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The "How do I..." and "What happens if...?" of using individualised learning materials

Sue McNamara
Monash University

The original idea for this paper arose from observations of novice users experimenting with computer applications programs. In a self instructional environment, with added assistance of "anyone else in the room who knows more about this thing than I do ...." and the help of the manual (if one knew enough of the 'jargon'), these novice users were attempting to use relatively sophisticated data base and word processing packages. Observations of the experience of these users generated several learner related issues needing to be addressed if novice users are to develop confidence from initial experiences with computers and their applications.

This article is not written in the traditional style. As Crichton (1982) has observed "tradition doesn't apply to computers" (p48) and although adult learners now undertaking higher education are the product of tradition, the problems they are facing in self instructional computer environments are not traditional either. In fact the literature, or perhaps more correctly the lack of literature relating to the difficulties faced by adult novice users in self instructional computer environments would seem to suggest that there is no problem. This paper presents a different perspective.

The title for the paper might at first appear a little comical, and many would agree that initial computer experiences should be approached with a sense of humour. However the true origins of the title lie quite simply in the fact that initial interaction in self instructional computer environments seem to be question oriented, and the two questions in the title are those most commonly used by novice computer applications users.

The paper concentrates on illustrations from data base searching and word processing tasks. The illustrations and examples given in the paper are extracts or compilations of data derived from an ethnographic investigation of the human computer interface. Data was initially gathered during experiences in observing and working with postgraduate students and researchers in a self instructional computer environment. Further data was collected via a small scale study in which subjects (with differing levels of computing experience) were asked to complete a set of tasks requiring the acquisition of information from a database on CD-ROM. Videotape of the task sessions, survey questionnaires, discussions with participants and the observations of a researcher present during each of the task sessions were used as methods of data collection.

The ideal and the real

Although computers have become commonplace in the workforce and in everyday living there still exists a comparatively large number of individuals for whom computer interaction (apart from such machines as "Flexitellers" and the "Supermarket Checkout") is an experience yet to be undertaken. Those coming to terms with computers in higher education are representative of this group. Because greater emphasis is being placed on student involvement in learning, particularly in higher education, and more demands are being made generally fore much broader knowledge base, adult learners are being compelled to venture into areas which were once the realms of specialists.

Word processing and literature searching are but two examples. Traditionally assignments were handwritten or one employed a typist to create a respectable assignment presentation if handwriting skills were not what they should be. The proliferation of word processors has changed that. Many academics now require typewritten assignments from their adult students. Similarly, where traditionally one made an appointment with the "online" specialist librarian to conduct a (rather costly) literature search, and where the requirements were simply that keywords and topics had been decided on beforehand, the advent of databases on CD-ROM has witnessed a "do it yourself" approach and is encouraging academia to incorporate wider examination of the literature in areas which were once the kingdom of the textbook.

The need for computing facilities has seen the development of the computer laboratory. Unfortunately the provision of hardware and software has note been accompanied with the provision of appropriate support structures. Descriptions of the specific use of laboratories in subject areas ranging from physics (Rogers, 1987) to chemical engineering (Snyder and Hanyak, 1988) are sprinkled throughout the literature. Similarly earlier discussions realised the complexities of the humancomputer interface (for example Schneiderman, 1982), yet to date, few if any profiles exist of the characteristics of adult novice users and the context in which they work in higher education. While new and exciting aspects of the technology and its use are constantly being brought to the attention of the higher education community (eg. Barrett and Hedberg, 1987) this perhaps small, but nevertheless important group of users seems to have been largely overlooked.

While it may be true that future generations of adult learners will not face the difficulties encountered by today's higher education participants, and therefore some might argue there is little to worry about, the trends towards individualised modes of learning and instruction may well have negative repercussions for a considerable number of present day higher education participants and consequent implications for future generations.

Consider the following -

Scenario A:

A first time computer user enters the computer laboratory armed with program manual and disks. The task is to undertake a database search on a given topic via the computer and CD-ROM. Without disturbing anyone else in the room (there are four others working there) our novice sits at the workstation and commences work. Having memorised the layout of the computer from a book a few days earlier, and having read the manual accompanying the database, our novice switches on all relevant power points and the computer churns to life. Opening the compact disc drawer our novice places the correct disk in the drawer and closes it. Patiently waiting for the correct prompt (having already made the appropriate program selection from the main menu) our novice decides on the keyword and types it in when the prompt appears. A spelling error is immediately corrected via the backspace key. As the keyword generates some 2000 records - far too many - a narrower term is selected end typed in. This time a suitable number of records appear - but just to check their content our novice selects the correct function key and views the selection of entries. Assured that they are on the topic the next step is to print them. Again selecting the correct function key our novice types in the numbers of the specific records to be printed and the information required (citation and abstract). As the printer commences - the paper jams. Not to worry! Our novice quickly pauses the printing, realigns the paper and continues printing.

Task accomplished, the program is exited, computer switched off, print out retrieved and our novice leaves the room without having disturbed anyone else in the room.

No doubt several other strategies of a more sophisticated nature could have been employed in the search - but then - one can't be expected to learn everything at once! Now Let's try again:

Scenario B:

A first time computer user enters the computer laboratory armed with program manual and disks. The task is to undertake a database search on a given topic via the computer and CD-ROM. Stopping in the doorway of the room (there are four other users in the room) our novice poses a question to no one in particular.

"Which one has the database on it?"

Following the direction indicated to the workstation with a large lettered sign 'Database on this Computer' above it, our novice sits and places the manual and disks on the spare chair beside the workstation.

Staring at the machine our novice enquires, "How do you turn it on?" Continuing to work, the nearest neighbour responds, "At the wall."

Successfully finding the power point, but gaining no response from the computer, our novice begins to feel around the computer, at the same time asking, "Where's the 'on' switch?"

"At the side"

"Oh! ...and the TV?" "At the top"

The computer whirrs, printer clucks and the CD-ROM hisses. Visual examination of the components of the machinery result in the compact disk being placed in the floppy disk drive.

After a moment - "Has anyone here used this thing before? I can't seem to get it going".

This enquiry beings the next door neighbour's work to a halt.

A brief investigation calls for the technician to remove the disk from the disk drive ( a surgical procedure which involves removing the computer casing. Thank goodness it was put in the top disk drive an not in the bottom one!)

"Well it said put the disk in the disk drive!"

Surgery completed, an hour later our novice tries again. With a brief explanation of where the disc really belongs, the next door neighbour returns to his own work. "Thanks I should be OK now."

Our novice scans the keyboard for the letters of a keyword. Someone suggested using a topic word or keyword (whatever that is) a few days ago.

A typing error generates the next question. "How do I rub it out...get back again? I've made a mistake."

Assistance is given and the return key eventually pressed. As the computer begins its search our novice, startled somewhat by the noise, and not sure about the move just made, asks, "What's it doing? I only pressed the key you told me to."

Another short explanation calms the frazzled nerves and our novice waits for the number to appear.

2000 appears in the records column on the screen. "How do I see what's in them?"

Another user to the rescue - "Try F4" "What's that?"

"Key down the side."

Our novice presses F4 and the screen changes. Hitting return brings the first entry to the screen.

"That isn't the article. How do I get to see the article?"

A further - lengthier - explanation ensues after which our novice user decides to try another approach. "How do I print these?" "Try F6."

- With which our user commences to print the citations of some 2000 entries - until the paper jams.

"Oh, Help - the paper's gone funny!" A rescue operation is mounted and accomplished.

Our user begins printing again. After record 25 the following enquiry is heard. "It's not telling me where to find it - what journal!"

Another user to the rescue. The required abbreviations are decided upon.

"Away we go again" chirps one relieved novice user and for the third time commences to print 2000 records, beginning at number one - again.

39 records later - "How do I stop this thing?" No prizes for guessing the next step!

Not knowing whether or not the information retrieved is really relevant our novice user turns off the power - without exiting from the program - turns the power on again to retrieve a forgotten compact disk - and departs.

No doubt several other strategies of a more sophisticated nature could have been employed in the search - but then - one can't be expected to learn everything at once!

Fiction and fact

In his book Electronic Life or how to think about computers, Michael Crichton (1982) lists the advantages and disadvantages of computers in a style of "that's good that's bad". A similar approach may be applied to the above. Undeniably Bruner and Knowles would agree that, in theory, the computer offers scope for superb experiential learning. However the scenario above illustrates the limitations for some initial users.

Admittedly, it might be argued that an initial demonstration would solve some of the difficulties of the second novice user. However in the 'factual situation' the realisation that 'learning computing skills takes time' or that 'there is more to the Macintosh advertisement than what appears on TV' or 'that one must be prepared to employ a different learning approach (a problem solving approach) than that applied in more traditional or conventional learning situations' does not happen 'overnight'.

Presumably the novice user in Scenario A was an individual with a number of the following qualities:

  1. an attitude which promotes an intuitive, problem solving, self directed and independent approach to learning.

  2. time to have undertaken extensive pre-reading prior to attempting the task.

  3. patience enough to plan, execute and maximise the potential of initial experiences.
Perhaps the only quality lacking in this individual was "hands on" experience.

Without resorting to stereotyping, which tends to oversimplify the complexities of the interaction, the novice user in Scenario B might be attributed some of the following qualities.

  1. their fear of computer technology overrides all else. They do not want to make a move without being certain that it is the correct move.

  2. an attitude which could be interpreted as suggesting that they are undertaking the task against their better judgment.

  3. neither prior knowledge of computer operating procedures nor of the packages being used.

  4. although normally a patient individual, their patience where technology is concerned could be called extremely limited.

  5. they have neither the time nor the inclination for pre-reading, and especially not the reading of manuals.

  6. they would prefer someone else to actually perform the task for them and simply present them with the results.
Perhaps the two characters depicted in the preceding scenarios may be poles apart in their approaches, and some may term the descriptions too extreme, yet the fact remains that many novice adult users fall closer to the B end of the continuum than to the A end. For any number of reasons they find themselves ill equipped to deal with the task and nowhere to go for appropriate help.

What do I do...?, What does that mean ...?, You mean me!

The difficulties encountered by novice users can be categorised under three major headings:
  1. Computer based (procedural)
  2. Package related (program)
  3. Human related (attitudes, expectations).
In a study of data base search strategies Perry (1984) discussed differences in approach between novice and competent users searching a main frame data base. Using the cognitive style dimension of field dependence-independence as a comparison mechanism, he found numerous differences in task strategies. A similar finding might be derived from the present study based on the level of computer experience. Although the database used in that study might be simple in comparison to the complex and sophisticated storage and retrieval mechanisms of CD-ROM, the simplicity of the data base serves to highlight a major concern for novice users of the much more complex applications programs on personal computers today.

Present applications have been written by those "in the know" and although most applications programs incorporate "help" mechanisms (approximately twenty two screens of help were found in one database program) these functions are beyond the grasp of the non-competent user or one unfamiliar with the "language" of how to get to, and be able to read the "Help".

A few examples and anecdotes drawn from the present study illustrate the potential computer, program and human difficulties of the novice or initial user.

In the beginning

The following question is addressed to those who might see themselves as competent computer users. Do you remember, when commencing work on your pc, automatically reach for the "on" switch without thinking about what you are doing? Is 'switching on' simply a routine procedural task of little consequence?

If so then consider the position of the novice user.

From the novice's point of view the architecture in most self instructional computer environments, and particularly those self instructional kind in higher educational institutions, appear to have been designed so as to prevent those not "in the know" from ever getting a power supply to the computer. Many laboratories have at least a two stage process (master switch and wall power point) before you can even begin to look for the switches on the computer and monitor and printer and CD-ROM player and... And sequence is important too. The master switch must be activated before the wall power point which, in turn precedes all others. Then comes the fun part. Locating all the relevant switches on the computer and its peripherals. These can be located at the back, in front, on the side... you can only be certain that no manufacturer will ever put them (unless by accident) in the same place as another manufacturer.

If the above description sounds a little melodramatic spare a thought for the novice user who lost four pages of painstaking work (being a one finger 'peck and find' typist and not yet having learned the value of 'saving' frequently) when the person beside them, finishing for the day switched off the wrong computer by mistake! Another novice (whose last resort before what appeared would have been complete physical annihilation of the computer following failure to obtain power, was to seek human help) has suggested that some form of orienteering or at least geographical or better still military location skills course should be deemed a prerequisite for using a self instructional computer laboratory.

With regard to program components, the differences between novice and competent user become obvious not only through the differences in the strategies applied, but also in the time taken to complete tasks (Hedberg and McNamara, 1985).

As an example -

Do you remember the first time you sat down to use a word processor on your pc? Did you read the manual thoroughly (from cover to cover) before you fumed on the computer? Did you have the luxury of time to examine thoroughly the accompanying literature before commencing work with the program?

One of the most common questions occurring in a self instructional laboratory is "How do I. . . ?" and if one considers for a moment the context of the situation it is easy to understand why. Many novice computer users have come to their initial encounter with the need to complete an assignment and with accompanying time restrictions. There is the associated problem that many novice users in higher education have limited access to facilities. The demands of "I wanted/ needed it by yesterday", the pressure of having a particular job to be done and only occasional access make even more critical the provision of appropriate support mechanisms for these individuals in their initial encounters.

Again it might be argued and rightly so, that a few hours with a good tutorial would solve much of the dilemma. However as one novice user has pointed out, there is usually far to much to remember from a tutorial, and if one has limited time, remembering it for the next session, which may be a week later, is difficult. Further, in many self instructional environments tutorials are often discovered 'after the fact', (when the skills have been learned and the assignment completed).

The last area which needs to be addressed is catering for the 'human' side of computing. "If only I had known that before, how much easier it would have been" resounds throughout many a self instructional computing environment. Inevitably one always finds an easier method after it is required. Again the answer may well lie within easy access in the manual. The use of the manual though is largely dependent on individual differences in approaches to learning and the translation of the manual into 'non computing language' is beyond the expertise of many a novice computer user.

Secondly, for the novice user attitudes and expectations can determine the encouragement or discouragement obtained from an initial encounter. Having to continually refer to a manual not only destroys valuable concentration, it can also be confidence destroying - if not soul destroying. Similarly the expectations of the user who expected to find the article on the database was disappointed to learn that their task also required a 'hunt' through the library.

Those who like to know what's happening each step of the way have greater difficulties in initial sessions than those whose approach to learning allows them to simply 'press on regardless' without the need of knowing what the computer is doing. And those who see the challenge as exciting and a new learning experience have considerably fewer frustrations than those for whom the thought of sitting at a workstation is tantamount to torture. Providing appropriate support for the varied 'human requirements' is perhaps the most difficult issue in the self instructional laboratory situation. Nevertheless it is an issue which should be considered if self instructional computing environments are not to go the way of many technological predecessors and become obsolete dust collection centres.

Where to from here...?

This paper has endeavoured to raise three basic issues associated with novice users initial encounters with computers in a self instructional mode. The expression "How do I...?" characterises the procedural and package related questions commonly raised by novice users. The expression "what happens if...?" refers to the human aspects in these initial encounters; differences in approaches and individual learning styles. The provision of support strategies and mechanisms must cater to learners differing attitudes, expectations and learning approaches. Instructional support materials need to provide the answers to the questions. While manuals and demonstrations are of assistance their suitability in many circumstances is limited.

In essence designers and coordinators of self instructional computer environments need to look closely at the profiles of those using the facilities (particularly those using them infrequently or for the first time) and at the provision of 'human' help. service personnel or assistant staff if the use of computers in learning in higher education is to reach its full potential.

The "where to from here ...?" will hopefully see a "This is how...This is what happens if..." in the self instructional laboratories of the future.


Barrett, J. and Hedberg, J. (1987). Using Computers Intelligently in Tertiary Education. Sydney: ASCILITE.

Crichton, M. (1982). Electronic Life or how to think about computers. USA.

Hedberg, J. G. and McNamara, S. E. (1985). Matching feedback and cognitive style in visual CAI tasks. Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Perry, N. R. (1984). On-line Search and Retrieval: An information processing approach. Unpublished Masters Thesis. Western Australian Institute of Technology.

Rogers, L. T. (1987). The computer assisted laboratory. Physics Education, 22(4), 219-224.

Schneiderman, B. (1982). Fighting for the user. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 9(2), 27-29.

Snyder, W. J. and Hanyak, M. E. (1985). Computer assisted laboratory stations. Chemical Engineering Education, 19(1), 26-29.

Please cite as: McNamara, S. (1988). The "How do I..." and "What happens if...?" of using individualised learning materials. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 95-102. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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