Talking Shop: Three essential lessons for teaching beginning computer users

Help new computer users decrease their fear and increase their confidence in using computers with these tips.

Imagine what it’s like for someone who has never used a computer to sit down for the first time in front of a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. When I’m teaching beginning users, I rely on a set of three lessons that help those students decrease their fear and increase their confidence in using computers. (If you’d like to add to the list of essential lessons for beginners, please post a comment below or send me a note.)

Lesson 1: You’re in a dialog, not a test
The biggest fear beginners have is that they’re going to do something wrong. They’re afraid they will erase information or cause the computer to blow up. They develop test anxiety—and they’re afraid they’re going to flunk.

So I tell my beginning users that they’re not being tested, and that there’s no way they can hurt the computers. I tell them, ”Think of the computer as a person. You communicate with a person by asking and answering questions, right? It’s the same way with the computer. The way you ask and answer questions is by clicking on things and typing things. Instead of speaking back to you, of course, the computer displays things for you to read.”

I encourage my students to think of the computer as an executive assistant. Clicking the File menu’s Open option is like asking your executive assistant to get out a file. When the Open dialog box sits and waits for you to click or enter a filename, it’s as if the assistant is saying, “Which file do you want?”

When users embrace the executive assistant metaphor, they feel less threatened and more in control. When a student freaks out because a dialog box or error message has come up, I say, “So what’s your assistant telling you or asking you?”
The second and third lessons work best if you use props. You’ll need a manila folder, two blank pieces of paper, and a magic marker. Write “invoice1” on one of the sheets of paper, and put it in the manila folder.
Lesson 2: Think of computer files like paper files
The whole concept of files stored on a hard drive is something many beginners just don’t get. The next time you’re training a beginner, ask, “So, do you completely understand what you’re doing when you save a file?” If your students are honest, they’ll probably shrug their shoulders and shake their heads no.

So then you pull out your first prop: a manila folder. You say, “You know those yellow folder icons that you see on the desktop? The ones you see in the Explorer window? The ones you sometimes see in Save or Open dialog boxes? They’re just like this one. They’re just places where you store things.”

Then take out a magic marker and write in big letters on the manila folder, “My Documents.” You say, “When you click on File and choose Open in Word, for example, Word opens the folder named My Documents to see what’s in there.” And as you’re saying that, open the manila folder so the student can see that there’s one sheet of paper in the folder.

With Word’s Open dialog box still open, point out the name on that sheet of paper and say, “Let’s say you want to work on this invoice. To tell your executive assistant to open that file, you’d double-click it, or click on it once to select it and click the Open button.”

Lesson 3: “Save As” is like photocopying
Once your students have figured out that a folder on a computer desktop is just like a folder on a real desktop, there’s one more crucial lesson left: how to save a file. And that process consists of two parts—naming and navigating.

I start by having my students create a new document named invoice1, just like the one in our paper folder. Then I have them type some text and close Word. (Meanwhile, I’m using my magic marker to scribble some text on the paper version of invoice1.) Then I have them close Word so they’ll have to deal with the “Do you want to save the changes…?” process.

Next, I have the students launch Word, and I instruct them to use the File menu’s Open option to open the document invoice1. Some of them notice the filename in the File menu’s most recently used list, but most of them use the Open dialog box. “See how your Word is like your executive assistant?” I say. “It saves files on the disk just like a person would save them in this folder.”

"Save As" to the rescue
�“Now let’s say you’ve been paid for that invoice, and you’re ready to create a new one. Would you have to create it from scratch?”

The answer, of course, is no. I suggest using the File menu’s Save As option. “See how smart Word is? The old name is highlighted. Just type invoice2 and click the Save button.”

Then I point out the new filename in the Word window’s title bar. And I pull out my props for the last time. I tell the class that the “save as” process is like opening the manila folder, taking the piece of paper labeled invoice1 over to the copier, making a photocopy, and then typing or writing a new label on the copy.

I write invoice2 on the second piece of paper and stick it in the manila folder. “Now you can make all the changes you want to invoice2, and invoice1 is still safe and sound.”

Finally, I ask my students how they would create a copy of invoice2 on the desktop. That throws them. They want to go to My Computer and drag the file. I say, “Why not use the File menu’s Save As option again?” Then I point out the Save in field, and I show them how easily they can navigate to another folder or another disk drive from within the Save As dialog box. “It’s just like making a photocopy and putting it in a different file drawer.”
Do you have any favorite tips for training beginning users? If so, please post a comment below or sendme anote .

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