Meet Martin Wolske, Author of A Person-Centered Guide to Demystifying Technology

[September 2023 Update: This post is related to the release of the first edition of this title. A newer second edition has also been released.]


IOPN recently published A Person-Centered Guide to Demystifying Technology by Martin Wolske, one of the earliest titles that went under development with IOPN and the second open-access textbook in the Windsor & Downs Press series OPN Textbooks. To celebrate its publication, we are interviewing author Martin Wolske, a teaching assistant professor at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) about the textbook and its development and use. Wolske’s teaching and research areas are at the intersection of person-centered pedagogy, community informatics, engagement, and technology platforms, digital access and equity, and local social justice goals. Wolske’s textbook seeks to contribute to the transformation of communities and the ecosystems of which we are a member, through demystifying technology, flipping the classroom, and transformative engagement.

Interview Questions

1) How were your ideas for A Person-Centered Guide to Demystifying Technology initially developed? Were there any events, scholarly works, or experiences in instruction that inspired you?

While early drafts of components of the textbook started emerging some 15 years ago as I worked to flip the classroom to prioritize hands-on work and group discussions during synchronous meetings, it was extended community engagement events in East St. Louis, IL, São Tomé  and Príncipe, Africa, and Champaign-Urbana, IL starting in 2009 through 2015 that especially led to development of this textbook. To begin, service-learning projects as part of my “Introduction to Networked Information Systems” (now IS401) and “Community Informatics Studio” (now IS440) courses began taking handouts and lecture notes from previous courses and turning these into materials used within community workshops. These were further developed as part of a 2012 State of Illinois DCEO “Ending the Digital Divide” grant in which community members serving as grant staff worked with community members at the Mary Brown Center in East St. Louis, the Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park in Champaign, and Salt and Light in Champaign, and Green Meadows apartments in Danville to develop innovative information, news, and community reporting digital literacy training and resource tools to address specific community-identified needs. By 2013, these became a workbook used as part of service-learning projects and then as part of a 2014 State of Illinois DCEO “Ending the Digital Divide” grant in which community ambassadors engaged in community inquiry activities with the Urbana Neighborhood Connection Center, the Urbana Free Library Teen Open Lab, Champaign Unit 4 Kenwood Elementary school library, and the Champaign Public Library teen space. Demystifying Technology workshop assessments as part of these formal research components especially guided development of training resources that more strongly brought together the social and technical components of our everyday technologies to unpack the mutual shaping that often privileges some at the cultural, socio-emotional, cognitive, and economic costs of many. Beginning in 2015, alums of “Introduction to Networked Information Systems” and current course TAs began collaborating to create evolving drafts of the textbook, first as a word document, then as HTML text hosted on a CITL textbook site and a personal website, and ultimately as the IOPN textbook.

2) You published your textbook in Pressbooks, a digital publishing platform. Could you tell us what drew you to IOPN and the digital format?

While both CITL and my personal Dreamhost website provide creative options for textbook publishing, Pressbooks provided some essential components allowing for an open access version of the textbook plus annotations and page notes. Further, the more formal structure of Pressbooks is in keeping with a professional textbook, helping to reach a broader professional audience. Already, some school librarians have begun using selected chapters within their afterschool programs. In viewing the ExactMetrics, seeing and (.com, .ch, .in, and .uk) provides an indication the more formal structure of Pressbooks increases the appeal of this textbook to an international audience of professionals as well. Essential within the professional development of this textbook, the support provided by the University Library was unique and greatly valued.

3) What kinds of challenges did you encounter as you wrote content in digital format? What strategies would you recommend for authors who might be considering similar projects?

The co-development of unique CSS and innovative uses of some previously untested aspects of Pressbooks within this textbook to create the ultimate layout and presentation of the textbook required extended time and energy to develop, test, and implement. WordPress was developed in a way that intentionally underdesigned components to “design for design after design”, allowing innovation-in-use. But such creativity also requires the user to confront and accept failure as a primary step in the development process moving from ‘not-yet’ to ‘yet’. These are concepts introduced chapter by chapter within this textbook. This is an essential step in addressing long-term impacts of marginalizing works within learning environments if we are to support the breadth of community cultural wealth using culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies. However, this comes at a significant cost when rapid development and production is a primary focus. I have had the privilege of working within a space that acknowledges meaningful engagement in community, with community, and for community requires dedication over many years and decades, in which process is as important as product. This has also provided me with connection points bringing many different, rich skillsets and insights into the conversation during the development process. Together, this assured the digital format proved to be both doable and valued. It should be noted that Pressbooks and the University’s further configuration of Pressbooks provided a more limited starting point for working within the WordPress structure. In some ways, this reduced the level of design that could be further done to address specific feature requests. At the same time, this did provide some further approachability of the digital publishing framework when other commitments of time and energy remain a priority. Ultimately, I suspect this resulted in a better product produced in a better timeframe than could have been done were a more open WordPress structure was used. Hopefully this will also mean Pressbooks will make this accessible to a wider audience of authors.

4) You mention that you intend A Person-Centered Guide to Demystifying Technology to help your readers to develop a critical sense in approaching sociotechnical artifacts to counter systemic injustices and community agency in appropriating technology. How would you want your readers to utilize your book to accomplish this?

Unit 1, the Orange Unit, is intended to provide early introductions to the social and technical aspects of our everyday technologies. Unit 2, the Blue Unit, works to more tightly bring together the social and technical to unpack ways the mutual shaping of sociotechnical artifacts influences the helpful and harmful aspects of these technologies. In this way, by Unit 3, the Rainbow Unit, readers are prepared for a deeper introduction of the systemic injustices and community agency in appropriating technology, and from there, further design of the technologies that have been appropriated to get into “good trouble.” This requires the reader focus first on people as part of a community of inquiry, using this book as a tool in support of their collaborative works. While each individual approaches this book each in their own way, it is a book meant to be done together with others using critical pedagogical tools and practices. Reading is meant to serve as a guide and as infill providing directive in doing action and reflection works, first to meet the technology as a tool, and later as a collection of tools providing a starting toolkit as part of community inquiry addressing limit situations keeping people within margins and away from doing those things they value. As such, this textbook cannot be done without also actively doing regular self-reflection and collaborative discussion, leading to new works of action testing out ideas under development through guided works as part of the text and as part of their individual and collaborative contexts. This requires the reader to view this book not as a static product provided through a specific knowledge bank, but as a dynamic tool being rewritten by the different members of the community of inquiry working together through the book and who each bring in a unique and special set of lived experiences into their reading of the text that only they can see and sharing their own text and context that only they can share. As such, every reading of this textbook is the very first reading. It is already being remixed. And as this is part of a creative commons license, this can also be done in more formal ways moving forward. But whatever the path, it is essential the reader come to discover this decolonizing aspect of their engagement with the text and context of the book, and the text and context they bring to the reading of, and praxis with, the materials of the book.

5) The activities in the textbook guide students through a similar process of assessing well-established tools, identifying their limitations, and then creating new possibilities. Is there an activity that you have found particularly generative or eye-opening for students?

There isn’t a specific activity within the textbook that has proved particularly generative or eye-opening for students. Certainly, this often happens initially as part of an introduction to a fail-forward growth mindset as part of the book’s Introduction, and initial hands-on activities in which failing forward is done within a collaborative environment as part of the Orange Unit. It again happens for many early in the Blue Unit when we discover together that the steps to do the first three notes of a Middle-C scale in Make Music with Code may be failing because we are using the inductive reasoning common to much of our professional practices instead of Boolean logic central to the writing of code.

But, the most eye-opening times have been the moments in which a student has encountered a transformative leap in their critical perspectives when the well-established tools themselves have failed one or all participants regardless of the activity.  The development of the textbook in support of remixing has assured that encounters with failure in the immediate use of well-established tools – whether through Internet, computer, or software issues experienced by an individual or several members of the class – allow for a restructuring of the course on-the-fly to turn the hurdle into a learning opportunity. For instance, an update that occurred the night before to an essential app may result in activity instructions not working for those participants for whom the upgrade was automatically run, while still working fine for everyone else. Another common encounter with this occurs when Internet performance, particularly regarding upload speeds or latencies, is disrupted at an intermediate router hop that impacts some but not others.

Whatever the activity, it is in putting aside the planned tasks of the day to instead enter into an alternative process that includes assessment continuously comparing what is working and not working, and for whom that true generative work emerges. This exploration may include review of the instructions and general design of the activity initially. This may lead to discovery of different readings of the instructions depending on lived experiences or ways of being and doing. Assessment has also often led to additional assessments of the different variations of the well-established tools being used – the manufacturer and version of the laptop or operating system on that laptop, the type of ports being used and the many alternative supporting protocols of those ports, the different networking configurations and systems being used on these systems, etc.

In these ways, there is often an initial discovery or rich affirmation that it’s not me, it’s the design and implementation of the tool. These moments of failure that prick us as a thorn open up the opportunity to unpack the social shaping that led to the encounter with the thorn and to reflect back on how this shaping has shaped us and others in our ongoing use of the well-established sociotechnical artifact. And it opens up discoveries regarding choices, whether in the selection, use, innovation-in-use, or even rejection of ongoing use, in relation to this tool moving forward. Ultimately, it is the unexpected and unanticipated experiences of the moment that shape the encounter with an activity rather than the specific activity itself that lead us to launch an eye-opening rose moment, or at least a bud of possibility that slowly leads to that blossoming insightful moment. And it is the formation of the community of inquiry in which we work to do all possible in support of each participant’s reading of the ‘yet’ or at least ‘yet-enough’ moment that is essential to the underlying mindset change.

6) What is your next project? Are you considering a similar digital textbook like this, or do you have something different in mind?

I am in conversations now on possible train-the-trainer works related to this textbook. I expect a second formal version of the textbook may be required as improvements are suggested and as technologies change. But I am especially looking forward to ways I can further work with alums who have made use of this as students within classes to take the core liberative social justice aspects of this book forward into the information profession in transformative ways.