One of the questions I get most frequently from newcomers to computing is also one of the most difficult to answer: Where can I learn to use a computer?
The problem is that computers, with a few exceptions such as the pricey Apple Macintosh, cannot be figured out intuitively. The concepts under which they operate have few counterparts in everyday life. The analogies most of us use to explain them are, at best, strained.IBM-compatibles, with their arcane, user-hostile, Microsoft Disk Operating System, are particularly difficult to master. The manuals that accompany most of them are written in gobbledygook, and the cheaper ones, which can be real bargains in terms of price and performance, often do not have manuals at all.
Many new users turn to friends for help. While friends are often kind and willing, they frequently have trouble explaining difficult things they mastered long ago. They are most likely to set you up so that you can run your word processing program or spreadsheet with a couple of keystrokes and leave it at that.
That can have disastrous consequences. For example, one colleague of mine had his son set up a new computer. He learned how to get WordStar running, but his son never bothered to show him how to format a floppy disk. So he kept using the same disk over and over, erasing valuable files to make room for new material. One day he forgot to erase enough files and he lost six hours of work when the disk filled up and the program crashed.
Sometimes these problems are the result of pure laziness. Many newcomers take the attitude that they want to learn only the bare minimum they need to know. The minute they have trouble understanding something in a manual, they close the book and put it away forever. They never learn such simple tasks as how to get directories of files on their disk and make proper backups of their data.
But others do give it the old college try and come up empty-handed. I have a couple of suggestions for them and for anyone buying a PC for the first time.
The cheapest solution is the local bookstore. Most of the chains now have large computer sections, and in them you will find dozens of titles devoted to elementary computing. In fact, the sorry state of computer manuals has spawned an entire publishing industry.
Some titles attempt to unravel the mysteries of DOS, while others involve specific programs. There must be a hundred titles on using Lotus 1-2-3 alone.
If you want to learn something about the IBM disk operating system (and I suggest that every new user make an attempt to master the basic commands that keep your computer running), the best bet is still a tome called "Running MS-DOS," by Van Wolverton (Microsoft Press, $24.95). Wolverton assumes that you are a literate adult, but that is about it. The result is a no-nonsense explanation of how an IBM-compatible works, and how to make it work for you.
A brand-new addition to this field is PC Magazine's "DOS Power Tools" (Bantam Books, $39.95), a weighty volume full of good explanations and instructions. It includes a disk with more than 200 utility programs. Some are useful only to hackers, but others will make managing your computer much easier.
There are plenty of other titles. The best thing to do is browse through the book before you buy it. If you can understand the first chapter or two, chances are good that you will understand the rest.
An alternative is taking a course in computing. Unfortunately, there is no standard curriculum.
Large computer stores (chains in particular) frequently offer short, intensive courses in using the software they sell. Some also offer classes in DOS. But those are often very expensive, and the quality can vary greatly.
A better alternative is your community college. Unlike four-year colleges, whose energies are devoted primarily to research, secondarily to internal disputes over parking and only marginally to education of the ignorant, community colleges are vitally interested in giving the taxpayers who support them some bang for their buck.
In the last few years, most have invested heavily in computer labs, and they frequently offer four- to eight-week courses in basic computing, as well as classes aimed at specific types of programs, such as Word Perfect or Lotus.
Community colleges have become so good at this that many corporations contract with them to train their staffs in computer skills. So give your local campus a call.
But even the clearest book or the most carefully designed course is no substitute for using your computer. Fool around with it. Make some mistakes. Be patient with yourself and your machine.
Think back to the days when you were learning how to drive a car. You didn't get behind the wheel the first day and sail merrily down the road. You were nervous and fretful, and it probably took months before you were really comfortable.
It is much the same with a computer. Like good driving skills, computing skills are learned over time. Invest that time at the outset, and your computer will pay handsome dividends in the long run.