Teaching the Intuitive Learning of Software

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My Computer Fundamentals has taken a dramatic shift this year. In years past, I’ve basically taught MO “Microsoft Office!” Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, as well as a smattering of other tools including Adobe PhotoShop.

However, last spring, I asked my readers the question Open Office or Microsoft Office: Which should I use? As I read the comments and pondered, I was stunned to realize that open source and web apps have created a whole new generation in software. To limit my student’s understanding to only Microsoft products is a disservice and yet, Microsoft is still important.

Perhaps the Process is more important than the Product

So, I have spent the summer seeking curricula that will help me teach students HOW to learn software. I have often felt that it is the process of learning the new software and not the software itself that is the vital component of what I teach. As I’ve looked, I’ve really not found any methodology to help me teach students HOW to learn new software. So, feeing driven in this area, I have put pen to paper in order express the model of learning software that I’ve used for over 30 years as I’ve learned new software programs. I’m sure it will be significantly revised, but expressing it helps one understand it!

Largely based upon the scientific method, this is what I’m teaching my computer fundamentals students. Here is the model I am using at this time:


Students are to open the software and to seek in certain areas of the software to “intuitively” deduce what the software can do. They are to look at the software and its features in this order.

Do (and Un-do)

As they look at the features they are to look at them. They can try them and then undo them or they can just cancel out after looking at various features.


Through this process they learn.


As effective Internet citizens in a rapidly moving society, I want my students to know that they need to share their knowledge. They are to share in the classroom and to share on their wiki when they learn something new and exciting!

The Methodology for this process

There has to be a system for them to explore the software. Because I couldn’t find one, I again, have created a starting point. Perhaps there is a methodology I haven’t seen, but here is where we started.

When students open a new software program that they have never used before, they are to explore the following in order:

  1. Menus
  2. Toolbars
  3. Drop Down Boxes
  4. Help
  5. Panes
  6. Dialog Boxes

The mneumonic device we use to remember this is “Mama told Daddy, ‘Happy Pappy Day!'”

I used this to introduce Microsoft Word with very pleasing results.

We first looked at the menus starting with File and I asked them to share things that they think it can do. We then moved along every menu item and discussed each area.

Secondly, I pointed out the screen tips box that pops down when they point at each item with their mouse. We discussed the toolbar items we didn’t see in the menus.

Drop Down Boxes
We discussed how arrows that point to the right cause boxes to drop down and we looked at those.

Looking at the screen, we then determined how we could get help and tried to ask it a question.

I showed the task pane and discussed how many other software programs (Adobe in particular) have panes that are open on the screen that are to be used and not immediately closed upon entering the software. (A common happening among Microsoft users.)

Dialog Boxes
We then learned how the ellipses open dialog boxes and opened boxes and closed them.

In Conclusion

This intuitive learning method works well with the Socratic method that I use to teach. I am able to ask questions as they explore and learn and gently guide them in a direction.

Understanding the learning experience

Experience is the best teacher. I not only want them to learn the software but I particularly want them to feel and understand this experience of learning new software. From the nervous butterflies in the pit of their stomach to the adrenaline-rush elation of truly accomplishing something that will transform the way they run their lives, I want them to experience the range of feelings that accompany the learning proces.

I told them that when they sit down to a new software program or technology during their lives, I want them to have the confidence to know that they can intuitively and effectively learn the new software. They do not require a tome of software instructions nor do they require a “click coach” to tell them each babystep of the most menial task. They can learn the software systematically despite the historically poor user manuals that can be downloaded and printed.

Like this beautiful boat setting sail in Nassau, this paradigm shift for me is a journey that has just begun. I am teaching “word processing” this semester not Microsost Word.

I am still using Microsoft Word as my core,but requiring them to select another software package to do the Own Your Own activities.

They will employ this intuitive learning model to learn the new software. After having several lessons done in their chosen program, they will then present what they’ve learned with the class (Share.) I am not abandoning the materials I’ve used before, I’m just integrating new software for some of the activities.

This is a course that I am learning to navigate, but one that I am convinced is the right one for the students I teach. Many may ridicule my departure from the standard computer fundamentals track. Most schools have relegated this course to vocational but truly, the ability to master new software is a skill that the most accomplished academician will need to employ during their lifetime.

I hope in the future, such materials to teach the process of learning new software will be available. I’ll share with you my information in this area, and I hope you’ll share yours.

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7 thoughts on “Teaching the Intuitive Learning of Software

  1. Vicki, your post is very interesting because just a few hours ago I sat in our school’s ICT meeting with the principal and other key people where my role in the school for 2007 was tossed around. The topic of a ICT skills continuum for students was also on the table and we had a particular document in mind as our guide developed by a consortium of school districts in the Adelaide metropolitan area. We have an outcomes based curriculum here in South Australia and the continuum was written very much in that vein. (Example: – Years 6-7. Key Idea: – Compose, edit and format text. Uses Inspiration [graphic organiser] to brainstorm ideas. Formats text by using Format toolbar [eg columns, bullet points, borders] Key Idea: – High-order thinking and sound reasoning. Uses spreadsheets and databases to organise data, analyse data and manipulate data.) The reason we are adopting this is to look at the skills students should be acquiring as they make their way through our primary school. Interestingly, our School Services Support Officer offered the suggestion that we could use tutorials (purchased on CD-ROM or webbased) as a way of not creating a skills curriculum from scratch but that idea did not sit well with me at all. It is the exact opposite of the way I operate with any bunch of kids in a computer lab and it just makes me wonder if my ideas could shine another angle on the approach you have outlined above. It seems to me that your approach (this is constructive appraisal here, so feel free to bite back) is very application based – learning the software seems to the primary goal. What about if you approached the angle that if kids learn best when learning is authentic, so then you set tasks that would have them using the software to create an end product or a solution to the task. An example from yesterday – I had a Reception teacher (5 year olds) bring her class in for a lesson where we would be using the program Kidspiration (the younger sibling to Inspiration). Instead of just getting the class to use the program to discover its features, we set a task – create a “me” diagram. The kids started with typing their own name in the central bubble. They then learnt how to use the picture palette by choosing images that related to themselves (I like dogs, so I’ll choose a dog picture) and learnt how to drag them onto the page and add text. When the screen became a bit crowded, I showed them how to resize and shift the pieces around. The point you make is true – we learn by doing but it is more powerful if we are doing it for a reason. A real task that explores some learning or relates back to their real life means that the student picks up the required skills in using the software and sees them as relevant to their final goal. All computing skills have to be tranferable and if Microsoft, like all great empires, crumbles in a pile of open source ravaged dust, then the skills our students have will enable them to operate whatever applications are open in front of them. Do I make any sense?

  2. Excuse the lack of eduspeak in this, since I am in the process of making the move from geek to teacher (whilst still retaining the geek).

    I tend to agree with the process you are going for, and as a geek, I can see how this applies. For instance, I can use most software relatively easily, and/or learn the program relatively quickly, because partly thanks to the Microsoft API (ie the reason why the open/save file dialog boxes look the same in most Windows programs), and I can drill down through menus/dialogs/toolbars to get a good sense of how things are done.

    Or to use a slightly different example. As a computer programmer, I was taught how to program, rather than a specific language. Yes, I was picking up a range of skills in the language I was using at the time, but I can quite successfully move across to another programming language and generally pick this language up relatively quickly since most common languages are based around a set of common concepts. Since I have all of the underlying skills, I can transport these skills across other to other areas. I had fellow students in a uni course, who had been spoon-fed all of the information up until then, and still wanted all the information to be spoon-fed to them at uni (what is on the exam? everything we have done during the semester!!!). Whilst the spoon-fed student did well in the realms of academia, in the real world, I was much more successful because of these transferable skills.

    What would be a good test of this, is the changes in Office from 2003 to 2007 (screenshots). With major changes in the user interface so far, it will be interesting to see how students (and others for that matter) cope with the change, depending on how they have been taught to use computers.

  3. Actually, Graham, I think we are saying the same thing.

    To me it is not hte software that is important but rather the PROCESS of learning the software.

    If the students learn the PROCESS they can learn to teach themselves any software program.

    So, thus, I am moving away from application based learning in a large sense and more to a skill based learning as you are discussing.

    Perhaps I need to go back and reedit to make it more clear what I am doing!

    Thank you for your feedback.

  4. I’m glad that we are on the same page, Vicki and maybe it was my own assumptions about how a typical US classroom might function that was colouring my perceptions. My own comment ran the risk of being very unclear and certainly wasn’t to the point. So, I agree – teaching about purpose for software is important – function is picked up as a result of that purpose.

  5. Rose (2000) in HyperTexts: the language and culture of educational computing, talks about her experiences of teaching technology skills in New Brunswick during the years that McKenna was the Premier.

    “The people were quickly trained to fulfill very specific roles involving repetitive tasks and not requiring a knowledge of the context in which those tasks were performed….Far from being highly-qualified professionals able to ‘say the truth,’ the graduates of such courses will, for the most part, be skilled in one limited area and therefore have little opporutnity to move upwards, or even laterally, within an organization….”

    So…it is important not only to teach skills but to equip students to adjust to a rapidly changing technological environment.

    I think that is what you are doing here. That’s great!!


  6. I was just reading an article that relates to this entry (in Sept – I think I like this entry. I keep coming back to it):

    McIntosh, E. (2005). From learning logs to learning blogs. The Scottish Language Review. Scottish CILT: University of Stirling.>
    Using technology for technology’s sake can be just as demotivating as using no technology at all. How technology is used is important to motivation.

    Here is a quote from this article:
    “If we don’t show them how [technology] can be used to learn then we will have a generation of highly competent monolingual technicians with nothing much to say.”

    I thought that was a great way of saying what we have been discussing here.

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