Teaching computer skills to grandparents
December 29, 2004 8:27 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to teach basic computer and internet skills to two grandparents with an iMac who have only used WebTV? [More Inside.]

My grandparents purchased a new G5 iMac, on my recommendation, after using WebTV for the last few years and deciding that they'd like a real computer.

For the most part, my grandparents have expressed interest only in browsing the web and in sending and receiving email. I'm only going to be available to them in person for the next five days, however, so I want to make sure that they have enough knowledge to not get lost if they should, for example, find themselves staring at System Preferences or a Finder window.

They're completely new to not just OS X and the Mac platform but to computers in general, and are having a bit of a rough time learning even basic computer skills like moving the (Apple one-button Bluetooth) mouse without clicking on it and grasping concepts like files, folders, menus, windows, and the Dock.

What books, software, and teaching techniques do you recommend to help them make the most of their new system?
posted by esd to Computers & Internet (13 answers total)
"Introduction to Teh Computer"

Have you already walked them through Apple's really basic tutorial on OS X that starts up with the new computer? This probably teaches the basics just as well as anything out there.

I recommend OS X: The Missing Manual as a reference manual. Make sure you teach them about System Update and that they know to continuously update their system.

Also, it doesn't appear that they'll be interested in saving any documents, but you might want to stress the 'this COULD all disappear' aspect of email reliability and encourage them to print out email that they'd like to save (the TREES! what about the TREES?).

I wouldn't press anything past this, The Missing Manual is likely to have more in it than they could possibly be interested, but still serve as a good tutorial in the beginning.
posted by onalark at 8:51 PM on December 29, 2004

On Windows machines I'd often tell people just to play Solitaire over and over so they could practice their mouse skills. You might want to consider investing in a track ball that will allow your grandparents to move the mouse and not have to worry about holding it stready for clicking. This is one of the most frustrating parts of learning mouse control for seniors, I've found... any amount of hand tremors and they can't double click without some serious practice.

Make sure there are copies of ALL the programs they'd want to be using on the dock and, possibly for good measure, on the desktop. This includes things like notepad, calculator, etc. A lot of people never go near the applications folder [though you can put an alias to that in the dock as well, I also include a link to systems preferences and maybe walk them through that so they get an idea of how that works]. Make the dock BIG and make it not auto-hide and they will get used to it as part of their work space.

Spend some time with them opening, editing and saving files. Set Word up so that it default saves files where your grandparents will look for them, make sure they know where that is. Make a shortcut for it on the desktop. Go through all the control buttons, figure out what sort of scroll bars work better for them [since there's two kinds] and see if you can set up the colors so it's high enough contrast and easy for them to spot the various parts of the screen. There's a Universal Access part of the System Preferences where you can adjust contrast and mess with some other stuff, make sure it's set up right for them.

There are some good beginners books for iMacs, notably the Dummies' Guide but there's also The first week with my new IMac : a very basic guide for anyone who wants to "get connected" by Pam Lessig and Easy iMac : see it done, do it yourself by Lisa Lee that are popular in our library. Make sure they know how to get help using Apple Help [including the extra step to click on the topic once they get one]. Consider also introducing them to the AARP computer help pages which are written with the purpose of empowering seniors to go online.

If they don't have email yet, consider going with a webmail option that isn't quite so frenetic as Yahoo Mail or Hotmail since I've seen seniors have trouble discerning action areas from the many many ads those sites have [consider getting them gmail accounts? I'd donate a few if that's helpful]. If they have webmail, they can access it from the library or a friend's place as well as from home, plus you can log in and troubnleshoot if things get awful. If they already have AOL or something, show them how to get their AOL mail via the web as well as via the AOL interface.

Above all, be clear with them what things they shouldn't mess with [avoid IE even on a Mac, basic email safety, no drinking coffee near the keyboard, etc] and what things are okay to play with [making and deleting folders and files, seeing what all the keys on the keyboard do &c] and encourage them to ask as many questions as they can while you're still there and if you give them good answers, consider writing them down so they'll have them when you're gone. Good luck!
posted by jessamyn at 8:57 PM on December 29, 2004

For starters, you could make the applications dock really big, turn off the animation, and remove all of the apps except for Firefox, a word processor, and one or two others. You could also set up their login user so it doesn't have the ability to trash system files, as a precaution.

(I am not speaking from experience) but you could jack up the font size a little too, and otherwise simplify the interface until they get comfortable, then let them switch to more complexly configured users if they wish.

I'm trying to talk my system 9 father-in-law into getting an Ibook. It's slow going. He's 72, but the deck is complete and he's a former Boeing engineer.
posted by mecran01 at 9:11 PM on December 29, 2004

Ditto everything jessamyn said, especially about the problems older people can have using the mouse, and the importance of solitaire or other "click and drag" games as fun mouse-usage tools.

That having been said, however, I'd also spend some time (at the end of your visit) showing them all the things their computer could do -- maybe not anything super-technical, but I'm sure you can come up with one or two things (video, maybe finding a way to put valued family photos in a file for them to browse on-line, maybe something about audio - internet radio?) that you don't expect them to master right away but that you will, perhaps, give them some ideas of other ways that they might, one day, want to use their new toy.

Also, I'd suggest getting them a good, simple to use money management system. My mom is 70 and got her first computer just over two years ago. She thought she'd just surf and use email. Now her three favorite things are a) using her digital camera, b) using her money management software to manage her life and c) slowing ripping all her classical CDs to MP3 files so she can turn her computer (with its massive hard drive) into a big ever-changing classical juke-box.
posted by anastasiav at 9:19 PM on December 29, 2004

What books, software, and teaching techniques do you recommend to help them make the most of their new system?
None of the above. Apple designed their software to be intuitive. Let it be.

If you set up the computer properly once, there's no reason your grandparents should ever open System Preferences. If they're only interested in email and web browsing, they only need to use one or two programs (AOL, or Safari and Mail). Remove everything else from the Dock. There's no reason they ever have to see it.

The only concept any Mac user needs to understand is "point and click." Everything else is icing. Don't be a dick and install FireFox, or insist that they learn to "make the most" of their system. If all they want is email and internet, configure the tool accordingly.
posted by cribcage at 9:40 PM on December 29, 2004

Don't be a dick and install FireFox

I find that Firefox can display more web sites than Safari. It's not just knee-jerk evangelism.
posted by mecran01 at 10:23 PM on December 29, 2004

I liked the Gmail suggestion. The one thing I found my mom having a problem with was Mail.app. Earthlink changed their SMTP servers: no email for a week. The Keychain kept prompting her at odd times with unintelligible options. Messages would get stuck in the Outbox. And the sidebar falls off the screen if the window is maximized. Gmail is better.

Something I do is set the View Options for all folders; Keep arranged by (Name), Icon size, Show item info, Text size.

If you won't be there in person to help, you might be able to setup a VNC client on that machine. I've not done this on a Mac, maybe others can comment.

Firefox is fine, it works as well if not better than Safari(konqueror), and some sites require IE. Safari doesn't change that.
posted by airguitar at 11:54 PM on December 29, 2004

Another thing they may run into is internet video. Not every site offers Quicktime. I've not found a plugin (Safari or Firefox) that will stream .wmv files. Mplayer and VLC both work fairly with the odd video file on their own. The 'Save link as' process is something you would want to explain, if need be. I've had better luck with VLC.
posted by airguitar at 12:15 AM on December 30, 2004

Sit with them and get a trial .mac account.


This has a huge amount of video based QT movies on how to use a macintosh. Start with the very basics.

Key feature - you realistically need a broadband connection.

Several other suggestions
1) Make the resolution only 800x600. 1024 if they can read it.
2) show them how to "read" a screen. particularly they'll get confused about what application is "active" at any given time, since windows of different apps overlap
3) Show them that the menus mean something. That the Message menu in mail is likely to have commands about "messages"
4) More menu tricks - show them that there are groupings of similar items in menus, divided by lines
5) Any menu that has "..." means that a dialog box will come up. Explain that a dialog box wants a dialog.
posted by filmgeek at 3:42 AM on December 30, 2004

Find a "Computers for Old Folks" class at a local church, community college or what-have-you.
posted by mischief at 7:26 AM on December 30, 2004

I'll echo the bigger is better mantra for older folks. We youngins love the 8 pt verdana bold. The old folks not so much.

Make the system fonts bigger, so that window names can be read. I heard that even making system fonts bigger does not enlarge error messages. I can't confirm this (I'm on pc at the moment), but if so, you may want to drop the resolution to the 800 x 600 suggested above.

Make the doc icons huge. Make the finder icons (desktop and all folders) huge. Seriously, I'd start at the maximum size and go down from there a bit and be done with it. The last thing they want to do is admit to you that they can't quite make out the text, so I wouldn't even recommend asking. Apple has great looking icons, use 'em.

Set default font sizes in their email app and for the web browser to really big as well. Who cares if it makes kottke.org look all funny. Check the sites that they care about.

Oh, and tell them about "double keys" (like open apple + c or ctrl g). Many computer novices don't quite understand the chord nature of the keys and try them in succession, which is totally reasonable, btw. Then you can show them the open apple + / - for fonts in Safari or Firefox.

Get them some streaming radio if there are speakers. Old folks love the radio. And the phonograph.
posted by zpousman at 9:10 AM on December 30, 2004

I work at a public library and we have excellent classes for novices to the computer. Your grandparents would get a chance to ask a shload of questions and you don't have to be the one grappling with their learning curve. Thank god for librarians, right?
posted by punkbitch at 10:27 AM on December 30, 2004

1) Make the resolution only 800x600. 1024 if they can read it.

I'm going to have to disagree. Leave the resolution at the native resolution of the LCD. Yeah, lowering the resolution will make things bigger, but it will also make things blurrier on a LCD. The resolution of the screen is already reasonably big.
posted by gyc at 11:50 AM on December 30, 2004

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