What computer skills do my students need?

It never fails. Every semester, I stymied by how many of my students don’t know how to do the simplest of things with their fancy notebook computers. I know that when it comes to computers, “simple” is relative but there are some things that I expect everyone who owns a computer to be able to do, and that expectation is even higher with students who have ostensibly placed out of any developmental (our word for remedial) computer proficiency courses. While I’m at it, let me emphasize that I don’t care whether or not students can use Microsoft Office for anything. Using Office, or any other individual piece of software for that matter, doesn’t equate to computer proficiency by my standards.

Oh, and I’ve grown tired of the old “I don’t know how to use a Mac” trope. It’s utter nonsense, because both Macs and PC’s running Windows use the exact same metaphors for file managements: icons represent files and folders and these can be organized according to the user’s needs. Sorry, but if you can drive Windows then you can drive macOS (previously called OS X).

So, here’s a working list of things that I assume all my students know how to do unless they specifically tell me otherwise, in which case they’re assignment is to get up to speed with them preferably without my help.

  1. Power on the computer and log into a user account if necessary. Most contemporary operating systems allow for single users but using an account is always best.
  2. Log out of a user account and power off the computer, and know the differences between these two things.
  3. Update your operating system when it is necessary and when YOU want to do it, not when your computer wants you to do it.
  4. Know how to restart your computer in the event of a hard crash that locks everything up.
  5. Know how to connect to wifi networks both with and without a password.
  6. Organize files into some semblence of logical order or structure so that you can find anything when you need it without wasting time searching randomly for it. Do not clutter your desktop with files and other folders. Proper file organization means removing unnecessary files (e.g. application installers) after they have served their purpose so they don’t take up valuable disk space.
  7. Use your operating system’s search facility, for those times when you need it, to find a particular file.
  8. Transfer files to a USB drive so you can reliably transport them from one computer to another.
  9. Install and remove user software by the preferred means for your operating system. Windows usually installs applications with executable installers. macOS usually installs applications with disk images or packages. Linux usually installs applications by package managers. Software applications should be stored in the proper place (e.g. the /Applications folder on macOS for example).
  10. Use a mouse to launch an application when you need it.
  11. Know the different between quitting an application and merely closing its window(s) and keeping it running in the background.
  12. Navigate a menu driven, clickable user interface. These have been around for many, many years and all work essentially identically. If you can use any one of them, you can use all of them.
  13. Print a document from inside an application using your operating system’s standard printing facility.
  14. Create, view, and annotate a PDF files or forms using the builtin capabilities of your operating system or a free third party app that provides this functionality. Both Windows and macOS let you save pretty much any document as a PDF file. Note that Windows requires special software to do this while macOS does not.
  15. Use ANY modern web browser. Once again, if you can drive any one of them you can drive all of them. The external differences are negligible from one to another. At present, you should be able to use Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. There are many alternative browsers around.
  16. Use a search engine to find resources helpful to you.
  17. Use an ASCII text editor to create and save plain text documents. In this context, “using” means creating, editing, saving, and printing files.
  18. Use a simple word processor to create formatted documents.In this context, “using” means creating, editing, saving, and printing files. Note that the overwhelming majority of science and mathematical publishing uses LaTeX, but I don’t expect everyone to be familiar with that…at least not yet. You need not be restricted to Microsoft Word. There are many free alternatives.
  19. Use a simple spreadsheet to create simple tables and data plots. In this context, “using” means creating, editing, saving, and printing files. You need not be restricted to Microsoft Excel. There are many free alternatives.
  20. Know the difference between a computer’s memory and a computer’s disk space. This is a perpetual pet peeve of mine. For the most part, disk space doesn’t constitute storage. One can add memory to one’s computer, and one can add disk space to one’s computer. However, adding one has no effect on the other.

Note that keyboarding or typing are not mentioned here. That’s because it’s not always necessary. Typing on a keyboard is only one way to interact with a modern computer. Being able to type quickly is a big advantage, but doesn’t even make the list of required skills I assume students have so let’s stop pretending it’s more important than it really is.

Note that almost all of these things are agnostic to operating system and hardware platform. Any genuine computer proficiency course should let students learn these things on THEIR harware and operating system of choice. Students should NOT be forced to learn everything on Windows because quite honestly, the world doesn’t run on Windows despite the marketing to the contrary. And no, I don’t honestly think everyone should be required to use a Mac. For the overwhelming majority of us, any computer will do what we need it to do.

At some point, I want to add an additional expectation:

  • Use a programming language of your choice to perform numerical calculations.

I don’t think we’re to the point where that’s a reasonable expection just yet, but we’re definitely getting there. After any introductory physics course, it should definitely be added to the list becuase we need to deprecate calculators and the evils they perpetuate.

Did I leave anything out? Leave a comment and let me know. The list can certainly grow! Thanks for reading!


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