Most people say they are users of Word (or Excel, Powerpoint, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.). Yet if I then ask them to perform some relatively simple task beyond just typing, they usually seem totally stumped. Unfortunately, as someone famous may or may not have said, "if they don't know what they don't know, how will they know what they need to know". This is the computer training conundrum.
Employers will assume that self-professed "users" of common programs understand and employ the such programs efficiently and effectively in their every day work. We generally expect people's computer skills to be similar to reading and writing; most people who join the workforce should be reasonably good at it. This may be why costly computer training in common computer tasks is rarely provided in the workplace. To add to this litany of woes, universities no longer appear teach the usage of popular software, expecting this to have been done at school. I'm not aware that schools are filling this gap, and many lecturers and school teachers I know have little to no computer skills themselves.
So ... the majority people have learned their computer skills through trial and error, reference manuals, help from friends & colleagues, intuition, osmosis, alien abduction, etc. Apart from the latter, which makes it difficult to sit still for long periods, everything is fine and dandy except you remain only knowing what you know, and what you know may well be wrong, inefficient, a compatibility method left-over from some ancient version, and so on. There is still no understanding of relevance, importance, perspective, and how to be self-reliant when things go pear-shaped. (For readers outside the British Commonwealth, pear-shaped is the London opposite of Australia's she's apples [mate], or otherwise just means shaped like a pear). This ezine article seems to be getting fruit-y, a term which ...
But, hey, shouldn't everyone be able to pick up how to do things properly. Computers, operating systems and programs are designed with GUI's and ease-of-use in mind. Eh? Yeah, RIGHT! Think of the hundreds of millions of people around the world in business, science, public service, working at 80% efficiency on their computers (a charitable estimate). If we could raise this figure to just 90%, imagine the massive effect on world GDP. The additional time devoted to achieving constructive thought and action rather than battling sofware might contribute to the cure for cancer, world peace, colonies on Mars, smarter Miss Universe contestants, the end of hip-hop, etc. If those ambitions are too lofty, it would certainly lead to happier, less stressed and more productive staff, employers, students, writers, business people, etc. (notice I didn't include administrators, politicians and clergy in the list).
If you think that this is a cynical appraisal of general computer usage, what will I say about 'Computer Training'? It's got to be good thing, hasn't it? We-e-e-ell ...
With experience of IT support dating back way back to mainframes, punched cards, pterodactyls, etc., having attended numerous technical and business courses, and more recently specialising as a trainer, I have observed that:
* training choices by individuals are often poor (e.g. learning Photoshop is pointless if you have no natural flair for design, Excel is dangerous unless you are good with numbers)
* each of us has a preferred best method of learning, e.g. overview vs. detail, graphic vs verbal, serious vs humourous, lecture vs discussion, theory vs practical, etc., but rarely does a course employ the training method that best suits us
* traditional computer training typically involves a whole exhausting day in a darkened air-conditioned room with people of widely-ranging skills and experience. For some, the course may be either too advanced, or else maddeningly slow
* training companies often set arbitrary expertise levels regarding what is taught, such as Introduction/Intermediate/Advanced, but then remarkably allow potential customers to self stream. Big mistake. This may be good for revenue but it is a headache for the class trainer and is very annoying for attendees when it becomes obvious that some in the class have badly misjudged their own level of competence
My Little Red Book of Computer Training says:
1. For all-day courses, the afternoon is pretty much a waste of everyone's time. a. Morning peak alertness cannot be maintained, post- lunch is the Bermuda Triangle of mental agility, and by 3pm everyone is watching the clock and itching to leave b. Increasing wear and tear on the presenter causes decreasing classroom energy levels
2. When a course involves attendees from different organisations: a. They compete for the presenter's attention to focus on their specific issues which are often irrelevant to the rest of the group b. There's always at least ONE person who slows the course or is just annoying and disruptive
3. With large groups, individuals cannot receive personal attention
4. Most training organisations offer inflexible course schedules while also reserving the right to cancel courses due to insufficient numbers ... and they often exercise that right (as a contract trainer, I've been "cancelled" one working day before a day that I had to reserve weeks in advance)
5. When attendees return to their organisations, they are obliged to catch up on their everyday work that backed up while they were away on training (the insinuation from colleagues will be that it was "time off"). At least 24 hours will elapse before they can put anything they've learned into practice, assuming they can remember it.
6. 80% of general computer work uses only 20% of the available features, yet so many training courses get side-tracked on "bells and whistles". Why get hung up on long-hand menu-based or function-key procedures whereas a right-click will suffice most of the time to provide context-sensitive options.
7. Once people understand the contextual use of a program, have overviewed its capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, and used the basic features with confidence, they only need pointers regarding the best methods to find out how to do other things. My view therefore is that "Advanced" courses will never help anyone who can't absorb and apply the basics, while the more capable users should be able to figure the additional features for themselves (just like after buying and using a basic DIY toolkit, you add new tools one at a time only if and when your work demands them, and you can afford the time and cost)
8. Presenters should be brave enough to highlight software weaknesses (are they scared that Microsoft and Adobe will beat them up?) e.g.: yes, you CAN do Excel-style maths in Word, but you'd be MAD to do so as by default there is no real-time calculation; yes, you can create macros in Office products, but will you and others gamble on opening a file when the security sirens are going off ... is it your macro or a real virus?
9. Relevant computer history and perspective helps people to understand that no program is ever perfect, why some applications seem to have been built by committee (answer: they HAVE!), and that checking your work is important (we tend to assume that computers can be trusted) ...
10. ... problems are rarely due to stupidity, so people need some basic Get Out Of Jail Free procedures for when things start to fall apart and the deadline is looming.
To address as many shortcoming as possible, I have put my money where my mouth is and created a boutique training facility that is unique on the Gold Coast (Australia):
* Class sizes are a maximum of four
* Classes are restricted to people from the same organisation, or groups of friends. Attendees therefore never have to deal with strangers, allowing them more freedom to admit difficulties and to ask questions. It also provides me with the freedom to tailor the presentation to cover their personal scenarios and even use their own sample files that they are encouraged to bring to the class. Anyone who is "slow" tends to be naturally supported by colleagues without any ill-feeling
* Class bookings are never cancelled. It even means one-to-one training if I accept the booking.
* My short courses never exceed four hours. A morning session is preferred so that the course finishes by lunchtime. People leave fresh, motivated, and able to put their new skills into immediate practice before the end of their working day.
* I focus on being efficient and productive in the core element and whatever issues the attendees want explored, and I highlight the traps for the unwary.
* The training room supports learning by using natural daylight and fresh air whenever possible
* On leaving, attendees get a set of relevant browser bookmarks and carefully selected freeware to assist them in further self-learning and everyday computing tasks
Greg Barnett started his computers and communications career in 1976 and has witnessed many of the quantum leaps in technology ... as well as many of its ghastly pratfalls.
Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, but the frustrated rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth shows no sign of abating. Computers and software are idiot savants that continue to get faster and more flexible, but not necessarily smarter.
Back in the 70s, only technical people got to use computers and were experts in specific limited technical fields. Such people were trained regularly. These days, a secretary is expected to use Word, Excel, Publisher, Outlook, Explorer, manage files and printing, all possibly without any training. Does he/she use them? Yes. Does he/she use them well? Mmm ... what's YOUR opinion?
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