Friday, October 20, 2017

Making Computer Use a Bit Easier to Learn

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Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

In my daily job, I help train people on how to use computers, mostly using the Microsoft Suite, but I also do a class on Basic Computing and using the Internet and Email.

For the latter, many of the people who come in are nervous because the computing world is new for them. Many are also well over 30 years old, and this is a whole new world. It is part of my job to reassure them, and give them confidence.

Though it seems like it is anti-intuitive, one of the first thing I let them know is that it is okay to be frustrated. In truth, no matter how beginner you are, or how proficient on computers, odds are a couple of times a week you are going to want to throw the machine out a window. This is normal, and it’s not just you, it’s everyone. I once said this to my class while a new intern was at a computer in the room, looking at the screen. He is a coder at a high level, and he even built his own computer from scratch. When I uttered those words, without even looking at me, he nodded his head in agreement. The fact of the matter is, even though this is true, the end results are worth it.

I’ve had a number of older students who get frustrated and complain that their kids can use the computer with ease, and the younger ones lose patience with them. What I do is remind them that they are now the age their own parents were when they had to be taught the VCR. I say, “Remember how mad that made you feel? ‘All you have to do is hold down Play and Record at the same time!’ That’s what their kids are feeling now.” Computers are more complex than the video player/recorder, so that amps up the anxiety. But a new user doesn’t need to feel that.

The biggest mistake in learning any software is to only follow the instructions. To explain, I’d like to present a true story: when I was eight years old, my mother brought home a portable Royal brand typewriter she had bought at work. The thing weighed nearly as much as I did at the time. When I showed interest in the machine, she gave me an official practice book to type from, that stood up on its own, so you could flip the pages. It had the usual “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” and “The meeting with Mr. Johnson will be held at 1:00 PM” kinds of exercises.

Being a mere wisp of a lad, I found this to be quite boring, so instead, I started to type out song lyrics. I found that no matter how much I slowed it down in my head as I was typing, I could keep some sense of rhythm. I used Simon & Garfunkel, the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and whatever songs were either on the radio or the few Broadway show tunes LPs my parents had that I grew up on. This made it fun. When I was 10, I typed out the entire, “The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, still one of my favorite short stories to this day.

This exercise helped to make the task enjoyable enough for me to keep doing it, until I was typing at 55 words per minute, which is not an easy feat on a manual typewriter when one is a mere child.

It is not, however, just in typing that this can be employed as a learning tool. For example, if you need to improve your Microsoft Word skills, create something of your own. I suggest building a letter to your friends and family to let them know how you are doing (sometimes known as a “year-end letter”). Then add a photo, some borders, play with the fonts and spacing, and make it “pop.”

One student was having trouble with Excel, so over the summer, he made a list of every fish he caught, which lake it was snagged, what lure was used, and the weight of the fish. By this process he figured out which lure in what lake caught the biggest fish. He personalized it and made it interesting for himself, and then understood the process.

This is also true for the Internet. While you’re looking for jobs, for example, check out the location of the company. Figure out the best route using a Maps program (e.g., Google Maps), go to the Street View and see what the front of the building looks like. If you want to start even easier, go to a search engine and type in the name of your favorite musician/band, or actor.  When you find what you are looking for, try the different tabs, such as Images, News and Videos. Try searching for your own name and see what comes up. This is actually important to see what is displayed if you are looking for a job, because in today’s technological culture, there is an ever better chance that the possible employer will search your name than not.

Once you start getting comfortable with the computer, you can think more on what you’re searching for than how you got there. Much like a flashy guitarist does not think about what is being playing note-by-note but rather the hands “know” instinctively where to go to get the next note, typing and searching becomes more natural and reflexive. This will transfer over to when you do a task for a job, and make your life a bit easier and gain you more confidence.

I have done this myself, as well. The way I figured out how to use Absolute References in an Excel formula (e.g., $B$4), I applied it to my time sheet while I was still technically on contract per class. Now I use a timesheet (not mine) to explain how the formula works to my classes. I did a similar thing with Pivot Tables. I was trying to figure out what goes into which of the four boxes, so I made a list of every record review I’ve had published from 1977 through 2011 (came to over 2500), by listing (a) the Band, (b) the Name of Record, (c) the Type, such as 12”, 7”, Cas, digi, (d) the Record Label, (e) which magazine/fanzine/website published it, and (f) the date of publication. Then I was able to make lists, for example, of every band from a particular label I reviewed, and the name of the releases. To learn Word’s Mail Merge feature? I created a list for sending out my Year-End letter, and I figured out how to do it quickly, and then personalize any one I wanted.

Once a user can understand how it works on a personal level, it makes it easier to use in a more professional setting, or explain it to others, not just to do it yourself. It truly is a use-it-or-lose-it situation, so it is also helpful to remember that teaching others is a good way to aid learning and remembering the steps for yourself.
...And end here!

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