What does a computer user really need to know? I’m talking about the checklist of skills here that mean that a person can operate the piece of silicon in front of them.
This question is regularly thrown at me by schools that are doing their planning and want to know what skills they should be teaching at year zero, year one, … so that they can produce competent users of ICTs at whatever age their students leave. I’m really wary of skills checklists. I believe that everyone needs the same core skills – at any age. If a child starts as a new entrant, they have the same requirements as a child who enters the school at year five. Or for that matter a teacher who moves to the school after many years of working on an alternative platform. While I’m focussing on Macs and PCs here, the same core skills could apply to moving to a Linux platform or using a tablet PC. Or using a PDA or a phone.
- How to turn it on and off. Don’t laugh – if you come from a PC and want to turn on some Macs it can be a bit tricky, unless you know where the button lives.
- How to login to a computer and something about what this means. For example if you have logged in as a student (or other restricted user) then you can’t do the same kinds of things as a teacher (in most cases). And that logging in at home might not give you seemless access to some resources. Getting onto the internet might be a bit different at home, for example.
- Mouse skills are next. And, if the user is on a laptop, touchpad skills. I believe that both Apple Mac and PC users need to understand the power of the right click. Yes, there is a right click on an Apple computer. Just have a fiddle with clicking the right mouse button on a regular USB mouse, or hitting the CTRL key as the same time as a mouse click. There is a huge range of options just waiting to be found.
- How to start and finish using a programme. Again, don’t laugh because many people – on Macs and PCs – close their window and leave the programme running.
- How to save and retrieve a file. This includes saving a file in the right place. Many people use MS Word or Excel as a file manager, thinking that you move, delete or copy files from inside the “Save As” dialogue. This is dangerous behaviour!
- Next, I think people need some keyboard skills. Not typing skills although I do think that some keyboarding skills are useful at some point in a learner’s career. Users need to understand how to make a capital letter (and the difference between the Caps Lock and the Shift key), how to make a space and common punctuation marks. They need to understand common conventions like one space between the words in a sentence and one after the full stop (period). They also need to understand that the programme will be able to sort out the line breaks and that the Enter (Return) key should not be hit when they think that the line is long enough. This works in Word Processors, blog clients, IM software, cellphones …
- I think that we need to keep using the language of computing. That means that if I am talking about getting my language onto the screen (typing) I use words like Font, Format, Insert and Bullet Point. I talk about Tables when I’m in a word processor and I understand that in a spreadsheeting programme I don’t do a graph but I Chart my results. In all of the programmes that I use I know that Toolbars will help me to complete my tasks and that if I get stuck I am a competant user of the Help files because I can speak the same language as my computer.
- And, we need a few ‘physical’ internet skills. I understand how to use the address bar and that Google’s search box is not the same as an address bar. I need to learn that it can take a few moments for a page to load and that mad clicking on the same link will actually slow loading pages down.
These are the core skills that I believe are the absolute basics that any competent computer user needs to have. I think they should be taught to all children as they start school and that if someone (student or teacher) moves to a new school, this is where to start.
Of course there are myriads of other things that the comepetant user needs to know. Many of these things fall naturally into curriculum areas. For example, information skills are critical and they need to be explicitly taught. However they can’t be explicitly taught if a person doesn’t know the difference between the address bar or a search box. So this is my basic checklist that allows all of the other learning to take place. Just don’t put it into a checklist please!