Learning to Learn Software: Ten Heuristics


Learning to learn to use software tools is an important lifelong learning skill. The thoughts on this page are intended to suggest ways of learning, as well as stimulate you to reflect on your approach to learning new software (as well as learning other things).

Software will continue to change rapidly so we all must become thoughtful about how to learn new software. What follows are some "rules of thumb" or "habits of the heart" that may help you learn.

The Web as Chalkboard

Reflection: Food for Thought. How do you go about learning to use software? Have you studied your approach thoughtfully... where, when, how, what works best for you? Lots of things can influence your learning but what is noticeable is that some people seem to learn to use new software easily and rapidly, while others find it confusing and stressful, or simply try to avoid having to learn. Research offers some clues as to why some thrive and others struggle with new software. For example, people generally report enjoying workshops but often workshops do not lead to much change in the participants' use of technology. When asked, many people report that having a friend or a spouse or a colleague help them was what was most effective. Context matters too. Convenient access to a good computer with up-to-date software and access to the Web is important. Finally, each learner has individual style and preferences for how to learn. Given that you will need to continually update your technology skills for the rest of your life, you need to become thoughtful and aware of how you approach learning new software.

Heuristics or Rules of Thumb. Heuristics are guidelines or rules of thumb that help solve problems. They do not always work and may not fit every situation, but they are good starting points. A related concept is worth considering too: "troubleshooting." Experts, be they car mechanics or computer users, approach problems in a systematic fashion, following more or less structured questions or approaches in a sequence that starts with the most common problems and working through. You can think of your attempts at learning new software as a kind of problem solving or "troubleshooting," where the trouble is that you don't know how to do something.

Here, for your consideration, are my curent set of heuristics for learning to use new software in the age of the Internet.

1. Consider Your Human Assets! Do you know someone who is using this software? Can you ask them to help you get started? (Often a half an hour with a user when you first start can save lots of time with setting up the software and getting a general sense of how it works.)

2. Get an Up-to-Date Version! of the software you wish to learn to use. Newer versions of much software are more powerful and sometimes easier to use. Your time is worth a lot, so try to start with a recent version. (Educators can get substantial discounts.)
Note: As the world of computing moves to "cloud computing" where all you need is a current browser to use tools like Google Sites, the need and expense of updating software on one's own computer are reduced.

3. Play: Explore the Menu Bar! Try to give yourself an hour or so to just play around with your new software without being under time pressure to do something specific. Open a new page (if it is software for creating pages) and type some stuff, click on every option on the menu bar, highlight some text, see if you can change the color, font, size, alignment, and so on. As you play, and can't figure out how to do something, consider #4 below.

4. Ask a Search Engine! Search engines and the Web represent the greatest access to support for learning humanity has ever had (except for being in a room with me). Search on word combinations like "Dreamweaver tutorial" or "tutorials for Google Sites" or "learning Inspiration". You will be presented with an excessive number of hits and here is were we all need to cultivate keen intelligence for identifying the really good resources from the less good or fraudulent.

For any software you wish to begin learning, you should really discipline yourself to spend at least 30 minutes exploring the links that come up from searching on some keywords that include the name (and version) of your software. Other good templates could be "templates for" or "lesson plans using" or "workshops on" or "user groups" or "bulletin boards" or "blogs", followed by the name of the software. (Also, ask your friends... see #1 above... what sites they have found useful.)

Increasingly, asking a search engine even free form questions, like "How do I change background color of a Google Page?" will yield quicker answers than using built in help (#5). Similarly, one can usually find better and more current tutorials by searching on "Tutorials for Dreamweaver", for example, than what comes with software (#6).

5. Use the Built-In Help! Most software today installs built in help. Look at the menubar or elsewhere and become familiar with the help available with the software.

6. Use the Built-In Tutorials! Help is for quick questions, tutorials are for more systematic study. You can learn a lot from a tutorial, but most of us do not have the "habit" of learning from tutorials. Yet in the future learning to learn from self-directed tutorials will become more and more important. Although we might prefer a class or a human tutor, these resources are expensive, often inconvenient or unavailable. Ask yourself whether you might benefit from setting aside two or three hours and working your way through a tutorial. Often tutorials come with software. Be sure to take time to copy them to your computer.

7. Go to the Company Website! Your next most valuable source of support for learning new software is the website of the company that sells the software. The company has an interest in seeing you succeed with their product, so you should go to the website of the company of any software you are trying to learn and search the site for "tutorials" or "education". Look carefully because sometimes quite extensive resources are hidden a couple of clicks down. (Naturally companies foreground "how to buy" information.) You may find discussion groups or bulletin boards or FAQ (frequently asked questions) for the software on company websites.

8. Analyze Your Time! Learning anything takes time. Getting started is often the first big hurdle. Once started, however, you need to think carefully about your time... how many hours do you need or can you find to work with the software. What time of day and day of week is best for you? Can you get two hour chunks or longer (or are you someone who can learn in smaller chunks... I find small chunks inefficient)?

9. Long Journeys, Small Steps. Try to master small, satisfying skills in a way that you can see your incremental progress and thus stay motivated. Web publishing is great this way, once you've learned to publish your first page or two. For example, you might decide you would like add a colorful background or insert a photo of yourself atop Mt. Everest to one of your new pages. How do you learn to do that? See step #3 & #4: Look at Menu Bar or in Help, type "Insert Image".

10. Accept Frustration, Take Pride. Learning to do something like publishing webpages is often a rollercoaster of frustration and elation. Develop an understanding that some frustration is inevitable and use it to "build character," that is, strengthen your resolve to succeed. And when you do succeed, be proud and share your joy in your success with others. You deserve the credit and you'll be encouraging them to do the same.

Summary. These are my current set of heuristics for learning to learn in the age of the Internet. Notice that some of them apply more broadly. Certainly, searching the Web has become one of the most generally used and useful starting points for learning almost anything, from the history of Cornwall to the best price for a DVD. But I would encourage you to reflect on how you approach learning new software, your inclination to use tutorials, help, and so on. And if you are a parent or teacher, I would encourage you to discuss these approaches to learning with your childen and students. In a global economy and a world of continual and accelerating change, we must create a society in which everyone knows how to continually learn and has the dispositions and habits of the heart to do so. Anyone today who waits to be taught runs the risk of being left behind by those who know how to learn on their own and with colleagues. Fortunately, the Web provides an abundance of resources for learning beyond the dreaming of the richest person in the past.

Patrick Dickson