Teaching Computer "Stuff" to High Schoolers
August 27, 2009 12:38 PM   Subscribe

What computer programs and tips/tricks/hints should high school kids learn?

So it looks like I'm going to be teaching an elective computer class at a small private school for grades 7-12. It'll be broken up into two classes, grades 7-9 & 10-12.

Here is where you come in. What basic programs or tips/tricks/shortcuts do you wish you'd learned in school using the computer? I know that some things I just won't be able to teach these kids (programming, scripting, etc), but the everyday programs or other computer-related stuff is what I want to teach them.

I know the school would like them to learn the basic MS Office stuff, but I want to take it a step or two further. These days pretty much every kid has access to a computer and is relatively computer-savvy.

As a point of reference, I'm proficient in all MS Office programs & Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator.

Any tips, ideas, advice, etc would be helpful.
posted by TurquoiseZebra to Education (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Basic HTML. img, a href, b, i - the kind of stuff to decorate a MySpace or use on a message board. It's useful, what with these damn kids on the computer all day. Plus! It's a big part of what makes the internet work and provides a platform for creative kids to learn more about web design.

The first time I clicked 'View Source' I felt like I stumbled across the Mayan ruins.
posted by caveat at 12:45 PM on August 27, 2009

I know you said you won't be able to teach programming, but if you find any kids that are especially adept and could handle some more material, you might consider Alice. Maybe you could even have it on some of the computers for them to come in and play around with after school...

That aside, yeah, basic HTML pages, maybe a little photo editing project, and how to use the Internet to find information without plagiarizing. Also, if you can sneak them onto a Linux box just to introduce them to it, that'd be nice. I wish I had used one much earlier than I did.
posted by Joannalaine at 1:06 PM on August 27, 2009

They should learn concepts that will help them form a mental model of how a computer works. More than specific applications, the idea that there's a computer that runs software, an operating system that controls the machine, applications that run on top of that operating system -- those are ideas most people never really understand. Similarly, a bit of background about how the web works (items are stored on remote computers, and sent over your connection to be rendered by a browser) will help them the rest of their lives in understanding what's happening with their systems, and how they can make better use of them.

I'm not advocating for teaching kids about how hardware is assembled, or anything like that, but basically providing enough context so that they can understand how the machines they use every day actually function.

A useful way to do this would be to take a category of software (like, say, web browsers) where there are several good options, and have them talk about how Firefox is different from IE is different from Chrome, and why there might be differences. Then they could identify what's similar, and ask what general tips might apply for users of any of the browsers, vs. what bits of knowledge would be specific to one application and not the others.

Those are the kinds of tips that mean when they're setting up Outlook 2020 to connect to Exchange Server 2018, or they're trying to get a iTablet to talk to their wifi router in 5 years, they'll be thinking about what the overall task is that they're trying to achieve, instead of just following a rote set of steps on a post-it note.
posted by anildash at 1:10 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Go get a sheet of core memory off of ebay if you can find one. Showing how older computers worked was a great way that I learned how modern ones work.
posted by GuyZero at 1:15 PM on August 27, 2009

My opinion would be that the most important aspect you can teach them is "information literacy", or in other words: "How to skillfully use the internet to find useful information you need." (because really, this is THE fundamental skill. It's the most important skill you can have to help you learn any/all other things)

I worked in a K-12 for 3 years as (their only) IT Support. I had opportunity to visit many classrooms (working on teachers computer) or working on library computers while students were using them for research and fact-finding type stuff. It literally astounded me that students didn't seem to know the very basics of how to intelligently search. They would just "shotgun" (throw words) into Google and then randomly pick results from (only) the first page of search results. They didn't put any thought into evaluating whether websites seemed "legit" or not. They didn't know how to follow "breadcrumbs" (backtracking how one website references another to get back to the original source article) ..etc. There was no "critical thinking" going on.

To me.. that's THE fundamental skill that the coming generation needs. If you can't use critical thinking skills to fight your way through a jumble of e-information and be able to extract the high quality stuff that's applicable to your goal.... then you'll be lost. Being on the internet without information literacy skills is like being in a library and you can't read.
posted by jmnugent at 1:15 PM on August 27, 2009 [9 favorites]

Photoshop, in the hands of a clever kid, is as much as social lever as a job skill. Definitely at least give them the basics, set them loose making LOLcats, something like that.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 1:18 PM on August 27, 2009

jmnugent for the win.

I was coming here to say the exact same thing. Searching skills along with the ability to make judgments about the authoritativeness of information is a crucial life skill for anyone who has to interact with the Internet.
posted by mmascolino at 1:28 PM on August 27, 2009

Emphatically seconding anildash. Teach kids how computers work, not just how individual applications work. If certain friends and family members actually knew on a conceptual level how computers did their thing, I'd get way fewer phone calls after they upgrade version X of their software to version X+1 and their little post-it note with directions ceases to apply.

Since your school wants students to learn how to use Office, start there. Then point out all the common features that the different Office apps share, and use that as a launching point for discussing shared libraries and hardware drivers. Talk about how there are different kinds of network drivers which allow their computers (and their cellphones, and their game consoles) to get onto the internet, and you can slide into a discussion on how the Web works. While you're at it, see if you can teach 'em how to run a proper Web search too (as jmnugent and mmascolino mentioned).
posted by xbonesgt at 1:32 PM on August 27, 2009

jmnugent already said, with much more eloquence and detail, what I came to say, so just read his answer again. Knowing answers is good, but knowing how to find answers is invaluable. An internet-connected PC is, as far as general research is concerned, the best tool most of us have available, by virtue of convenience alone.
posted by owtytrof at 1:47 PM on August 27, 2009

nthing information literacy. It is a vital skill that most kids no longer have/learn.

On a more frivolous level, basic key board shortcuts will save them lots of time in the future. ctrl+c,v,b; ctrl+o; ctrl+s; et cetera
posted by nestor_makhno at 1:54 PM on August 27, 2009

The importance of not clicking on pop up ads. Being savvy with personal information.
I don't know if scirpting is too difficult. If you can teach them to do a mail merge in Office that would be a good start. If they have Macs you could do something simple in AppleScript or Automator.
posted by Gungho at 2:01 PM on August 27, 2009

I have to agree with those talking about the Ctrl + z,x,c,v, r and f. Ctrl + f is one of the commands I use most often when browsing the web. Also on windows boxes, alt + Tab is a very useful little command for switching away from programs that don't run in a window.
posted by 517 at 2:02 PM on August 27, 2009

No offence, these are tips for your grandma, not a bunch of kids. My 10 year old figured out Office in half an hour. Teach them something non-obvious like what the heck all those parts inside the box are actually doing.
posted by GuyZero at 2:23 PM on August 27, 2009

Excel! Kids dont get exposed to it until college or sometimes only in the workplace and they're all thumbs with it. Show them some basic features like making a list, formatting text, adding stuff, sorting by value, and some basic formulas. Show them how much worse it is to do this in a word processor.

Teach them image resizing and cropping. You can use Paint.NET for free instead of photoshop. See if they know how to resize something, crop things out, play with filters, levels, etc. Maybe take a photo of something that is impossible to see until its blown up and the levels are adjusted, just like CSI.

Basic computer maintenance, assuming these kids will be the Vista/7 generation, they'll still need to know how to bring up task manager to kill processes, pick strong passwords, use encryption (true crypt perhaps or built in), understand phishing, not running as administrator (do not turn off UAC), difference between untrustworthy sites and legitimate sites, difference between 'free' spyware laden software and Free software, etc.

Using google better. A simple trick is to limit searching by site like so "site:ask.metafilter.com blahblah" Have them compare the results with Bing.

Understand landscape printing vs portrait. Select b&w or color. How to zip many files together. How to install USB peripherals that require non-standard drivers. How to keep viruses off their USB drives. How to determine their IP address and how to ping something to see if they are on the internet. How to perform backups with the built-in backup tool and how to schedule this.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:08 PM on August 27, 2009

First, teach them to help themselves, like this, so they're not the kid in the college dorm calling the help desk because the 'internet is broken.'

Teach them about basic hardware functions, maintenance, installation. How to plug everything in (printers, scanners, etc.), how to install a CD drive, how to swap out a monitor, how to change the printer cartridge and unjam the paper, etc. This could save them a gazillion dollars over the years paying a geek to do it for them.

nthing Excel, also Powerpoint. Also nthing some basic html. You could even have them practice minor tags on something like Blogger

Direct them to Easybib and teach them to format a bibliography in the various formats that will be required in high school and college.
posted by caroljean63 at 4:42 PM on August 27, 2009

I am fresh out of high school and took a few computer classes. Also in junior high, so I am familiar with both of your age groups.

In j. high (grades 7-8) we did some dreamweaver, flash animations, and photoshop. It was loads of fun, seriously.

In high school we did some programming languages, like C# which is fairly simple to learn.

Also, every teen should know html to some extent.
posted by alon at 6:05 PM on August 27, 2009

Nthing jmnugent. I agree that information literacy it's THE most important skill you can walk out of school with.

I think that GuyZero is partially right - most kids today can figure out basics of a given application pretty easily. But my experience the last 8 years, mentoring 100+ college age students as interns, has taught me that even if all of them know the very basics of Office, most of my interns had only a very cursory understanding of how computers work, and of what software can do. They used Word like it was Wordpad, most of them had NO exposure to Excel whatsoever, and they had very little practice in figuring out how to do something, or how to use the more advanced features.

During the first week, I usually give a basic tutorial to my (generally very smart freshmen/sophomores in college) interns, with these components:

1. Talk about the web and information literacy. Difference between the web and the internet. Give them a sheet of Google search tricks, and ask them to find some specific things. Look at other ways to find information that doesn't involve Google. Work through a few extremely targeted searches together, explaining ways to evaluate links/sources, finding the original research, being smart about following breadcrumb trails, etc. Basically, try to get them to think outside the box a little, and to show them what's possible. I take every opportunity to continue this lesson later.
2. Do a little bit on HTML. Show them hands on how it works. Talk about some web technologies, discuss CSS, Flash, and CMS:es. Teaching them to View Source. Show them the difference between a CMS and old flat-file sites. Just a tiny peek under the hood.
3. Show them some stuff in Word, just to show how few of its capabilities they are normally using. Using Styles and how they work. Mail merging. Using and assigning keyboard shortcuts. Using templates.
4. Show them some stuff in Excel. Same here, just pointing out how many additional features it has. Making charts and graphs. Using formulas. Pivot tables. My favorite formulas (VLOOKUP queries!).
5. Work through how to find out more about the features in Office. Using the web to find out how to do something. Experimenting with the features. Using the Help file. More information literacy thrown in here.
6. If they show interest, we open up a computer and peek inside. Talk about components. Difference between OS and applications. Linux/MS/Apple. Peripherals. Drivers. Moores Law. This usually devolves into looking for Taiwan designations on the hardware and talking about the tech supply chain and export controls, as that is part of the research they will do later.
7. Then we do a final roundup. We go over basic computer maintenance (which they will perform on their own from then on), discuss information assurance issues, talk about malware and phishing, and discuss anything else that I can think of (generally about cell phones, 3G/4G and WiFi/WiMAX, as well as about Photoshop. Also, info on Open Source software and using RSS feeds.)

I have had good feedback from this little crash course. Most of them are able to grasp the concepts quickly, and they end up using the knowledge pretty well - at least in most instances. I have yet to come across a single intern who knew everything on this list. Ok. Maybe one. But he went on to create his own OS, so he was a special case.)
posted by gemmy at 6:26 PM on August 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

I know this is sorta "old school" but I'd also make them learn how to touch type! A lot of younger people have been forced to be fast typers from spending hours in chat rooms and on AIM, but some teens still hunt and peck away! Being able to take notes electronically will be a great skill for college.
posted by radioamy at 7:13 PM on August 27, 2009

Thanks everyone! I used your ideas and thoughts to put together a rough curriculum and am really excited about this class.

I appreciate all your ideas and effort put into your answers. I'm sure my kids will appreciate it too!

I'm looking forward to a really fun class now!
posted by TurquoiseZebra at 6:11 PM on August 28, 2009

Javascript because:
-all you need is an editor
-has syntax similarilties to C, Java, C# etc
-usefull for web page design
-can make stand alone HTA applications under windows
posted by canoehead at 1:26 PM on August 29, 2009

sorry - I see now you aren't looking for programming languages
posted by canoehead at 3:57 PM on August 29, 2009

Please teach them excel. I am 18 and still haven't figured it out, and I'm very proficient with computers.
posted by alon at 12:16 AM on September 13, 2009

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