Teaching challenges for computer classes
January 20, 2012 8:26 AM   Subscribe

I've been asked to teach some basic computer skills classes to people who are unfamiliar with computers. I have the content laid out relatively clearly, but I don't know how best to do whole group instruction in this context. In particular, I am looking for advice on how to avoid having students do something unexpected (like accidentally clicking the mouse and deactivating a selection) that would require me to walk over to the individual student's computer and troubleshoot with him or her while the rest of the class is waiting.

These students are adults, and most will have limited computer experience at best. As I have been told by the people asking me to do this training, to them, computers are often unpredictable and they panic when things don't immediately work out, instead of assessing what they did and then correcting it. In addition, some of them have weak eye-hand coordination at a keyboard and so will accidentally press keys as, e.g., they lean in to look at the monitor.

My nightmare scenario is, after each instruction, having to walk to one or two students to fix a mistake, then having to get the whole group back on task for the next instruction, ad infinitum.

Any suggestions for how to avoid these problems would be greatly appreciated!
posted by philosophygeek to Education (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Don't give them unfettered access to the Windows desktop. Put them in a training program of some kind.
posted by kindall at 8:27 AM on January 20, 2012

You may want to have a volunteer on hand who can do that kind of assistance while you continue speaking to the class. No automatic system is going to be foolproof.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:56 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was a teaching assistant in a class that involved finicky technical software on macintosh computers, and almost all of my students had never seen a mac before in their lives, so we ran into a lot of stuff like that. (How do I right click? Help I accidentally the whole thing! And so on.)

Having two TAs handled a group of 30+ students, most of whom were very, very far from computer savvy. This freed up the instructor to actually instruct. We also encouraged the savvier students to help each other.

I don't know if that's a possibility, but it worked well for that situation.
posted by Arethusa at 8:59 AM on January 20, 2012

Response by poster: Specialized software and teaching assistants are not a possibility, unfortunately. Other suggestions are welcome!
posted by philosophygeek at 9:01 AM on January 20, 2012

Hmm, I'm not sure this is possible! I suspect your nightmare scenario is in fact a realistic example of how a classroom runs, especially in a situation like this ie adult learners who are panicky-scared of computers.

I think it might be helpful if you adopt more of a 'flow' version of how things will proceed. For example:

1. You give an instruction.
2. You demonstrate it.
3. People try it themselves.
4. Chaos breaks out.

At this time, you walk around the class and help everybody who needs it, demonstrating on students' computers.

Then you go back to the front of the class, and lead them through the same instruction again together, step-by-step, and (hopefully) this time everybody will get it, *and* there will be students who get it who can help their struggling neighbours.

It will take time, sure, but I think it's better to go in with realistic expectations. It will help you to feel calm in that, when you get to the 'all hell breaks loose' step and you look around the classroom and realize that all hell has, indeed, broken loose, you will think: Perfect! Everything is running according to plan!
posted by lulu68 at 9:03 AM on January 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think it is best to allow these things to happen.

When they do, you can quickly and calmly fix it and move on. If you show a little humor, this can go a long way toward making your students more comfortable with computers in general. They need to know that these little hiccups are common and nothing to worry about.

"Ah, just a moment, class. Mary has accidentally right-clicked on the desktop, which brings up a little menu of various options to adjust your screen and stuff. That's not related to what we're talking about today. No problem though. Just go ahead and click back on the browser . . . . like this!"

Training in an artificially simplified environment sets them up for failure in the real world.
posted by General Tonic at 9:07 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I suspect your nightmare scenario is in fact a realistic example of how a classroom runs

Yes. This is normal. I teach basic computer skills classes and a lot of what I do [and it's challenging for me as well] is to walk over to someone having problems, make a snap assessment about whether they can fix something on their own or need me to do it, and then get them back on track while not letting everyone else get off track.

The real thing that might be helpful to you with your class is knowing that people who have basic skills are very very unlikely to sort of wander off task while you are doing something else. They are more likely to just sit and wait which is its own sort of odd. You will likely not have a problem with everyone goofing around on craigslist. Generally speaking, and this is an overgeneralization but one that has been true in the areas where I work, people who are more timid with technology [or have other challenges like mental or motor skills problems] are more likely to be populating a basic skills class.

So feel free to let us know what exactly you are supposed to be teaching, how long the class is, what the lab looks like. Sometimes I set up students in a "buddy system" situation where they are two by two [each with their own computer] but I have them introduce themselves to their neighbor and have them ask the people next to them first if there is a problem. Additionally I encourage them to interrupt me if they don't know a word I am using or they get stuck or lost. Sometimes people have a lot of shame or anxiety about not being able to do things and a large part of the basic classes, to me, is helping them overcome that. So think of it as a social skills class in addition to a technology class. They have to learn to get themselves out of the "ooops hit a wrong key" problem, not just remember what you told them.

So to give you more concrete examples. I'll often set students off on something like Mousercise and watch how they do that to give me an idea of what their capabilities re. Then we'll go into other exercises, very slowly, giving everyone concrete things that we can all do together. Some of these are purposefully simple so that people will have successes getting things done. Lots of positive feedback is, I think, sort of important here even if it means covering fewer topics overall. My classes are usually two hours with a break and we'll do something "fun" before break [take a photo of yourself using photobooth on a mac, change your desktop image to something you found on Google Images on a PC] so they can do something a little creative. Here is the page where I have some of my handouts for some of the classes I've taught, feel free to poke around.

And last I always point out this littlepamphlet which I think has more good advice than any other page on the internet: How to Help Someone Use a Computer by Phil Agre. Lots of common sense stuff that may be not so common. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any other questions.
posted by jessamyn at 9:16 AM on January 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

When I've taught these types of classes, I've learned that novices need explicit instructions. For example, "Click on the Okay button" is not detailed enough; "Move the mouse cursor to the button labled 'Okay' and click once with the left mouse button," is more likely to get the desired result. Break everything down.
posted by inviolable at 9:50 AM on January 20, 2012

I feel your pain, philosophygeek. As part of my ESL teaching (which is traditional chalk-and-talk) we must do periodic testing, which is done in the computer lab. Often I'll be managing a class which has a significant percentage of older people lacking in both computer and English skills (and it was really odd to me, why these older people have so much trouble with the mouse! Until I realized they did NOT spend their formative years in video arcades playing Centipede and Missile Command.) Anyway, so often, the instant you turn away from somebody who needs help, they do something completely unexpected, requiring more of your time and attention to get them back on track.

General Tonic and jessamyn's strategies for this situation are very good.
posted by Rash at 10:18 AM on January 20, 2012

I teach users how to use software and the level of student ability varies widely. If the class has a low skill level, I'll actually teach from the back of the classroom so I can see their screens and I'll have a student use the PC that's connected to the overhead projector. If I explain things clearly enough (very concretely!), then it actually works quite well.

If you are lucky enough to have assistants, then they can watch from the back and jump in when needed and you can lead from the front of the classroom.

I definitely agree with inviolable - you have to be very, very detailed in your explanations. However, I also teach my students one way to do something. As they use the system, they'll learn shortcuts over time, but it is too confusing to show them 3 or 4 different ways to do something. In fact, I do not even mention that there are different ways to do things. All they need to know that if they always go to the upper left hand corner of the page they'll fine File and if they click File then ...well, you get it.

Finally, your attitude will be the biggest factor on the success or failure of the class. Sometimes my heart sinks when I see the usual suspects enter my classroom - staff that I have taught before and who I know will have lots of difficulty learning the new system, but the more calm and relaxed you are, the better the class will go. The users can sense when you are getting frustrated with their errors and it makes for a poor learning environment.
posted by TorontoSandy at 10:59 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

taught 10 years, vocational program for high school, plus taught adults and teachers.
kids are bold, adults are timid
#1 humor, yours, especially
#2 computers are built tough, you can't break them
#3 assure students that they will be in a constant state of confusion/ignorance and that is perfectly ok.
#4 assure them through repetition and perseverance they'll "get it".
bonus: in the very beginning i encouraged them to thrash around, click, drag, explore. they'll love it.
posted by goutytophus at 11:08 AM on January 20, 2012

please remember that you speak a language that is called Geek , it is different from just English . So, like in inviolable's story , you need to translate and show what "click " , "button" etc . means . It is somewhat difficult for you to see , when geekspeak is part of your normal English .
posted by Oli D. at 11:51 AM on January 20, 2012

General Tonic, lulu68, and jessamyn have great responses. I like the buddy system a lot, when I teach classes like this. I would also have a "bonus" task in my back pocket, so that if pairs move on quickly, they have something on which to work.

I also think teaching a simple "return to home" pathway works well. The first thing I do is teach people how to get back to the desktop, and tell them that if they panic, this is the path to follow to get back to the desktop where they know what's going on. You may not choose the desktop, but any path that can help get around "whoops, I'm totally lost, where do I go??" is good. (Not that return to desktop is always the best thing, but I've found giving people some "return home" path helps them feel more in control.)

Others have touched on this with mousercise and things like that, but I also found getting people comfortable just physically with the computer was very important, and worth repeating at the beginning of every class. A sort of "touch and explore the computer parts" five minutes at the start of every session.

Good luck! These sorts of classes can be challenging, but incredibly fun.
posted by lillygog at 2:52 PM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. You give an instruction.
2. You demonstrate it.
3. People try it themselves.
4. Chaos breaks out.

Yup, that's about how it goes.

Actually, in between 2 and 3 if you have detailed written instructions on 'how to' that can make a world of difference. Telling people to stop and raise their hand if they're not certain of the next step works great to head off derailment. Two people working together, with access to another pair, can often assist the hand-raiser to keep up. You'll quickly figure out who consistently doesn't 'get it' and can either sit them directly up front so you can assist, or delegate them to one of the more savvy students.

Stress that they can't blow up anything, and if they press some unknown button, nothing is unfixable--except forgetting to save and backup!

If possible, encourage them to come in early and play games--solitaire, etc. That seems to be the trick that finally got my in-laws to relax and realize computers could be enjoyable rather than overwhelming.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:53 PM on January 20, 2012

When you say "teaching assistants is not possible" is that a budget thing? What if you contact your local scouts or school or church groups and ask for teen volunteers? Lots of places require teens to serve a certain number of community service hours.

I've been in computer classes where the teacher has a console that lets him access any individual student's desktop. If you had something like that, you could fix their off-topic issue while reassuring them that it's no big deal .
posted by CathyG at 1:14 PM on January 21, 2012

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