6 ways to be cooler than school

As a former college instructor, I adore classrooms.

So when I started planning a one-on-one Computer Help Lab for the United Way of Utah County, my mind immediately went back to everything I loved about my own experiences as a teacher and a learner: quiet spaces, detailed progress reports, highlighters, over-sized white boards, certificates of completion, and computer desks neatly in a row.

But, as I began interacting with the low-income clients we served, I realized that I’d made a mistake in this approach.

The majority of our clients did not share my positive experiences with formal education. Many of them had not completed high school or gone on to college. They associated academic spaces with frustration or failure. Formal tech spaces that mimicked an academic environment often made them feel anxious and uncomfortable. It was, in practice, a barrier to their ability to develop digital literacy skills.

Whether or not your nonprofit is focused on digital literacy, you may notice that many nonprofit tech spaces lean to formality by default, especially when these spaces are designed to serve low-income or at-risk populations. Add a computer into any space and leaders immediately start thinking about rules and rewards.

In some cases, a more formal environment may be called for, but permitting formality to be the default in tech spaces is a problem.

When my assumptions changed, so did my approach. Although our Computer Help Lab is held in a public library, I worked to design a consciously casual environment. Doing so brought joy to our programming—and significantly increased the number of returning clients.

While I didn’t have the ability to significantly alter the physical space, I was able to overhaul our materials and our Computer Mentors’ approach to clients. Here are six of the lessons I learned about creating consciously casual tech spaces.

1. Watch your language

At first, it was easy to fall into an academic mindset by advertising “classes,” “certificate programs,” and “lectures.” But, clients were more enthusiastic about advertising that avoided an academic slant. Programming became more successful when, instead of classes, we held:

  • celebrations
  • meetings
  • sessions
  • support groups
  • discussion groups
  • round tables
  • clubs
  • circles
  • associations
  • hangouts
  • cooperatives
  • breakfasts, lunches, dinners (or brunches, snacks, etc.)

2. Don’t overdo forms

When I originally asked new Computer Help Lab clients to fill out forms, some quickly decided they didn’t need help after all. Even when they were offered a paper version, there was resistance. I soon realized that many of these clients felt shame or frustration about their writing and spelling skills. Some had lower literacy skills, some were English language learners, and some had learning disabilities.

Instead, our mentors began starting off each session with a casual conversation about a client’s hopes, strengths, and interests. We talked to new clients about what brought them to the lab, then filled out the paperwork on our own later.

The result: Clients had a better experience during their first few minutes in the lab and were more likely to return for help in the future.

3. Create space for stories

Once we became more open to casual conversation, clients began unexpectedly telling us their stories. The vast majority of clients at the Computer Help Lab want to share some of their history and struggles with their mentors early on.

We heard stories about poverty, food insecurity, injury, loneliness, homelessness, and concern for the future. We also heard stories about friendship, writing poetry, woodworking, generosity, adventure, and family. Learning how to listen to client stories became a surprisingly important part of the success of the Computer Help Lab.

Although it added an additional five to ten minutes of time to each session, it allowed our clients to feel understood and it made interacting with technology less intimidating. We never asked for these personal stories, but we learned how to be better listeners.

4. Demonstrate vulnerability

As part of overcoming the “sage on the stage” formal environment, we encouraged our mentors to demonstrate their own vulnerability and problem solving skills. When it comes to constantly changing technology, we’re all learners.

“I don’t know, but I know how we can find out,” became a common refrain in the lab. Rather than pretending, we found that modeling vulnerability to clients created an atmosphere where experimenting, failing, and searching was encouraged.

5. Approach relationships as assets

One of the biggest changes we observed when we created a more casual tech space was the relationships that formed between clients.

While some clients preferred to learn on their own, many were interested in chatting with each other, working together, and sharing their knowledge.

As mentors, we learned to let go of control a bit, to allow the lab to be a little more chatty, a little louder, and a bit more chaotic than the academic spaces we were familiar with.

In turn, learners began swapping tech tips, sharing information about their job searches, and offering each other rides. Our programming wasn’t the only resource; clients became a resource for each other.

6. Appreciate tokens of gratitude

During their time in the Computer Help Lab, we’ve had clients accept much-needed offers of employment, find low-income housing, connect with long-lost relatives, prepare for career transitions, and begin recovering their tech skills after brain injuries.

As mentors, we’ve stopped brushing off “Thank you” with a “No problem” or a “Just doing my job.” Instead, we realized that accepting a “Thank you” with a warm, sincere “You’re welcome” helped validate the relationship between the mentors and the people we served.

Although our Computer Mentors never accept money or gifts, we have joyfully accepted a variety of tokens of appreciation: a client conducting an online job search told us her favorite jokes, the person struggling with a brain injury told us the spoiler to a popular TV series he had worked on, another client living in her car let us borrow a beloved book of photographs, and another person struggling with a career transition showed us his favorite YouTube video on poetry. We also happily accepted client-initiated handshakes and hugs.

Cultivate conscious casualness

In our case, creating a casual tech space was an exercise in prioritizing the comfort and learning of our clients.

While casual design can feel initially feel unfamiliar to nonprofit leaders, it can ultimately help clients feel more at ease and make more progress in these spaces. The daunting task of dealing with new technology can feel so overwhelming to clients that they need a space designed where they can take a breath, have a laugh, and try again.

Designing successful tech spaces doesn’t start with rules, boundaries, and strictness. Designing successful tech spaces starts with conscious casualness, relationships, and joy.

Jamie Littlefield
Jamie Littlefield is a teacher, instructional designer, and community activist. She earned a Master of Arts in Education from Claremont Graduate University, a program dedicated to reaching students in underserved communities. She later taught English in tech-enriched courses at Utah Valley University. As an instructional designer, she developed the school’s online English 1010 curriculum. Jamie curates a Little Free Library in the front yard of her Provo home and loves to explore the city from the seat of her blue bicycle.