When teaching tech newbies, don't make assumptions

A techie looks back to the 1980s and shares entertaining experiences from the times he trained new computer users

This is a series of recollections from the late 1980s when I was actively involved in training new computer users. Some of the people in the class were required to take it for their jobs, some were in for retraining and/or learning new skills, and some were just curious and wanted to learn about "these new PCs." Every once in a while, the experiences were so entertaining that I (almost) felt bad about taking payment for teaching.

Forcing the disk issue

We were doing a basic training session on Apple Macintosh computers. I was leading the session of about 30 people. My teaching style is to show students what I want done, then have them practice it while I circulate around the room answering questions and making sure everyone understands the lesson.

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These were Macs with the 3.5-inch removable hard-cased floppy diskettes everyone became so familiar with. To demonstrate the proper installation process, I started by showing and describing how the diskette should be oriented: drive hole down, shutter forward, and how to insert it into the drive. Then I instructed everyone to insert their diskette.

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Throughout the room I could hear the chunk, chunk, chunk of disks loading -- then a conspicuous crunch and a raised hand. The student asked, "Will the disks go in any other way?"

I responded no, they would only load if properly oriented; otherwise they wouldn't go in.

Looking down at his computer, he responded, "Yes they will," and I learned where the crunch had come from.

This was in the days when diskette drives were $400+ each.

The mouse's limits

Another time we were training a group how to use the computer mouse, something that is so intuitive these days that you almost think kids are born with the skill. But these folks had never seen a mouse before, had absolutely no concept of its operation, and had no grasp of a GUI with its graphical representation of the mouse's movement and position. This led to a number if frustrating (for them) and funny (for me) situations.

There was the lady who could not get her mouse to move the cursor on the screen at all. Suspecting that the mouse cable had detached, I went over to check. All was well, so I asked her to demonstrate what was happening. Picking up her mouse and moving it around in the air over top (not on) the desk, she carefully showed me her problem.

Then there was the gentleman who wanted to know if I could move him to a larger desk because "he kept reaching the edge and the mouse stopped working."

This situation was balanced, of course, by the lady who needed a longer mouse cord because she could only get the cursor to move so far before she was at the end of her rope.

Literal interpretations of how to use a floppy disk

Another time we were teaching a course with PCs that used 5.25-inch floppy disks. These, as you may remember, came in a protective paper sleeve. The machines were set up with two floppy drives mounted vertically one above the other in a tower.

I explained how the disks worked and how to insert the floppy, cautioning the students to make sure they took the disk out of its protective case before trying to insert it. Then I had them practice loading and removing the disks a few times.

Everyone quickly grasped the concept except for one older gentleman at the rear who seemed to be having problems. When I went to see what the matter was, he said that he could not get the disk to go into the drive and explained the steps he had taken.

When I had said to remove the disk from its protective covering before inserting, he had pulled out his trusty Swiss Army knife, opened the scissors, carefully cut one edge off the protective shell, then removed the bare floppy disk -- which he was endeavoring to insert into the drive with the expected results.

But that wasn't the only funny experience from that class. I had one lady who could not get her 5.25-inch floppy out of the drive after inserting it. When I inspected her machine, the drive was, in fact, empty.

I asked her where her disk was and was informed quite snippily that she had inserted it in the computer as I had instructed her to do and she could not get it out now.

Well, let's try this, I suggested. Giving her another floppy, I asked her to insert it and I would see what had gone wrong. In went the disk -- right into the crack separating the two floppy drives and into the computer tower case.

One thing I learned from these sessions that I have tried to remember all my consulting career is to never assume anything when training folks and to do it as politely as possible. There have been many times when I was the newbie.

This story, "When teaching tech newbies, don't make assumptions," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at InfoWorld.com.

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