Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The PEBKAC problems of digital L&T and how to solve it?

PEBKAC (Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair) is just one of the terms IT folk use to express their frustration with the apparent stupidity of users. A frustration perhaps overshadowed by that felt by the end users who – as digital technology becomes pervasive within organisations – are increasingly frustrated by organisational technology that prevents them from performing the simplest of tasks and thus having to resort to calling IT for assistance and having experiences not dissimilar to that following.



The argument in this post is that the limited ability of Universities to leverage digital technologies for high quality learning and teaching is, at least in part, due to good mental models. Students and teachers tend not to have good mental models of how the digitial technologies work. However, and perhaps more importantly, the people supporting digital technologies, students and teachers don’t have a good mental of what students and teachers are trying to achieve with digital technologies.

The post starts by offering a recent experience that illustrates how little at least some ICT folk understand what people are trying to do with technology. It then tries to explain why this is the case and how the problems it causes for people trying to use digital technology. It closes with questions about whether or not user experience design might help.

Video-conferencing: A recent example

The main purpose of this section is illustrate the origins of this post, but also to argue that an aspect of the PEBKAC problem is that generally ICT folk don’t have good models of what users want to do with ICT. Subsequent sections explore why this is a problem and what might be done about.

Yesterday a colleague and I were testing out a room we’ll be using for session in a couple of weeks. In particular, we wanted to make sure we could provide a good experience to both those in the physical room and those attending through a Zoom room. This is especially important as it’s the first session being organised by our new unit and because there’s a history of failed attempts at these types of sessions.

Initially, my colleague attempted to use the fancy new “iPad”-like screen to connect the room video facilities to the Zoom room. At the same time, I was talking (via Zoom on my laptop) with a remote participant. My colleague couldn’t get it to work, so reverted to standard practice and rang ICT support. Very quickly a young and apparently very new ICT support guy entered the room, looked at the problem and realised that he did’t have the knowlege required to understand and solve the problem. Hence he called for reinforcements.

This is when the train-wreck commenced.

The ICT support reinforcement came in the guise of a man who “knew” he could solve the problem (on reflection, not all that unlike “Nick Burns” from the video above). He took control of the console and started pushing buttons and explaining what he was doing.

There were only a couple of problems with this. First, after making the correct first step to solve the problem. He seemed to miss an entire screen that was providing direct guidance on what to do next. Completely ignored it and went on pressing buttons and explaining what he was doing. This is where the second problem arose. It was evident from what he was explaining that he didn’t understand what we were trying to do. He had a poor mental model of the user task.

He assumed we were trying to use the video conferencing system as well as Zoom. When in fact we were explicitly planning to avoid use of the video conferencing system because it never works and no-one understands how to use it. We just wanted to use Zoom. By this stage he had provided my colleague with the answer to our actual problem, but his poor model of our task (and ignorance of what was on the screen) meant he didn’t realise it. Eventually we explained and he left. Not after he had started the process of calling in a third ICT support guy.

Once they left, my colleague and I were able to get the Zoom room connected. Tested it from a participants perspective and then moved on to test the ability to show a set of Powerpoint slides via the desktop connected to the video conference system. This is where our second problem became apparent. Powerpoint loaded and quite happily showed a presentation. The only trouble is that the actual presentation was showing up on the monitor in front of the controls while the presenter view was showing on the large, public screen (and in the Zoom room).

There are methods that can be used to fix this from within Windows, but I’m not a Windows person so I don’t have that mental model, nor the inclination within this context to develop it.

The point is that it appears that the room has been set up in a way that it doesn’t automatically support (what should be) a common use case.

ICT don’t know what end-users want to do

(While the following explicitly mentions ICT, I’m not convinced that a lot of people/groups within a University actually know what teaching staff want/need to do with digital technology in L&T).

A fundamental problem here is that the ICT folk (of course there are exceptions) don’t know what people want to do with digital technology. They can’t translate between what they need to do and how to do that with the technology.

There is an exception. When it comes to tasks that very close to the technology (e.g. managing files and folders; configuring hardware etc) they can help. This is something they do and know intimately. I’m sure that an ICT guy employed to look after a video-conference system can quite easily show someone how to run a video-conference system.

However, when the user task moves beyond the common uses of a single technology, problems arise. When the user is trying to achieve a high level, specific task, standard models of ICT support and training fail. When a teacher is attempting to design and teach a course informed by the Community of Inquiry framework that is hosted on Moodle but uses a collection of other contextually specific technologies, standard models of ICT support and training fail. When a teacher is attempting to configure the Moodle Assessment activity to manage the submission, marking, moderation, and providing feedback on 400+ student assignments…

Providing instructions might help

After we’d finished our testing of the room, my colleague and I retreated to her office. She observed that the instruction card sitting in front of the video-conference controls weren’t very useful. The problem was that those instructions were written to explain how to run the video-conference system. For that task, they were pretty good. Highly visual, well thought out and trying to avoid becoming a recipe list.

Our problem was that we wanted to combine this video conference system with another technology – Zoom. A task above and beyond what the vendors of the video conference software would consider in their instructions. It’s a task that is too contextual to our institution. Use of Zoom at our institution is rapidly increase because it simply works. My expectation (and experience) is that there are more and more people across the institution avoiding the video-conference system and using Zoom.

However, it appears that ICT (or at least the instructions they provide in the video conference rooms) haven’t quite caught up with this trend. There isn’t a Zoom addendum to the instructions explaining what to do.

I think this is largely because the source of ICT instructions/training isn’t fully aware of the tasks people are trying to achieve. It would be interesting to see how many folk in ICT are aware of this trend.

If this is a problem even at the level of wanting to use Zoom in a video-conference, imagine the impact it might have on the use of digital technology in learning and teaching. If this problem applies, then what impact might it have on the quality of learning and teaching, given Mishra’s & Koehler’s (2006, p. 1029) argument that

Quality teaching requires developing a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content, and pedagogy and using this … to develop appropriate, context-specific strategies and representation

The problem

It appears widely recognised that there aren’t many university teaching academics that have strong mental models of how digital technologies function. My argument here is that many of the people employed by universities to have good mental models of how digital technologies function, have poor mental models of what teaching academics are trying to achieve (and perhaps more broadly, ICT folk have poor mental models of the main tasks of their organisation).

How to fix this? User experience design?

At some level this sounds like a problem that user experience design could help with. One of the definitions of user experience design mentioned in this article is

It’s a design methodology rooted in a deep understanding of the user

What would be the impact if the design, support and training around the use of digital technologies for teaching at a University was “rooted in a deep understanding of the user”?

Would that result in support and training that actively uses an understanding of the task and digital technologies to make the task easier and more effective? Would it improve learning and teaching?

What about professional learning opportunities?

My current responsibilities include helping the institution develop professional learning opportunities for teaching staff that help them achieve “educational excellence and innovation”.

Can this responsibility be effectively achieved without being “rooted in a deep understanding of the user”?

How might user experience design be used to help in this task? How might learner experience design help? Perhaps where the “learner” in our context are the teaching staff of an institution.


Exploring course site resource usage using MAV


Am I (or my team) ready to apply for an AAUT?


  1. Multi Lisa

    We had a similar issue at my university recently, David.
    We talked them into getting Zoom – because it does just work – and then we had quite a bit of voodoo and farting around before we could actually get it going through the VC conferencing systems in the teaching rooms.
    To paraphrase Don Norman, I think user error is – more often than not – a result of design error. And, to answer your question, I think good human-centred design must concern itself with a deep understanding of the human user.
    What a lot of teacher PD forgets, though, is that teachers are also human users and learners. Any PD provided needs to be grounded in a deep understanding of teachers’ needs and goals if it is to be effective.

    • admin

      Thanks for the shared experience Lisa (and for confirming that I’m on the right track).

      The question I’m facing now is what can be done to encourage a deeper (I’d settle for even some) understanding of teachers’ needs and goals into how the institution does what it does. The link for human-centered design you provide offers one place to start. How (if?) are you doing it where you are?

      • Multi Lisa

        Hi David
        It isn’t an area of responsibility for me, so your guess is as good as mine about how to make others see the importance of it. I don’t think this is an issue confined to academics, though. I think human-centred design should be a standard part of management training these days – must write a LinkedIn post on this!
        If you have some success, I’d love to see some future blog posts on which strategies work.

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