December 1996

Root Page of Article: Computers for Technophobes, by Christopher Harper


During my classes, I attempt to portray the computer as a machine that has no knowledge. It is a device to use much like an automobile. The object of the exercise is to get from one place to another. That should be pretty simple. But there are a few catches. You do have to know how to start the bloody thing, put it in gear, the rules of the road, and how to avoid penalties such as traffic tickets. So you may need some driver's education.

You do have to put gasoline in the tank and maybe some oil. But you don't need to know how the carburetor works or how to fix a bent fender. There are people far more qualified than you to do the heavy lifting.

General Motors doesn't have a "help line" for people who don't know how to drive because people don't buy cars like they do computers- but imagine if they did.

HELPLINE: "General Motors Help Line, how can I help you?"
CUSTOMER: "I got in my car and closed the door, and nothing
HELPLINE: "Did you put the key in the ignition and turn it?"
CUSTOMER: "What's an ignition?"
HELPLINE: "It's a starter motor that draws current from your
battery and turns over the engine."
CUSTOMER: "Ignition? Motor? Battery? Engine? How come I
have to know all of these technical terms just to use my car?"

HELPLINE: "General Motors Help Line, how can I help you?"
CUSTOMER: "Hi! I just bought my first car, and I chose your car
because it has automatic transmission, cruise control, power
steering, power brakes, and power door locks."
HELPLINE: "Thanks for buying our car. How can I help you?"
CUSTOMER: "How do I work it?"
HELPLINE: "Do you know how to drive?"
CUSTOMER: "Do I know how to WHAT?"
HELPLINE: "Do you know how to DRIVE?"
CUSTOMER: "I'm not a technical person! I just want to go places
in my car!"

Many people find a computer and the Internet a bit daunting to operate.So how does that computer on your desk work? It's difficult to build, but it's really not that difficult to understand.

My task was to make the computer seem like a useful device rather than a daunting test of wills between user and machine. Because the course was offered in the summer, the classes met five hours a week for six weeks. At times, the course became rushed in an effort to cover a vast amount of material. Still, many students found what was covered useful. "I certainly didn't know anything about listservs. Now I belong to seven.," writes Timothy Gardner. "I trash about 90 percent of the messages but the rest of them either provide me with ideas or webpages where I can get ideas. And coming up with ideas for stories has always been the hardest part of journalism for me."

Susan Whitacker complains that the course needs to allow more time to students to use skills learned in the class. "I think it would have been better to stretch such a course out over a longer period of time and deepen and refine the kinds of research asked of students," she writes. "Students need more practice in using the skills taught in in-class tests as well as take-home assignments."

It was interesting that students wanted to know more background about increasingly outdated computer skills such as Jughead, Veronica, file transfer protocol and gopher. Web page design seemed in great demand -- a skill I lack except in the basic use of HTML and editing systems.

"I wish I had more time to use these skills in a classroom setting," writes Doria Lavignano. "I wish we would have spent more time on HTML. It seems like the worst thing a journalist can be these days is technically illiterate. I hope to work on an online publication out of grad school--it's an area that interests me--and I think it's where I will find the most opportunity." A newsgroup for the class faltered, primarily because it would not allow users from America Online or other non-NYU servers to adequately access the group. With baseline data now available, the department plans to establish guidelines of what computer skills students should have upon graduation. In addition, the department is considering a formal, three-course concentration in digital journalism.

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