Monday, June 27, 2005

Adult Learning and Computers

Some people I know claim they are hopeless with computers. As a computer trainer (multimedia apps, mostly), I have a few observations:

First of all, if you want to learn a computer topic, you're living in an awesome time as-far-as materials go. For almost every major application, there are TONS of learning options: books, courses, DVDs, online training... Check out sites like and

Think about how YOU learn best. From books? Then get a book. From another person sitting next to you? Then take a course. At your own pace (but not from a book), then get a video.

Many people I train are hung up because they're trying to learn an application, but they don't know the basics of how their computer works. For instance, they're trying to learn Photohshop, but they're clueless about how to save a file (folders? drives? save? save as?).

Most books and classes are about specific applications. They assume people already understand the basics. But most people don't, and it holds them back. It's sad, because you can learn the basics in about an hour. So get "Introduction to the PC" or "MACs for Dummies" or whatever, and just read through the chapter on file management.

In my experience, a lot of computer phobia stems from romanticizing the machine. We all have a ton of baggage from bad sci-fi movies (even if we aren't sci-fi fans -- this stuff permeates the culture): computers that want to take away your job, computers that want to take over the world, etc. We all have heard computers praised or damned by pundits, techno-savvy friends, etc.

But computers are just machines. They don't have brains. They are just like cars, toasters, radios, etc. If we fear them, it's either because we think they're something they're not -- or because we're using them as metaphors for something else in our lives.

[Sometimes computers are splendid machines, but they (or certain applications running on them) can be poorly designed and frustrating. Unfortunately, I know many teachers who refuse to admit this. If a student is struggling with a poorly-desined feature, they make the student feel as if SHE is poorly designed. I regularly say things like, "Yeah, that's a sucky feature. They should have designed that better." Look for a teacher who doesn't deify machines!]

Okay: now the hard part. To be honest, I generally find that adults have a hard time learning computer subjects because they are unwilling to do the work. When we were kids in school, we had to study, do homework, memorize stuff, etc. Yet most adults seem to think that they should be able to come a two-day class and just GET it. Why should that be so?

We want it to be so, because studying isn't fun. And we're out of practice doing it. But most complex applications demand study.

I know Photoshop on an expert level, and people watch me and shake my head and say, "you must be so smart to have figured all that out." Wrong. I just worked really really really hard. I own about ten Photoshop books, which I've read cover-to-cover. I even read the manual that comes with the program (which WASN'T fun. I'm not one of those people who enjoys reading manuals -- BUT I DID IT ANYWAY). I took a couple of classes. I watched a training video. And I spent time on a lot of Photoshop-related websites. In other words, I did the kind of work a college student does when he's studying for a big test or writing a thesis paper.

[I also wrote all the keyboard shortcuts on index cards and quizzed myself with them until I had them memorized. People ask me how I remember all the shortcuts. THATS how I rememeber them. I MEMORIZED them the hard way -- the only way.]

Now, a lot of this was fun (I was making pictures while I was learning), but a lot of it wasn't. But I just forced myself to do it.

Finally, I'd ask you if it's really a computer issue. A lot of grownups that I know simply don't learn ANYTHING new once they graduate from college. What COMPLEX thing have you learned recently? Have you taught yourself a foreign language? Learned to play a musical instrument? Taught yourself how to cook Tai Food?

Are you simply out-of-practice (and scared of) learning?

I was like this when I was about 30. I actually feared I couldn't learn anything new. Still, I kept trying to learn by flipping through a book or listening to a single lecture. It never worked. Then I HAD to master something for a job, and I wound up doing some serious studying (which I hated), but once I was finished, I had mastered the subject. And I was so thrilled that I COULD still learn. And since then I've been continually learning and studying. It's my favorite thing to do!

One CAN get out-of-practice at learning, but the good news is that the methods and materials to learn are there for the taking -- if you're willing to do the work!

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