UPCP 1-Year Anniversary Thoughts (and 15% discount)

May 4, 2012

Today, I’m celebrating the 1-Year anniversary of the publication of The Ultimate PC Primer.  And for the entire month of May, the 15% discount is back. That’s right. This isn’t a one-day special just for Star Wars Day; I’m keeping the party going all month. Use code 3SGC9EP7 to get 15% off all copies when you order here.

In case you haven’t noticed from this blog, I’m pretty passionate about the book’s contents, approach, and mission. Here are some brief thoughts on why a guy with a family and full-time job spends 6 years of his own (precious little spare) time and money producing, of all things, a printed book explaining basic computer concepts…

Nothing else uses the same approach — analogies, metaphors, stories, and illustrations from real, physical things — to explain essential computing concepts. I searched for and even purchased a good number of “intro” computer books, only find they were mostly procedural “how-to” guides. Only one even came close to helping readers actually understand what they were supposed to be learning to use. In short, most computer books assumed readers just needed to know steps to “do” a task. I wanted to help build a foundation from which new users could begin to be self sufficient.

I wanted to help users who truly knew nothing; help them lose the fear, and begin to relate to common computer technology. Many newcomers have at least some pre-existing knowledge or computer exposure, and there are some pretty good books out there for them. But there’s not much in print from major computer book publishers for those who are at absolute ground zero, having never touched a PC before. Some naysayers have suggested to me such a book is already obsolete. Since my day job is handling technology-based training for a Fortune 100 company, I certainly know where those skeptics are coming from. Yes, the PC landscape is changing. But even with tablets, touch and persistent connectivity, many core concepts of computing are very much the same, no matter the device. It’s the mental framework for engaging a personal computing device that most newcomers really need. So while some of the content will undoubtedly eventually become obsolete, the approach certainly won’t. If anything, I’m finding more opportunity than ever to explain computers and other digital technology using that approach.

The book’s target audience is those approaching or in retirement; essentially senior citizens. This is where the greatest gap in adoption still exists. I caught wind of this new Pew research data on Internet usage, and as you can see, there is still a huge gap between those under 65 and those above. (It’s less than 50%  adoption for those 65 and older, though total adoption is 80%. 12% don’t even own a computer!) This is particularly interesting and timely considering I also just read a news article about how US Series E Savings Bonds can now only be purchased online. It’s the latest in a number of government services that can only be acquired via the Internet. You’d think in light of this, plus limited mobility of those older, would actually equate to higher usage than 50%. A lot of the people in the 60 and older demographic clearly think computing and the internet are too difficult to engage later in life. I didn’t want them to be left behind. I wanted to provide the encouragement, break down the fear barrier, and do that through everyday things each reader could relate to. And while I’m a big supporter of local community classes offered by colleges, libraries, and SeniorNet, some newcomers don’t have the gumption to sign-up for such services. It requires admitting in front of others they’re in that segment which knows nothing, feeling like an outsider. That’s precisely why I wrote and published a book (in print) rather than making an e-book, DVD, online video, lecture series or curriculum. I wanted to offer each reader the chance to explore the concepts of computing in the most familiar, safe way possible, at an affordable price.

My book will never sell a million copies. I don’t care. I didn’t do it to become famous or rich. Computer literacy training isn’t my day job (though I can say what I learned by doing it has also helped me professionally in a number of ways.) I did it because I know my approach works, no one else was doing it, and I had what it took to put it all together. It’s my hope it changes a lot of newcomers’ worlds for the better.  And for the rest — the explainers, designers, and developers — I hope the approach and concept — the way of thinking about and presenting intangible, virtual concepts through narratives, analogies, metaphors, and direct comparisons to real-world physical things — helps you think of your users and audiences in new ways as well.

Happy anniversary!

Explaining 4 Key Programming Concepts with Household Items

April 19, 2012

I’ve often found myself providing others with simple explanations of fundamental programming concepts. While I’m by no means committed to writing an Ultimate Programming Primer, my work on The Ultimate PC Primer got me thinking: what analogies, stories, or props would I use to explain the basics of programming/scripting to total newcomers?

First, newcomers need to understand that programming or scripting is the discipline of writing instructions for a computer to follow. In order to be useful, the instructions must conform to a language the computer can understand. Simple scripting (like Javascript for the Web) often involves taking information in textual or numerical form, structuring it, manipulating it, and producing output (like textual or numerical information, or even animation). In short, scripting is providing the recipe (as I call software in The Ultimate PC Primer) for a computer to “cook” something up.

Learning how to write a “virtual recipe” can be difficult, since computer languages, as with real spoken and written languages, require correct grammar. In fact, computers are unforgiving with grammar, and usually they’re not smart enough to guess at what you mean. So, programming is challenging due to the precision required as well as the foreign nature of the structural concepts. And that’s why comparing the intangible to something physical — something from the real world — is often so handy.

Here’s how I explain four of the most common computer scripting/programming concepts to newcomers trying to grasp them, leveraging a few common household items. (Since I haven’t included photos of each of these, be sure to see the video at the bottom of this post to grasp the power of the visuals.) Read the rest of this entry »

Driving home what an operating system is

November 20, 2011

Car dashboard

What is an operating system? That’s a question I’ve received from time to time here. While I provide an adequate explanation in The Ultimate PC Primer, my intent in the book wasn’t to spend a lot of time explaining operating systems. Here’s why…

For most ordinary users, an operating system is a nothing. It is taken for granted. We don’t care much about it so long as it works. Applications/programs are where the value of the computer lies for us. But the question about operating systems often comes from computer newcomers who are starting to spread their wings. They’ve learned not all computer systems look and function the same, and by raw research, asking a friend, or context clues they eventually realize that this is due to different “operating systems.”

So, today on Explain Technology, today’s questions are: what is an operating system and what good is one? Why does a computer need it, and what does that mean for us?

Let’s answer this backwards. If you know that nearly everything you want to do with a computer involves programs or “apps,” then the first thing to learn is that those programs won’t work without an operating system (OS). Think of this like automobiles and the road. If you have several nice cars parked in your garage, you undoubtedly own them so that you can drive them somewhere — so that they will carry you from one place to another. Could you drive them with no road? No, you need a road for them to function and rules of the road (driving rules) for them to operate safely, without crashing into other cars. Likewise, computer programs that you like to use to achieve some useful benefit also need a bedrock to work from and rules in which to operate.

But the OS is more than just a necessity. It’s a nicety for you, because Read the rest of this entry »

4 quick tips for explaining tech to parents (and other non-techies)

May 12, 2011

To celebrate the launch of The Ultimate PC Primer, I wanted to share a few of the teaching strategies I leveraged in crafting the book. If you’re struggling to explain a new technology to a parent, grandparent, or coworker, consider these before your next attempt.

1. Lose yourself.

Forget that you know what you know. Admit that you have The Curse of Knowledge, despite how annoyed you may feel about how “basic” you think the subject matter is. This is extremely difficult, to imagine what it’s like to not understand something that you indeed understand all too well. (That’s partially why it took so long to write the book.) But you have to start here. It will save you frustration. It also will help you empathise, or at least be able to say things that sound empathetic in those key moments when your learner is deciding to tune out or stay with you.

2. Make connections with things known.

Draw comparisons from familiar things. Find something your learner can relate to. This may be hard, based on the cultural or age differences between you and your learner. I admit, it was a stretch for me to write The Ultimate PC Primer because I had to continually learn about how others see the world, based on their experiences and mental reference points. You want to look for common ground in the least-technical space possible. The everyday world is filled with these opportunities. You just have to find them. When I present in front of groups, I try to know the audience as much as possible and leverage examples that I’m fairly confident they can relate to. Speaking of analogies…

3. Find analogies that go the distance.

Analogies and metaphors can be fantastic ways to connect the known with the unknown. You start with something ordinary, of which the learner has no fear. You use it as a bridge to the “scary technology concept.” It takes away the fear and can help create a solid mental model of the technology or concept you’re trying to explain. However, all analogies are not created equal. They break down at some point. (That’s why they’re only analogies.) But a well-conceived analogy can go the distance, being relevant and helpful in multiple situations and scenarios. The best analogies contribute to the learner’s mental model, rather than fracturing it. So search for the golden analogies. It’s hard work, but it keeps you from having to say “forget I said that” or “well, in this case, this technology is actually different from what I said before.” You want to make a lasagna, where all the noodles fit neatly together, not analogy spaghetti.

4. Don’t overload.

When you begin to see the lightbulb go on, it’s easy to try to quickly piggyback on that lightbulb moment — to want to move expediently toward “the end game.” I know getting across the finish line will make your life easier, and you undoubtedly want to make their life easier. But if you want to truly get your learner across the finish line, be prepared to hold yourself back. As a concept is newly formed in the mind of your learner, you don’t want to cause cognitive overload by quickly dumping all kinds of other foreign concepts on top of it in your earnest attempt to “get them up to speed.”  In writing The Ultimate PC Primer, I went through several manuscript revisions trying to make sure I wasn’t crowding too much into each lesson. When I started writing, I worried about having too little in my book. Eventually, I started pulling content out, to keep from overloading the reader with too many new concepts. And that’s why the book ended up being a primer. You have to give people somewhere to start… a foundation. I found I couldn’t explain everything a PC user would need to know in one book, and you can’t build your learner’s house right after pouring the foundation.  Let it solidify, lest you dislodge what you just built. Though tech-savvy people like you and I are conditioned to wait for little in this age, remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you want your learner to truly understand something of depth, several cumulative lessons may be needed.

Best wishes as you endeavor to explain technology to your learner.  For some additional ideas on explaining personal computers to new or confused users, pick up a copy of The Ultimate PC Primer on Amazon or through your favorite bookseller.

Learning and unlearning can benefit from careful use of analogies

October 14, 2008

As a respected colleague of mine recently retired, she passed on some nuggets of wisdom about life-long learning, one of which was the following:

“Remember, learning often requires unlearning.”

As soon as I heard it roll off her lips, I thought of how that concept is foreign to many who attempt to teach technology, especially those younger teachers who have only had to learn the thing they’re teaching once… because to them, the thing is what the thing is — what it has always been. Have you ever wondered why young kids can learn technology so fast? They’ve never needed to know anything else, let alone figure out how it changes their experience. They’re like brand new sponges. You can pour new concepts into their brains with no mental collisions! But, for us older technology learners, it’s a little different because we often already have an existing experience to weigh new concepts against. Let’s take PCs as an example. Most tasks that one uses a PC for have existed prior to the advent of personal computing (communications, budgeting, leisure, etc.)… the PC is really is a new way to accomplish those. What’s a good way to explain the newer way? Analogies, of course!

I believe in using analogies not only based on the scholarly research, but because from personal and professional experience I’ve found learning something new often is done by comparison/linking to something already known. If two things have a commonality in concept, and one is already familiar to the learner, then it can be a great way to explain the unknown. That’s why I maximize the use of analogies in teaching technology to older computing newcomers. (In fact, one of the early chapters of The Ultimate PC Primer is exclusively dedicated to one central “backbone” analogy that helps drive the reminder of the explanations of core computing concepts.) One of the benefits of being older is that one has a vast wealth of experiences to draw on when engaging new experiences. That said…

Problems can develop when a new technology is fundamentally different from something the new user is attempting to compare against or when the new technology is a radical change from the old way of doing the same thing. In this case, a difficult thing must be done: the user has to unlearn the previous way, or at least “un-link” (conceptually differentiate) from the past experience. It can be particularly challenging to teach the concept using an analogy because that analogy must then achieve two goals: 1. convey the new concept clearly, with a easily understandable connection to the user’s past (or a universally understood concept); and 2. be readily different in concept from that which must also be “un-taught,” so as to not create a mis-association. (Have you ever learned to understand or remember something the wrong way? Ugh. You’re forever trying to remember which is the right way.)

Even with this goal in mind, not all analogies can be perfect. In fact, nit-picked too thoroughly, all analogies will break down at some point. (That’s why they’re “analogies.”) I heavily ponder analogies before using one, trying to get closest to the bull’s-eye while also trying to avoid those that will likely cause concept confusion. Here’s an actual example from a dilemma I faced while writing The Ultimate PC Primer. I was searching for a good analogy to explain the function of Caps Lock on the PC keyboard. Since Caps Lock deals with upper and lower case letters, one of my first ideas was to compare it with switching between high-beam and low-beam headlights on an automobile. But that analogy didn’t make it past the first draft. As I thought about using Caps Lock and then about switching between normal and high-beams when I drive, I realized that the headlights provide far greater visual feedback than the Caps Lock button does. Think about it. You use headlights at night, and what’s the primary way you can confirm that you’ve switched from one set of lights to the other? You look out the window. You see the actual effect of the lights. True, there is an indicator on the dashboard, but that’s not generally the first (and certainly not the only) way. Now with Caps Lock, there is only that little light on the keyboard. And that’s a big difference when you’re trying to 1. explain a new concept and 2. use an analogy that won’t confuse the concept more than clarify. Sure, headlights might explain the toggling concept, but it doesn’t help new users when they’re trying to figure out if Caps Lock is on or off.

So consider your analogies carefully, and remember that some learners are actually trying to unlearn and figure out differences while you’re teaching them. And if you’re curious what analogy I used to explain Caps Lock, you’ll just have to wait for the book to be published to find out.