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Friendly Advice for the Computer Hesitant

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I'm a computer virgin.'' "You know, we English teachers and humanities people are not technical.'' "I'd love to try the computer, but I just haven't got the time.'' "I feel so stupid; the kids know more than I do.'' "I'm so afraid I'll break something.''

Are comments like these familiar? Are you a technology observer, modest practitioner, or aficionado? Are you acquainted with successful, productive people who are too overwhelmed by the mystique of jargon and keyboard commands to take the plunge, and start their first computer class?

This Commentary is dedicated to those who have hesitated to learn technology in an era of soaring skills inundating the learning curve. For 12 years, I have observed and studied the use of technology in both education and business; for the last 10, I have conducted training sessions to help teachers, administrators, business staff, retirees, and students overcome their fears and champion its uses.

Before I started writing, I decided to question colleagues by using my own "Survey To Help Hesitant Folks Get Started Learning Computers.'' At the time I gave them the questionnaire, all my respondents had completed some training on the computer. They were asked to recall their personal anxiety and pre-user perspective prior to their initial encounter with a computer. They agreed to complete the survey, but frowns of frustration appeared as they remembered their pre-computer anxiety.

Here are the survey questions, the responses, and some comments:

  • What concerns or fears were your greatest barriers in starting to learn about computers?
    "I am not a technical person;computers are too difficult to learn.''--26 percent.
    "I do not want to look stupid.''--16 percent.
    "I feel overwhelmed; there's too much to learn.''--13 percent.
    "Too much jargon.''--10 percent.
    "Not enough time.''--10 percent.

Respondents to this question, who have developed a strong computer-knowledge base, agreed that it is not necessary to be "technically inclined.'' As for "looking stupid,'' any program's ease-of-use and efficiency are stressed today, as leading corporations vie for evalutor's benchmark awards and the responding, lucrative customer base. A person soon learns that computers do not break easily, and that work can be saved on additional disks as "back up'' copies to avoid loss. Focusing on one program and growing comfortable with its jargon will augment confidence and productivity.

No one "looks stupid'' learning about computers. Shouldn't we, as educators, model lifelong learning? Consider boosting your students' self-esteem by requesting their assistance when you encounter a roadblock on the screen, asking them for a demonstration, or viewing samples of their printed work. Some may astonish you, while others, you may find, articulate well, although possessing only a superficial knowledge base.

  • What is the best advice you have for a person who wants to get started learning about technology?
    "Take a course.''--30 percent.
    "Just do it; jump in with both feet.''--17 percent.
    "Talk to knowledgeable, supportive people.''--13 percent.
    "Learn to do a helpful task that will make your work more effective.''--9 percent.
    "Relax; make many mistakes.''--9 percent.
    "Get a professional teacher.''--4 percent.
    "Teach yourself, 'tinker,' and solve your own problems."--4 percent.

All survey participants recommended hands-on training in an adult-education course, at a computer-training facility, privately with a colleague or a student, or solo sessions for those who prefer reading manuals and calling software telephone-support numbers. They also encouraged novices to seek advice from computer users who like to talk about trouble-shooting problems. Regional resources can be found by attending user-group meetings announced in newspapers. Many of these clubs publish newsletters and hold regular meetings in a face-to-face, supportive network. Using a modem connected to a telephone line allows the user to access popular, online services such as Prodigy, America Online, or CompuServe, all of which have Help forums, groups, or SIGs (Special Interest Groups), offering support throughout daytime and late-evening hours for most types of computers. All questions are honorable when learning a new program.

  • With what type of skill did you begin learning computers?
    "Word processing.''--63 percent.
    "Keyboarding.''--32 percent.
    "Fun (cards, signs, banners).''--5 percent.

Word processing is the electronic, pragmatic writer's tool, evolved from the typewriter, that "memorizes'' your work (saving or storing it on a disk). Pictures, graphs, and charts can embellish your text. Not surprisingly, word processing is the leading choice of applications suggested for beginners by the survey participants. Industry giants are now producing the same word-processing programs for Macintosh and I.B.M.-compatible computers, such as Microsoft Word and Works, WordPerfect by WordPerfect Corporation, and AmiPro by Lotus Corporation, to name a few. Keyboarding skill to "touch type'' on a computer is a recognized asset, but not a requirement. The faster you are able to enter information by typing on a computer keyboard, the easier it is to focus on thought processes. But the "hunt and peck'' method is used daily by thousands of successful computer operators. Some technologically old, but popular, "fun'' programs that helped many school users get started are "Printshop'' and "Printmaster.'' These generate simple, personalized banners, signs, calendars, and greeting cards seen in school corridors and classrooms.

  • What is one myth about computers that creates the overwhelming "awe'' about them?
    "Computers are difficult.(You just need patience.)''--35 percent.
    "Computers can do everything.''--18 percent.
    "You must be technical to operate them.''--12 percent.
    "Just computer wizards use them. (If kids can learn, why can't professionals?)''--12 percent.
    "It is easy to erase data. (You get warning messages.)''--6 percent.
    "Computers are uncontrollable.''--6 percent.

Remember that computer programs are written by humans, and are as limited or as powerful as their designers allowed. Today's better programs coach the user with suggestions on what to do next on the screen, known as "prompts.'' This coaching helps the user to progress or to correct errors in a "forgiving'' computer environment. Most software programs have "Help'' options users can access; some have tutorials, self-paced, built-in programs to explain how to operate the program's features. Others have telephone-based, technical-support lines, either free or with fees. Some programs, such as Norton Utilities, are designed to retrieve "lost'' data. Keep in mind, that what appears to be lost, may be but a few, reviving keystrokes away. Ultimately, the longer a program is used, the more confidence a person will acquire.

The computer humbles us all. In my primordial computer course--wordprocessing on a Wang computer--I was the matriarch of the class. Most participants were high school students, and my confidence plummeted. Truthfully, the jargon kept me behind the pack from the first lesson. In my second pursuit of skills, an "introductory'' seven-week summer institute at a university, I learned, to my dismay, that one-half of the 165 participants owned a computer. The person who helped me most with technical support later became my husband.

If given a chance, technology tends to bring good people together. The futurist author John Naisbett refers to this capacity for widening the boundaries of interaction in problem-solving as "high tech, high touch.''

All the more reason, then, to heed the advice from my survey: "Jump in with both feet ... and just do it.''

Cynthia A. Abate is a middle school computer facilitator, teacher trainer, and computer-applications teacher for grades 6-8 in Newton, Conn.

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