bad explanations manuals

What Does the Decline of the Instruction Manual Signify?

Food for thought from Mark Miodownik, an engineer at Kings College London:

We now live in an age in which we feel that technology should be intuitive, which relegates instruction manuals to literature for the stupid.

In truth, most modern instruction manuals are not worth reading in any case, since they have turned into catalogues of health and safety advice, and instructions on how to dispose of the product once it breaks. We are not expected to spend much time thinking about who made it and how.

Instead, there is inevitably a “quick start” guide which is supposed to get us up and running fast. We are not encouraged to ask how a product works, or figure out how to look after it – and whatever you do don’t open the back, as it will invalidate the warranty.

We now live in a world in which curiosity and care are discouraged, and in which the instruction manual is slowly but inevitably becoming extinct.

Miodownik makes some good points, and I agree that manufacturers generally discourage curiosity. But that’s not the world we live in. As the first commenter points out, many people do take the time to understand how a product works; they just do it buy jumping in and figuring it out. My general impression is we are living in a golden age of technology curiosity and DIYism. We certainly have access to many more resources for figuring out tech products than we did 20 years ago.

But I do think the decline of manufacturer’s manuals points to a growing gap between technophobes and technophiles. If you’re not the sort of person that seeks out information on your own (a nerd, in other words), the default state is total ignorance. When there’s no packaged explanation, there’s no expectation that you should understand your machines. You have to come to that conclusion on your own.

[via Workplace Learning Today]

One reply on “What Does the Decline of the Instruction Manual Signify?”

I’ve noticed the same thing with video games. When I was a kid, you had to read the instruction manual in order to know how to play. Now with many games, you just start playing and the game teaches you how to play, whether that’s in a tutorial mode or as part of the normal game play (e.g. Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii).

As James Paul Gee points out in his book “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy,” the game that teaches players how to play can be a useful model for thinking about teaching K-12 or college students. These games often teach you what you need to know when you need to know it. This scaffolded approach to teaching is generally very effective.

Marc Prensky writes about “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Students these days tend to be digital natives, given how they’ve grown up with technology. Many teachers tend to be digital immigrants, coming to technology after having learned without it.

All that to say, as a college teacher, it’s useful for me to remember that my students may be expecting learning experiences more like Super Mario Galaxy and less like an instruction book.

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