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What is "basic", anyway?

© September 2008 Anthony Lawrence

This past Monday night I did a two hour presentation to the nascent Oak Point Computer Club. "Oak Point" is an over 55 retirement community; I live there. No, I'm not retired, but I am getting closer to that and there are a lot of other reasons to live here. Enough about that..

The presentation I gave is outlined at https://oakpointcommunity.org/clubs/computer/0908presentation.html. The only parts I didn't cover were the sections on testing connections with telnet; I explained that this was probably far too geeky for most of them but that I'd leave it in the written version for the few who might be able to use that.

The turnout was larger than I expected. I thought we might get a dozen people; we had close to four times that.

I thought the lecture went well. There were a lot of questions, and they were pertinent and intelligent. I'm not one of those "Please hold your questions till the end" people - I like to straighten out things while we're in the thick of it and I don't mind a segue or two as long as we don't get too far afield. As it would probably take less than thirty minutes to read that presentation aloud but we actually ran two hours, you can see that there were quite a few questions..

However, the lecturer almost always thinks it went well. Our jokes were funny, we explained everything perfectly, and everyone left feeling rosy and well-informed. The reality can be different, so I sent out an email questionaire the next day asking the attendees if they felt it was too basic, too advanced, just right, or anything in-between.

About 20% of the group answered, which is a decent response (though you always wonder why it isn't better). Of those responding, 80% felt it was "just right" or close to that, but 20% felt it was too advanced; they were "overwhelmed", it was "over their heads". Nobody thought it was too basic.

That didn't entirely surprise me. After all, this is a group of seniors; most didn't have much computer experience in their lives. On the other hand, I was a little surprised: if you have an email address (that's how I sent the survey) and you responded by email, aren't you obviously already beyond the "The computer is a wonderful tool and one of the wonders is email" stage?

Well, apparently not. These people were confused. An interesting aside is that in their comments they felt most other people were equally baffled, while the comments from those that felt the presentation was valuable indicated that they thought the other attendees were equally pleased.. somebody is obviously wrong..

I had initially thought of doing a demo of setting up Outlook Express on a few machines and sending a few mails back and forth, perhaps demonstrating attachments.. but then I thought that was way too basic and also not everyone is using Outlook: we had AOL users, Webmail users and even two fellow Mac users.. that's why I decided to make it more generic.

And honestly, other than the "telnet" stuff that I did leave out as explained above, I think this WAS pretty basic. Obviously most or all of the readers here would think so, and even most of the attendees didn't think it was too advanced. That's why I'm looking for a little help: how could I meet the needs of those few who were "overwhelmed"?

Your thoughts are appreciated. How would you have approached this (or approach it for a separate "rank beginners" class)?

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-> A presentation on email to a group of seniors


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Fri Sep 12 19:46:47 2008: 4546   BigDumbDinosaur

I probably would have done pretty much what you did, except not encourage the use of webmail, and would have definitely encouraged the use of Thunderbird instead of Outlook (Express).

Wed Sep 17 02:27:39 2008: 4553   Skylab72

You clearly understand that one persons basic is not everyones basic. What seem to be giving you trouble is why. Basic is rarely about subject matter or some arbitrary level of detail, these seem to be your first two assumptions. Basic is, follows-logically-consistently-directly-easily-understandably-from-what-is-already-known-understood. When a student does not have an existing mental hook upon which to hang some new concept, that concept will be quickly lost. Human memory is 100% associative. The key talent of the amazing teacher is an ability to identify a pupils paradigm and work from there out.

Wed Sep 17 11:03:22 2008: 4554   TonyLawrence

Well, I disagree. Given that this was a random group of people with widely varying experience, I don't think that 20% befuddlement indicates failure. We could have gone the other way and had 80% boredom - I don't think that would have been the right approach.

Realize also that we aren't leaving things in this state. We're going to have follow-up help sessions for the confused group and try to make them happier and more knowledgeable.

Part of the problem here is (I think) the expectation that "I'll be taught more about how to use MY email". As there are so many possibilities there (AOL, Webmail, Outlook Express, etc.) we can't really do that as a general lecture. That's why I concentrated on generic email concepts for the most part. In smaller groups, we CAN (and will) work with specific issues.

We'll get there.

Wed Sep 17 13:03:08 2008: 4560   skylab72

Dude, lighten up! Nowhere did I use the term failure. ONLY 20% befuddlement in such a class is a resounding success, and I have been involved in many. I mean only to suggest that as you interact with any given student, it might be useful to listen to the way they talk about the subject matter and adapt to their paradigm. I think you are doing a great job, give yourself some credit.

Wed Sep 17 13:09:09 2008: 4561   TonyLawrence

No, no: it's some of the 20% who think this was a failure. One even suggested that perhaps there should be two clubs: one for advanced people, one for "the rest". I don't think that's necessary but..

A while back someone had mentioned belonging to a similar club in FL. "But they started getting crazy", he said, "They wanted us to install Firefox!"

So, there will always be those who think things are too far removed from "basic". We may not be able to meet those folks needs.

Wed Sep 17 13:32:25 2008: 4562   TonyLawrence

And that goes back to my question: how do you meet the needs of someone who thinks installing an alternate browser is "crazy"? What are the expectations of such a person? Is there any point at all to a "club" that would function at that level?

I'm not sure there is. If you kept it that low, doesn't it degenerate to being just an introductory computer class? There's nothing wrong with doing that - I think we should have that available for those who need it, but if there's no growth beyond that, then what's the point?

That's what I'm struggling with: I'm trying to see the mind-set of those who don't want anything new, don't want any challenge, any growth but still want a "club". From my POV, I don't see what such an club would do.. but I may be missing something. I see growth as a desirable goal, but those folks may just be looking at it primarily as a social thing: something to do once a month..

We'll need to talk more about those things next meeting. We DID talk about them first meeting and had a list of desired topics: email, ebay, cameras and computers.. to me, that sounds like "I want to learn about these things" and I'm sure that's just what it is for the 80% but I am NOT sure about the 20%: what DO they want?

Thu Sep 18 19:42:56 2008: 4568   skylab72

Wow, that is a toughie. My knee jerk is to dismiss the subset of the subset, the fraction of the 20% that view an alternate browser as crazy, as past 3rd std-dev in can-not-please-everyone territory. Rather like you allude, with may-not-be-able-to-meet-etc.
That said, I faced a not too different situation in a corporate setting a few years back where exclusion was not an option. After several attempts at building an all-things-to-all-people structure with less than durable results, we accidentally hit upon a two tiered structure (you triggered this recollection with the two clubs line) that self organized into something that was still going when I left the firm.
First the differences. We were charged with forming a technology insertion committee not a club. Our deliverables were, however, loose enough and the schedules flexible enough, that in many ways it felt somewhat like a club.
Thus some similarities. We were aiming at having a two part committee, one focusing on more advanced topics and obviously a more basic one for those that could not, or did not want to, keep up with the former.
I was terrified. We were approaching the failure is not an option time, due to previous false starts, and I was the schmuck who would have to figure out the next step. I was running out of ideas. It did not help my state of mind when a suit picked a technician to chair the basic committee who had an approach to user support uncomfortably close an SNL parody. But, I absolutely lucked out.
Three personalities among the folks involved on the basic side interacted to form a rather useful and seemingly durable group. 1) The chair always got called away before their meetings progressed very far. 2) An individual who was avoiding the advanced group more for self confidence and work avoidance reasons than actual difficulty in dealing with technology, became the default go-to guy in the chairs absence. And 3) another individual, of the why-do-I-need-two-browsers mindset, turned out to be a social spark plug who pushed the meeting structure into a form that better served her needs (on demand spot solutions). As she described it, a large group (the whole basic committee/club) meeting kick-off to review issues and opportunities and then break up into small groups (she pushed for 3 to 7 per group) to work out solutions and support to address the issues.
Things always evolve, but this worked out well for all. Individual 1 only had the chance to offend a minimum number of people. Individual 2 got some much needed positive strokes, and grew into a power user. And individual 3 essentially founded a self driven support group for technophobes that survived the end of the technology insertion mandate.
Feel free to reuse any of this. I have no ownership, I just watched, well, and in later weeks shielded from meddling suits.


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