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January 9, 2011 10:10 AM   Subscribe

How would you go about explaining basic computer features to someone who cannot conceive of what a gigabyte is? (Or, to a more extreme degree, what a username is or how the internet works?)

I have acquired a new job that puts me in touch with a number of older and elderly folk (60-80 years old) who are often getting their very first computers from my organization. I have found that the features of computers that would matter to me and many other people my age are categorically abstract concepts to the people I must assist on a daily basis. Often times I must explain something I just sort of innately understand because I am a life-long power user, and those things are usually the most difficult to put in layman’s terms. These people are clearly intelligent, well-studied people, and I don't want to insult their intelligence by saying, "Just trust me on this one."

What metaphors can I use to bring these users up to speed without getting them overwhelmed with information that currently means nothing to them?

I am looking to explain...

• what hard drive space is, and how much data or media various sizes can support
• what a processor is, and how the number of cores that processor has matters
• what memory is, and why having more than 3 gb is important even to someone who just browses the web
• what wireless internet is vs Ethernet/dial up/cable/dsl (this one absolutely confounds elderly people, who frequently ask me, “Oh, is the internet actually called Internet Explorer/Firefox/Safari? What odd names, are those different types of internet? I have Cox, is that the same?”)
• what a username and a password is, and why you have to have them

I’ve tried putting these things into the terms of a house, or a road. Like, the processor is the speed limit, the number of cores you have is like how many cylinders your engine has, memory is how much gas you have to do what you need to do, and your hard drive is pretty much how big the road is and how many cars can fit on it. I just don’t think that’s entirely on point and I hate misleading people who are coming to me for sound advice, especially those who start looking at the computer like it’s a car and then ask me “Where’s the ignition?”.
posted by patronuscharms to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Username: nametag
password: key
posted by vincele at 10:12 AM on January 9, 2011

Sorry, key won't work for password on second thought, thinking about your explanation.

For password, how about, code for house security system alarm. A lot of older folks have those.
posted by vincele at 10:13 AM on January 9, 2011

Jessamyn will probably have something brilliant to say on the topic, but I can only throw in this: figure out a list of details you do not want to go into. The number of cores is probably one of those details, unless that person is actually purchasing a computer or you're working with people who want to do ray-tracing on their machine.

Also, learn when to break the metaphor.
posted by adipocere at 10:20 AM on January 9, 2011

A hard drive is a box that you keep things in. Every song, every picture, every movie, every game takes up space in that box. A movie is much bigger than a song or a picture, so it takes up a lot more space. If the box gets too full, you have to either take some things out of the box to make more room or get an additional box.

Memory is your computer's ability to think about things. Some things are simple and easy to think about, and others are complicated and need more concentration. If you ask your computer to think about too many different things at once, or things that are too complicated, it will get confused and won't work well.

The internet is like water. It flows into your house from the outside. Your ISP is the water company; you give them money and they don't shut off your internet. Your browser is the faucet, where you go to get the internet and do whatever you want with it.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:25 AM on January 9, 2011 [20 favorites]

I don't know if it works for everyone, but I often use the metaphor (which is already being used in modern OSs of course) of the desktop. It breaks down at certain points, but it especially useful for explaining the difference between memory and hard drive space: I liken hard drive space to the set of shelves or file cabinets which you have to get up, go over to and pull a book or papers out of to use. Whereas the space on the desktop itself represents the amount of memory you have; the bigger that space is (i.e. the more memory), the more books and files you can have open at the same time to process. And the reader themselves is like the processor, the "bigger" their "brain," the faster they can fill out all that paperwork and read those books.

Of course, this metaphor can be tricky when people start hearing about and using the OS's desktop, so it's important to distinguish between them right away. But I think this metaphor fits pretty well with how computers work and helps people to understand why getting a bigger hard drive isn't going to make their experience faster, generally (unless we are talking about drive/bus speed but let's not go there shall we?), but memory and processing power will help with that. Do you really feel like you have to explain the multiple cores though? I feel like if you can get this far you can gloss over that, but maybe if you are asked, you can call it a "multiplier" or "splitter" of speed/brain power for example.

I've also had the browser vs. Internet issue, and I'm not terribly good at resolving it, but I think it's important to help people first understand the idea of different applications, then talk about how data gets into the computer. In some cases it comes from stored close by (the hard drive), in other cases it has to get piped in (network applications). You have different applications that let you see the data in different formats depending on how it got to your compute, and browsers are applications made just for seeing data formatted in a certain way, and this way of formatting is a protocol, and the one browsers use is called the web (http). I realize there is a whole chain of assumptions that lead to this, but each step is relatively concrete and simple to explain and grasp, if everyone involved is patient with everyone else. And if you can just get to browsers vs. data it's probably enough not to worry about protocols and whatnot.

As far as username/password, seems like lock/key is reasonable metaphor. Honestly, I'm having trouble wrapping my head around what could be difficult about this one, but that speaks more to having it beaten into my head at this point rather than assuming people are stupid...I know what it's like when you are so used to something you forget it was ever hard to grasp!
posted by dubitable at 10:34 AM on January 9, 2011

What do these people hope to use their computers for? That's going to make all the difference.

Looking at your bullet points, I'll say this. I'm under 30 and have been using computers almost my whole life. And I don't really know or care to know about processors and cores and all that. You can probably skip that with the elderly folks.

I wouldn't use one metaphor to explain everything about computers, because it won't be internally consistent - which might be confusing - and because it implies that computers are like cars or whatever in ways that you have not supplied.

A password can be compared to your bank account's PIN.

Someone who really does only want the internet for surfing the web and isn't going to be downloading media probably doesn't need much memory and doesn't need to think too much about storage. You can put that subject in the same category as processors, for those people. For people who want to use their computer as more of a media center, I would explain memory capacity as a bag (or maybe a bookshelf?). How much room is there in the bag for music, or movies, or software programs, or whatever?

As for usernames, not a clue. They are kind of weird and purposeless, if you think about it. I guess it's sort of like an account number with your bank?
posted by Sara C. at 10:35 AM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The best way I've found to explain file sizes is by starting small, and working up, with a little bit of simplification.

A byte holds a single character.
A kilobyte is a thousand letters - a really short story, or a baseball box score.
A megabyte is a very short novel.
A gigabyte is a thousand short novels, or 100 big books: x shelves at $local_library.
A terabyte is x thousand shelves.

Once you've got file sizes (storage) down, briefly explain that it's hard to judge how big a video or picture file might be, just that they tend to be big. Then go on to disk v. memory - one is long term storage, one is short term memory - what the computer is thinking about now.

Folks don't really need to know the difference between how different types of networks work, just that they're faster or slower. It's best to take Ted Stevens' example and explain it as a series of tubes - DSL is a bigger 'pipe' than dialup.

Other stuff: web and email are both things that work over the internet, just like phonecalls and faxes both work over the phone system.
Explaining the internet - interconnected system of networks, just like travelling by public transport. I catch the local bus to the intercity bus station, then take that bus to the subway...
posted by zamboni at 10:36 AM on January 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Typos. Always with the typos.
And the reader themselves -> and the reader themself

got to your compute -> got to your computer
posted by dubitable at 10:36 AM on January 9, 2011

I've always used a kitchen analogy I picked up somewhere (may have been this board?)

Your hard drive is your cabinet and pantry, with a larger the hard drive you can store more raw goods and tools like pots and pans.

RAM (memory) is your counter space. The more RAM the more you can work on simultaneously without having to stop, clean up, re organize. You can be more efficient with everything you need out at once instead of having to return to the pantry for it repeatedly, so more RAM is great.

Processor is the chef, it manipulates the raw goods (data) into the final product (cat video enjoyed by human user.)

Program / application is the recipe, processor follows it to the letter (so make sure your recipe is exactly correct with no guesswork, and covers every possibility, which is really hard to do!)

The above I've used successfully before, the below is being made up as I go right now.

I guess internet is the "milk man" or grocer deliver. He brings in more raw goods (data) to work on, the internet is also the output though, maybe restaurant analogy works well here?

Different internet protocols are like different classes of restaurants, maybe :
dial up is fast food, it's cheap to set up (no wiring) it provides OK but not great nutrition (data transmission rate)
Broadband is fine dining, you get what you pay for!

Different browsers are just the packaging your fast food comes in. You get the same thing, from the same source, browser is just the packaging it comes in, like a tray for eating in, a bag or box for to go.
Firefox gives you more napkins, chrome gives you a bigger fork to eat more quickly with, that kind of thinking could be refined into something clever.

You could work a mobile smart phone (to go) reference in there too if you wanted.
posted by oblio_one at 10:44 AM on January 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

The car metaphor is helpful in some circumstances, but you do have to get it right if you use it (the processor is not the speed limit - that makes no sense. It's the engine. The speed limit does not power your car.)

The better explanation is the quite literal one: A computer is merely a system for storing information - a giant file cabinet that holds files. Gigabytes are a unit of measuring information. It doesn't matter if you understand what a Gigabyte is (until very recently, no computer could do anything involving a Gigabyte anyway). But what does matter is understanding how many Gigabytes certain things constitute - like a picture, a song, or a movie. It will help to first explain to them that pictures, music, and video take up a lot more space than words or pages of documents do.


• what hard drive space is, and how much data or media various sizes can support

The hard drive is the file cabinet itself. How big it is determines how much stuff you can put in there. Then explain to them how much space a movie takes up, etc.

• what a processor is, and how the number of cores that processor has matters

The processor is the engine that powers the process of retrieving, storing, and interpreting the information (the "stuff") stored in the file cabinet (the hard drive). The number of cores is not really all that important to understand as long as they know that more = more power. But that's not always the case, so you really don't need to explain it to them. It's not like cylinders in a car. At all. So don't use that metaphor. Two cores is like two engines.

• what memory is, and why having more than 3 gb is important even to someone who just browses the web

When the processor gets stuff out of the hard drive (the file cabinet), memory is how much of that stuff it can think about at any given time.

(And 3gb is not important to someone who just browses the web. Sheesh. It's nice to have, sure. But "important?" Come on.)

• what wireless internet is vs Ethernet/dial up/cable/dsl

I've been trying to explain this one to my mother-in-law all week with limited success. So far, here's what has worked:

1. The Internet - This just means the global network of all the computers that are hooked together, no matter how they are hooked up or where. It's the big convention of people communicating. It's "where" everything you're looking at is.

2. Internet Access - This describes how, generally, you are going to get your computer to connect to the internet. It consists of at least three separate things: How, physically, the computer connects (with or without a wire); What company will provide the link to the internet for you (the ISP); and what computer program you will use in order to view the internet once connected.

3. Wireless - This just means that the computer connects without wires to a relay box that is connected to the internet with wires. Like a two-way radio for the computer information. (If they don't know what a two-way radio is, you need to find a time machine and get to 2011, when every living person in the developed world, no matter how old they are, knows what a two-way radio is).

4. Ethernet - This is just the technical name for the type of wire connection used to connect a computer to the internet relay device (which is called a router). There is almost never any reason to use the word "ethernet."

5. Dial-up - Many years ago, people connected to the internet over telephone lines using the actual telephone signal. This was called "dial-up." It was very slow. It is still available in some places. But it is extremely slow and is not suitable for the type of information that is now on the internet, which is very large and takes a very long time to transmit over a dial-up connection.

6. Cable - When the internet signal is transmitted through a cable television wire instead of some other means.

7. ISP - The company that provides you with access to the internet in exchange for a fee. Like the cable company (often the same company!) that charges you a monthly fee in order to watch cable television. The internet is exactly like that, except that it's two-way. The internet is to television what two-way radio is to radio. With the stipulation that it's all like cable TV where you have to pay a company for a subscription to the service.

8. Username and password - It's like a bank account number and password. Everyone knows that the word password means. You don't need to make up an metaphor.

9. those who start looking at the computer like it’s a car and then ask me “Where’s the ignition?”.

It is like a car in some ways. Like with a car, the ignition is the button that turns it on. Show them the button. But throw away the rest of your car metaphors. They're incorrect and don't make sense.

You don't need a metaphor to explain it. Old people are just as smart as young people, and computers were invented by people who are now very old and/or dead. They can handle it if you just explain how it actually works. Using metaphors just screws it up.
posted by The World Famous at 10:45 AM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Each thing must be put in simple terms that the newbie can relate to. Metaphors and esp. similes work. Never assume something is clear because it is basic and clear to you. Example: years ago I was doing some blogging to help a blog site. I knew very little. I kept being told not to hot link and to put things on my own server. I never understood what that meant till later on, when I started my own blog and worked on it a while. Now I hotlink and know I am doing it. Or put stuff on my server. ps I am 81 and get an average of 20 thousand visits per day to my site. Got my first computer for 60th birthday. It can be done!
posted by Postroad at 10:47 AM on January 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is a long road and you'll be surprised that some people will scoot along it and others will have an incredibly difficult path. One of the things that I think is the most important is to remove the magic aspect to the whole system. "These are computers. People use them to solve problems for them. This is your computer. We will teach you how to use it so that you can solve problems with it. Here are the things you need to know"

I've been doing this for years and the biggest deal I've found is that people who are motivated to do something with the computer [as opposed to being told by vocational rehab people "you need to learn computers"] tend ot do better.

So, the biggest deals are

* they have to learn to use an input device but it does not have to be a mouse. There is a nice website called Mousercise that I use with every single novice user. I can usually tell by how they interact with it how their uptake is going to be generally.
* files sizes. I over-generalize considerably and start from a piece of paper.
-- a piece of paper with some typing is 10k
-- a formatted resume is 100k
-- a small photo is 100-500k
-- a song is 3000k which is also 3MB
-- a short youtube-type movie is 100MB
-- a Hollywood movie is 600MB
-- a DVD movie with extras is 4000MB or 4GB
Mostly they need to know that they will never run out of space on their hard drive AND that they shouldn't send anything larger than a photo over email.
* a novice user doesn't give a shit about processors, cores or RAM except to know what RAM is, loosely. Make a differentiation between storage and memory, short-term, long term. Make it clear that to some people, a hard drive is called "memory" and to others it's not. Teach people the real words for things [i.e. a browser] but be clear that some people don't use these words.
* username/passwords are so they can access personal information on the internet and elsewhere. I don't care what security experts say, they need to write these down. They should use complicated passwords for health/financial stuff and simple non-dictionary passwords for everything else. They should set up their browser [if you're not setting them up with firefox and adblock you're doing them a disservice] to store passwords for them.
* I actually spend a little bit of time going over the different sorts of internet for people who have laptops. I explain how they can get online at home, how they can get online elsewhere, how certain things on their laptops require an internet connection and others don't. I explain cable, DSL, satellite and dial-up, briefly. And explain how to get on Wifi somewhere public like the library.
* URLs - people should know what a web address is, what a bookmark/favorite is and how to get back to a web site that they like. This is pretty easily done with a telephone number metaphor because it's something people understand. You can break it down into parts like a phone number and each part of a web address, like a phone number, tells you something about the website.
* The biggest thing, again is to dispell the "this is magic and only I understand it" thing. These are tools these people are expected to learn. They are not mysterious boxes that run on unicorn energy. While you might not always be able to explain why a computer does a certain thing [and I often deflect these questions, we can't always know why something happens, but if it's a bad thing we can almost always keep it from happening again] you can make sure the tolls work most of the time and teach people that when they don't, there are people to talk to. My landlady didn't understand for the longest time the difference between a web site being non-responsive and our DSL being down. It's not that she couldn't follow troubleshooting steps it's that she just thought these things were sort of magic AND unknowable. Teach people to look for and read help files and to call tech support for things that tech support needs to be called for.

Above all, any computer like an automobile, requires maintenance. This is an expected part of computer ownership and they should learn how to do software updates and what happens when the laptop says it needs a java update or whatever. Stepping through the next - next - next of a set of prompts is something that most users can technically do but they want someone near them when they do that. It's worth trying to encourage them to take ownership of stuff like routine maintenance and not encourage the "hey this is two years old, what do you mean it needs updating" mentality.

I have a book that is coming out in April which goes through a lot of this stuff in really dull detail. Drop me an email [not MeMail] and I'll happily send you a draft.
posted by jessamyn at 10:48 AM on January 9, 2011 [12 favorites]

Would add to above, about browsers, and would appreciate if more tech-illiterate got this message:

Using Internet Explorer 6.0 is like eating a drippy Carl's Junior burger over your lap with no napkin while driving to a job interview in your best suit. Dangerous, you'll probably mess up your system and you might cause a nasty traffic delay on the highway we all share, don't do it!
posted by oblio_one at 10:48 AM on January 9, 2011

I once volunteered to go to homes and help elderly and disabled people with setting up computers for them.

I never thought to teach them about hardware or networking.

I just showed them things like how to use a keyboard and mouse, click on icons, how to type and send emails and how to use their "favorites" on their browser.

If they had additional questions, I would answer them.

Your job may be different, in it's requested that you teach them about hardware and how it works, but I personally think that might be unnecessary unless requested.
posted by KogeLiz at 11:10 AM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

A HARD DRIVE is similar to an LP or a cassette tape or a book -- it's a device we use to store information. But maybe a better metaphor is a blackboard. Obviously, computers don't have blackboards inside them (nor do they have teeny, tiny professors writing on those blackboards), but, using complicated things like magnets and electrons, something very similar to that is happening inside Macs and PCs. You type a letter to your friend, save it, and it gets saved on something inside the computer that's like an internal blackboard.

A blackboard because, unlike the print in a book, it can be erased. Or part of it can be erased. Like if you write two letters, you can delete one but keep the other one. That's like the professor erasing just one part of the blackboard.

Now, imagine a real-life professor who wanted to write a haiku on the blackboard in his class. No problem, as long as the board isn't already full of stuff that he needs to save, there should be plenty of room for a haiku. But if he wants to write the entire text of "Hamlet" on the blackboard, he's out of luck. Or he'll have to buy a really, really huge blackboard.

Now, when you look at a website, all the text on and the images and so on have to travel from somewhere else to your computer -- in pretty much the same sense that, if you watch "60 Minutes," it has to travel from CBS's studios to your home.

That process is expensive in terms of time and money. If you want to see info from the Interent, it's not going to pop onto your screen instantaneously. It's going to take time, because it has to travel through wires to your house. It's going to travel over phone lines or via satellite or something like that. And those systems are owned (e.g. by AT&T), and the owners charge for use of their wires.

So if you're going to go to the same web site over and over, it makes sense to store a local copy of it on your computer -- and to only ask for a new copy if it's likely there have been updates. And if it's going to be stored on your computer, it will need to be stored on that blackboard. If there's no room on the board, your computer will be forced to retrieve a new copy every time you go to the site.

Imagine someone who doesn't have room in his tiny apartment for books. So when he wants to read a novel, he has to get it from the library. And if he wants to reread the same novel, he has to go to the library again and get it a second time. Someone with more space can store the book at home and just grab it from the shelf whenever he wants to read it.

WIFI is very much like radio (or TV with an antenna). People are broadcasting information on the internet. You can receive it by plugging your computer into the wall, and the info will be brought to you over phone lines or cable lines, or you can receive the information wirelessly, through the airwaves. Think of the differences between cable TV and antenna TV.

You can also get your Internet through a wire, like cable TV, but then get a little device that broadcasts it wirelessly throughout your home. Imagine you plugged your TV into the wall, so that you could watch "60 Minutes," but you also wanted to be able to watch the show outside on your patio, without running a wire into your house. Wouldn't it be great if you could have a little, tiny TV-broadcaster, that could pull the signal from the cable coming into your house and beam it through the air?

THE INTERNET is, in some ways, like your cable-tv company. It's an entity that's sending out tons of different "shows." Except the shows are web sites. So just like you can choose to watch "Seinfeld" or "ABC News," you can choose to view or Each website is kind of like a different station. Web browsers are similar to TV sets. They are the devices you receive the "shows" on.

This is a bit confusing, I know, because a TV is a physical, nuts-and-bolts device. A web browser isn't. It's a program that runs on your computer. Computers are multi-purpose devices, used for many things besides looking at websites. They're used for writing novels, listening to music, doing taxes, etc. If you want to temporarily turn your computer into a sort of TV that views the Internet, you start up a web browser. So, basically, the web browser temporarily takes over your computer. While the browser is running, your computer is a "TV" and not a stereo. Later, while some other program is running, it might be a stereo and not a TV.

Just like you have RCA TVs and Panasonic TVs, you have multiple brands of web browsers: Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, Chrome, etc. They all do the same thing: allow you to watch the "shows" on the Internet. Why should you choose one over the other? Well, why choose a Sony TV over a Panasonic? Many people don't care. But each TV has little features that the other ones don't have. Same with browsers.

By the way, one difference between the Internet and a cable-tv company is that not just anyone can make TV shows and have them piped into homes via Time-Warner Cable. It's too expensive and complicated. But web sites are much easier and cheaper to make than TV shows. So the Interent "broadcasts" a range of sites, some made by big corporations -- others made by average people. So it's like a big, messy mixture of cable TV and ham radio.

Note: you'll hear the terms "Internet" and "Web" used synonymously, and they've pretty much come to mean the same thing. Technically, they aren't. Technically, "the web" is just the stuff that you can view in web browsers. There's a lot of stuff "out there" that you can't -- that you'd need other devices or programs to view. This is similar to how we call those jacks the come into our house "phone jacks," even though they can also be used for faxes. But if that's confusing, I wouldn't worry about it. Most people nowadays think of "the web" and "the Internet" as being the same thing.

COMPUTER PROCESSORS are the brains inside computers. They are what allow computers to compute. They can do simple things like add numbers together. They can do more complex things, like display images on a screen. And they are built so that people can control them via commands.

If you write a letter on your computer, you are commanding it to do all sorts of things: display letters on the screen, save my my writing on the "blackboard," etc. If you are on the web, you're commanding the computer to access all sorts of information: "show me what books are for sale at!" "Show we the local weather!" etc. The processor carries out these instructions.

Some processors are faster than others, but processors can only do one thing at a time. A processor can't show you and send your email at the same time. But if your computer has two brains in it -- two processors -- brain one can send the email while brain two receives info from

USERNAMES and PASSWORDS are ways of identifying you. They are like social-security numbers or ATM pin numbers. Since a lot of people do really personal stuff on computers (access their bank accounts, etc.), they don't want anyone with a computer to be able to get at their personal information. So even if someone manages to get to your online bank account, they won't be able to steal your money without knowing your password.
posted by grumblebee at 11:21 AM on January 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Most people will find the "how it works" stuff confusing and distracting until they have some concrete experience to hang the theory on.

Some people will be happy if they never learn the theory, but some people will struggle to remember anything without understanding why it all happens, so you can't avoid theory.

Most people learn better when they are solving problems; try presenting a piece of theory as a solution to a problem they have or a problem you have given them to solve. Give the theory in the smallest possible chunks, and for each bit of explanation make sure you have some practical exercises that help them understand the theory.

Sometimes it will help to ask them questions: "Why do you think that happened?". Sometimes people will come up with the answer on their own; other times you'll gain valuable insight into misconceptions they may have.

Many people learn better when they see things, so here are some things to try:

- Physically open up a computer and show them the processor, the RAM, and the hard drive.
- Make copious pictures and diagrams.
- Find a tool that shows visually what's on their hard drive and get them to use it. Make sure the hard drive has some text files on, some music files and some video files.
- Show them the memory use column in the task manager, get them to do something memory intensive and watch it all change.
- Do a visual traceroute to a website you've been using.
posted by emilyw at 11:27 AM on January 9, 2011

what hard drive space is, and how much data or media various sizes can support

Filing cabinets. Some things can be written on a single page. Some things are the size of books. You can take old pages out of the filing cabinets and throw them away. Or you can get new filing cabinets and fill those, too.

Defragging your hard drive or getting a faster system is like putting on roller skates, so you can zoom from one filing cabinet to another.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:47 AM on January 9, 2011

I'm having some real problems processing the issues you raise in your question. Now this might be because I'm 70 years old and am in a group that many younger people feel is characterized by drooling into my oatmeal, or it could be that most of your assumptions are wrong. My 69 year old wife is webmaster for a multi-user website. Most of the people who need help posting to the site are in their thirties and use the "I'm too dumb to do this" excuse to not learn the basics.

The problem that I have with the assumptions implicit in your question is that the overwhelming majority of the facts you are having a problem conveying are not necessary for end-user to know or understand. If you were teaching someone to drive would you start with a detailed description of exactly how an internal combustion engine works? Before putting the car in gear would you demand that the driver know the internal configuration of an automatic transmission? I'm willing to bet that the majority of drivers don't know how many quarts of oil their car holds or how it gets around inside the engine. You also don't need to know the chemical composition of concrete in order to drive on the Interstate, let alone exactly how many off-ramps it has on its east-bound length.

I love analogies, but keep them simple. The hard drive is like a filing cabinet. The bigger it is the more data it can hold and the easier it will be to get that data out when you want it. I doubt more than 10% of the folks on this site can give a reasonable discussion of the difference between one processor and another. Why does your neophyte old person need to? To describe the Internet, try simply stating that it is a collection of places with information and the wires needed to connect them together so you can look into more filing cabinets than you can possibly keep in your own house. Mr. Old Goat doesn't need to understand the differences between copper and fiber optic cable. We taught our 63 year old widowed next door neighbor all she needed to know about computers, email and the Internet in twenty minutes. She's doing just fine.
posted by Old Geezer at 12:03 PM on January 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

Having worked with some very computer illiterate folks... here's some things worth noting:

1. "It disappeared!"

I've seen folks get really upset and believe "the computer took it it away" when they've either closed a window, minimized it, or had another window cover up what they were working on.

Start by explaining how the desktop works, how to find windows, files. How to move between them. The importance of saving.

2. "I can't find it!" pt.2

I had a manager who couldn't find files because I switched the view mode from Icon to List. Seriously. Teach people how to find files, how to sort by date, and, how to search.

Walk people through these things- demonstrate it, then handhold them as they do it a few times so they can feel comfortable with it.

3. Programs vs. Files

A program is like an appliance- say, a CD or tape player. A file is like a CD or a tape. You need to have a program to work with a file - if you want to listen to a CD, you need a CD player, right? If you turn on a program, you might need to also go find the file which is just like putting a CD in the player. (show file menu system).

A lot of computers are smart enough that if you click on a file, it'll automatically open up a program to run it- but sometimes it won't know what program, or, if you have more than one that could do it, it'll open up the wrong one. (show the difference between clicking mp3, vs. iTunes or whatever).

4. The Internet

The internet is like radio or TV - it's got a signal. This signal can come in through many ways (ethernet, cable, wifi, etc.) If you want to look at stuff on the internet, you need a program- in this case, it's just like a radio or tv set- it gets the signal for you.

5. Email vs. the Internet

Email is like a telephone. It uses your internet connection, but it's not the same as the internet - just like how cable and your telephone aren't the same thing. This is how an email address works, and this is how an internet address works. These are the differences... etc.

6. Spam, scams, etc.

If you get any messages from your bank, work, the IRS, or anything official, always call them to be sure that's it's actually legit. Look up the phone number on your bills or records and call them- there's a lot of fake emails that exist to steal your information!

(This can go on for quite a bit- telling people ALL the things not to download, or send, is a big deal and probably the most important thing).

Honestly, the issues about specs are pretty low on the scale of necessary things to teach people about, especially if they're not going to upgrade or be playing high end videogames.
posted by yeloson at 12:05 PM on January 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

Explain everything in terms of what it replaces. Eg, a hard drive replaces a storage facility. A word processor replaces a typewriter...
posted by dougrayrankin at 12:16 PM on January 9, 2011

THE INTERNET is, in some ways, like your cable-tv company. It's an entity that's sending out tons of different "shows." Except the shows are web sites. So just like you can choose to watch "Seinfeld" or "ABC News," you can choose to view or Each website is kind of like a different station. Web browsers are similar to TV sets. They are the devices you receive the "shows" on.

Actually, I'd instead say that The Internet is like the medium of television itself, and the BROWSER is more like the cable company. As in: Time Warner and Optimum do things a little differently, but either one should let you see The Discovery Channel. By the same token, you can use either firefox or IE to look at or whatever.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:01 PM on January 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it is pointless to try to explain processor cores to people that have no understanding of computers whatsoever. Likewise hard-drive capacity, unless you're equipping them with really old computers where the hard drives are small enough that running out of space is a real possibility.

Browsers. Most people don't know what a web browser is, so your oldsters are in good company. I think the best way to tackle this is to launch a word processor, then a painting program, and then a browser. Play around briefly in each of them and say something like "each of these is a program. A program is a tool that enables the computer to do a certain kind of task."

The Internet, and wifi, and ISPs, and all that. This is where visual aids come in handy. Drawing a block diagram showing the pieces of the puzzle should help it make sense.
posted by adamrice at 1:04 PM on January 9, 2011

Now I'm curious! Why *is* having more than 3 gigs of ram important if you're just surfing the web?
posted by hammurderer at 3:28 PM on January 9, 2011

You may be interested in this recent Metafilter post: Teaching Computer Science without Computers. It includes links to resources for doing the same kind of instruction on your own.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:21 PM on January 9, 2011

Damn, you guys, these are some excellent bits of advice. I want to favorite every single one of your replies and probably will as I try each suggestion out on the folks I work with.

RE: Why the hell am I discussing processors and cores

Basically what this boils down to is that I have a LOT of customers who don't understand why the fastest and biggest and best computer in the whole damn place does not necessarily equal the right solution for them. I have found that certain customers only seem to get why 3.02GGhz is plenty fine for their email, their web browsing, their photo pushing and their music listening when I go into the metaphor of why having 3.7 processor plus multiple cores is really for folks who are doing hardcore video editing and crap like that. Their primary concern is "My current machine is slow as balls*; whaddya got that's faster?" Subsequently it becomes necessary to explain the different machines so they can work with me to decide what the best one actually is for them.

RE: Why the hell am I discussing hardware at all anyway
Some folks are genuinely interested, and I like to explain this stuff so that they can feel like they're part of the transaction in more ways than just handing me their credit card info. Plus, the more I explain clearly upfront, the less (I've found) I get disgruntled people coming back going, "OMFG I DELETED THE INTERNET" when really all they've done is remove Firefox from a taskbar. Basic knowledge makes inroads that you can't believe.

Plus, of course, I don't just work with badass elderly folk, either. My customer base ranges from 5 - 85, usually, and these metaphors and explanations will help me better serve those individuals as well. My goal is to remove the condescension, the "computers are magic" crap, and pretty much all the things that I hate about going to an electronics store right at the get go when I'm helping a customer find what they're looking for. It's just good customer service, you know?

Again, thanks for all your input.

* No one's really said this to me exactly yet... But if they did, you can bet I'd be recording that for posterity's sake in every possible way.
posted by patronuscharms at 9:59 PM on January 9, 2011

I'm a visual learner. Having visual analogies--particularly since every single popular OS now is a GUI--would probably be helpful.
posted by timoni at 12:14 AM on January 12, 2011

A metaphor that occurred to me today while teaching some folks familiar with cars:

If the computer were an engine, processor speed is revs per minute, RAM is engine displacement.
posted by zamboni at 9:45 AM on January 12, 2011

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