One of the most challenging things in using a tool like Ilios actually has nothing to do with the tool at all. It is a problem with communication and digital literacy, not just among our faculty and educational staff, but (and most significantly) among our students as well.

Let’s face it: Ilios as a tool and a platform is pretty wickedly complex. Lots of moving parts. Thousands (if not millions) of lines of code. Dozens of dependencies….pretty much like any other contemporary application being used as a solution. Even so, most of the complications, user issues, and challenges we have seen coming to the core Ilios team aren’t really about that.

Since the start of the year, the overwhelming majority of issues that have been reported to us around student use of Ilios have revolved around issues of general digital literacy and communication. In some cases, schools and programs have vastly overestimated our students’ native understanding of the tools they use regularly – their mobile phones, laptop computers, and wi-fi networks, for instance – and made assumptions on top of that misunderstanding about how much guidance and orientation they may need to access networks and information here on campus. In other cases, schools and departments have neglected to provide them with even the barest outline of a process by which they can discover the sort of information they need to move ahead: where to go for technical assistance, what to do when they encounter problems accessing information on the web, in their online learning environments, in forums, or getting to a download or streaming presentation.

This is disheartening. But what can we do about it?

Step #1: Better Communication

Even before we starting handing tools to students to help them in their study, we need to be sure that we are telling them clearly not just how to use the tools, but what those tools even are, and how they fit into the landscape of technology and services they need to add to their experience to be successful. That information should start at day one, and must be both consistent in content and over time. The technology ecosystem we work in is complex; with the rapid proliferation of new tools and processes, along with continuing changes in social media use and asynchronous learning models, it is only getting more complicated and dense. It is incumbent on us, as educational technologists, to effectively communicate this complexity to our communities. This is easy to say: it is hard to do. Nevertheless, without effective communications about the things that makes our stuff work – the underpinnings of our systems, rather than the tools themselves – any challenges faced by our users will wind up being both misdirected and ultimately dissatisfied with the solutions they are offered.

Step #2: Know Your Students

It is now pretty well documented that the assumptions made about millennial “native knowledge” around technology and the internet have been wildly off base. Instead of being digital natives, who have an intuitive knowledge of how to use the proliferation of tools they are handed, they are more likely to be digital pilgrims: traveling along the road of technology use, collecting whatever seems to fit but often lacking in the linguistic skills to claim true ownership or mastery. The landscape of technology is shifting under our feet every day (hey - off the top of your head can you describe the difference on how to subscribe to a calendar feed on an iPhone 4s vs iPhone 6 vs iPad mini II vs. HTC One? I know I can’t.) We need to provide easy, single points of access for this type of information for our students. But even more: we need to let the students know that such information even exists, and that they need to know it, and know where to apply it. this means better outreach from educational tech support teams, better orientation for technology use with incoming students, better coordination among support staff in the messaging used to communicate, and better tracking of interactions. Which takes us back to item #1.

Step #3: Don’t Stop

One of the keys to digital literacy is the reinforcement of information and behavior, by both activity as well as passive reinforcement through documentation and training, both formal and informal. What does this mean? At its essence, this means that saying something once, showing something once, training on a system or a tool or a process once, is insufficient. If we correctly understand the level of knowledge and literacy (or lack thereof) on the part of our community, we need to provide ongoing training, continuous reinforcement of knowledge, and the providing documentation.

Is this easy? Of course not. But the systems we are building and integrating are really, really complicated. The multiplicity of applications, data transport systems, proliferating points of failure, not to mention the basic behavioral and usability patterns that need to be absorbed in order to be effective in using systems like Ilios. As much as we all seek the holy grail of usability for educational systems, that will give students, faculty and staff utterly simple, intuitive, and foolproof ways of interacting with data and systems, so far — despite the truly remarkable innovations we have seen in the last decade in digital tools development — so far that grail not only remains elusive, but still appears potentially unachievable without radical simplifications in our pedagogies. And rest assured, that isn’t a trend any of us are seeing.

All of this certainly applies to my core team here, developing and supporting Ilios. But it is my opinion and suspicion that it is more broadly applicable to many, if not most of our technology initiatives which touch the lives and activities of our learners and those of us who facilitate and support their progress.