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Driving lessons

April 2018

How did you learn to use your computer and the internet?  I’m prepared to bet that it was pretty much by trial and error.  Not because you were overconfident, but simply because there was no decent alternative.  Most manuals are either poorly written or out of date, and so you had no choice but to stumble on, doing your best.

You wouldn’t want to learn to drive a car that way, I’ll be bound.

I’ve often likened the development of personal computers to that of cars.  In their early days both were big, expensive and unreliable; you needed to employ a specialist to operate and maintain them.

As time passed, they both became cheaper, more reliable, easier to use and an intrinsic part of many households.  Indeed, there is much talk of them merging, with driverless cars being mooted.  We’ll see about that; I have my doubts.

However, old fashioned cars with drivers still comfortably beat computers for user-friendliness, for two reasons.

First, we have agreed a universal set of basic controls:  steering wheel, pedals, and so on.  This means that we can all swap cars and drive away with no, or almost no, instruction.  Computers are a long way from this happy familiarity; try to use a friend’s laptop and you’re likely to find yourself in alien territory pretty fast. 

Second, a driving test has been compulsory since 1935, so all drivers achieve a basic level of competence.  They therefore have a better chance of making the most of their vehicles.  By contrast, anyone can buy and use a computer, and may never get past the basics.  

Given the way in which the government and most organisations seem determined to get us to transact all our business with them online, I think it’s about time that in return they helped us all to achieve some sort of minimum standard of online competence, at a level that would make us safer and less frustrated digital humans, just as driving lessons make us safer drivers.

Obviously, it’s not a precise parallel, and I’m not suggesting that you should have to pass a test to be allowed a computer of your own (although, on reflection, it’s not the worst idea I’ve had) and I’m certainly not against using trial and error to learn a computer.  In fact, I often recommend it as a way of gaining confidence, if nothing else.  But I am constantly surprised by how digitally inept even educated people in their twenties can be, despite having known nothing but a digital world since they were small.

So, isn’t it about time that we handed out some basic digital education to all? 

You can do it yourself, of course.  There is much online, and your local college may help; it’s worth having a look.  For example, one near me offers a course called ‘Beginners Computing for Todays world’ (sic).  I hope it includes teaching the use of apostrophes.

The course is in ten weekly sessions of two hours, which is fine; learning to use a computer is just like learning to drive; it works best if you have frequent, fairly short lessons (ideally one-to-one) with plenty of practice in between. 

But it would be encouraging to see the Government taking a lead here.  It’s one thing getting us all onto broadband - but we should be taught to use it, not just left to flounder.


Some online resources to help find computer training courses


AgeUk runs easy-to-follow training with the aim that as many of us as possible can enjoy computers and the internet.  See if there is one in your area: Click here


Learn My Way is a website of free online courses for beginners, to help develop the digital skills to make the most of the online world.  Owned by the charity Good Things Foundation.  Click here


GCF  Similar to Learn My Way, but American. Click here


A BBC site with a range of video and written guides to help you to get connected and develop the online skills to make the most of your mobile, tablet, computer or interactive television.  Click here