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10 things you have to know to be computer literate

Many of your users are coasting along without adequate computer knowledge. Help them close the gap by sharing this list of essential skills.

It is tempting to think that because you have used a computer for a long time, you are "computer literate" or "computer savvy," but this is not the case. Here are 10 skills you absolutely must know to be considered computer literate. If you already know these, you should be helping others learn them as well!

1: Search engines

Using a search engine is more than typing in the address, putting a couple of keywords into the big text box, clicking Search, and choosing the first result. While that may work, it won't give you the best results much of the time. Learning the advanced search, Boolean operators, and how to discern good results from bad results goes a long way toward enabling you to use a computer as a powerful research tool.

2: Word processing

Word processing is one of the oldest uses for a computer. And it continues to be extremely important, even though in many ways its functions have been put into other applications. (For example, people may write more emails than documents, but the task is nearly identical.) It is tough to claim to be computer literate if the basic functions of word processing -- like spell check, table creation, and working with headers -- are outside your capabilities.

3: Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets were the killer application that got a lot of people willing to pony up big bucks for a PC in the early 1980s. Spreadsheets offer incredibly powerful analysis possibilities... if you know how to use them for more than storing the holiday card address list. (Okay, I use Excel for that too.) Being able to use formulas, references, and macros can turn a "grid of numbers" into actionable information in the hands of the right person.

4: Browser basics

It is almost painful to watch some "computer savvy" people operate a Web browser. The most obvious goof is going to a search engine to type in the address of the site they want to go to. But folks are unaware of a lot of other things they do that make the Internet more difficult than it needs to be. Mastering techniques like opening links in new windows, using bookmarks, editing URLs to perform navigation, clearing the browser cache, and understanding common error messages will give you access to a world of unlimited information instead of keeping you stuck with only what Web site designers make obvious.

5: Virus/malware scanning

Much of typical computer maintenance is automated or unneeded at this point, but it is still essential to understand how to check a system for nasty bugs, spyware, and other malicious applications. While the scanning tools come with real-time monitors, something can still slip onto the system before the scanner has the right filter for it. So it's critical to know how to trigger a manual virus/malware scan, as well as how to use alternative systems, spot signs of an infection, and other similar tasks.

6: Common keyboard commands

If you do not know how to copy/paste without a mouse, you are not computer literate. Sorry! Every operating system has some universal keyboard commands, and while knowing them won't add 30 minutes back into your day, it will take a lot of the "friction" out of using a computer. Learning these commands is more a matter of routine than anything else; a short tutorial done once a day for a week will probably be enough to put you in the habit, and it will make you a happier user.

7: Basic hardware terminology

It is tough to have someone help you with a problem when you tell them that your "hard drive" is unplugged, when you really mean "the computer." There are a number of common hardware misunderstandings out there, and while some are understandable (for instance, confusing a NIC with a modem -- the cables look similar and they serve the same purpose, networking), knowing basic hardware terminology is a must-have skill to be a savvy user.

8: Simple networking diagnosis

Networking problems create the most common trouble with most computers. While you don't need to be able to program a Cisco router, you should know how to:

  • Determine your IP address
  • Verify physical connectivity to the network
  • Check that you have a logical connection to the network
  • Find out what path network traffic takes to get to its destination
  • Translate from DNS names to IP addresses

9: How to hook it up

Despite the color coding of connections and the fact that most cords can be plugged into only one hole, tons of people still can't hook up a computer. It is tough to claim to be computer literate if you can't even get it hooked up and turned on without some help.

10: Security/privacy 101

It is a dangerous world out there! You absolutely must know how to protect yourself from attackers on the Internet and keep your personal data private. Everything from knowing to check a link before you click it to verifying that encryption is being used to transmit sensitive data to researching sites before giving them your personal data are all critical skills for the modern computer user. If you do not know how to keep yourself safe, you need to learn how.

What else?

Does this cover the basic requirements of computer literacy or would you add a few more skills to the list? Share your thoughts with other TechRepublic members.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

134 comments
RMSx32767
RMSx32767

1. Where are the on/off switches; ALL of them. 2. The importance of verifying all cables/cords are plugged in SECURELY. 3. The difference between a 0 and O, or 1 and L. 4. Understand the computer does what you told it to do, not necessarily what you meant. 5. No matter how much you know, someone else knows more.

moorec
moorec

As I'm teaching website design, I am needing to reach back and teach file and folder management. It's a conundrum, though, because students are at such varying levels. It would bore 1/3 of the class stiff to spend their precious time learning these basics. Yet, during class we get bogged down on issues dealing with organizing folders and linking the webpages properly. And when it comes to FTP, it gets really muddy for many students no matter what I do. I suppose I simply need to re-think my approach.

Alienwilly
Alienwilly

I don't know how to use a lot of programs, Excel,CAD, etc. I have been building and repairing computers for about 20 years nearly. Get my point.

arthunter
arthunter

1. File search, copy/moving, name editing. 2. ISO download and burning. 3. Booting from a CD/DVD for fault and malware clearing. 4. Browser history and its time saving uses. 5. Access the command prompt and finding/use of the many commands. 6. writing and using simple scripts 7. knowing and using Snopes.com 8. Using favourites and keeping menus tidy 9. having and using several email addresses for specific purposes 10. Setting up a dual boot and trying Ubuntu. 11. Trying many of the recommended utilities then cleaning out those you don't regularly use. 12. Understanding Malware attack vectors and avoidance, cleaning and how the threat is rapidly changing. There are a dozen. There may be repeats from others as I have not yet read any of what others have posted.

davecryerbze
davecryerbze

Heartily agree with slayer this list is too advanced. I would be happy that any of my users could even comprehend all of the terms used in the 10 titles. Just the use of the word "Browser" can be enough to glaze the eyes and cause panic in most.

daveevans28
daveevans28

the differences between log off, locking the desktop, shut down and restart.

andrew232006
andrew232006

Too many users don't know what phishing is or how to read a url to know they are still on the intended website. And too many users can't differentiate between an executable file extension and various media and document files.

KarrasB
KarrasB

I'm one of the non-professional (no formal education) followers of tech republic and I've learned a lot over the years. I appreciate an article like this because it reminds me what I still need to learn while making me feel good about myself for what I do know. One thing I would like so much to learn about is the registry. I know it's important to stability and I'd love to understand it yet this is the part of the computer, like going into DOS, that frightens me.

Crash2100
Crash2100

They make most of the IT people prove that their minds are up-to-date with the stuff in the computers with IT certifications. Wouldn't it make a little bit of since to make the computer users themselves take some test to prove that they have basic network user knowledge? Something like "enterprise user literacy" or an exam to get past it? Maybe if the people actually knew a little more about what they were doing and eventually causing, they might have a little more respect for the whole IT situation they're working within. Right now, a lot just seem to think IT is a magic trick or something.

ripany
ripany

This article was very welcome, it made me truly realize my shortcomings. Having come to "computering" late in life (age 65) I have found it difficult to learn all the things Justin highlights, especially these days when machines come without operating manuals! So, Justin, why don't you generate a list of sources from which one such as I can learn what I need to become compueter literate? I sure I have lots of company in having this need! Thank you. Louis Nielsen, Providence, RI

Dan@DanLind.net
Dan@DanLind.net

Users should know how to ascertain the basic information about their systems and software (i.e., OS name and version numbers, application versions, etc.). It makes support so much easier when they can answer those basic questions.

cpaidhrin
cpaidhrin

A basic awareness of appropriate use --the how and why--would go a long way in both setting new user expectations and in limiting the confusion that comes with the use of a computer, or any technology. Appropriate use helps to address the importance of essential skills, security awareness (#5 & #10), and what to expect when getting started. Mentoring my father as a newbie, has shown me the value of IKEA-simple How-To scripts; the value of a basic, shared, vocabulary; the short story of what a given device can and can't do (again, setting expectations). Framing a tool, technology, or service prepares the new user with the essential context of all the details that will follow.

tpyoung
tpyoung

You forgot about the instructions on how to use the cup holder!

pgit
pgit

One thing users should understand is computers are not the sheep perfection they think they are. I've had many users tell me what I am saying about some error they encountered is pure BS, because it depends on the belief that computers simply make mistakes from time to time. I've heard all manner of arguments that computers are designed to perfection, they are inviolable switches and pipes that simply can't fail, they MUST do what they are designed and programmed to do, and there's no way any problem can be attributable to any "mistake" in the flow of things. I'm often told it's impossible for a computer to make a mistake. It took me forever with one very stubborn client, but I finally convinced him there's a lot to these machines that is intentionally "fuzzy," and there's a lot of components extremely close to one another that do induce hiccups from time to time. We had a series of problems with his VPN that illustrated well the number of functions that have to be just right in order for the system to work properly. Something as simple as a packet collision can screw up a time sensitive application you're running over the internet. I'd definitely add to this list something about knowing what computers AREN'T. They are not perfect. They are not infallible. They are not incapable of introducing their own random errors, without any user intervention. That last is a big one, people insist a problem is always a matter of 'somebody did something,' and more often than not they are suspecting I did the something that's made this problem happen. Forget the fact I last touched the machine 8 months ago and it's worked perfectly all that time until now... Bit rot and memory seepage are good starting points, you don't have to get too technical. You can relate memory to a physical desk in an office. Apps fill up the open space, and occasionally try to put papers where there's no desk at all, the pages fall off the desk onto the floor. (ie they are gone, but some other part of the document is still on the desktop and references the missing pages)

chdchan
chdchan

Techies will find it hard to be competitive or employable by over-staying at ground level.

blavelle62
blavelle62

That''s great, now we know we don''t know how to !! Next step please, how do we get Guides/How to''s in understandable form Thanks

Minime79
Minime79

I would start at the very beginning, turning the computer on, and off, correctly. I come across so many clients who can't do this or who do it in a way that risks corrupting files. Like using the sleep and hibernate functions to turn the computer off. Most of them don't understand that the computer is not actually turned off but in standby, and all your open files are still there ready for you when the computer wakes up. The biggest problem with this is that some updates can't be applied without a proper shutdown. Oh and don't get me started on updates... that's a major one too, understanding what updates are, why we get them and which ones to allow and to not allow. Just because it flashed up on their screen doesn't mean it's a safe update.

puchasr
puchasr

I had friends complaining about a slow pc, suspecting having a virus, after a simple defrag, problems solved, or at least improved.

Slayer_
Slayer_

The idea just seems lost on them, it is not an email, its not a word doc, so what is it. The connection between downloading a file, and choosing its location is lost on them. I have been teaching lately people to use the firefox downloader and I just set it to always download and save. It seems to make more sense to people when they see that download dialog, then I just tell them to double click the file in the list and it will open.

raedselim
raedselim

I'm adding touch typing , I think it's necessary skill to have as a modern computer user :)

tjsobieski
tjsobieski

I(f people when they download a file would just save it to their desktop, so that they would actually remember where it is, would make my life a lot easier.

wdvs88
wdvs88

There are too many people who rely on the alpha geeks such as myself. And sending a list like this to them will just reinforce their notion that computer geeks are elitist aholes. Many people (in manufacturing businesses for sure) don't want to be computer literate. They see the computer as an "evil forced on them by the company to make them look bad." I think a lot of the managers are the worst offenders, but don't want to appear to be incompetent by asking for computer help, especially from those that work for them. I worked at a company once where the plant manager NEVER learned to use the system. He'd just ask people for whatever information he needed, or make them send all kinds of spreadsheets, which had to be perfectly formatted so he could read them. You'd have to send the same report (PRINTED of course) to him sorted several different ways because he didn't know how to use Excel to sort them, and was too "stupid" to ask. We knew exactly what was going on, but he would never allow any of us ot show him how to use Excel properly. I wish more IT and/or HR departments would do more as far as educating employees on basic computer skills. It would certainly cut down on IT support calls, and make the employees more productive.

Javier0719
Javier0719

Most users unfortunately don't want to be computer literate they just want it to work so they can get there job done. Half of them still think that the monitor is the PC. How do you sit with them and try to help them when they don't want to help themselves.

nafitron
nafitron

I don't know how many people I know who call themselves computer savvy that don't know half of this stuff. I would estimate that, of my over 600 clients, that only 2% are actually computer savvy. Thank you for this information. I am going to use this as a starting point to help people learn to be computer savvy!

dogknees
dogknees

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. - RobertHeinlein

wendygoerl
wendygoerl

Next to understanding hardware terms, people need to know which software they're talking about. I was on a library machine and this guy next to me asks what "operating system" the computers use. I tell him, he does something (that I'm not paying attention to, because I'm trying to do my own thing), he says, "No, that's not right." It finally occurs to me that he's thinks the web browser is called the "operating system"

Slayer_
Slayer_

It's important to remember.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

HIDE the file extension on various common types, including .exe .avi etc, thus they get NO chance to know what it is unless they're savvy enough to know where to find and change that setting. It's almost as if the Microsoft higher ups WANT people to get hit with malware.

Treknology
Treknology

@KarrasB  The "registry" is a large database of mostly unnecessary information that, were it necessary, should be stored by the relevant application. 


If you dare to follow some basic directions on how to change a single registry entry, return to the top, and do a FIND to see how many times that same set of information (keys and identical data) is repeated throughout the registry. Your keyboard settings alone are repeated about six times -- that's not because there are six different users with their own personal settings. I'm talking about a single user, single account, computer.


There are many useful alterations that you can make to the registry, e.g., getting rid of those little shortcut arrows on icons etc., and decent web searches will give you detailed instructions on how and some of the wheres to make those changes. Just remember to BACKUP your registry first.


As for learning about the DOS box, if you're going to stick to Windows, forget it. The total elimination of the DOS box is one of the paramount aims of Windows development.


If you want the experience of being able to issue reliable and precise instructions through a command line interface, you will have to backtrack or switch to a version of Linux.

Slayer_
Slayer_

It's a simple database that is mostly used to maintain settings and to hold the public API of DLLs registered on the system.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

but it was so process only orientated around a certain version of Windows that the next version of Windows made it irrelevant and useless. It was called something like the Computer User Driver's Licence or the like, it didn't teach any methodology and concepts at all, but was nearly all - put tab A in slot B type process instructions for the course. It died a quiet death in the early 2000s.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

PCs: The missing Manual - http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596100933.do Computers for Seniors for Dummies - http://www.dummies.com/store/product/Computers-For-Seniors-For-Dummies-2nd-Edition.productCd-0470534834.html. Don't let the title mislead you. These books are well-researched, well-written, and in-depth. You can probably also find or order these books at a local bookstore. This is on-line and free: http://www.bbc.co.uk/webwise/courses/computer-basics/. I don't know how good it is, but I've heard good things.

paulfx1
paulfx1

But one truth we should all agree on is, "Those who don't understand UNIX are condemned to reinvent it poorly."

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

In the past, I would have agreed that a PC user should at least be familiar with the concept. These days Windows defrags itself pretty well automatically, and I don't the concept applies to Linux.

paulfx1
paulfx1

You've something to learn about management too. All they need to know is how to tell other people to do what needs to be done. That *is* their job! If they were actually doing stuff they wouldn't need employees under them.

paulfx1
paulfx1

Tell me what I could use a spreadsheet for.

M.W.H.
M.W.H.

Perhaps the reason non-technical people can't be bothered learning this stuff is because 1) Technical people incorrectly assume a base level of understanding already exists. 2) That non-technical people could give a damn. Our job as technical people is to create a technical world where the users are not expected to understand anything we do. There's a lot of money available to those who succeed at doing that. If this list were published 30 years ago, we would be insisting that everyone memorize the ASCII table in order to underline some text with their dot matrix printer. At one point in human history it was mandatory that every young man be able to shoe a horse or spear a Mammoth.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

at the open parenthesis. Try it again now that I've fixed it. Looks like both the IC3 and ECDL do essentially the same thing. Given the respective establishment dates of 2000 and 1995, I suspect the former is based on the latter.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I use one for my birdwatching life list. I use another to track monthly bills. I have a third for fantasy racing league data that isn't complex enough to require a database app, but that's a bit obscure.

dogknees
dogknees

Any kind of mathematical modelling or calculation, it doesn't have to be complex. Scaling a recipe to more or less people, .... I've used them to layout airfoils for a model plane, calculate how to align my turntable and a bunch of other things over the years.

Slayer_
Slayer_

It's a simple database that is mostly used to maintain settings and to hold information that allows programs to talk to each other.

M.W.H.
M.W.H.

Then your job is to find other words to explain things. Spewing technical jargon to the non-technical just bolsters the common view that engineers are an arrogant bunch. I was a Service Manager for many years with Sony and my job was to speak with the technician and then TRANSLATE what he told me into the language of my customer. Each customer had a different level of technical knowledge and it was my responsibility to make sure they understood what we were doing to their electronics without speaking over their head and make sure they always felt comfortable dealing with Sony again. Besides, if our customers were technically knowledgeable, we'd be out of a job. We owe our livelihood to this gap in knowledge that everyone here seems to detest.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Let me put it another way. An engine makes a car go. How does an engine work? It uses fuel and air, combines them and lights them on fire to produce power. If I explained API and DLL, they would be even more confused. Just like if I then went to explain valves, pistons, cranks, spark plugs, exhaust, fuel, carbon chains. Maybe a bit of organic chemistry to finish it off.