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The Magic of Teaching the ‘Computer Challenged’

The Heart of Linux

Tasks which are everyday simple to the experienced computer user can be daunting to someone who hasn’t been shown how.

Most everyone reading this, to at least some point, is computer proficient. Whether we’ve written scripts for macros to make our typing tasks simpler, or created entire websites, we perceive our skills as part of our daily lives. Not a big deal. It’s simply the tools we’ve accrued to facilitate our work. Ctrl+A? Nothin’ to it. Ctrl+V? Same same. Vi vs Emacs? Don’t start it. There are dozens of small, time-saving commands we’ve learned over the years. And we most certainly do take them for granted. But to those who don’t know much past turning the computer on and doing some basic browsing, those commands are like magic.

computer magick

During the summer, when our workload permits, I enjoy teaching Computer 101 at our Reglue facility. When I first began advertising these classes, I assumed we would draw mostly bored young people. Wrong. The average age at these classes turned out to be 51 years old.

This was my first real exposure to teaching older adults about computers. My experience to this point was teaching kids, where more often than not, halfway through my presentation the Reglue kid could hardly hold back the desire to push me out of the way to get their hands on the keyboard.

Older adults? To the Nopemobile Robin! I’ve seen a foxhole full of soldiers with a hand grenade thrown amongst them more relaxed than these folks. Teaching some of us older people just how to properly use a mouse can be excruciating…for both parties. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not painting an entire generation this way…I’m just saying that our generation seems unproportionately represented when it comes to being computer challenged.

In one class, I was standing at the white board and projector giving examples about how keyboard shortcuts can save oodles of time. One of the first shortcuts I demonstrated was the F11 “full screen” command, which leaves only the text and graphics of the website and puts all other controls out of reach.

As I turned back to the class after adjusting the projector, Marilyn, an older lady sitting right in front, was stifling back tears. Tears? Yeah…tears. I told the class to stand and stretch their legs for 10 minutes and that those who wished to smoke or vape could do so outside. I took the newly vacant seat next to Marilyn and softly asked what was wrong.

She waved me off while trying to compose herself. Once done, she explained to me how she had been writing a long response on a website and when she inadvertently pushed some key toward the top of the keyboard, everything but the space she was typing in disappeared. Try as she might, there was absolutely no way she could navigate outside of the website field into which she was typing.

PoofShe tried everything, but the longer she failed to find an answer, the more worried she became. She didn’t want to lose 30 minutes of work. She couldn’t shrink down the window, there was no menu button to click, and most of all, she had no idea of what she had done to make this happen. In close to a full-blown panic, she called the niece who helped her with her computer problems.

After Marilyn explained everything to her, the niece replied: “That’s a nasty piece of malware Aunt Marilyn. It’s kind of like a virus. Are you sure there’s no way to shut the page down or click an icon to get out of that page?”

Marylin replied that she couldn’t. It was then that the “computer expert” niece told her that there wasn’t any other choice. She would have to reinstall Windows. The niece had provided her with a installation disk when she purchased the computer for her, and Marilyn was sure she could do the installation.

Without any backup, she hard reset the computer and then placed the disk in the drawer. In minutes she wiped away dozens of family pictures which had been carefully scanned and kept on the hard drive. Her financial and personal records, such as her electronic birth certificate, the death certificate of her husband, the deed to her home, and years of mementos and clips were all gone with the touch of a keyboard key. After several hours, she was able to operate her computer, but it was barren. All the drivers had to be reinstalled; it was truly starting from scratch.

It was only days later that she found herself sitting in the front row of my Computer 101 class, weeping “like a schoolgirl” as she described it.

Once she had composed herself and demonstrated to me that she understood the F11 key and how to use it, I called the class to session and we went back to work. Before I stood to resume the class, she whispered to me that a certain niece was going to get the butt-chewing of her life, but she could repent to seek forgiveness by accepting three boxes of family photos and mementos and scan them to files again.

The next week I was able to regain about 70 percent of the original files on her hard drive…the ones with no real world substance. That hard drive is the one on which she allowed me to install Linux. Marilyn is now a happy Linux user.

Another class was attended by a lady in her late 50s who was absolutely flabbergasted with cut/paste copy/paste. In a conversation outside the classroom, she explained to me that when she found a line, paragraph or a complete page of text she wanted to send to someone, she went back and forth between pages and typed it word for word into an email or chat field. When she discovered the cut, copy and paste commands, she was literally overjoyed. I didn’t know such a tiny woman could squeeze someone so hard. She was indeed grateful.

It’s little things like these which we take for granted or consider common knowledge which can literally change someone’s life. Simply sending new users to a link and telling them to have at it often won’t work. Most folks feel better and learn better with a person sitting beside them.

I understand that not everyone has the right personal chemistry to help someone else learn. It’s a gifted talent, just as is a knack for mathematics or statistics. Nathan Baker has created a number of tutorials which guide the new teacher as to how the new user needs to learn.

However, there will be many new users who can work on their own and maintain enough focus to learn properly. Nathan has created another page that can guide you as to how the new computer user can learn on their own.

We’re currently in the midst of our 2016 Indiegogo fundraising drive. Your support is crucial. Won’t you please visit our fundraising page and make a contribution to support FOSS Force?


  1. Cliff Jones Cliff Jones March 1, 2016

    I know the feeling, Ken. I’ve taught a number of subjects, from flying airplanes on instruments to A+ certification, and nothing beats when you put the lights on in someone’s head.

    The unspoken truth of teaching though is that the teacher is the one doing the most learning. I remember after going through parts of a class by rote a few times suddenly the lights would go off in my own head.

    I recall one such event teaching for the instrument rating written test that was so apparent the class laughed… “finally figured it out, eh?” It was obvious I had just really ‘gotten’ the fundamental concept right there, while “teaching” it.

    And the learning goes on well outside the subject matter. One never stops gaining insight into human nature.

  2. UncleEd UncleEd March 1, 2016

    Isn’t it entertaining the way we’ve recycled perfectly good English words into something nobody over [mumble, mumble] years of age is ever going to guess.

    Let’s go to the College of Agriculture. Okay, class–what’s a file? It’s how I sharpen my mower… What’s a “record”? It’s one of those black plastic round music things… Batting a thousand aren’t we? And what’s a field?

    Friends, I EARNED my gray hair. I spent most of my teaching career in the lower left corner of Missouri. Among the talents I developed over a lot of years was the ability to translate nerd into hillbilly with a straight face.

  3. Bernardo Verda Bernardo Verda March 2, 2016

    Yeah — the one thing most conducive to computer troubles, or even disaster, than someone who doesn’t know much about computers, is the someone-or-other who *thinks* that they *do* know computers.

  4. Fred Smith Fred Smith March 2, 2016

    in a modern UI there are lots of things that are not at all obvious, such that people who don’t know anything/much about using that system will never stumble over them. cut/paste is certainly a big one.

    us nerds tend to think it’s easy to use, but if you’ve never seen one before it isn’t even slightly “intuitive”.

  5. skelband skelband March 2, 2016

    I’m waiting for the time when we realise that nobody can remember what that funny icon for the “save” button represents. I can remember floppy disks but who, in the upcoming generation, has ever seen one?

  6. Mike Mike March 2, 2016


    The alternative is worse:
    The next generation of UI developers have already decided that skeuomorphism is a bad thing, sticking us with UI’s containing no contextual clues at all, e.g. Windows 8, etc.

    I’d like to find whoever started this latest fad of flat UI’s with no borders, no 3D shading to indicate focus, and hidden buttons and hotspots all over the damn place in order to reduce “clutter”, and beat them over the head with a laptop.

  7. Jim Jim March 2, 2016

    I’ve had some good results teaching the computer-reticent and I’ve had some deep frustrations. It doesn’t matter which OS, some people just want the rote route to getting their particular problem solved without understanding what they did, so they can’t understand what they just learned in a way that they can apply it to other tasks.

    Happily. my most recent help involved putting Linux on a friend’s laptop. I didn’t tell her it was Linux, just “this is what I use.” I asked her two weeks later how things turned out. She said she had no problems and even did a presentation at the library where she hooked her laptop us to a projector. LibreOffice is opening all her MS Office and Publisher files. She also has the GIMP and Scribus (which she liked).

  8. Eddie G. Eddie G. March 4, 2016

    I too am the “go-to” person in my family, since I’ve “turned” almost all of them on to Linux, the most “repeat” customer I have? my 70+ year old mother. I have to admit sometimes I DO get annoyed, but thank God I’ve been able to mask it well. With her it was the transition from Windows 7 to Windows 8, which prompted me to give her Linux Mint with the MATE desktop. Since then she’s not had a problem and can even update her system herself. Her biggest hurdles lie in document / attachment / email / and downloads, and by that I mean she will compose an email, and then get a bit befuddled when its time to attach a photo saved to her hard drive, or a document she most recently downloaded from the internet with Firefox. But aside from navigating those minefields, mostly she’s ok. I won’t lie though at first? I was drinking more coffee, and pulling out my own hair out DAILY. I do not fancy myself a teacher, and I tip my hat to all those who choose this for a life long career! You’re all head and shoulders above the average man on the street, you have a gift of patience that MUST be God-given!

  9. Sam Gribley Sam Gribley March 7, 2016

    The F11 story in that article reminded me of a very old editorial about False Authority Syndrome:

    It’s too bad that woman didn’t hit the Windows key (the one with a Windows logo) while she was trying “everything” to break out of the window she was in. That would have popped up the Start menu and the task bar, thus allowing her to open other programs or log off. And that would have shown her the problem was probably limited to that one window.

    Unfortunately, the first response of most helpdesk people is the same as her niece’s response: “Reinstall your OS from scratch and call back if that doesn’t solve the problem”.

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