A lot of the people I went to school with, have grandchildren (I myself am far too youthful for that, of course). And as I browse through technology-oriented blogs and websites, I have noticed that a lot of them use "grandma" as shorthand for "technologically hopeless and clueless." What does that have to do with anything? This week's book is Computing with Windows 7 for the Older and Wiser. Given the perception of older people as hopeless and clueless, does this book make sense? No matter how old you are, read on.
Speaking from Experience
The author of the book, Adrian Arnold, lets us know right up front that he's one of the "older and wiser" group this book was written for. He's been teaching older people to use computers for many years and has a cheerful, down-to-earth writing style that doesn't talk down to anyone. He's British, and uses British spelling and expressions, so people who are accustomed to American language might have to adjust a bit, but to my mind that just makes it all the more interesting. Sometimes people think they can't understand a new concept because it's something completely unfamiliar. But most of the time, all that's really needed is for someone to explain it in terms that make sense. People who are now aged 40 and above didn't grow up with computers in their homes as younger people did, so the skills necessary for using a computer didn't come to them as children. People who may not have even had a television in the house as children won't necessarily see a computer as a useful tool, but rather as something complex and scary. This book was written to overcome those fears.
Each chapter is short and to the point. The author assumes the reader knows nothing about the subject and starts right in with an explanation of how everything works. I especially liked the fact that he knows that older people may be afraid of breaking something or messing something up beyond all hope of recovery, and begins by asking people to deliberately do a few things (like pressing down on the keyboard hard with both hands) to reassure them that nothing bad will happen as a result. He also addresses the fear of looking stupid (which, of course, knows no age boundaries) and other things that might concern an older person using a computer for the very first time. Then he explains what to look for in a home computer, and why some things would be good to have, and points out the real advantages of learning basic computer skills. All of this is done with good humor and with a personal understanding of people's concerns. He then goes into the basics of Windows 7 and talks about how the operating system works, in language that makes him sound like he's sitting right there in the room. He also recommends finding a "guardian angel," someone with more skills who'll be willing do to a bit of explaining or hand-holding when necessary, which is excellent advice for any novice computer user.
Practical Skills are Primary
The book begins with the basics—how to turn on the computer and what happens while it's starting. Then there's a simple explanation of the desktop (and why it's called that) and what people will see when Windows 7 finishes loading. Since PCs come with Windows 7 these days, this is what a new computer user will find, and that's the author's starting point for explaining how things work. I would like to make a clarification here: this book is not necessarily about teaching people how to fully use Windows 7. This book is about teaching people computing, using Windows 7 as the main operating system. Therefore, you won't get full knowledge of everything Windows 7 has to offer, but only of the important stuff you need to know. The author explains the keyboard by comparing it to a typewriter keyboard, which older people will find familiar, and points out which keys are different from what they might be used to. Since using a mouse may be a completely new skill, there's a simple explanation of what it is and how it works, and some suggestions for practicing using it by playing Solitaire (which I thought was an excellent idea). Windows 7 itself is explained in clear and simple terms. Each part of a window is described, with illustrations. The author explains what programs are, and the basics of libraries, folders, and files (comparing those to their real-world counterparts to make the concept easy to understand). Then there's a section that talks about personalizing the desktop and using gadgets, with examples that would be appealing to most people of any age. There's a good explanation of things like the Start Menu, the taskbar, and Windows 7's special visual features like Aero Peek, Aero Snap and Aero Shake. The author explains how each works, and offers some helpful advice on what to do to put everything back the way it was if the changes don't appeal.
Keeping Things Simple and Relevant
Instead of delving deeply into technological topics, this book talks about the practical things that older people will want to do with a computer--write, read, send and receive emails, search for things on the Internet, shop, make travel arrangements and organize photographs. There's also a good clear explanation of installing software, both from a disk and from a download. It's an excellent approach. I know my mother hated computers till she was in her 70s—and then someone gave her a computer and showed her how to send and receive email and read her favorite newspaper's web site. From then on, she was a computer enthusiast. So, finding out that all these practical things can be quite easy once one's gotten over the initial fears is the key to success, and this book really delivers.
The book walks the reader through creating a document with WordPad, a simple lesson in the basics of word processing. Beginning with how to use the search box in the Start Menu, the author suggests that the reader just play around with the keyboard and mouse to begin with, to feel more at ease with what happens, and explains the cursor and the mouse pointer and how they work. This exercise lets the newcomer ease into using Windows 7. There's also a good chapter on how to get help, which would be useful for anyone. I was surprised to see a section on using the Task Manager in this chapter, which I thought would be considered a more advanced topic—but the reader can't go wrong following the clear instructions here.
So What is this "Internet" Thing?
The section on the Internet includes instructions for choosing a service provider and setting up an email account, and an explanation of dial-up and broadband. This is entirely geared toward the British reader, but people in other countries can use the instructions to find appropriate services in their own homes. The Internet-skills section includes instructions for using online maps, search engines, encyclopedias, and YouTube. Again, the emphasis is on web sites that provide practical information and which are easy to use and navigate. And the section on online shopping is excellent, helping people not only find shopping sites but overcome the natural fear of giving out one's credit card information to a web site. There's a well-illustrated section that explains eBay and PayPal as well.
Pictures, but not Music?
The section on digital photography includes instructions for using Picasa as an organizer, and some simple instructions on how to improve one's photos (by cropping, changing colors and so forth). It also mentions sites where people can upload digital photos and get prints. Photographs on paper would be more familiar to the older computer user and knowing that digital photos can be printed out quite easily is a big help. I was surprised that there was no real mention of digital music, especially since Windows Media Player is so simple to use. It would have been helpful to show the reader how to insert a music CD and what happens when a CD is detected, with a note that one can play music in the background with Windows Media Player while doing other things.
Each chapter ends with a summary, and a short quiz so people can review what they've learned. Since everything is explained so clearly, I doubt anyone will have any trouble getting a perfect score on those end-of chapter tests. While the emphasis is on Windows 7 and its component parts, the author does talk about getting software from other sources, and focuses on programs that are inexpensive or free. This is very helpful for the novice computer user who may have just laid out what seems like a lot of money for this newfangled computer-thing and who is understandably reluctant to spend any more money on anything else right away.
What I'd Do Differently?
Quite honestly, I wouldn't change much. Even though I've been using computers for decades, I liked this book and its no-nonsense, friendly approach. But I do think there should have been a separate chapter or two on security. Security is mentioned in the shopping chapter (in terms of keeping your information safe online) and in the "advanced email" section (in terms of malware and spam). Since even the "younger and wiser" computer users have been fooled by popups, fake emails, viruses and other online nasties, I think that besides the in-chapter mentions, these things should have had a chapter all their own.
This book is something you really should buy for grandma, or grandpa, or anyone else who is of mature years and willing to learn. The approach is practical and doesn't talk down to the reader or assume that "everybody already knows" basic computer skills. The author is "one of us" and knows exactly what people might fear, and the best approach for learning something new. I definitely would have bought it for my mother.