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One woman's journey to understand technology

Stephen Bell | Aug. 31, 2012
What's it like to grapple with the language and manipulations of technology in detail for the first time?

What's it like to grapple with the language and manipulations of technology in detail for the first time? Most Computerworld readers have probably forgotten when they first tried to penetrate a wall of jargon, plug together unfamiliar equipment and obey at-first-obscure instructions to download and install software.

ICT Minister Amy Adams highlighted the fog of incomprehension between a technology vendor and a non-expert customer when she called last month for "full disclosure" of the terms under which technology, particularly telecomms service, is sold.

A lot of us started with technology that today would be regarded as simple and have upgraded our knowledge gradually as the technology has advanced. Those moving into today's technology from a near-zero knowledge base have a different experience.

The woman who inspired my column on the "80 percenters" -- the majority of PC users who have little or no technical knowledge -- decided a few weeks ago she was no longer comfortable treating her PC as though it were her television, a gadget that Should Just Work. So Jo Moon booked herself in to a one-day introductory course called "Computing with Confidence", at Wellington High School.n --

The course begins by explaining the functions of various parts of the computer and the keys on the keyboard. Moon says she discovered some of the uses of the escape key that would get her out of some snarl-ups for which a crude reboot of the PC via the power switch had hitherto been her only remedy.

Then comes the usual fare of word processing and spreadsheet training, based on Microsoft Word and Excel. Asked why students should be taught on such expensive software, rather than a free open-source product, community course director Colin Wharton says Microsoft is what the school has in its computer suites and it's what most students will be using at work.

So why does Moon want to learn? "If I wanted to get another job I'd probably be required to have [desktop computer skills]. It's just the way of the world," she says. "And it's useful if you know how to operate a computer, so you can then learn [more easily] to operate other devices, like smartphones."

She can't remember anyone raising the topic of OpenOffice/Libre Office in the class -- "though we did talk a bit about other operating systems, like Apple and -- when one of the students raised it -- Linux."

I advised Moon to install Libre Office on her machine at home and practice with it, comparing the operations with those she has learned using the Microsoft applications. She will find a lot of similarity. However, that's another challenge for 80-percenters who don't use computers in the workplace -- finding something meaningful to serve as practice material. Repeating sterile exercises, she says, becomes boring and unless you're very self-disciplined you don't give yourself the needed reinforcement.


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