You don’t know how to use a computer

Photo courtesy of Pexels user Thirdman

The worst group project I ever had was with a student who didn’t know how computers work.

To their credit, computers are complicated. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most people have never opened a command prompt, let alone changed their shell or run a virtual machine. The reason Drexel has an entire degree dedicated to user experience and interaction design at Westphal – and indeed the whole point of a user interface – is that most people will never need to know these things on a daily basis. Computers are extremely powerful tools. You don’t need to know how to build a car to drive a car.

Unfortunately for my party member, their problem was painfully simple and embarrassing.

The project was a MATLAB project. Our group had to write a program to do the calculations. Numbers go in, numbers go out. Not bad. The weird part was that each band member had to write and deliver their own version of the project, presumably to prove that we could all navigate the program.

They couldn’t navigate the program.

They asked me for help, and I asked them to share their screen. The error they were getting was extremely common: MATLAB cannot open a program unless that program is where it expects it to be. The program just wasn’t in the folder they asked MATLAB to look at. It’s a two-second fix, given that you know where your files are saved.

They did not know where their files were saved.

So I asked them where they usually keep their documents and other school work. And they minimized the window to show me the default MacBook desktop screen absolutely covered in all the files they had created or used.

Now, if you are one of those people who log everything on the desktop and don’t know why it’s wrong, I apologize for singling you out. The American school system has let you down. It’s not your fault. I’m here for you.

Computers are like filing cabinets; they only work well if you like to keep things organized. If you save all the documents you write on the desktop, not only will it be harder to find what you need when everything is sitting in a big pile, but if something goes wrong and you need to restore the system, the desktop is erased. Every file in it will be deleted. Permanently.

If we continue the filing cabinet metaphor, it’s like leaving all your papers strewn about in an office when the fire sprinklers go off.

Now, this isn’t just a PSA about proper organization of file directories. The student I was working with is just one of many people who didn’t know much about computers and had no way to learn. Does Drexel offer basic computer courses? High schools ? Mine certainly didn’t. For most of us, introductory computer classes are only offered at Hard Knocks University (Away Campus).

This is a real and important problem for people today. Computers are continually integrated into all facets of our lives, for better or for worse. Can you imagine being in IT at a large corporation where the CEO doesn’t understand why he can’t have the same password for his work computer and his bank account? Many of us think this is a problem for older generations, but it really isn’t. I see it most often in iPhone and iMac users who’ve never had to deal with weird dumb Microsoft issues, who’ve never had a chance to consider third-party devices, who don’t Have ever had to google how to stop HP Print Scan Doctor from turning on their computer at 11:15 p.m. every night.

The solution, contrary to popular belief, is absolutely not “for everyone to buy Windows PCs so that we all suffer together”. The American school system needs to invest in real computer science lessons, taught by people who actually know what they are doing and can teach it in a way that students actually learn something.

We cannot go through our lives without understanding the tools that enable us. You don’t need to know how to build a car to drive a car, but you should probably learn how often you need an oil change. Computers are only going to get more complicated and we all need to know how to use them.

Not Linux, however. No one needs to know how to use Linux.

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