Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

What can we do about teaching computer skills?

Because the current paradigm of data presentation includes digitizing paper-based records or microfilmed records and then removing the digitized records from circulation, it appears that in the not-too-distant future lack of computer skills will become more than an inconvenience but will also become a major obstacle to beginning genealogical research. Because of this and many other reasons, it is abundantly clear that acquiring computer skills is a key factor in making progress in genealogy. Notwithstanding the need, many of the people I help with research are significantly limited in their ability to advance their genealogical research due to poor or lacking computer skills. The solution seems to be evident: we began teaching basic computer skills. On the other hand, is teaching computer skills really part of our job description as genealogists? Perhaps it is.

At the core of the issue is the attitude of the individuals lacking such computer skills. If the individuals are entirely disinterested in acquiring those skills there is not much anyone can do to teach them new skills. In addition, as I have mentioned previously in other posts, if there are physical and mental limitations those limitations can be insurmountable barriers to acquiring a sufficient level of computer skills to do adequate genealogical research. There are, however, many people who lack computer skills but have the motivation to learn and also possess both the mental and physical capabilities necessary.

One of the major challenges for some individuals is the retention and use of passwords and logins. I am frequently confronted with the situation where individuals repeatedly either forget or fail to record their logins and passwords. This is not a situation where training is of much assistance.

If we focus on the large group of people who need to acquire computer skills and have the motivation and ability to do so, we can make progress. Fortunately, there are a large number dedicated programs and of online sources for teaching fundamental computer skills.

The problems faced by those those who lack overall computer skills is that computing today requires three distinct types of skills: conceptual skills which are necessary to understand what the individual views on a computer screen; keyboarding skills; and manual dexterity skills to operate either a mouse or a trackpad.

I have taught many classes where it has become apparent from the responses of those attending the class that they do not understand the computer's hierarchal filing structure and further cannot understand what they are viewing on a computer screen. They lack basic conceptual knowledge of how files and file folders work on the computer. If we concentrate exclusively with teaching about operating a keyboard and a mouse we are ignoring one of the more basic issues confronting computer use. Sometimes an explanation of files and folders and moving files is sufficient, but usually, the person needs a lot of hands-on

There are however, lots of free online websites that address all three of the skills necessary. Basic mousing skills are addressed by a program from the Palm Beach County Library System concerning
mouse usage. This program also comes in a Spanish version. An interesting approach to the problem of training older people is discussed in an article that appeared in the Journal of eLiteracy, Vol. 1, (2004), 109-121 called Techniques for Enabling the Older Population in Technology. Those same issues need to be addressed with younger people also. Another article that addresses these issues is entitled, "A Solution for Older Adults’ Learning of Computer Skills: The Computer Game-Based Learning Approach" by Feihong Wang and John K. Burton of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. If you want to spend a few dollars, you can always get that old stand-by program Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. I might note that Mavis Beacon, like Betty Crocker, has changed her face a few times.

Here are a few more places to go to get online training about computer systems and software:

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