Chapter 2 - Learning computer skills

The quest for knowledge doesn't end with a book or manual. Regardless of when you start learning computer skills, it'll become a lifelong journey on which you'll utilize a wide variety of resources.

There are many places to turn when you want to increase your knowledge. Online computer courses, adult education and community college classes, commercial workshops, computer consultanting professionals, user groups, Web sites and online senior communities are all standing by to help.

But the key is desire. If you want to learn more about any subject, you have to a basic curiosity and a desire to gain knowledge. It's the same with technology. If you'd like to learn how to operate your computer with a bit more prowess, the information is out there. Take the initiative and go after it.

Ask around

If you took up computing in the '70s or '80s, you'd likely have a hard time finding people with whom to discuss your hobby. Fortunately, the pool of competent computer users is significantly larger now and it grows each day.

That means that your neighbor, co-worker or golfing buddy might be a great source of help. Ask around and find out who enjoys computing and chat with them on a regular basis. Also, don't be afraid to ask your children or grandchildren for help. Each new generation grows up more technologically literate than the previous, and many are more than willing to share their expertise with those who are interested.

Computing classes

As with any subject, it's much easier to learn in a hands-on environment rather than just taking notes while listening to a teacher lecture. Make sure you look for classes that have computers on hand for you to try your new skills.

Seniors have a great resource in SeniorNet, which started in 1986 at the University of San Francisco as a research project. The organization, which has grown into an international group with more than 39,000 members, provides computer training to those 50 and older in hands-on courses that are priced quite reasonably.

Where I used to live in Florida computer training classes were limited to 12 people, and taught by an instructor and two or three coaches, who are all seniors. Since you're with people your own age, it's a very non-threatening environment.

To find a location near you, go to the SeniorNet site at www.seniornet.org, click on Learning Centers and select Find a Learning Center.

You can also find beginning computer classes offered through your local school system, community college or university. The format, quality and cost of these classes can vary greatly, so be sure to ask around. A good instructor can enlighten you for years to come. A bad one could frustrate you to no end and scare you away from your newfound hobby.

Tech support

Quality service after the sale is the sign of a good company. Whether you just bought a new computer system or a new program, the manufacturer should offer a toll free number for which to call if you have any questions.

Nearly every hardware and software company offers some type of telephone technical support to those who buy their products, but the quality of that support can vary greatly.

Some companies will answer the phone immediately and stay on the line with you as long as you need. Others will make you hold for what seems like an eternity only to disappoint you with their service.

Be sure to check if the company is offering tech support for a limited time or for life. Some companies offer free support for 30 days or so, then make you call a 1-900 number with hefty per-minute charges.

To cut back on labor costs, many companies are encouraging users to submit tech support questions through e-mail or fax. I should also note that many companies require you to register your software (discussed in "Chapter 12: Software") before accessing tech support.

Books and magazines

Take a trip to your local book superstore and you'll probably see at least a dozen shelves displaying computer books. You'll find an even greater selection on Internet sites such as amazon.com.

The popular "Dummies" series of books offers two titles that are great for beginners: "PCs for Dummies" and "Macs for Dummies." There are also plenty of books on such subjects as the Internet, building Web pages, programming, specific applications and more.

The nice part about shopping at brick-and-mortar stores (an Internet-era phrase meaning an actual building) is you can grab a book, get a cup of coffee and spend a half hour looking through it before committing to buy it.

With technology constantly evolving, it's also important to supplement the information you get from books with more up-to-date articles. Tech magazines are a great way to keep up with constantly changing technologies. Here are some popular magazines to check out:

  • PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com)
  • PC World (www.pcworld.com)
  • Macworld (www.macworld.com)
  • MacAddict (www.macaddict.com)
  • MacHome (www.machome.com)

Consultants

Whether you're in need of training or help installing a new hard drive you just purchased, there are plenty of computer consultants in most areas of the country who are standing by to help.

Depending on their experience, consultants can be expensive. But if you've spent 10 hours on a problem that a trained consultant could solve in on hour, then that $50 or $75 could be a good investment.

They're also a good option if you simply can't get the knowledge you seek anywhere else. If you've been looking for help with a particular piece of software and can't find a course offered anywhere, one-on-one training might be the place to turn.

The best way to find a good consultant is by word of mouth, but you can contact the Independent Computer Consultants Association (1-800-774-4222, www.icca.org).

Bad consultants will try to talk over your head and pretend they're competent enough to warrant a high hourly charge. A good consultant will tell you what they're doing and teach in plain language, letting their expertise speak for itself.

User groups

User groups are a slightly more formal setting for computer enthusiasts in your area to get together and talk about their hobby.

These non-profit groups, typically funded through small membership fees, usually meet at least once a month. Meetings often involve discussion about a particular topic, a question-and-answer sessions and a guest speaker.

Many user group members are seniors, as those in the later years in life often have more free time to devote to hobbies than those working a full time job.

Larger user groups often spawn smaller subgroups called special interest groups (SIGs) that focus on more specific topics. For instance, the Senior Net User Group in Tampa, Fla., runs a popular genealogy SIG group.

To find a Mac user group, go to the Apple User Groups site (www.apple.com/usergroups/), click on Find a User Group, select your country and enter in an address or cross street. To find a PC User Group near you, go to the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (www.apcug.org), click on User Groups and Find a User Group Near You.

If you can't find a nearby group on one of the above sites, try calling a local computer store or consultant.

Forums and Newsgroups

As I mentioned earlier in the chapter, chatting with others is the best way to expand your technology universe.

But if you can't find those people around your neighborhood, you can always find a band of competent techies online.

Online services such as AOL and Yahoo! offer plenty of forums where you can post messages or chat instantly with other folks about your computer problems.

We'll cover chat rooms, online forums and Usenet newsgroups in more detail in "Chapter 23: Interacting with others."

Web sites

The Internet has become a global archive of information. Chances are that if you're having a specific problem with your computer, someone has already experience it, figured out a solution and written about it.

We'll cover how to find pertinent Web sites in "Chapter 22: Browsing the Web."

NEXT - Chapter 3 - What is this thing?