Life-Long Computer Skills

by Jakob Nielsen on February 26, 2007

Summary: Schools should teach deep, strategic computer insights that can't be learned from reading a manual.


I recently saw a textbook used to teach computers in the third grade. One of the chapters ("The Big Calculator") featured detailed instructions on how to format tables of numbers in Excel. All very good, except that the new Excel version features a complete user interface overhaul, in which the traditional command menus are replaced by a ribbon with a results-oriented UI.

Sadly, I had to tell the proud parents that their daughter's education would be obsolete before she graduated from the third grade.

The problem, of course, is in tying education too tightly to specific software applications. Even if Microsoft hadn't turned Excel inside out this year, they would surely have done so eventually. Updating instructional materials to teach Office 2007 isn't the answer, because there will surely be another UI change before today's third graders enter the workforce in 10 or 15 years — and even more before they retire in 2065.

There is some value in teaching kids skills they can apply immediately, while they're still in school, but there's more value in teaching them deeper concepts that will benefit them forever, regardless of changes in specific applications.

Teaching life-long computer skills in our schools offers further benefit in that it gives students insights that they're unlikely to pick up on their own. In contrast, as software gets steadily easier to use, anyone will be able to figure out how to draw a pie chart. People will learn how to use features on their own, when they need them — and thus have the motivation to hunt for them. It's the conceptual things that get endlessly deferred without the impetus of formal education.

Following are some general skills that I think we should teach in elementary school.

Search Strategies

Today's search engine market leader might be gone in 20 years, and the search page layouts that currently dominate all search engines will almost certainly change. So, we shouldn't teach the kids Google hacks.

That said, the general search concept will only become more important in the future, as we get ever-more information that will be ubiquitously accessible. Strategies for how to formulate good queries, how and when to use query reformulation or other search refinements, how to use scoped search, how to judge search result relevancy, and how to combine multiple search engines of different types will remain important, even as the specifics of how to implement such strategies change.

Information Credibility

In testing websites with children, we found that they click advertisements much more than adult users do. It's definitely important to teach kids how to recognize different types of ads, including sponsored versus organic search hits. But we need to go beyond that and teach kids strategies for judging and checking the credibility of online information. Teenagers are particularly impatient online, and thus potentially more vulnerable.

Information Overload

In the future, there will be even more email, more IM/SMS/voice mail/phone calls/video mail, more websites, more podcasts, and richer intranets. And all of it will be available in your office, at your home computer, on your mobile, and on various ambient devices.

People can take simple steps to fight information overload, but as information snowballs, we'll need more sophisticated strategies.

Writing for Online Readers

Communicating clearly on the Internet, intranet, and other interactive media is an increasingly important job skill. Extensive research has shown that users read online media very differently than they read print media. Thus, we should teach students how to write hypertext and not how just to write printed documents.

Computerized Presentation Skills

Good speakers know how to use PowerPoint to enhance their presentations rather than put audiences to sleep with bullet points. Most business professionals agree that solid presentation skills are essential for career advancement. Fewer appreciate that today's presentations tend to be computer-supported and that more than pure speaking brilliance is required to get a point across.

Many students already use PowerPoint to present their projects. We should go beyond the mechanics of slide projection and teach them skills for effective computer-supported presentations.

Workspace Ergonomics

As life gets more computerized, RSIs (repetitive strain injuries) such as carpal tunnel syndrome and "text-message thumb" are hurting more people. We should teach people how to protect their health, and how to set up a workplace according to established ergonomic guidelines. Rule #1 is to take frequent breaks and stand up, but there's much more to it, including monitor placement, chair and desk height, and lighting. Most computer set-ups are health hazards that induce headaches, backaches, and RSI.

Debugging

We shouldn't turn everyone into a programmer, but the basic debugging concept is a fundamental survival skill in the computer era. Most spreadsheets contain formula errors, for example, and unless people know how to find such mistakes, they'll make decisions based on the wrong numbers.

User Testing and other Basic Usability Guidelines

Just as all kids shouldn't have to become programmers, we also shouldn't turn them all into usability specialists or interaction designers. That said, the more we conduct business in an interactive environment, the more important it is that we understand the fundamental principles that facilitate easy interactions. Understanding usability heuristics like "recognition vs. recall" or "consistency" will be as important to the educated person as having dissected a frog.

As ever-more product categories become computerized and increasingly complex to operate, people will need the ability to judge ease-of-use simply to become better-informed consumers who can buy products that will work for them.

Also, even if they'll never conduct user tests as adults, I think all children should try one in school. Running a test is a simple and effective way to gain appreciation for many of the important usability concepts. For example, teachers could have kids write small websites on various topics, then test them on each other to see how well they communicated the information. Seeing other kids fail to understand your site is much more motivational than having the teacher's red pen mark up your essay.

In their book, The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane highlight three key skills that are less likely to be offshored or automated in the future. Those skills are problem solving, understanding the relation between concepts, and interpersonal communication. The life-long computer skills I've outlined here can similarly prepare students for the type of careers that will be sustainable as globalization intensifies.


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