Learning Online: Give yourself permission to play (and fail)

August 11, 2010

When I’m trying to teach people to use  online tools –Word Press, Google docs and etc.– I often say “just go ahead and play around, jump in and try stuff.  If you don’t like what happens, ‘undo’ it and do something else or dump that site (or doc) and start another. ”   It just occurred to me that what I’m saying has lot in common with the techie mantra “fail faster.”  That is, you are going to have to do a lot of stuff that doesn’t work before you get to the thing that does work, you can’t avoid that stage, so you might as well get to it and get through it.  It may seem like “playing” and “failing” don’t have much in common, but  if you can maintain a playful, experimental attitude while you learn,  you’ll try a lot more stuff a lot quicker, and feel a lot better when it doesn’t work the way you wanted the first few times.  For many people, though,  “playing” and “failing” are both  to be avoided at all cost. That’s because many of  us had it drilled into us  that if we were “playing” we were not “working” and that “failing” is well…..failure.  So how do you give yourself permission to “play” and “fail” with tech — so you can eventually “succeed” and get lots of  work done with your newly-mastered online tools?

Many  of us who aren’t “digital natives”– anybody older than about twenty, who didn’t grow up with computers and digital technology– are  reluctant to try new online tools and technologies.  There are some good reasons for caution online:  There are many dubious sites out there, some of which can infect your computer with viruses or other “malware” and  you don’t want to be loose online with your personal information, especially credit cards numbers or account passwords.  But if you take basic measures to avoid online scams and do your experimenting on “brand name” sites and those that have been recommended by people you trust,   you can “play” pretty safely. Here are some more tips:

  • Online, “web- or browser-based” programs are actually better to play and experiment with than desktop programs-  Most of us Old-Timers who have been around since the first personal computers appeared can still clearly recall the horror of  deleting an important file, of screwing up a program or even our whole computer because we hit the wrong button or changed the wrong setting.  That’s harder to do these days– computers and programs are generally more “fail safe”  and user friendly. (Really!)  But it can still happen, especially if you are “playing around” , as instructed, with various functions and options that are new to you– and when it does, the damage is likely to be easier to undo on an online program.  That’s because programs that are installed on your own computer are, necessarily,  linked to your computer’s operating system.  Sometimes changes you make to a desktop program (accidentally or on purpose) change other basic functions in your computer, and these changes can be hard to reverse if you aren’t a computer expert.  But if you are playing online with, for instance, Google docs –Google’s online version of Microsoft Office– Google isn’t gonna let you do anything that screws up Google as a whole (well– you’d have to try really, really hard and then you’d be crossing the line from playing to hacking) and the same thing applies to WordPress.com,  a website where you can create and maintain a blog.   Online you might lose a few minutes work, or a file (when you start a new program,teach yourself how to “save” before you do anything else),  but the worst that can happen, if, for instance, you change a setting, don’t like the result, and just can’t figure out how to change it back, is that you’ll have to ditch your current experiment and start another one.  And that brings us to this suggestion:
  • “Sandbox” your learning sites and experiments- When programmers and web developers are working on a new project,  they isolate that project from previous, working versions of their programs and websites. That way,  if something goes wrong with the new version it won’t affect how the old one works.  They call this a “sandbox” –that’s right, a place to play around– and you can do the same thing by setting up test documents or sites, or even whole accounts, that are only for learning and testing, completely separate from the documents and sites that represent your “real”, finished work.  Here are a couple things to keep in mind in choosing a new online program to learn and setting up your “sandbox.”
  1. Choose an online site or program that’s free so you don’t feel like you can’t play because you’ve invested a lot of money in the program.
  2. Choose a site where you can set up an account by providing  minimal information: your name, email and just enough personal data to create a secure account. You should  not need to provide a credit card number or anything else that would lock you into later payments  ( Google Docs, WordPress.com and many others I discuss on this blog fit all these criteria .)
  3. Consider using an alternate email address to set up your “sandbox” account, like the “throwaway” email addresses many people use to avoid spam.  Online account providers identify you primarily by your email address, not your name.  If you use an alternate address to set up your “sandbox” account and  you later discover that you need or want to shut it down and create a new sandbox account or you want to have a second account for your “real” site or work,  you can do so using your other, preferred email address (some programs –WordPress for instance– allow you to set up any number of  “sites” within one account, some experimental, some “real”  but if you haven’t worked with a program before, it may  hard to tell when you set up an account if you’ll be able to do this.) Make sure the email address you use to set up your account  is one you can access easily,  since you’ll need to be able to receive administrative messages there.  (In general, the program providers really don’t care if you have multiple free accounts; Facebook is one of the few online providers that I know of that says this is a no-no. )
  4. Make your “sandbox” a place where it’s OK to play, and OK to fail–  if you do use a real work assignment as the inspiration for your experiments in your sandbox, try to choose a project where deadlines aren’t too pressing and tell yourself that you’ll move whatever works to a different “working”  document or site  when you’ve succeeded with your experiments.
  5. Keep your experiment to yourself- the second thing to check in a new program (after you learn how to “save”) is the privacy settings.  You may have to hunt around for them– if you can’t find them, “Google” the name of the program plus “privacy settings.”  But don’t worry about it too much if you can’t find them right away.  Most programs, such as Google Docs, are private by default.  Unless you purposely “share” your efforts, only you can see them.  The one major exception is website and blog creation programs like WordPress (and Google’s Blogger). Because blogs and websites are meant to be public,  you’ll probably want to change the default setting so that your site doesn’t go “live” until you are ready for people to see it.  (Again,  though, don’t worry too much if you can’t figure out how to do this:  Most new sites get almost no uninvited traffic and you can delete the site when you are finished with your experiment.  But to be safe, and because the site might show up in a specific Google search if  it’s up long enough, don’t put anything on the site, even in play, that would embarrass you.)
  6. Schedule some time to “play” in your new “sandbox”–  Even “failing fast” takes some time. But this is perhaps the hardest hint to carry out.  Because we are all overscheduled,  taking the time to “play” seems like an unobtainable luxury.   You may have to trick yourself (or your boss) into freeing up the time you need:  Most employers know that employees need to be trained in new technologies sooner or later, and most budget time and money for special training session. And, in truth, your sandbox experiments are training (even if they feel like play.) So try  writing “WordPress  Online Training Session” or the like in a block of time on your calendar, then put on a pair of headphones  plugged into your computer (you don’t need to listen to anything!) and ignore the phone and visitors during the time you’ve set aside.  When you succeed in learning the new program you and your boss will see the benefits of your effort.

When you dive into your “sandbox” for the first time, try what looks familiar–  if nothing does,  look around for a help screen or tutorial to get you started.  Do a Google search on the name of the program and “tutorial” if you can’t find one on the site.  But, above all, just go ahead and try stuff.    If  it doesn’t work,  or doesn’t work the way you expected it to,  you’ve learned something.  Those are good failures.  As the techies say, “fail faster, succeed sooner.”

Let me know how it goes.

P.S.– Google clearly advocates the “just jump in” philosophy.  Check out their new Google Docs intro page; you don’t even need to set up an account, you “just start typing.” (Though beware that any doc you create without an account will be deleted after 24 hours.)

Filed under: Google docs,iTools 101

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