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Teaching Good Computing Habits, Not Bad

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Link-Up Digital

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 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 it.”

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 later on.

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 complete.

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 and MacAcademy/WindowsAcademy, at and


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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