Re: What I Love Doing

There’s one line in Jessamyn West’s commencement speech to the Goddard College’s Masters in Individualized Studies Program that popped out at me when I read it.

– what I love doing

(“I teach email to old people… no seriously it’s the best thing there is”)

In reflecting on the line, I was faced with a question: how many librarians who talk and present about web 2.0, mobile interfaces, and all other manner of technology in the library teach a basic computer class? The kind of basic computer class that starts off with concepts like “this is a mouse, this is a keyboard”. How many librarians that sit on technology or web panels stand in a computer lab and walk people through the basics?

I’m not just talking about teaching seniors here. I’ve taught this basic class to people who are just a bit older than I am (late 30’s, if you must know). It’s not that people who didn’t grow up with the technology or some other age/generation based explanation; these are people who just never made it a priority in their lives to have a computer or use one. Now, with employment applications going online or wanting to stay in contact with family members far away, they are looking to learning how.

Don’t interpret this as a statement that those who do not teach basic computers cannot make any commentary when it comes to library technology. It’s not meant to be nor should it be interpreted as one. I just believe that teaching a basic computer class has changed the way I approach the topic. When you are teaching such a class, your entire vocabulary changes as you find approachable and non-technical jargon ways of describing the computer and its operation. The ultimate lesson I try to impart to my students is to be adventurous, be curious, and don’t worry about clicking on “the wrong thing” because honestly you really can’t hurt the computer. There is so much agony raveled around “messing up the machine” that people forget that for the same price as replacing all four tires on a car you can buy two or three computers.

Not that I would encourage that either but you get the point.

For the scientist in me, there have been some very interesting observable moments. People touching the screen on the computer like an iPad or ATM screen to try to make it work. One individual who asked if they had to come to the library to get retrieve their email. And, my favorite, people picking up the mouse and try to use it by waving it around. (It’s my favorite because one of my graduate school professors related a story about this happening. I believed him, but I still wanted to see it for myself. And, oh boy, I have.) Most are actions and behaviors influenced by the other technology in their lives, but they are all genuine in their origin.

For myself, it is rewarding when you see people start to understand what they are looking at, to be less apprehensive about using the mouse or the keyboard, and to make that connection in their mind that they can do this. That’s the moment I help them towards and why I love to teach basic computer classes at the library.

Do you teach a basic computer class at your library? Or any computer class, for that matter? What’s your experience like?

26 thoughts on “Re: What I Love Doing

  1. Count me in! I run the Computer Training Center at the Huntsville Madison County Public Library, and we teach one to three computer classes five days a week — everything from Google+ to basic PC skills. The best part of the job is that we make a real, bottom-line difference in peoples’ lives. The worst part is that we get an awful lot of people who just want us to teach them how to (email, publish a podcast on iTunes, write and format a resume, etc.) do something they think should be easy, without realizing the immense amount of knowledge needed to do it, and no interest in learning underlying skills. A bit like asking us to show them how to write a dissertation when they haven’t graduated from high school yet.

    • Yeah, I have seen that as well. Since you mentioned it, based on the circumstances I will offer to help type up a resume on the basis that different folks need different levels of help. They have to be there with me as we go through everything and I will show them how it works; otherwise, they are on their own.

      I’m looking forward to developing a G+ class for the fall. I don’t think I have enough interest now for a class; I’m waiting till it gets a bit more open.

  2. I work in a big academic library and deal mostly with young undergraduates who are typically quite comfortable with the basics so i dont get a chance to do basic classes.

    We do occasionally get a few in the class perhaps from developing countries that struggle to keep up and few older postgrad students. But its hard to help them without boring the rest of the class.

    I guess i do get too wrapped up sometimes in showing “cool” stuff not realizing not everyone is into technology.

  3. I don’t teach a basic computing class for work but I have helped my mother with basic technology (mostly email) over the last 5 years. While, at times, it can be veeeeeeery frustrating, it’s also really amazing to see a woman, who just a few years ago, could barely type, now sending her resume to potential employers, creating email lists, etc.

    I’ve realized that I definitely need to use different vocab and have lots and lots of patience. And to also recognize that while she may want to master email, she will never have any need or desire to use Twitter or Facebook. So I have to, like Aaron said above, not get too wrapped up in those features and to instead, focus on the basics.

  4. My very first library job was at a member-only law library for barristers. Because once you qualify as a barrister you had membership of the institution for life, we had users of all ages – from newly qualified 20-somethings to retired barristers in their 90s. I used to jokingly describe my job as “teaching young lawyers how to use books and old lawyers how to use computers”. I loved it – it was the best introduction to teaching research skills I could have had.

    I also got to do a little bit of general computer skills teaching – some of our retired members used to use the library in much the same way as a public library – they’d come in to read the newspapers, use the internet, type up letters, etc. I once helped an 85 year old man set up a Facebook account so he could keep in touch with his grandchildren 🙂

  5. Thanks for posting this as it may help me with a decision I have to make. While I work as a cataloger at a Systems office, I volunteer every Monday evening at one of our member libraries. I’ve been asked if I would like to do some programming, which I think would be a great experience. My choices are between teaching a basic computer class (as in “this is the mouse”) or a more informational type program on using online resources, etc., which is what I believe I would be more comfortable teaching and what appeals to me most. I was afraid that giving such basic instruction would become frustrating and tedious. But your post and the comments here lead me to believe that it could be a rewarding experience and actually make a difference in someone’s life whereas teaching the course that appeals to me would probably make more of a difference in *my* life.

    • You can find a fine balance between the two. Talking about what interests you does show and making it accessible to other people can bring them to your side. Perhaps they won’t love it as much, but they’ll know what you are talking about and be able to participate in the over arching conversation.

      You certainly need patience for the class. Not just for your student, but for yourself. You need to present yourself people in a manner that gives them patience with themselves. And, like the Special Forces, I never leave anyone behind. I’ll stop the class to get people back together on the same page, even if it takes a few minutes. Everyone gets through it, even if it takes a little longer for someone.

  6. I work at a small branch library and we don’t teach classes but we do provide one on one help. I find that most of my time spent helping people create email addresses and doing online applications. I think my favorite thing is that my senior patrons have renamed a lot of the software, and my favorite rename is Firefox into Foxfire.

    The local community college is coming with their mobile computer lab to do computer basic classes they filled up so fast. They are doing four classes, Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Word, Internet and Email. The classes are supposed to be for job skills, but I think a lot of the people just want to learn the basics.

    • Yes, one on one help! I’m going to write about that tomorrow. I think it’s one of the best instruction tools out there, in my opinion, and one that is underutilized.

  7. I totally suggest everyone try teaching basic technology classes both because it’s super fun and also because you get your head around the fact that there are so many more reasons that people aren’t involved in the online world than just lack of tech knowledge. If they just don’t know how to do something, having a few “this is a mouse” sessions with them can be incredibly useful and gratifying because they make progress. But you also wind up interacting with people whose learning has clearly been hampered either by something materially problematic–genuine learning disabilities, motor skills or vision problems–or something that is more ephemeral and difficult to tackle head-on. I see a lot of people without of control anxiety about technology or people who are angry with computers and can’t channel this anger productively into seeing the computer as a tool that does what they want.

    Many people have been affected by advertising and feel lied to about the wonders of computers and feel frustrated that it doesn’t seem to work that way for them. Others are afraid that getting online means that someone will steal your identity, or abduct your children. Dealing with these sorts of hurdles is very different than just giving a mousercise class and makes me think all the time about what sort of social safety net we have for people who can’t or possibly won’t learn this stuff.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jessamyn. And for that lovely speech. (I write out my speeches as well so I can identify readily with that.)

      One of the other benefits of these classes is that it does create a chance to showcase other services and materials of the library. I’ll sometimes jokingly run ‘a commercial’ before the class to show off our print calendar or a program that we want people to know about. It works wonders as well.

      Plus, in my opinion, it’s one of the best advocacy efforts. You are investing your time in other people to make their lives better. It puts a face on the library, it creates a story between that person and the library, and it is something that can result in larger influences.

  8. Andy,

    In one of my positions at a small branch library over 15 years ago, I had the pleasure of being able to create and teach basic “learn how to use the new library online catalog” and “basic e-mail” classes. I limited them to one or two people and found the work quite rewarding. I too remember helping someone e-mail his grandchildren for the first time. I also did a lot of listening because those were the days when many people were still frustrated and mourning the loss of the old card catalog.

    Andy and others, thanks for reminding me of the days when my days including offering basic instruction. For quite some time I’ve been toying with offering instruction to my current patrons that may be interested in how to more easily navigate our online resources. I’ve used the excuse of having my hours cut back not to do it. However, this discussion has reminded me of how fulfilling and necessary this part of our work is.

    • Woo hoo!

      I find that the big selling point on instruction is flexibility. I offer regular classes, but I also offer additional assistance by appointment. Also, as a supplement to my classes, I give people a chance to get one on one time for all the odds and ends they might be unclear about in the class.

      Your idea for a class sounds spot on. You might want to make up some advertising to encourage people to ask for help. It’s a reasonable way to get some feedback to see if there is interest and possibly how large it is.

  9. I do teach both basic and more advanced computer classes at a mid sized public library. My experience over the last 5 years has reflected your own, Andy, in that it’s not just seniors who are uncomfortable with technology. Perhaps it is seniors who have the time and interest to come to the classes, but often I find myself spending extra time with a middle aged person who’s struggling to get their resume out to potential employers, or just to keep up with the now social networked world. Also, let’s not forget that many in our communities cannot afford a computer or an internet connection, if one is even available to them.
    The mission statement of my library is “connecting individuals to the world” and I find that is the best part of my job.

    • That’s an awesome mission statement!

      Is it me, or does the job seem easier when you realize that it is all about the connection?

  10. My library offers free computer classes, including the very basic “This is a mouse. This is a keyboard. This is how you turn a computer on. This is how you turn it off.” We offer small group classes but also have one-on-one classes for people who for whatever reason just don’t work out in the group classes (schedule conflicts, learning disabilities, language issues, personal computer fears, physical control issues, etc.). My most memorable moment was the breakthrough I had with a woman who was terrified of the computer. Absolutely terrified. Her husband kept yelling at her that she was going to break the computer. We kept doing things to “mess the computer up” and would then fix it. During her third lesson, after we moved all the icons around and then she snapped them all back into place, she burst into tears and said, “Oh my Gosh. I’m not going to break it. I’m not going to break it.” It’s been seven years now, and she sent both her father and mother to me for lessons. She helps her children with their schoolwork on the computer, and she always stops to say hi and tell me what new things she’s learned to do on the computer. I’ve had many wonderful moments like that, but I think that one will stick with me forever because I know I changed the course of her life by being patient and supporting and helping her to remove a great fear that was holding her back.

    • Oh, one on one classes! I should follow up this post with one about the value of one-on-one sessions. I find it to be uniquely rewarding because I can tailor it to the person and really take the time to go through with them. Oh, I’m a big stickler for making people do it themselves in classes; I’ll help as an absolute last resort.

      Thanks for your comment. And the inspiration for another post!

  11. I teach basic and advanced computer classes at my public library, and I do find that while some people who come to class are retired, others are in their 30s, or 40s. One “mouse waver” was a very nice man who explained that he had been a truck driver for years, and now wanted to change jobs — and all the jobs had you apply online. I know some people who come to the library are amazed that we have these basic classes, but they are still very popular.

    What I have found interesting is that over the years, I have developed a technique to make computers very “friendly”, because sometimes, people are really intimidated by them. So, I use examples — a search engine is like a Labrador — you ask it to bring you something, and most of the time, it brings you what you ask for (and sometimes, not at all what you expect). By mixing humor into what I’m teaching, it becomes more fun, and less intimidating.

    • Humor certainly makes a difference! I also try to make the computer and myself as approachable as possible. I encourage people within an inch of their lives to ask questions and find me if they have questions. I think making curiosity seem natural and encouraging information seeking behaviors is the best takeaway from the class. They might not remember how everything on the mouse works, but hopefully they will associate with good things.

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  14. I just commented on your post about one-on-one lessons. Another great and timely post! I teach basic computer classes at a small public library — and I really enjoy it!! A lot of patience is required, but it’s very rewarding. The most frustrating for me (but also a little humorous) is teaching how to create an email account and helping them pick their user ID and password. I am so used to making up usernames and passwords, it’s second nature because I have so many online accounts. But for someone that is new to this (especially seniors), they take a lot of time trying to think of what words, letters or numbers they want. Inside my head I’m screaming: “just pick something” while outwardly I calmly explain or give suggestions. And then they don’t understand why their choice of email address has already been taken by someone else….. *sigh* One of the highlights of the last class I taught was an older woman who almost clapped her hands in glee after successfully typing the “@” symbol in her new email address. :o)

  15. When I taught basic computer classes (during the day, most of the students were seniors) I put a little piece of red duct tape on the left mouse button. People clicking the wrong button was one of the major issues I encountered! (I did have mouse wavers too.)

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