One of the core subjects involving personal computers is the difficulties they can sometimes pose for business and home users alike. Despite ever-increasing improvements in ease of use and reliability, computer hardware and software remain challenging.
This applies to new as well as experienced users. Even the most seasoned geeks seldom use today's feature-laden programs to their full potential.
“Most end-users use only a small percentage of any application's features,” says Jim Janssen, lead trainer of CompuTeach, a computer training firm in Conshohocken, PA.
But not everybody needs the services of a professional trainer. Janssen shared with me some tips anybody can use to informally help a coworker in the office or a relative at home, tricks he has learned over the years.
Explain the whys, clearly and concisely. Tell why your student would want to use a particular feature, focusing on benefits such as efficiency, appearance and ease of use.
But avoid technical jargon, which can confuse and intimidate people. You won't teach if your student doesn't understand what you're saying. Also, keep it short. “The longer you drone on about it, the less interesting it becomes,” says Janssen.
Let the student have control. After explaining the whys and demonstrating the hows, relinquish control of the keyboard and mouse. Students learn a lot faster and remember a lot better if they're doing rather than merely watching what others are doing. Walk them through the procedures, but let them do it.
Have patience. If your student doesn't get it, instead of saying the same thing over and over, and getting louder and louder, change the way you're presenting the material.
“People hear things in different ways and process information differently,” says Janssen. A certain percentage of people will understand one way and not another. Change the words you use, and use different examples as illustration.
Let students make mistakes and learn from them. This sounds commonsensical enough, but fear of failure or looking bad often impedes the learning process.
“Mistakes are the greatest learning opportunity,” says Janssen. “Let students know it's OK to make them.”
It's better for students to make a mistake in front of a tutor than on their own. The tutor can take the student through the troubleshooting process. If students understand what led to the mistake and how to fix it, they'll then be better able to avoid and correct mistakes on their own in the future. Nobody wants to be called upon every time somebody encounters a little glitch.
Use positive reinforcement. This is more common sense that's often given short shrift. Patting students on the back, literally or figuratively, gives them the confidence to continue learning on their own.
Try to keep the psychology of computing in mind during the entire process. Computers remain intimidating to many people, who may harbor irrational fears of breaking expensive machinery or who may maintain a self-image of not being a technical person and never being able to get it.
If your student is being slowed down by fear of breaking something, give reassurance 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.
Help those who have a negative self-image about their technical proficiency by building their self-confidence with small successes. Mastering easy techniques can provide a foundation for later learning.
Sometimes, though, it makes sense to bring in a pro. Hiring a professional trainer can be the right move if you or many of those you work with are just muddling their way through the learning process, perhaps hitting a wall with the more advanced features, says Janssen.
Training firms such as CompuTeach work with end-users as well as computer professionals, on-site in clients' offices as well as through classroom training at its facility.
You can often find appropriate computer trainers through the “Computers-Training” section of the Yellow Pages. You can also find a trainer through the website of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (www.icca.org). It lets you search for trainers by geographic area and area of expertise.
Other options include computer-aided training such as CD-ROM and Web tutorials, which help users learn on their own. Companies with good reputations marketing CD-ROM tutorials include Video Professor (www.videoprofessor.com) and WindowsAcademy (www.windowsacademy.com).
The online news and information service CNET (www.cnet.com) periodically offers free instructor-led online courses in topics ranging from creating a budget in Excel to setting up Linux.