How can I help my father learn to use his computer?
December 6, 2011 8:34 AM   Subscribe

My dad is 95% computer illiterate and is constantly frustrated by his inability to use his computer. What resources (books, programs, videos, etc.) can you recommend that will help improve his experience?

My father is in his mid-60s, and lives alone. He has a reasonably modern computer (Windows 7) and desires to make use of email, Facebook, and web browsing. However, because he has basically zero knowledge he's constantly getting frustrated with his inability to complete basic tasks, and and is undoubtedly a ripe target for malware infections.

I'd like to provide him with some resources to help him use him computer more effectively- it can be a valuable line of social connection.

Some factors:
1. I don't live near him (he's in North Dakota, I'm in Boston, MA).
2. He lives in a small town where computer classes appropriate to his level are not likely to be available.
3. He's a voracious reader.
posted by EKStickland to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would try a simple book (the Dummies books are actually great) like one of these or, if he is not also DVD illiterate, perhaps these two items.

I'd also suggest directing him to security software -- I like McAfee myself -- which he can install by inserting a disc, or walking him very slowly and patiently, step by step, through an online purchase of secuirty software.

Lastly, if it were my Dad, who was also smart and a reader and wanted to use computers despite the same lack of knowledge, I'd set up regular phone calls with you for awhile to help him learn this stuff. This assumes you can be both patient and respectful.

I sure wish my Dad were still around so I could do this for him. Good luck to you.
posted by bearwife at 8:48 AM on December 6, 2011

My dad really embraced his iPad as well - but if that's not financially viable or practical (sounds like his computer is fairly decent) - I'd suggest setting up a web page for him with links to everything he uses - like banking and Facebook. Make sure you can edit the page online, so it updates for him when he goes into his browser. Set that home page as his start page in whatever browser he uses.

There are lots of Computers for Dummies books - find one or two you think would be suitable and send it his way.

I'd keep his email online - using Gmail would be my suggestion. That'll help keep (but not prevent) malicious attachments at bay.

Make sure he's not running as an administrator, and set up a good backup solution. He might be worried he's going to break something, so knowing he can backup if things go awry might make him more willing to try something new.

Teach him to Google - seriously... half of the time when I'm "fixing" someone's computer for them, I just google the problem, and follow the instructions to fix it.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:51 AM on December 6, 2011

Get a copy of deep freeze. Set it up so it reboots to a good state. Make a set of recovery cds. Tell your dad to try and break his computer just using the software. He'll learn more doing that then any other way. What I notice about older computer users is where a regular computer user will just fiddle with it till it works. They think they can break it. Show him just how difficult it is and the learning curve for other tasks I think will go down.
posted by Rubbstone at 8:52 AM on December 6, 2011

How about having him watch some of the Common Craft videos?
posted by anderjen at 8:53 AM on December 6, 2011

I'd keep his email online - using Gmail would be my suggestion. That'll help keep (but not prevent) malicious attachments at bay.

As Jessamyn mentioned recently, Gmail is not really a good email provider for new computer users. Many settings are buried in difficult to find Options screens, and with the new layout change all the buttons have mystery symbols on instead of "Inbox", "Spam", etc. I mean you can't even tell someone to "click the cog icon" now if you want them to access access the mail settings - why? Because there are two frickin cog icon buttons right next to each other!

Can't recommend a different email provider myself but just thought I would say that Gmail is not necessarily the best choice for a computer illiterate user.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:01 AM on December 6, 2011

Does he have any hobbies? Maybe you can find some sites about that interest and set up a bookmarks page like backwards guitar suggested. It's been my experience that when a newbie realizes just how much information and/or community is out there for their particular interest, they'll start learning by leaps and bounds without even realizing it. When there's incentive to figure specific things out ("It says I need to sign up to post a comment, how do I do that?" or "I want to find images of X. I remember EKStickland told me about Google Image Search, maybe I'll try it") then "using the computer" becomes much less of a monolithic and daunting thing.
posted by usonian at 9:02 AM on December 6, 2011

Where in North Dakota is he? The bigger cities generally have "how to use a computer" classes a tthe public libraries, which are usually free, plus might give him more social options for learning computers.

When I've worked with people who have little to no computer experience, they tend to not even really know what they want to do, so reading a book won't necessarily fill the void they're looking for. Having a friend around, or seeing what other people do and wanting to do that as well, might help move him along more than reading a book. "I want to get on Facebook" doesn't really give much to work with; there has to be a reward at the end that he's working towards, in order to fuel the desire to learn about it. People who have never used computers tend to think computers just do things, that the reward is automatic, which is a source for frustration.

Upgrading to an iPad is a good idea too, if there are resources for it. iPads are designed for gentle guidance for non-computer users, whereas Windows 7 has a much larger learning curve.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:06 AM on December 6, 2011

Getting it set up presents a bit of a catch-22, but if you or someone capable can get Skype installed and help him learn to use it well enough to call you, it can let you show your desktop on a video call. If you follow bearwife's advice, this would let you not only talk him through it but see what he is doing as you do.

(This assumes he has a fast enough internet connection to do the video chat.)
posted by Wretch729 at 9:09 AM on December 6, 2011

Gmail isn't good but it's better than other options. When people buy Macs at the mac store here, the helpful employees set them up with Mac Mail that is basically configured to access their gmail and it's terrible. My advice to novice users is usually "Get a Mac" and this isn't because I'm a snarky pain in the ass, it's because the way they work is better for novice users. Fewer warnings and pop-ups in their out-of-the-box configuration, no messing with virus protection, etc. That said, you play the cards you're dealt, so I'd start with a few things

1. Dummies Guides - if you can get past the title these are often very helpful and have indexes and are great for vocabulary building
2. Firefox with ad blocker and a few other things installed to simplify his online experience. Hide the IE icon or delete the program entirely
3. Get Skype installed so you can do desktop sharing so that you can help troubleshoot problems
4. Have a chat with him about the 2-3 things he'd like to do and help him set up his system to do those things. Figure out how he likes to access things [bookmarks, link on the desktop, start menu?] and set them up for him. Get rid of every single other things on the desktop that he's not using. Set the browser to download things to the desktop and show him how to open a file and throw a file away.
5. Similarly find things that are fun for him so that he's motivated to explore a little bit outside of his comfort level. Additionally, figure out if he's frustrated because he's having real problems, or because he's outside his comfort zone and doesn't like learning new things. The approach is very different depending on what you're dealing with, whether to go with Rubbstone's approach or something different. If online classes might be his thing, you might want to prescreen some of the information linked on this page and see if there's a set of classes that you think you match your dad's interest and experience level.

And you might want to find a way to make this interactive with you on a regular basis. Like a once a week 30 min Skype chat. This will have the dual purpose of making you available to him as well as coralling the actual time you're available. Interact with him a little bit on facebook and email so he gets the hang of it and has someone to try stuff out with so he doesn't feel embarassed in front of his friends or what have you. Let me know if you have other questions, I teach people like your dad how to use computers for a job, in addition to MeFi.
posted by jessamyn at 9:16 AM on December 6, 2011

I never realized how complicated computers are until I tried to teach my elderly mom how to use one.

Me: Make the window bigger
Mom: How?
Me: Move the cursor...
Mom: What's the cursor?
Me: It's the thing that moves when you move the mouse. It's sometimes an arrow, sometimes an hourglass, sometimes a finger, and sometimes a small vertical line.
Mom: (moves the mouse sees the thing move)
Me: Good! Ok, move it over to the little boxes in the upper right hand corner, now choose the middle one. It will sometimes make the window bigger and sometimes make it smaller, depending...

Realizing this was hopeless, I took her to an Apple store and she was whizzing away on an iPad in seconds. The touch interface makes all the difference.

She didn't want one because the virtual keyboard makes no sense to her - sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not, etc. But I think a physical keyboard would solve that problem.
posted by jasper411 at 9:25 AM on December 6, 2011

I got my Mum an iMac and she loves it. The screen is big and bright. Malware hasn't been a problem. The most important thing has been that we're both are using the same OS and I can talk her through rough spots over the phone.

I would have suggested an iPad in the past but after a year of using mine, I can't recommend it for an older person. Web pages often look tiny and the links can be hard to click. Browsing is much slower than my MacBook (sharing the same wifi). Search boxes are trickier to fill in. Autocorrect bites. Getting the insertion curser in the right spot can be a challenge if you have shaky hands. Mobile versions of many sites have limited or buried functionality. My fingers get sore from holding it. Embedded videos often won't play directly from the page. Also, I don't think the iPad plays nice with the wavs and PowerPoint slideshow bullshit that old people seem to love forwarding to each other.

I love my iPad for because of apps like Procreate and Flipbook.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:25 AM on December 6, 2011

Also I am reminded by Jessamyn's comment that she recently wrote a book about this stuff.

Not sure if it's gauche to put this here. Mods can delete this if it's not kosher.

posted by Wretch729 at 9:31 AM on December 6, 2011

I agree with anderjen re: the Common Craft videos, and although I also prefer to learn by reading, I've found that the biggest help in teaching my very cool 75-year-old mom how to use the computer we bought her this year was the free version of LogMeIn, so that she could learn by watching and doing.

It's one thing to ask, "See the X in the top right corner of the window?" over the phone, but when someone doesn't know the difference between a window, a tab or a screen, it really helps to be able to hijack the cursor and make John Madden-like circles around the area in question. (It took forever to explain what a browser tab was just via the phone, as she was only tangentially familiar with tabbed file folders; LogMeIn allowed me to point to it. Of course, then I had to explain why the tab key on the keyboard had nothing to do with a tab in a browser.)

I found Computers for Seniors for Dummies and Laptops and Tablets for Seniors for Dummies to be helpful in teaching my mom, but don't bother with Facebook and Twitter for Seniors for Dummies, because the settings change so much in a six month period that it's practically useless two years later.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 10:12 AM on December 6, 2011

Yes, check with his public library to see if they offer classes for beginners. A lot of libraries, even in small towns, can help. And if they don't have dedicated classes, see if a librarian will be willing to sit down with him and show him the basics for an hour.

At my last job, I lead those classes. He's not alone. I really enjoyed teaching them, and lots of patrons left feeling more confident and happy about their progress.
posted by sugarbomb at 10:27 AM on December 6, 2011

Set up a whitelist for his email. Everything from everyone not in his contact list gets shunted to a different folder. Tell him to ask you before opening any of the email in that folder. This will prevent a lot of virus problems.

Nthing LogMeIn, but that's only good if both of you have an Internet connection. Is there a trusted teenager nearby who can drop by when he's unplugged a cable or needs to reset the modem?
posted by desjardins at 10:48 AM on December 6, 2011

I used to say Microsoft Bob was way ahead of it's time, and this is one scenario where a nice simple interface like that would do wonders until it is no longer needed. Good news is, Windows 8 is on the horizon which has a more intuitive gui right off the bat. I'm not a fan of it stylistically (if that's a word), but I can see it being something much easier to pick up for novice users.

I think to really get him going in the right direction with these suggestions however, you're going to have to stop by for a visit or get a remote control session (logmein/teamviewer/, etc) so you can fix all the factory caveats Windows 7 has well as explain how things work in an interactive sense. Books and CBTs can't really take the place of human interaction.

You'll also want to install the easiest to use software for particular tasks. (eg. Picasa for the photo album, you can direct him to ninite to get things you recommend installed easily without any confusing setup dialogs.)

Avoid Videoprofessor, and make sure he does too if he sees any commercials, lots of consumer complaints with that company...unfortunately mostly with billing. But look for something in DVD or book format that could be helpful for a novice PC user.

But regardless, you'll definitely want to get access to his PC either physically or remotely to do some initial installs that will help secure him from getting malware. I have a lot of suggestions in my profile that could be helpful (WOT, Secunia PSI, MSSE, reduced rights, etc)
posted by samsara at 10:55 AM on December 6, 2011

I am also in North Dakota. I am somewhat hooked into the library resources for computer classes/etc. Please MeMail me if your dad lives on my side of the state (eastern).
posted by librarylis at 5:23 PM on December 6, 2011

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