Keeping up with the Revolution:


Thomas Shinder

Developing computer skills in the Information Age

Those of you who read this column on a regular basis know that we typically cover technical subjects and try to bring them home in an easy-to- understand fashion so that you can take control over your computer, rather than letting your computer take control of you.

This time, I’d like to address the subject of computer software training. In the past, computer skill was equated with being able to use WordPerfect or a similar word processor to write a letter or a report. When the typwriter was the main medium for putting together written communication, computer skills were certainly not paramount to most job descriptions.

The employment landscape has changed significantly. What used to be considered reasonable computer skills no longer even qualify you as "computer literate". It is assumed that you can use a word processor. But not only do you need to know how to type on a computer, and then print it out, you also need to know how to connect the contents of your document to other documents on your computer, on other’s computers, and even to content found on the Internet.

Today, to be considered truly computer literate, you need to know more than a word processor program. To become a valued member of your company's team, you should -- minimumly -- be well versed in a spreadsheet program, a presentation program, and if you aspire to become irreplaceable, the intricacies of a database program.

These groups of programs are typically included in what is known as an "Office Suite". There are several suites made by different manufacturers including Lotus, Microsoft, and Corel. Legal professionals lean toward the use of the Corel products, while long-time 1-2-3 users stick with the Lotus Development Corporations product. The Microsoft package, Office97, is by far the most popular of the suites, capturing the vast majority of the home and business markets.

Training in this wide variety of software products is quite different from the more tradition educational experience. In college, you needed to learn subjects in depth over time, carefully mulling over the concepts and mastering them at a leisurely pace. Computer software training is the opposite, requiring that you take in a tremendous amount of information over the course of a 6-8 hour day, and then go back and apply those lessons to your own job situation.

The software training experience typically begin in either a dedicated teaching facility, or the training classroom which many large employers have on-site. The classes must be kept reasonably small, with an ideal number being from 6-8 students. This small number of students allows each trainee to have personalized attention from the instructor, which helps greatly in enhancing retention of the concepts and the psychomotor aspects of learning software packages.

Good software training is "hands on." Each student is sitting in front of the computer actually using the program that is being taught. This is the only way to learn a computer program, as it has been demonstrated that just reading a book on the subject imparts little, if any, skill to the reader.

The instructor will lead the class through several scenarios during the course of the day. For example, If the class being taught is a spreadsheet program, the instructor may lead the students through the building of a business, putting together income projections, balance sheets, marketing information, mailing labels, customer databases and more. The students perform the exercises along with the instructor, actually going through the paces, which allows them to become familiar with the actual keystrokes and mouseclicks involved in making the program do what they want it to do.

Learning a new software package can be extremely frustrating. Many very intelligent people, who are accomplished in their fields, find that their established skill set doesn’t necessarily translate into the learning of a new program. Mastering a computer program is both an intellectual and kinesthetic experience, not unlike learning to fly an aeroplane. The combination of focused attention, along with an awareness of all that is going on around you, are the keys to success.

Prior to taking a software training class, familiarize yourself with what the program looks like. The menus and toolbar buttons can be confusing to those who are trying to learn something entirely new. Think of those menus, buttons, bars, arrows, rulers, and sounds as part of the vocabulary of the program. To learn to use the language (program), become aware of some of the vocabulary.

"Play with the program" is a phrase often used by computer trainers and consultants. This is sometimes misinterpreted as a frivolous suggestion, but the advice is given in earnest. It is impossible to demonstrate a significant percentage of the features of any program in the time allotted for training. Although it is estimated that 90% of people use less than 10% of any individual program's capabilities, it is impossible to tell what that 10% will be for any single individual.

To "play" with the program means to press the buttons and see what they do. Open up the menus, check out all the commands, get a feel for where everything is. When you have a question on something, read what the help file has to offer. In the past, the help files included with software were of distressingly little value. Because of the costs involved in providing customer support and printing paper manuals, the industry has made important strides toward improving the utility of help files in their programs. Use them.

By preparing yourself for the training classes this way, you will be much more ready to learn the concepts and actions required for you to be efficent at your job, and the entire training process will go much more smoothly.

However, the training process does not end with the completion of class that day. What the instructor has done is lead you through the process. Development of any skill requires that you repeatedly practice the moves.

I sometimes use the analogy of being driven to the airport (one of our facilities is approximately 50 miles from Dallas-Ft. Worth International). Suppose a friend drives you to a distant airport that you’ve never visited before. You make the journey and then return home. Several weeks later, a different friend asks you to drive her to the airport, because she knows that you’ve taken a trip there recently.

You should know how to get to the airport, right? Not necessarily. Although you’ve traveled the route, you were lead there by another. To really know how to get there, to retain the knowledge, you must travel the road yourself. The instructor did the driving that first day, and you as the student were the passenger. To know the pathway to using the program effectively, you have to go through the lessons on your own, and make those lessons your own.

TOM SHINDER is a neurologist-turned-computer-professional who is involved in consulting and software training for a large nation-wide company in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area.

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