Good Computing Habits, Not Bad
by Reid Goldsborough
June 15, 2003
You may be a word-processing wizard, spreadsheet jockey,
database guru, and communications genius. But what about
the sorry sap two cubicles down who starts to sweat every
time he boots up his computer?
Many people struggle with computer technology, avoiding
learning how to use it or more frequently failing to take
full advantage of it. How can you best get the computer-resistant
up to speed?
To answer this question, I talked with William Vanderbilt,
director of the Technology Learning Group of the Computing
Technology Industry Association, at www.comptia.org. Vanderbilt
is a computer training expert, having previously served
as director of training for the Beacon Institute for Learning
and senior director of training at CompUSA.
His tips apply to teaching anybody how to maximize productivity
around PCs, whether in a business, home, or school setting.
There’s a psychology to teaching computer skills,
says Vanderbilt. The most important thing to keep in mind
is the mentality of the person you’re mentoring.
“More often than not a person who resists computers
is dealing at some level with fear,” he says. Fear
stems from ignorance.
People hear nightmarish stories about computer disasters,
and they’re afraid that if they press the wrong
key, the computer will blow up, either literally or figuratively.
Reassure them that computers can’t be physically
damaged by hitting the wrong key, and if data is lost
or programs are corrupted, the computer can be restored
to its previous condition with backups or reinstallations.
One commonly repeated tip with beginners is to first get
them to do activities on the computer that they’re
comfortable doing off the computer. This can involve playing
a game such as Solitaire or writing simple letters. “Familiarity
can eliminate fear,” says Vanderbilt.
Whatever level the trainee is at, don’t start the
person off with a critical project after teaching new
skills; this will just increase pressure and magnify the
downside if something goes wrong.
Let people make mistakes. When you’re helping someone
else go to the next stage, it’s natural to want
to take over and do it yourself. Instead, says Vanderbilt,
say, “I’m going to stand here and watch you
keystroke, and if you make a mistake, I’ll correct
Encourage people to experiment, to approach computers
as a field to be explored rather than a mine field to
be avoided. With the right attitude, people learn and
grow from their mistakes.
When moving on to a new program or technique, first provide
an overview of its capabilities and limitations. Many
people are computer underachievers because they treat
programs they’re comfortable with as jacks of all
trades, using a word-processing program to create presentations,
for instance, or a spreadsheet program to build databases.
Tell people they don’t need to use all of the features
of a program, says Vanderbilt. People not savvy around
computers often think that to be savvy they need to know
everything. Even the geekiest geeks don’t use all
the tools in today’s feature-laden software.
Don’t burden trainees with everything you know.
If their heads are swimming at the end of a session, the
learning process likely shut down earlier and much of
the information you imparted won’t be retained.
Teach people how to learn on their own. Once people get
over the hump and understand how a computer or program
“thinks,” i.e., its internal logic and help
system, they’ll be able to solve many problems themselves
After you’ve finished your instruction, don’t
think you’re finished. The watchword today in the
computer training industry is that training is a process,
not an event, says Vanderbilt. It’s only when the
person successfully and repeatedly applies his newly learned
skills in actual work situations that the training is
You therefore need to make yourself, as a mentor, available
to your trainee later, through in-person interaction,
the telephone, or e-mail, he says.
Many people providing informal training such as this could
benefit from training themselves. If you don’t have
the skills, you can’t effectively teach others how
to best use the technology. Passing along bad habits won’t
do much for the bottom line.
Vanderbilt says it can be cost-effective to bring people
in to do formal training. In an organizational setting,
one rule of thumb is to allocate 20 percent of your information
technology budget to training.
With more advanced users, instead of instructor-led sessions,
CD-ROM tutorials can be cost effective. Companies providing
products with good reputations include Keystone Learning
Systems, at www.keystonelearning.com
and MacAcademy/WindowsAcademy, at www.macacademy.com
is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org