Recycling an old piece, first published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Technical Communication, Southern Communicator (Issue 7 March 2006)]
Father was 70 when he signed up for a computer course a decade ago. He was not new to computers. In fact, he was the one who showed me a computer for the first time, way back in 1975 when a huge computer using punch-card technology took up an entire room in the institute where he worked as a professor.
After the first class, Father said that he hadn’t been able to understand the teacher very well, but was sure it would get better soon. I did not think it did, for he just became quieter and more contemplative by the day.
You’ll need to know something about Father to understand why this was unusual. He had worked his way up through sheer perseverance and had two masters’ degrees to his credit, including one from Syracuse University, New York. A perpetual scholar, he was always open to new concepts and ideas.
The course was over; he finally broke his silence. As he spoke, I gained new insight into the problems faced by the older generation when learning new technology.
Problem with words: The teacher had used the word ‘Default‘ without caring to explain that he was using it in a special sense. For Father, ‘default’ had something to do with failing to fulfill a requirement. Whenever the teacher used the word, Father thought he wasn’t to use that option. ‘Cursor‘ was another word he mistook for ‘curser’, till he saw it in print much later, which just added to his impression that he was in a weird new world.
Problem with demos: When the teacher demonstrated what was being taught, he was showing something on the screen, hitting some keys on the keyboard, and clicking with the mouse in fast succession. Father, apparently, hadn’t known which of these actions to observe at any given point of time.
Problem with the teacher’s attitude: The young teacher did not give Father the respect he was used to. Instead he assumed a condescending manner. The teacher was too inexperienced and young to know that slowness in learning to use the computer must not be equated with a lack of intelligence.
This is a classic case of faulty communication in a classroom setting, but the lessons learnt here are applicable to technical communication in general. The bottom line is always ‘Will your audience understand?’