Hold on a sec, let me get some paper so I can write this down! Open Microsoft Word...
February 24, 2010 8:14 PM   Subscribe

How can I help those less-technically inclined to think more abstractly about using a computer? Also, what's the best way to introduce smarter behaviors to avoid problems down the road and encourage them to learn and explore on their own?

Disclaimer: I searched and found a couple of threads somewhat similar, but not necessarily in the same vein of what I'm asking.

My main issue is when, through my job or friends and family asking for assistance, someone will often begin by saying "I'm such a luddite" or "I know absolutely nothing about computers". This more than anything drives me up the wall because it's used as an excuse not to try to learn about what to do or why they're doing something a certain way.

I suppose the first part of my question is this: how do I teach someone to think about computers and gadgets like a more advanced user would? By this I mean, a long-time computer user when faced with a brand new gadget will skip the manual and start playing with it, learning the menu hierarchy and seeing how they should navigate the phone. They search through settings menu and when they want to do something, they look for a menu item somewhat related to what they want to do. If that didn't work, try try again. Very much like this XKCD comic so eloquently lays out. This is my biggest challenge: trying to get them to self-help and explore without making it sound like I just don't want to help.

When I'm showing a relative how to print labels in Microsoft Word and they want to start writing every single step for future reference, I cringe and try to explain that doing so is useless should a new version of the program come out or they switch brands or something.

Secondly, I want to know how I can teach people to be smarter about using computers. A few weeks ago, I was assisting a friend's sister with her laptop because she couldn't play YouTube videos. She was using IE6 with seven search toolbars, an expired version of the Norton AV that came with the computer, and a system tray bursting with junk. It was as if she'd click on anything at all; she wasn't aware of phishing or spyware either.

How can I teach people the crucial and basic skills like being cautious of what you download and install, reading dialog boxes rather than just "next next nexting" through them, and hovering over links to see where they lead before clicking? What other lessons or ideas have you folks found productive with this audience?

Thanks, all suggestions are appreciated.
posted by cgomez to Computers & Internet (28 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Become a High School teacher. Seriously. If your motivation is to educate your fellows for the betterment of all. You can do it every day.

Ok, how about leaving a suggestion of a book, or send these people occasional 'how to' emails.

Or, if you are a little too irritated from repeating yourself & just want them stop bugging you for tech support, simply say 'sorry, no'.
posted by TDIpod at 8:25 PM on February 24, 2010

The thing about so-called 'digital immigrants' is that they don't have the background knowledge to know which button will format their letter in bold and which button will break their computer forever. That's why they ask for painstakingly detailed, step-by-step instructions for how to do the things they want to do. That's how they learn. Teach them well and eventually they'll start experimenting on their own - as evidenced by my grandmother, who, at 81, was taught to how to write a letter in Word, and at 82, was sending Christmas cards in wiggly, rainbow-gradient WordArt.

The tone of your question suggests you're motivated more by your frustration at new users than by a genuine desire to help them learn. If you're cringing at writing instructions for a relative who really needs those instructions, perhaps you're not the best person to be teaching them about computers.
posted by embrangled at 9:45 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think some people are a lost cause for a lot of this stuff. This sounds a little damning, but a lot of things that come naturally to anyone experienced with technology is a titanic step for those who aren't. As you point out, “writing every single step for future reference” is far from uncommon and it's got a lot to do with people not having any grasp of how computers fundamentally work. This is why people tolerate computers purchased less than a year ago with 4GB of RAM running slower than the clock on their ovens when all they do is write e-mails and split their web browsing time between Yahoo's front page and funny videos of cats. They haven't got the first clue how any of it works!

Anyhow. The scenario you describe (half a dozen search toolbars, expired AV, etc) is pretty widespread. What I do here is fairly simple, at least for me to do, and is made simple by the extremely limited set of tasks most people carry out. Take all their files off the computer, erase the hard drive, reinstall the OS and the drivers and try and foolproof everything as much as possible. That means autoupdating antivirus/firewall software, big shiny aliases to jump to common tasks, things like that.

Computers are peculiar beasts. Pretty much all the experience I have of computers — and technology in general — comes from jumping in headfirst when I was younger, resulting in me messing up the family computer more times than I can count. ‘I wonder what happens when I move the System folder to the Wastebasket?’ = whoops, let's not do that again. ‘Will this preference file open in a text editor?’ equals me editing my progress and high scores in games. The key is that, probably as a result of my age, I wasn't scared of breaking anything and so learnt quickly. I've noticed pretty universally that people who aren't knowledgeable about computers tend to be scared of them, as if one false move means game over. I can't say I entirely blame them, given the frequency with which they see the BSOD or can't get their cameras to work, but still.

Maybe there's a book that can remedy some or all of this sort of stuff, but I'm not aware of it. All I can advise is (provided they have a backup of their files!) to maybe spend a few hours a week just messing with their computer. Click whatever they want, click every button in the toolbar, that kind of thing. It's not like Word has a self-destruct button*, so; experiment!

* That would be a cool feature for the next version of Office though. ‘First, we invented the Ribbon UI…’
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 9:47 PM on February 24, 2010

I have noticed that many (not all) self-professed luddites (especially in the not-yet-elderly range) who "know absolutely nothing about computers" also don't actually *want* to know anything about computers or how to use them. After giving them a few books, layman's-terms directions and many frustrating reading-the -screen-for-them* sessions, I eventually learned that when my family says, "show me how to", they actually nean, "could you do X for me?"

This is just anecdotal, and I hope not true for you, but possibly something to keep in mind. Don't let them drive you crazy if they don't actually want to learn it. Just say "no" instead.

*my mother, who cannot navigate Amazon.com even after putting her glasses on and my increasing the font size

On preview: also what embrangled said.
posted by MuChao at 9:51 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I work with a whole bunch of non-technical people who have been forced to use computers during the entire day for essential tasks. They are a nightmare to deal with sometimes. And they see me as the "techie". I answer their questions to the best of my ability, but the key for me is to show them how to solve their problems when I'm not there.

So I printed up this XKCD comic and posted it on a wall. I walked people through it a few times. Then they started thinking in a more productive manner instead of banging their heads on the wall asking "why!"
posted by nursegracer at 9:59 PM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: embrangled: it's not that I don't want to help or that I'm tired of helping, mainly because the people that ask are those I do like, it just ends up seeming like a waste when they want to write every step because I know they're not learning. The person doesn't understand that things change and it's more important to learn why they're doing something than rote memorization. I'd be willing to spend more time if it meant that they were they were trying to learn.

In the end, I see writing down the steps and actually learning to require the same amount of effort. My hangup is getting them to notice that because as MuChao said, they don't really want to know -- at that point in time.
posted by cgomez at 10:16 PM on February 24, 2010

Jeff hit the nail on the head. Adults don't want to look foolish. It's why it's harder to learn a foreign language, aside from the language window, people are just afraid of looking stupid. And then add in a pricey machine, you bet people are scared of mucking around in it, because not only do they know they don't know how it works, they know that if it stops working, they're hosed. This is why it's good to be exposed as a kid, and I'm willing to bet that our parents or grandparents might be the last Western generation to not grok the basics of computers.

The key to communication with people who are scared of computers is metaphors. They need you to explain it in terms they can understand. You know the file cabinet metaphor? Almost everyone knows (and understands) that, but the trick is to find useful metaphors that allow them to develop a mental model of how it works. Eventually they might even get to the point of realizing the metaphor is (necessarily) imperfect. If you try to explain it like an engineer, using actual details instead of "it's like..." you'll lose them.

My wife recently spent time down at a cousin's whose computer had gotten super-infected because her MIL, who meant well, installed a bunch of crap trial versions of AV software which then expired and you can guess what happened next. She cleaned it off, locked it down, and realized that since it was an ancient machine, it really needed way more RAM to work - it'd take like twenty minutes to start up. Her cousin is a great woman, but not much education past high school and a reading disability.

somehow my wife came up with great metaphors (that I could remember if it weren't so early in the morning) and she and her husband were able to add in more RAM by themselves, once she told them what to look for.
posted by canine epigram at 10:25 PM on February 24, 2010

I want to know how I can teach people to be smarter about using computers.

If you ever find out how to do this, share it with me!

First, my anecdata...

I have this same issue with several family members and with a few coworkers as well. For the family members, I can understand the issue. Based on our tech help session, these two are less interested in their computers as a general tool, and more focused on single use, appliance-like, tasks. 'How do I open Photoshop Elements and change a color gradient?' 'How do I print this in landscape mode?' Not 'Let's see what happens if I try every option the printer has.' or 'What does every single one of these Elements options do?' They want to perform specific tasks, want a clear list of step by step instructions on how to accomplish that task, and that is all. Very rarely do they ask (in advance) for tips on how to rescue themselves if a mis-click happens or explore beyond the boundaries of the instruction sheet.

As for the coworkers, and this is really bothering me but I'll try and keep it short anyway, I'm at a loss. While the three of us have been a part of the same IT department for years, these two have just recently joined my group. So while they are knowledgeable in their previous 'tech' fields, I see them exhibiting the same appliance like, one complete instruction sheet per task, no deviations permitted, approach to these new tasks. And both of these people are very very bright! Stepping through every variation of all the possible tasks we'd need to do to accomplish X or Y is driving me insane. *Deep Breath*

(There is also a greater than zero chance that I am just plain bad at teaching people who learn this way. I have a tendency to jump into edge cases mid-basic-task-tutorial which I'm sure doesn't help them. (But it's how I learn.)

Honestly, I think this can be boiled down to individual learning styles, as well as a willingness to not just make mistakes, but to treat them as an opportunity to learn more about whatever software or subject you're learning. I really can't think this is primarily driven by familiarity with computers or innate intelligence. So maybe it's as simple as critical thinking combined with general computer familiarity, and an actual desire to learn about the problem?

So, I think TDIpod came pretty close with the high school teacher crack: Teach critical thinking.

And Jaffacakerhubard nicely describes my favorite learning tool with new software, which is terrifying to some people: "whoops, let's not do that again.'

And unfortunately, I agree with MuChao: There is a pretty large population of typical office workers who actively avoid learning how to learn to use a computer.
posted by Barmecide at 10:39 PM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: I do this for a job. I hang out in a computer lab and people come in and ask questions about computers. Some have their own laptops, some have never used a mouse before. I've talked a little bit before in AskMe about how to work with novice users, and I speak to librarians a lot about this topic as well. I think good instruction relies on a combination of advocating ["yes you can do this" "this isn't too complicated, let me show you how it goes"] translating ["a URL is just like a phone number for a website" "sending an attachment is like taping a photograph to a letter, here's how"] and some degree of commiserating ["yes a lot of these error messages are confusing" "You know even *I* don't know half the things this program does"].

I can be a little direct, in that I tell people that I'll help them with any technical problem they have, but their emotional problems [including "WHY does it do this CRAZY THING??!"] are their own deal. Phil Agre has written a very nice little essay called How to help someone use a computer that I think is pretty much gospel.

I spend a lot of time at drop-in time saying "You can NOT break these machines" and going over vocabulary and saying "Yeah it's weird isn't it, okay let's work on your problem" I would kill if my students could print labels or even next next next through a wizard. They're mostly at the "where's the enter key" stage. I'm not as concerned about getting them to think like more advanced users but getting them to learn to answer their own questions even if they can't technically do some of the stuff. So I'll say "huh I don't know, let's check the help files..." and tell them where to find books to read, and do a certain amount of studied indifference while they try a few things. If people have motivations to use computers, a problem to solve, and the computer is a tool, they're more likely to be able to learn to use it to do the things they want to do. If they just feel behind the curve and think they need to be on facebook or whatever, I'm there to tell them they don't need to keep up with any particular Joneses.
posted by jessamyn at 10:41 PM on February 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hm. I'm intrigued by what jaffacakerhubarb said about encouraging them to experiment (with their files safely backed up).

When I set up my parents' computers I always set up a partition for their data that's separate from the OS. That way, if they wreck the OS (viruses, spyware, loads of browser bars) I can simply reinstall the OS. Thankfully, since I adopted this practice, they haven't wrecked an OS.

What if it was simple to do what my MSI netbook did: have an OS recovery partition, an OS partition and a personal files partition? If I ever wrecked my OS, I booted in to a recovery console, clicked a button and Windows XP was restored to original.

Then we could tell our charges to mess around all they want, and provide step-by-step instructions for recovering their Operating Systems.

The other option I've been considering for my mom's most recent laptop, is to install Ubuntu Netbook edition. It's so simple to launch common programs and to install new programs. Further, it's actually fairly complicated to damage the install via the available preference panels.

Since Karmic Koala, Ubuntu's glossy, stable and automatic.

Thanks for asking this question. I encounter this often as well and will monitor this thread for suggestions. And to answer those who questioned your motivations: we do want to help, but it's the whole give a man a fish or teach him to fish. The question is how to reduce computers' intimidation factor.
posted by Galen at 10:43 PM on February 24, 2010

I deal with this attitude every single day of my work. I do computer tech support in a school district and would love to see people try to figure things out on their own more often. I don't get frustrated when someone needs help doing something unless I've already shown them twice already and they haven't bothered to even try it on their own. I'm too busy to be enabling people who don't even want to learn to do it on their own.

One thing I try to never, ever do is to make the person feel stupid for not knowing how to do something. I do my best to lead them through the steps, have them try it themselves with me there to "catch" them if they fall/fail.

Try to maintain a good attitude about it, print out a copy of the XKCD comic (I have one on the wall coming into my cube/cave) and recognize that not everyone is technically inclined.

Or, better, treat them the way you'd like to be treated if they were helping you learn something that was completely foreign and more than a little intimidating.
posted by fenriq at 10:44 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

In other words, you want them to learn things the way you learn things, even though their experience with computers is vastly different from yours.

They may have spent decades getting by just fine without computers, before IT gradually intruded into their life and their work, and they finally had to learn. Now, they're willing to try, but all they really want to know is how to print their damn labels. And here you are, offering them two conflicting messages: 1) Just click on any option and see if it works. Experiment! 2) Don't click on every button you see, if you click the wrong thing, you'll break your computer. For a user who can't tell the difference between safe experimentation and reckless downloading, this is confusing and potentially humiliating.

It seems like you're appealing to a sort of "digital common sense" which new users simply don't have. The way they might eventually get that common sense is by building up a back-catalogue of basic knowledge and standard procedures. How do they do that? By following step-by-step instructions for how to make their computer do the specific things they want it to do. So what if the instructions might change when the new version comes out? By the time that happens, the user might be confident enough to figure things out on their own. But right now, they don't care about the new version. They just want to print their damn labels.

Part of being a good teacher is meeting your students where they are and allowing them to learn the way they learn best. You are not meeting your students where they are. You are expecting them to meet you where you are.
posted by embrangled at 10:48 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Perhaps a clumsy metaphor will help:

For digital immigrants, learning about computers is a bit like learning a new language.

The best way to become fluent in a language is through immersion. Go to France, listen, speak, fail over and over again, embarrass yourself in public, and eventually you'll speak like a local. This is great advice for people who are actually interested in learning French.

But if you're just passing through Paris on layover, immersion learning is a waste of time. What you need actually to know is: "I would like to book a room," "Where is the toilet," and "I'm sorry, I don't speak much French." If you're just passing through, spelling and grammar and local idioms are irrelevant. All you want to know is how to get things done.

Back to computers:

You went to Computer Land as a teenager or child, immersed yourself in the language, and became fluent. Your relatives, on the other hand, are reluctantly passing through Computer Land on layover. They don't really want to be in Computer Land, they just want to print their labels. They're not interested in hanging around to learn the local customs. Your job, as a teacher, is to teach them what they need to know right now and hope that somewhere down the line, something will inspire them to start experimenting. If doing that makes you cringe, they might be better off learning from someone else.

I know this because I taught my grandmother - who until she was 80, had used no technology more complicated than her sewing machine - how to use computers. In the last five years of her life, she went from using a typewriter to knowing how to surf the web, email her friends, use almost every formatting function in Word, use online translators and even buy things online. Near the end, she was figuring things out on her own, but it all started with an immense amount of patience and step-by-step instructions - starting with instructions for how to turn the damn thing on.
posted by embrangled at 11:25 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Jessamyn stole my link! This is also my job and I love it. Agreeing on a) diminishing the fear and b) being a little humble about "your world". It's all about confidence for your users.

My users who are coming to computers as adults are still in the mindset of this being a 4 grand piece of equipment that only extremely technical, trained people know how to use.
They could break it if they look at the wrong button, and have to replace it.
So, my favourite thing to do when I introduce the computer is to pick up the mouse and give it two loud raps against the table. Scares the crap out of them. I tell them "You cannot break this unless you pick it up and throw it on the floor, so please don't do that. If that should happen anyhow,we'll just buy a new one, no biggie". Cue nervous but relieved laughter.

In terms of humble, like Jessamyn says, a little comiseration goes a long way. Admit that certain things are a little complicated, try not to say "Oh, don't worry, it's really easy!", because if it's really easy, and they still don't get it, they just proved themselves an uncurable idiot. This way you get to build confidence when they manage it even though it's "a bit tricky". Shiiiit, nice-one man, you nailed that first try!

The power imbalance of knowledge plays in here too. At some point they will probably tell you how amaaaazing you are at computers, or comment on how fast you type or something. Feel free to point out that you have been doing this since you were 6. Feel free to take a stab at something they have done regularly enough that they are great at it, remind them about muscle memory, that it's about practice, practice, practice, that it's going to be tricky the first 20 times they do it, but then it's going to stick. My users generally get a kick out of me explaining how it goes when I try to drive. If you are working with relatives then you could perhaps trade training sessions, you teach them to send an attachment, and they teach you how to make a pie.

Do teach them about backup though, that is another way to increase their confidence. I find that for documents they create, sending themselves a gmail with it is the handiest way. Again, confidence building, if they *do* do something nuts, their stuff is still there. I call it insurance.

To build curiosity, find something they really want to do on the computer. A project of some sort, perhaps a photo-album. Then, find them a really good proggie for doing it. Find them some tutorials and print them out (that's how they roll, remember), and let loose. Remind them to explore a little in the program. Send them the odd tip about something fun in the program. If you can get them comfy in a program that does something they enjoy, the comfort and curiosity will spread to the other parts of the puter.
posted by Iteki at 12:47 AM on February 25, 2010

Abandon your users. Seriously. When I used to teach kids, I got fed up racing around the room to answer lots of "pester" questions like "How do I start the web thing?" or "How do I draw a square?" etc. I started saying "I don't know. Why don't you find out and tell me?" or "What about the guy next to you? Has he got it? You could ask him to tell you." This was my best teaching strategy ever.

For the grown-ups I work with now, I've learned to take them only so far and then abandon them. "OK, T, I can set up your new library software for you and I'll make sure it works but I am not a Librarian so you'll need to take it from there. You could always get the vendor to lay on some training." Also, on a tech support call I will often slow down my response (get a cup of tea, finish current task) before responding in the hope that they will work it out before I get there. That works better than you'd think.

Mrs English just started a university course and has to learn to use the PCs at college and the Mac at home. I've made it perfectly clear I will clean up her messes if necessary, but she will have to work everything else out for herself. Occasionally I'll show her something like cut-and-paste from PowerPoint to Word, but I refuse to show her twice. I am one cold bastard*. I endorse these strategies and recommend them to you.

* This works double-plus good if I remove myself from the room and start cleaning up or cooking dinner. That way, she doesn't want to stop me doing that, so will try harder on the problem-at-hand.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 2:54 AM on February 25, 2010

embrangled has it right: as a user, I'm not interested in the inner workings, I just want to be able to do my job (or manage my music or create my video or whatever). I am an expert in my field-- several fields actually-- and when you come to me to benefit from my expertise I'm going to use that expertise to give you what you ask for, but my doing so isn't contingent on you becoming an expert in my field yourself!

All the techies in this thread are talking about how fearful their user-clients are. I'm not fearful, I'm annoyed. Tech stuff is unnecessarily complicated, mostly for the purposes of commerce. I don't want to explore every option on a new phone so that I can unlock it and reprogram it. I want to buy a phone and have it work the way it's supposed to. I don't want to buy an mp3 player and find that it doesn't talk to my music files unless I buy another piece of software. If something is $100 I want to spend $100 and not learn after the fact that it also needs this $40 adapter and this $99 software and this other $X peripheral blahblahblah.

Also, for office workers, we've been told since PCs showed up on our desks in the early 90s not to download anything, not to touch anything outside our work-specific programs, that the tech guy will take care of everything remotely, etc. It's a pretty standard corporate policy that makes sense. Keeps things clean, consistent, and running smoothly. Not to mention the fact that I get paid to do a job, and while exploring the possibilities on my work-issued PC might be a fun way to spend the day, it's not what I'm there for. It's what you're there for.

So if I call you and ask you for help setting something up on my computer, or showing me how something works, then please tell me what it will cost (the whole, real, full cost) and then do what I ask so I can get back to work. I am paying you for your expertise. If you are going to be annoyed that I am not an expert in your field, then don't take the job.

And if you are my son or my brother, and I ask you for help with my tech stuff, either help or don't, but don't be a dick about it. I'm not you.
posted by headnsouth at 3:26 AM on February 25, 2010

Something I did to remove the mystery from computers. Got an old-ish PC, took it apart, down to the major components. Laid them out on a table. Started to put it together, told people what each piece did ("this is the hardrive, all your files are on here", "this is the memory, its like your brain's short term memory" etc). I asked them how many pieces I needed to get the computer running - and showed them the absolute minimum to get it booted. We were left with a running PC, no monitor, keyboard, mouse, no way of seeing if it was running. They were convinced that because the monitor wasnt connected, it wasnt 'working'.

Once they realised a few things like that, things started to click a bit more, and they got very enthusiastic. I took it all apart, and let them get it up and running. All took about an hour and everyone loved it. To get a PC fully booted up and usable is quite an accomplishment. You dont have get that technical - dont go on about IDE or SATA or DIMMS, no techie words.

I'd probably be the same if some mechanics took me into their garage and showed me how to put an engine together.
posted by daveyt at 3:38 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

On preview, what daveyt said.

Again and again, one thing I've done that gives new computer users some comfort is to start by at least hypothetically taking the cover off the machine (via Web sites and pictures, if not in practice), and talking about what a CPU is, what RAM is, what a hard disk is, and how they generally work together. Later, when the machine is opening programs from disk, show them the disk activity light working, and point out any disk noises as normal activity. On a Windows machine, show them Windows Task Manager, and let them watch a bit while you use the machine, and their CPU usage goes up and down. On Apple and Linux boxes, show them their process monitors. Soon, they'll get a general sense of how their actions as users cause varying demands on their hardware, and create some of the "spinning balls" and wait states that may annoy or frighten them in actual use. Give them some guidelines about judging when things may have gone awry, like "Generally, most Windows machines shouldn't have more than 45 to 60 concurrent processes running, as otherwise, the CPU spends too much time switching between tasks. That's the reason we try to keep from installing every new System Tray icon, and desktop shortcut that we find, when programs offer to set them up."

Next, talk about the common features of the user interface. Example: "All Windows programs written to standard Windows User Interface guide lines will have a File menu, and basic window features allowing you resize, minimize, and close the program. A modal text box is a way for a programmer to have the program request information from you which only you can provide at run time, or to have you choose from various alternative actions. yada yada yada."

And finally, sure, give them some 10 or 12 or 30 step procedures to print labels from their Word documents, if that's what they need to get going. 50 years into the computer revolution, a surprising number of "Luddites" have had significant computer systems experience, just not with GUI systems like Windows, Macs, and Linux now generally sport.

As an example, my Dad spent many years as a material requisition specialist in the Navy in the late 60s and early 70s, working with IBM green screen 5150 terminal based systems, which were 100% procedures based. He loved printed operations manuals, procedures and function keys, and after he and Mom got a PC, had a really hard time thinking about why he'd need to use a mouse at all. He felt like he got shortchanged on the PC, with only 12 function keys, when he was used to having 24, and was angered to learn that few Windows programs made much use of function keys at all. I've also seen a lot of people who learned DOS programs in early client-server office environments feel the same way, with some justification. Those old DOS WordPerfect and custom DOS based linked screen business applications, with function key exits and context based help always on the F1 key, were often models of highly structured, efficient user interaction, which were pretty bullet proof, in terms of user interaction, and most of them came with printed procedure manuals that you could use later to quickly refresh yourself on little used system features, when you needed to, without touching the computer, and perhaps making things worse, until you knew what to expect, from the printed manual.

You really do have to meet your students where they are, or where they've come from, to get them to go, gently, in the direction they and you want. And remember the 80/20 rule of computer use: 80% of users never use more than 20% of their computer's capabilities, and are fine with that. Stay with the basics, stress commonalities of function in major programs, and keep building on the basics.
posted by paulsc at 3:50 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I find that switching to text+icons instead of icons only helps enormously. Even if there are text menus for everything, seeing the "important" options (important enough to get a button) in a manner that they can read helps.
posted by anaelith at 4:39 AM on February 25, 2010

Teach them well and eventually they'll start experimenting on their own - as evidenced by my grandmother, who, at 81, was taught to how to write a letter in Word, and at 82, was sending Christmas cards in wiggly, rainbow-gradient WordArt.

The tone of your question suggests you're motivated more by your frustration at new users than by a genuine desire to help them learn. If you're cringing at writing instructions for a relative who really needs those instructions, perhaps you're not the best person to be teaching them about computers.

Ha! I can't tell you how many times I patiently, calmly repeated the instructions for downloading her photos off her digital camera to my mother. She kept "losing the piece of paper." And as someone who genuinely didn't want to be the one teaching her about computers (and I'll come right out and say that), I can tell you that in this situation, saying that you're not a qualified teacher, that the time that you're being asked about computers is inappropriate, that you can't do tech support like this via phone, all don't work and are all seen as rude, even if they're perfectly valid responses.

My way of dealing with it was to give my mom a computer with Ubuntu all set up on it with huge, clearly labeled icons on the desktop (see here). This worked great and increased her general proficiency for about a year. However, her printer/scanner recently died, as peripherals are wont to do, and even though I offered to go with her to get a new one when I was home for Christmas and set it up for her, she balked, saying she didn't want to waste the ink cartridges she already had. And then she went and bought one two weeks later and called in a panic because "the disks say it's for windows! your sister doesn't know how to install the drivers! I'm returning the printer and I'm going to get a windows computer with my tax return!"

At this point, I wash my hands of the whole thing. Honestly? I suggest you do the same. We know about computers not because we took classes or painstakingly wrote down and followed instructions but because we put thousands of hours in at computers (and I don't know about you, but this is something my mother teased me about or tried to moderate when I was in high school, to boot), playing with them, figuring out what makes them work. Computers, as much as anything, are something learned by doing. If these people aren't willing to put in the time, to think critically and to look calmly and carefully at what's in front of them, it's a lost cause.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:29 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I distinguish between "systematic knowledge" and "procedural knowledge." Procedural knowledge is what those people who write down the recipe for downloading photos off their camera to their desktop and then e-mailing them to their friends have. Systematic knowledge is what their computer-nerd friends have.

The problems is getting those people with procedural knowledge (if that) to want to gain systematic knowledge. If they don't want to learn some fundamental computer concepts, they won't learn them. It would only take 5-10 minutes to show someone around a computer enough to give them a rudimentary systematic knowledge, but if they're not of a mindset to absorb it, they won't. Perhaps explaining this distinction would help—I don't know. Maybe I'll try that next time.

A related problem is that people with procedural knowledge do not understand (and at times seem perversely resistant to understanding) that systematic knowledge of a computer is even possible. They seem to imagine that every operation on a computer is arbitrary, completely unrelated to everything else. Getting them to see the patterns would be half the battle. I can sympathize: when I was learning Japanese, I initially viewed every kanji character as unique and unrelated to others; once I had built up a critical mass of them through brute-force learning, I started to see the patterns, which made additional learning much easier.

Finally, there's a deer-in-the-headlights effect that some people get that seems to be a block to absorbing any information. Not sure what to do about that.
posted by adamrice at 7:08 AM on February 25, 2010

To get people more interested in learning can be encouraged by providing relevance to them.

Make analogies: Explain disk cleanup as a vaccuming analogy to your room cleaning.
Or if you already know them, recognize what it is that gets them motivated, tie that to computer learning, get them enthusiastic/interested. Provide encouragement when they do get it! Tell them you won't be available so and so days. Tell them next time to get in touch with these softwares first, then call you when they find out more.
Tell them, to do weekly scans of anti-malware/spyware stuff.

A counter point:

I think part of the issue here is you wanting others to be like you, "interested" in learning or working on their own.

I wanted that too from other people. Trust me I am referred to some people as someone who can get an awesome tech job but I know that I can't get anything specialized.

Here's what I learnt from my lesson: Change comes from people. All you can do is influence the environment around them and support them when they take the step towards what you want.

Plus, people just want their computer to work at times, they want to be able to do their job without requiring intervention, period. Yes, they may have done something to screw themselves up, keep in mind that it may not necessarily be the case all the time.

To boot, computer troubleshooting takes time. That time is precious to people attempting to do their job, hence companies and places have tech support for a reason. If everyone was as interested in learning about it, the tech support could be spending more time on upgrading, less time on troubleshooting (to generalize).

To some folks, it seems like a LOT to face up to, it's a big mystery. For some writing down every step is key at first, once they do it enough times, they will come to the realization that oh, I can do it without looking at the book, that may then influence their interest and make them more self-sufficient.

On the other hand, with you being available for them, you are increasing the their chances of not learning on their own. If you were not available, some would quit what they want. Some would reformat, some would go find someone else (thereby being less of a bother to you) & some would dislike you.

In the event that you are fed up of being called upon constantly with computer issues, you may just need better communication skills and better boundaries.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 7:22 AM on February 25, 2010

it just ends up seeming like a waste when they want to write every step because I know they're not learning.
There is a lot of good info in this thread already, but I just want to touch on this: you're operating under a fallacy here. They may not share your learning style, but writing down every single step is a valid (and pretty common) learning style coping mechanism. Reading Howard Gardner's work on "multiple intelligences" might help you to understand ways that you can reach people who have a different learning and processing style from you.
posted by anastasiav at 8:18 AM on February 25, 2010

Response by poster: embrangled, headnsouth, and others:

Let me use a different analogy. I've was never terribly good at advanced math, so when I took calculus in high school I would try to map out the steps required to complete a certain type of problem when doing the homework based off of the examples. Well, this completely fell apart when doing the exams because each problem was sufficiently different and there were other components of the problem I hadn't though of that completely changed what I was doing.

The problem was that I wasn't actually learning, I was just memorizing steps that really only works in one type of situation. I wasn't thinking about why I was applying the chain rule or certain theorems which left me completely lost when I took the exams. This is what I think is happening here. It took a few economics courses in college for me to get on my game and start learning rather than repeating steps and hoping it all works out.

This is what I believe is happening here. I wasted so much time approaching the subject the wrong way and none of it proved useful once I did start using the right approach. What I'm honestly asking is how can I help someone have that epiphany and start thinking about why they selected what they did to make Picasa do that, etc.

I'm not trying to get them to understand how the insides of their computer works; apologies if I wasn't clear about this earlier. All I want is that if I showed a friend how to adjust the margins of a document, they'd be able to manipulate the header and footer, because it's essentially the same thing.

Or if it's a cell phone, getting them to understand that the left and right soft keys on it change based on what you're doing, and not to think one button only serves on task.
posted by cgomez at 11:15 AM on February 25, 2010

I'm not trying to get them to understand how the insides of their computer works; apologies if I wasn't clear about this earlier. All I want is that if I showed a friend how to adjust the margins of a document, they'd be able to manipulate the header and footer, because it's essentially the same thing.

But cgomez, it's not the same thing. It's the same principle, but it's not the same thing.

Or if it's a cell phone, getting them to understand that the left and right soft keys on it change based on what you're doing, and not to think one button only serves on task.

Understanding that a key serves multiple purposes is one thing, and knowing when to use a key for x and when to use it for y is another thing altogether. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have those functions explained to you, creating a cheat-sheet for yourself to refer to later, and not caring about all the bells and whistles your phone is capable of.

People learn differently, as others have said, but also not everyone is interested in learning everything you want to teach them. In your analogy, you're starting at calculus! Most people don't take calculus to begin with, much less pursue college-level classes in order to understand it better.

Start with 1+1 and move on to the times tables. That's all most people want to know, and that's all most people need to know.
posted by headnsouth at 11:57 AM on February 25, 2010

Loved the comic! My wife works for a guy who needs it.
But aren't we really at cross purposes a bit here? I agree that as a user I'm not interested in why things happen--I just want the technology to work. It's tech support's or the help desk's job to make sure that happens. But isn't it also true that minimal competence in using your tools is part of your job? Not everybody wants to penetrate the more arcane reaches of Microsoft Word, and everybody has his or her own definition of what is relevant. But within the limits of relevance, knowing how to use your tools is part of your job and you should learn how to do it properly.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:16 PM on February 25, 2010

What I'm honestly asking is how can I help someone have that epiphany and start thinking about why they selected what they did...

How do you help someone have an epiphany in a field they weren't originally interested in pursuing? By being a really, really great teacher. By meeting your students where they are and inspiring them to use their computer to achieve goals which are meaningful to them. By accepting that what they are telling you about how they learn best is much more relevant than what you experienced while learning advanced math at highschool. By being patient and willing to accept procedural competency rather than shooting for total mastery.

If you want to know how to be a good teacher in this field, Jessamyn has already posted a great link.
posted by embrangled at 3:38 PM on February 25, 2010

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