Explaining the Internet to newcomers

October 3, 2011

Bus with web address in the destination marque

“Explain the Internet” is not a simple question for the technology explainer to answer, but it’s a common query here at Explain Technology. The Internet has become a crucial element of everyday life, so I’m never surprised when newcomers seek an understanding of it. In fact, the lengthiest chapter in The Ultimate PC Primer is dedicated to providing a clear foundational explanation of the Internet and the most common benefits it can provide. (And I openly admit that single lesson is only an introduction.)  But in case you don’t have a copy of the book handy, here are some basics on how to explain the Internet.

First, let’s remember a question like “how does the Internet work” could be intended and interpreted different ways. Does the questioner want a description of the technology from an infrastructure perspective or help with the process for how to use it? In most cases, I find it’s a combination of both. Curious individuals want the infrastructure details abstracted away to easily-understood (and less technical) elements so that the application and process of using the Internet makes more natural sense. In short, people don’t care about the circuits and wires but also want a firm enough grasp to know it’s not magic. So here’s how I addressed both in The Ultimate PC Primer

I deal with the infrastructure portion first by explaining the following through analogies:

  1. How do computers connect to each other?
  2. How does my computer get in the mix?

The Internet is a group of interconnected computers, so how do they stay connected? Answer: they’re like teenage girls on limitless caffeine — they’re constantly on the phone gabbing with each other. In fact, they never hang up and they never sleep. How does your computer get in the mix? Answer: it needs to get on the party line, too (though it, and you, is allowed to sleep.)

Since the Internet has been often called the “information superhighway,” I willingly leverage the “highway” analogy to explain that every highway has an on-ramp. That’s where you can use your car to connect to the pavement that will take you where you want to go. The on-ramp for a personal computer is the connection point provided by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). (In the book, I also briefly explain different physical components involved with dial-up, DSL, Cable, and wireless.)

After getting “on the Internet,” the rest is largely about the process of navigation. The most crucial element of the Internet continues to be the World Wide Web, so much of the lesson in my book deals with explaining the principle of web pages/sites/services. I cover browser basics (common to all Web browsers) and again employ a real-world analogy — I compare the Web Browser to a bus, since a bus displays it’s destination on the marquee at the top of the vehicle just as the location always appears at the top of a browser.

I also cover e-mail basics the same way, explaining the concept through a real-world postal service scenario and continuing to generic e-mail software basics with corresponding illustrations.

If you’re interested in learning more, grab a copy of The Ultimate PC Primer: 15 Simple Lessons for Understanding Personal Computers (available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, from the publisher, or through many other booksellers) and check out Lesson 14.

Explaining Open Source software

July 25, 2011

I was recently asked to explain Open Source software. I’ve always been a big fan of Open Source because it has been an invaluable helper on a number of occasions. In fact, the interior of The Ultimate PC Primer was produced entirely with Open Source products — OpenOffice for composing the manuscript and final page layout and Inkscape for all the illustrations. As an explainer, however, I can understand why software newcomers might be a little confused by the concept of Open Source.

In The Ultimate PC Primer, I liken software to Read the rest of this entry »

The Top 15 Most Important Understandings Needed for Solid PC Literacy

June 10, 2011

What are the most crucial concepts that a newcomer to PCs would have to master in order to gain foundational computer literacy? Put on your “I know absolutely nothing about a PC” hat and consider the following. (If you need help finding such a hat, visit your nearest senior center for an eye-opening reminder of just how much you’ve already internalized and likely take for granted daily.) So, like a traditional Top 10 list (but with 5 more) ponder this…. 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.

Finally! A computer book for your mom (or dad)

May 6, 2011

Cover of The Ultimate PC Primer by Ben KobulnickyJust in time for Mother’s Day, The Ultimate PC Primer is a newly released resource for those who have struggled to get their mother, father, or other older relatives and friends to consistently understand personal computers. Using analogies, stories, and illustrations that compare core computing concepts to real-world things, the book is intended to bring both new and existing PC users to a baseline of knowledge and understanding so that family, friends, and tech support can at least have a “same language” dialog. It’s not a miracle fix — no computer book can be —  but it’s a starting point that everyone needs. With its reasonable price, it can easily be purchased along with one of the thick, traditional “how-to” computer reference books.

If you’re one of those people who have struggled to get mom or dad to understand computing, and you’ve found other resources to be too complicated or too technical, give it a try. While it’s largely written for those who are newer to managing their own computing experience — retirees from non-technology-centric fields, senior citizens, etc. —  it would probably also be a great help to those needing to come out of retirement into the workforce again who might never have needed to depend on PC skills before.

It is available via Amazon or the publisher today, and within a month it should be able to be ordered through any major U.S. bookseller.