. And speaking of PowerPoint, ask yourself if you really need PPT and if so why? Sitting in the dark can put your audience to sleep. Are the PPT slides for your audience or an outline for you? Do they emphasize your points or are they eye candy?
Try to get there early enough to setup and get comfortable in your surroundings. Be sure to make enough handouts for the group and do not simply read to the audience from your handouts. Consider waiting until after the presentation is complete before handing out information. If handouts are not necessary to "follow along" with your presentation, they can be distracting. And when it comes to audience questions, do not be afraid to say "I don't know" when you do not. Nobody likes a fraud and your audience will respect you for being honest.
Stay within your allotted time limit. Going over time drives audiences crazy. Do not forget to interact with your audience by asking questions and sharing stories or personal experiences. Audiences tend to feel tense when there is not sufficient interaction. Finally, think about training sessions you have attended. Look at what others do that you do not like and avoid doing those things.
1. Remember that no matter what happens, this too shall pass and you will be even better next time around for having had the experience
It is easy to dwell on a training effort that has been less than perfect but as we have said before, every experience, good or bad, is a learning experience. While you may remember the great DreamWeaver class debacle of 2002 in great detail or cringe for a week after you forgot how to average during the Excel session, your audience will doubtless forget these snafus as soon as they are out the door. The important thing is that you got through it and you learned from it, good or bad.
There you have it – our ten most important tips for effective technology training. If you are so inclined, print off this list and pull it out next time you are responsible for putting together a teaching session. Hopefully, this information has been useful to you in either reconfirming some of the things you already do in your training program or by introducing new approaches for you to try. Remember, good technology instruction does not just happen. You make it happen by the instructional design and presentation efforts that you put forth.
Dana Pergrem(DPERGREM@hermes.floyd.edu) is an Instructor in Communications, Training Coordinator, and Instructional Technologist. Simon Grist(SGRIST@hermes.floyd.edu) is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Technology, and an Instructional Technologist. Both teach at Floyd College in Rome, Georgia, USA.