Mighty metaphors make training a piece of cake

How do you explain the desktop to new computer users? Instructor Beth Blakely rounds up lots of metaphor examples and explains how to use them in the classroom to increase students' understanding of PC terms and functions.

By Beth Blakely

To those with little or no experience, a class in basic computer functions can be daunting, nerve-wracking, and just plain scary. As an applications instructor, I’ve found that one surefire way to calm students is to provide a link from the intangible world of the computer to their daily lives in the form of a metaphor. The following are examples of metaphors I’ve used, especially in teaching beginners.

Sometimes a rose is more than a rose
Metaphors are figures of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison. For example, you may explain that the desktop is a highway, the mouse is a steering wheel, and the mouse buttons are gas pedals. I’ve often brought a sudden smile to a nervous student’s face with this simple analogy. The student becomes relaxed, disarmed, and is then ready to put the “pedal to the metal.”

Real-world examples make learning easier
Beyond creating a comfort zone for the student and taking the stress out of the learning experience, metaphors can be a bridge to deeper understanding. Once a relationship to something familiar is established, you can continue to draw on the comparison to further explain difficult concepts in simpler, real-world terms.

For example, it is often difficult to explain the hierarchical file system of Windows to new users. After explaining files, folders, and drives for over an hour, it’s always exasperating when a student asks, “How do I know where to find my document once I close it?”

I’ve often used the file cabinet metaphor to demystify this structure. Most people find it easy to picture the C: drive as a file cabinet. Inside that file cabinet we find folders, and inside those folders we find papers that represent our documents. From there, it’s easy to explain how a piece of paper is filed inside a folder, which may be inside another folder inside a file cabinet.

Some instructors even go so far as to pull a file cabinet into the classroom, or at least some folders and pieces of paper. The papers can then be marked with names of documents created in class. Another alternative is to draw pictures of the file cabinet and folders on a white board to aid in your instruction.

This comparison can further aid the discussion of file paths and how to follow them to find a particular file. This is especially effective when you can physically demonstrate opening the “C: drive,” to open the “memos folder” to pull out the “staff memo.” The students can relate more easily to “opening” files and folders once they’ve made this real-world connection.

This metaphor also makes it easy to explain why it is a much better system to create multiple folders to stay organized rather than store every document in one folder. A manila folder overflowing with a disorganized stack of paper makes a lightbulb appear over the heads of even the most devoted one-folder user.

Compadres for life
Paige Brooks-Jeffiers, a freelance instructor in Louisville, KY, said she has had much success comparing the cut, copy, and paste functions to the characters in the movie Three Amigos.

“Everywhere they go, they hang out together,” she says. “And they’re always lined up in the same order.”

After waiting for the laughter to be replaced with curious looks from her students, she calls their attention to the Edit menu where Cut, Copy, and Paste are lined up from top to bottom. Then she points to the toolbar and repeats the process.

From there, it’s an easy leap to helping them remember the shortcuts, [Ctrl]X (cut), [Ctrl]C (copy) and [Ctrl]V (paste), as they’re lined up on the bottom row of the keyboard. She said students rarely hesitate when answering the review questions regarding those menu and toolbar functions or their keyboard counterparts.

Extend the use of metaphors
Metaphors may also help students understand the thinking process involved in making educated guesses. For instance, when talking about menus in Microsoft Word, you can easily draw a comparison to menus in a restaurant.

If you were in the mood for something rich and satisfying after a meal, where would you look? The dessert menu, of course!

Likewise, if you need to put a picture into your document, where would you look? It’s a simple process of elimination for students to guess the Insert menu. This small success can encourage students to think independently instead of blindly following instructions without making more lasting connections about the logic and nature of their software.
Click here to find out how to encourage students to guess at software solutions and to do it successfully.
When it comes to a rudimentary explanation of networking, Brooks-Jeffiers uses the hub of the office environment, the multiline phone system.

“Whom do you want to talk to?” she asks her students. “Will it be just one person, or will this be a conference call?”

Don’t forget who is in your audience
Once you become adept at using metaphors, it will become easier to tailor them to the audience at hand. For instance, when teaching a room full of police officers, perhaps a more effective metaphor for a LAN would be officers and their headquarters.

It’s important to remember your audience when drawing these helpful comparisons. A room full of administrative assistants would appreciate the explanation that many Windows and Microsoft software terms and functions were the result of their needs. For example, the terms desktop, file, folder, spelling checker, and thesaurus are all associated with administrative duties. I’ve often joked that Bill Gates knew exactly who was really doing all the work.

A room full of executives, lawyers, or other “higher-ups” probably wouldn’t appreciate the inference quite as much.
With a little practice and creativity, you can think of your own entertaining, ice-breaking metaphors. Perhaps you’ve already experienced some success and have a few to share. Or maybe you’ve used metaphors that have done more harm than good. We’d love to hear your feedback. Send us an e-mail detailing your experiences.

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