Security

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.

140 comments
chriscarlier230
chriscarlier230

Thank you, this article has been very informative. I have been wanting to learn more about computers lately. I already know many of the basics but I don't know about the details. I would like to learn some short cuts such as common keyboard commands and I would also like to know how to use Microsoft office more effectively. I know that there are some tutorials and other people who can help me as well. Thanks again.

-Chris | http://www.microsofttrain.com/excel-training/ 

phaksg
phaksg

I'm very much interested in Computers, how they function and have a complete knowledge on how to use them.

techieindeed
techieindeed

Just computer literacy is not enough in the most of cases. The computer has become a significant part of our lives to an extent that we can’t imagine without it. This has increased the need of support and services for your computer, like malware protection or repairs. You can accomplish some these yourself but sometimes it in inevitable to hire a professional for computer and network maintenance. The right kind of computer education is that which will minimize you engagement with these techies.

 

SerrJ215
SerrJ215

I wish some of my clients knew half of this.  I did a post about this a while back. http://blog.lanternslight.us/2014/01/three-things-that-every-computer-user.html


It comes down to it that many of my users can barely get to a web browser with there email home page.  The scarier thing is that most of them don't want to learn anything else.  Still this is not a bad list, a few more things it could almost be a structure to an IT literacy class. 

sdallow
sdallow

These 10 things won't make you computer literate - they're just office practice. You need to know these before you start to learn computer literacy.


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"

Wilson72
Wilson72

Yes, simple file management, and now, working with wireless.

dano2004
dano2004

How about using the Recycle Bin as storage..never deleting anything out of it. Same with Outlook trash folder...never clearing it out because I may need it. Well if you think you need it, then file it!

daboochmeister
daboochmeister

Being "computer literate" means being able to use a computer to get done the job that you need to do with it. For my wife, that means being able to do simple browsing, searching with a search engine, and using her web-based email interface. She doesn't need to be able to use a spreadsheet or word processor, and certainly doesn't need to be able to do DNS lookups or traceroutes. I, on the other hand, need to be able to do way MORE than the list above, or my boss can dock my pay because I'm not computer literate enough for my job. There's not even a single list that makes sense for the group of people reading this article, let alone the much wider and more varied groups of people who use computers in general. Move on, Justin, move on!

essex133
essex133

I strongly disagree that you have to know advanced search techniques, including the use of boolean strings or that you have to be able to use formulas, references, and macros in Excel before you can call yourself computer literate! According to the Free Dictionary at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/computer+literate Computer literate simply means the ability to operate a computer and to understand the language used in working with a specific system or systems. I think this post http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20060715071334AAUnxZw offers a fairer definition of computer literacy than Justin's elitist list: 1. Be able to identify all the obvious external parts of a computer (mouse, keyboard, CD-ROM drive etc) and know what they are for. 2. Understand a computers file system, so you understand the concept of files and directory structures. 3. Be able to use basic computer office software, mainly word processors and spreadsheets. 4. Be able to navigate the internet and use it to find information that you need. 5. Be able to use e-mail software And I for one would be most offended if anyone suggested that I was not "computer literate", when I can perform all the actions listed in the Yahoo post AND do a clean install of the OS; use disk image to streamline future installs; use Easy transfer to migrate from one computer to another; install any internal hardware; troubleshoot and successfully correct any OS or program errors and faults; set up and troubleshoot network connections; format, partition, shrink, expand and mount hard drives; use advanced photo-editing techniques and so on! Yet I do NOT have much experience with spreadsheets simply because I have never needed to learn how to create any complex databases! Does that one failing make me computer illterate? I don't think so!

alkolkin
alkolkin

Most of my users do not know the difference between username & password, how to cut & paste, the difference between the desktop & screensaver, the difference between the monitor and the computer, and on and on. I explain things again and again in different ways and they forget by the next week. I have an 88 year old first time user who has a better command of the computer then some 40+ year old clients. Formal education is not an indicator of being computer savy, interest in mastering it is the most vital attribute of someone who is computer literate.

jim
jim

Any time I see computer training I can not believe that simple drive/file/folder structure is left out. The building blocks of every PC, Mac, Linux box are the files/folders, yet many end-users have no idea where on a hard drive they save their files. This leads to the second thing missing...file backups!!

a1955jw
a1955jw

most people don't want to know how it works they just want it to work first time every time. I agree these items are important but that is why people are rushing to join the ipad nation. They don't have to know anything to make it work and that's what they want. Too bad for those of us who have to clean up after them

morg
morg

Not mentioned was the need to push the button to boot the computer. I haven't a clue of what Outlook is but did write simulation programs in IBM Fortran 4 for the 1800 40 years ago. I wrote 8086/8088 Microsoft assembly routines to get my Epson to print italics, bold etc., when I was running MSDOS 2.1. Keystrokes come and go. Wordperfect for DOS had a great set of keystrokes. Now I don't use them anymore just like I no longer program DBase 2 and 3. I haven't bought a whole computer since 1982 and then I modified it immediately. I studied and almost built my own from chips, wire, solder, and radio shack boards. Then I realized that I had to write a BIOS plus other things. During the early 80's I immediately jerked the Intel 8088 8mhz from motherboards and replaced with the NEC V20 which had a better instruction set and was faster. Somehow I get by with my currently two computers that I have scarfed together. The side panels are off as I never know when I will change hardware. I will be 83 in a few days so don't accept the new quickly. I still run XP and am happy with it. Since I no longer create and create and run SQL database, large spreadsheets, etc., I no longer have the need for the biggest and latest. If I played games I wouldn't have a computer but would have a dedicated game machine. It took a long time for me to grasp that it would be ok for a desk top to do anything but compute. Gaming is a different world from computing. Gamers live in a different world. I like to play "what if". I wrote the program to simulate what will happen if things change and the program yields the result. Mathematical modeling. Everything in the universe can be expressed mathematically. We only must define the relationships mathematically in the form of code. Yes.. I am a dummy. It took me a long time to accept windows as I was command line oriented.

nortspot1
nortspot1

File management, and knowing how to change the browser options to meet one's own needs. A lot of people don't know what dns or an ip address is I can forgive that one.

charleswdavis6670
charleswdavis6670

That is the way in which human engineering works to trap folks into divulging private information.

parnote
parnote

Seriously? I've used Linux for most of the past 6 years, and I've never had any worries about viruses or malware. If users (or the companies they work for) would stop using the most unsecure OS ever devised (Windows), knowing how to scan for viruses and malware would be unnecessary.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

As soon as I'm done comment boxing I erase my drives and do a restore.Then I'm off to downloading or whatever.My whole installation is customized to my use.Active Boot Disk does it all from a pen drive.

Mike.Shelton2
Mike.Shelton2

You're not literate if you don't know the difference between a kilobyte, a kilobit, a megabyte, a megabit, etc. These units are important to know in a world where you are charged based on the amount/size, etc. How many people know how long it would take for them to exceed a 5GByte limit using a 2Mbit/sec average connection? A lot don't. Unfortunately, that's what some companies out there are planning on....computer illiteracy.

borglah
borglah

Basic functions in Outlook. Outlook is a basic necessity, everyone should have the basics down, highlight and choose multiple items at once, move from folder to folder, add new contacts, etc.

mike21b
mike21b

...knowing all "10 things you have to know" eliminates 90% of the population.

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