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Computing with Bifocals - Teaching 400(+) People to Use a Mac
by - November 18th, 2005

Many of you reading this will be aware of the debacle that occurred in August when the Henrico County Virginia school system decided to sell off 1,000 4 year old, student used, iBooks for  US$50 each after declaring them to "have less than desirable attributes."  Around 5,000 people turned out for the sale and before it was over, riot police were involved.

Let me tell you how it should be done.  By that I mean how a school district can go about getting rid of older computers when replacing them with newer models while helping out some of the families and students of the district at the same time.

The Austin Independent School District, Austin, Texas is just finishing up such a project, with the help of a large number of volunteers. The group responsible for  overseeing this effort is Austin Partners in Education, a non-profit association that functions to encourage volunteerism in the public schools.

They started out with several hundred first and second generation iMacs that had been used in elementary schools around the district.    The local Goodwill organization gathered the machines from the various schools and took them to a local company, TriFusion, who took all that they had and patched, cannibalized and refurbished them to get as many working machines as possible.  Even a Mac can fold after 7 hours a day, 5 days a week of elementary school kids loving attention.  A local Internet provider, Grande Communication, is providing free Internet connection for a year to each home with a land line phone.

They ended up with 400 working computers.  The district choose a number of  elementary schools in economically deprived neighborhoods.  The counselors and staff of each school identified families who would benefit from having a computer in their home.  These numbers ranged from 15 at some schools to 30 in others.

The project needed volunteers both willing to train the parents to use the machines, and knowledgeable enough to do a good job.  In the case of Austin, they approached Capitol Macintosh User Group (CapMac) the local Mac User Group of which I am a member.  They asked us to help with the training and we eagerly accepted the challenge as another part of our ongoing effort to aid the students and teachers of the district with their Mac knowledge.  We routinely make ourselves available to assist in classrooms or with teacher training when asked to do so, to make sure the students and teachers are able to make the most of the Macs available to them in their classrooms and computer labs.

Potential Problems

We quickly identified some potential problems as we set about devising the training.

  • The iMacs would be loaded with OS 9 in keeping with the licensing options available to the district.  Most of us have long since moved from OS 9 to OS X so we had to reorient ourselves back to OS 9.
  • The district wanted us to teach the basics of the computer, and also teach Internet skills and basic word processing skills using AppleWorks.  Again, included with the machines because of licensing options available to the district. The schedule set up by the district allowed for one, 2 hour session for each school.
  • The skill levels of the parents ranged from limited computer use to never having touched one.
  • Each session would be held in the appropriate neighborhood school which meant varying levels of training settings (the school library, the school computer lab, a portable classroom).
  • Some of the parents involved do not speak English.

These were not overwhelming problems actually.  They could have been I suppose, but we had a month to plan how we were going to do it and then we did a small group pilot to test it all.

  • Each school agreed to provide a language translator.
  • I created a Keynote presentation to use during our initial session, but the most important thing from my perspective was to realize that if we had 2 hours or 2 days, there would still be a need for written materials to take home as reference documents because there is no way can anyone learn everything they need to know at one sitting.   My biggest concern was trying to find a single document that would clearly and simply explain how to use a Mac loaded with OS 9.
    • I am happy to say that the University of Kansas did an excellent job of creating just such a document in 2003 .  I also found an AppleWorks reference guide.  The district obtained copies of both documents for the parent's packets.
    • In addition to the U of K manual, I created a definitions list for both a computer and the Internet; a pictorial guide to different important pieces of information (such as images of USB ports); an information sheet that contained processor and memory information, serial numbers, and places to record other important information such as e-mail addresses and Internet provider set up info; a resource list for finding parts, accessories, or service (including second hand items); directions for getting a free Internet email account; and practice sheets that walk the reader through each task step-by-step, including how to plug everything back together once they got the computer home.
    • All of our written materials were created in English and then translated into Spanish as well.  Since I don't speak or write Spanish, I used the Internet to translate all the information that I created.  The web site I used is FreeTranslation.  The school district translated the U of K manual after receiving permission to do so.
  • Even though AppleWorks was included as part of the package and we included a whole guide to using it, I felt that expecting anyone to gain command of it  along with the OS and the Internet at one sitting was asking a lot.  This proved to be true during our pilot.  In fact, we never even got that far in the time we had.  Therefore, we decided that we would focus time during the training on looking at SimpleText instead.  SimpleText is the OS 9 version of TextEdit, for those not familiar with it.   Even with that change we never got to spend as much time on word processing as we would have liked.
  • The Internet was far and away the best resource for teaching skills in a manner that allowed for success. 
    • I watched an AISD teacher teach Internet skills to some kids once using a treasure hunt.  The kids were having so much fun with the treasure hunt concept that they forgot they were learning skills.  I borrowed the idea and created a scavenger hunt for the parents.  Each person was given a set of 6 Internet addresses and a matching question that could only be answered by successfully finding that site.  The person with the fastest time received a prize.  I guarantee this is much more fun than going through any standard learning exercise - even for adults.
    • When the family members arrived we had all the computers set up and ready to go.  We used the Keynote presentation to cover the basics, stopping for practice when appropriate.  The CapMac volunteers worked the room, helping out with skills as needed.  Because we were teaching basic skills, there was no need for the volunteers to be particularly skilled with technical knowledge.  Anyone can demonstrate how to hold a mouse, drag and drop, close a window, etc.  This has been a great opportunity for giving beginners the chance to help other beginners.
Unexpected Problems
  • The biggest unexpected problem was constantly changing of meeting times and dates.  It is going to happen with a project this big so if you take on something like this, expect it and roll with it.
  • I failed to take into account that even though there was Internet connection available to us, that did not mean that every computer would have access to it.  It depended on what the setup was.  The reality was that the Internet connection was usually only available on the computers permanently assigned to the room we were using, not the computers we were training on.  That meant some fast change in presentation scheduling on my part to conduct the scavenger hunt 5 people at a time, while keeping the rest of the room busy.
  • In the real world, all public schools do not have projectors that connect to computers.   Fortunately, CapMac does have such a projector.  It is a good thing.

So to Austin Partners in Education, Austin Independent School District, Goodwill Industries, TriFusion, Grande Communication, and CapMac, I say well done!  To other districts and organizations I say have a look.

I hope you will join me next time for some holiday suggestions and reviews.

Copies of Nancy's book Tips, Hints, and Solutions for Seasoned Beginners Using Apple Macintosh Computers With OS X are available in PDF download versions  for US$9.57 and in print version for $18.15 plus $4.00 shipping.   To view sample pages and get ordering information visit the September 14, 2004 column.

Post your comments below.

Check out Nancy's complete index of all her columns for the most complete list of tips anywhere. The list is categorized and is a great reference when you are looking for help!

A Capacious Catalog Of Computer Tips

Talking to a generation that remembers what the world was like before there was color, covers issues for people who don't care how their computer works, but rather what their computer and the internet can do for them.

Nancy has a Master's degree in Human Services Administration and prior to her retirement she worked for almost 30 years in field of mental health and mental retardation. She has been a Mac user for 11 years, and has recently developed an avocation of teaching basic computer skills in both group and one-to-one settings.

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