Online IT training and literacy resources for beginners
November 30, 2011 3:56 AM   Subscribe

One of our office cleaning staff asked me if there are easy ways to learn how to use a computer. This totally threw me - I've a ton of experience about self-paced programming, stats, GIS, etc. - but no clue what to suggest for actually getting to grips for the first time with Windows, safe web browsing and so on. Wrinkle - it has to be free, Windows 7-based, and online - this isn't a paradox, she can open IE and navigate to a webpage.

Job timing (2 jobs) makes library courses impossible, and reading between the lines I think even the cost of a Dummies book would be prohibitive. I've heard good reports of Microsoft's Office training, but I think it may be a little advanced for right now. Previous AskMeFi answers predate Windows 7; so - any ideas?
posted by cromagnon to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is a step-by-step guide on how to use Windows 7, and seems to be set at a beginner level.
posted by essexjan at 4:42 AM on November 30, 2011

Did you know that the "For Dummies" series has a website where a lot of instructions are posted? They have a Computers for Seniors and Software for Seniors section, which outline some basics such as how to start a program, use the desktop, use a mouse, and so on. You could print these out for her, although since there are over 150 topics in those two sections it might make more sense to give her the books. It would make a nice, inexpensive, life-changing gift.
posted by Houstonian at 5:13 AM on November 30, 2011

Libraries are putting on computer literacy courses all the time. I would suggest one of those. Most of the time they are fairly small and the people can get one on one attention so they can learn specifically what they want to do on a computer. They are also free!
posted by inukshabbi at 5:20 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's all she needs to know:

1. The start button is in the bottom left, this has all the installed programs
2. When in doubt, "google it"
3. CTRL+C copies highlighted text, CTRL+V pastes (SHIFT+DEL cuts highlighted text, SHIFT+INS pastes)
4. The above key combination pretty much works anywhere
5. If selecting multiple files or items in pretty much any program, single click the first, hold down shift and single click the last. Alternatively if selecting multiples that are not in a row, hold down the CTRL key while clicking to single them out
6. Pretty much every program has a predictable menu at the top. "File" will usually always get you to Open and Save operations, "Edit" can get you to cut/copy/paste and preferences, "Tools" can get you to options. And "Help" is always handy.
7. Don't fear the computer, explore, learn!
posted by samsara at 5:25 AM on November 30, 2011

It's very easy to forget all the things you've learned about computers and do instinctively. Teaching someone who doesn't know how to use a computer to use one is extremely hard, especially if you have to overcome their fears and misconceptions.

I'm sure that you'll get some good suggestions of resources, books and webpages that can help her read about how to interact with a computer, but something I think you shouldn't leave up to chance is setting up the following things:
- an email account.
- a password for their email account.
- password recovery set up for their email account (such as a telephone number) so that they won't lose their account when they forget their password.

If at all possible, setting them up with chrome, a google docs account (for word processing) and enough knowledge of how to operate google and their web browser should be enough to keep them out of trouble. The best thing about using Google Docs instead of Microsoft Office is that you don't have to describe: how to save files, where to save files, what to call files, and how to backup their files.
posted by Jerub at 5:37 AM on November 30, 2011

@samsara that's WAY to complicated for someone who has never touched a computer.

How to use a mouse. How to make capital letters on the keyboard. How to turn the thing on. What a program is.

These are the things they need to learn first.
posted by devnull at 5:48 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Welcome to Home and Learn's free computer courses and tutorials site. All the courses are aimed at complete beginners, so you don't need experience to get started. Simply click a computer course that interests you, and away you go!

Looking it over, it seems to start with exploring the start menu and how big is your hard drive, which may be what you're seeking here. I look of these
posted by infini at 5:55 AM on November 30, 2011

Library courses or local adult ed classes would be the best bet. Trying to self teach, unless the person is really motivated, from zero-level skills, is really tough. But the Dummies book are a great starting point.
posted by canine epigram at 5:56 AM on November 30, 2011

Ahem, that's I like the look of those.
posted by infini at 5:57 AM on November 30, 2011

BBC: Absolute beginner's guide to using your computer.

Also: BBC Webwise, "a beginner's guide to using the internet": Your computer - Internet.
posted by bentley at 6:20 AM on November 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You should ask her what she wants to use the computer TO DO, and then you can find resources that help her get set up to do that.

People above have guessed "word processing" and "email" but maybe what she wants to do is use the computer to help set up and track a budget. Maybe she wants to use her bank's online banking. Maybe she heard about ask metafilter and wants to try it.

You don't know until you ask, and you can't give any useful advice until you know. Resist guessing and leading her down a frustrating path.
posted by fritley at 6:29 AM on November 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Any way you can let this person play with an old machine in the office? Maybe something you can set up in an used cube or a copy room that will be available after hours?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:48 AM on November 30, 2011

Goodwill has some great computer courses available - they start at a very basic level and are self guided
posted by birdbone at 7:18 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

@devnull and odinstream: You're absolutely right that what I suggested was way too complicated for an absolute beginner. However since she is able to open a browser and navigate to webpages ok, what I meant to express was...once someone grasps those productivity concepts the learning curve changes and common tasks become MUCH easier. I suppose I was pointing out the most common areas where there's that "click" when it comes to understanding Windows and the usefulness of PCs. Definitely have to work to get up to that point however! It's very helpful she is already able to get to and use a browser, which means you won't have to spend as much time identifying the components and how they work, but rather focus on the GUI and what it can do. As far as safe browsing, that will be a very exhaustive lesson. For now I'd stick to having Secunia PSI, WOT, and a decent virus scanner installed to help negate "drive by" infections. WOT alone should be helpful for when there's an urge to install "screensavers" and the like.
posted by samsara at 8:04 AM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ask what she'd like to do. Make address labels for holiday cards? Type a resume? Print a picture sent by a family member? Send email with an attached picture? and so on. People learn by doing, and people enjoy learning more when the task is meaningful to them. I used to teach and Intro to Computing course for Adult Ed. I started many beginners with Solitaire. It's easy, fun, and many people know the rules. It builds mousing skill easily. Then a simple text document, in Word or Wordpad. I had some absolute beginners (Somalian refugees) to write a couple of paragraphs about themselves. The stories were amazing; I learned a lot, and the students made progress.

Along the way, you can give pointers on security, viruses, troubleshooting, etc.
posted by theora55 at 10:19 AM on November 30, 2011

It's not free, but we have a subscription at and it is fantastic. I was unimpressed by a lot of the other "computer training videos" I'd seen, but the stuff at lynda is focused, direct, and very clear. While much of the stuff at is fairly application-specific, they do have good "computer literacy" intros as well.

It's far from free ($25/mo or $250/year) but maybe this is something your company would be willing to subsidize or gift to the employee? We give our employees not-strictly-job-related help all the time, whether it's self-improvement/skills education like this, or pitching in to remodel a single mom's bathroom. The result is happier, more productive employees, and it's money well spent, from my perspective as a manager. Maybe you could come at it from that angle?

Many communities have "senior colleges" at the local senior's center, with (non-accredited) courses on a variety of subjects. Many are now offering technology-related classes such as computer basics, digital photography, and so on. Many of these classes are free or very inexpensive. Libraries sometimes offer classes on computer basics as well.
posted by xedrik at 12:13 PM on November 30, 2011

Best answer: I wrote a book about how to teach libraries to do this last year. I'd also suggest springing for only because it's high quality and very very worth it, but I understand that may be cost prohibitive. This is my favorite one-pager about basic information/tips. There are some other blog type sites like AbbyandMe and AARPs site that have good stuff but not totally structured in lesson format.

Part of the issue is really going to be figuring out if the person is a self-starter [in which case samsara's tips will be a good start] or someone who really needs to be guided more strongly [in which case they're a recipe for disaster]. I'm not sure how much this woman's lack of technological know-how is your responsibility, but that might be worth assessing somewhat. A good starter portal is the government's portal. Hit or miss, but there's a lot of stuff going on there and it might be worth starting her there and seeing what sticks.
posted by jessamyn at 2:01 PM on November 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: This is, as usual, all awesome. The problem with getting involved, or even asking too much, is that our shift cycles are on different periods and I might not actually see her again until January. I can certainly spring for a recent Dummies book for Christmas if I don't see her before, maybe with a printout of the links given here.
posted by cromagnon at 4:28 PM on November 30, 2011

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