Distance Course Introductory Reading

©1991, 2003, Helen C. Barrett, Ph.D.
(most of this document was from my 1991 dissertation)

Some of the activities in this course involve learning to use new software. This discussion on "Self-Directed Learning About Technology" may provide helpful advice for those who do not consider themselves to be "expert" computer users.


This distance course fits within a paradigm called "Open Learning", a term which encompasses a variety of learning models where the instructor and student are separated by time and/or distance, including traditional distance delivery, correspondence study, self-directed learning, contract learning, etc. Under this learning model, there are a variety of self-directed learning skills that will make the learning process more productive and successful.

My goal in this section is to create a climate conducive for learning in this way, and to assure you that you will be able to learn on your own, with the guidance of the materials provided. Many people think that personal computers are so complicated that they need to be in the presence of an instructor to be able to learn. However, in 1991, I completed my dissertation on how adults teach themselves how to use personal computers. This study was entitled "Adult Self-Directed Learning, Personal Computer Competency and Learning Style: Models for More Effective Learning." The first part of this course reading is based on the findings of my research project.

How to organize for self-directed learning with and about technology

A variety of research has been conducted on how adults learn to use personal computers. The most prevalent method for adults with higher educational levels has been through self-directed learning (Bersch, 1990; Barrett, 1991). Because of the complex and changing nature of technology, many adults also opt for taking organized courses to gain competency. In these organized courses, time is a constant whereas the content presented and competencies gained have been the variables: during a fixed time period, such as in a one credit course, the time involved is constant (15 hours). The content presented will vary based on the individual instructor and the needs, initial competency level and learning styles of the students.

In an open learning environment, in which, for example, the content is presented by video tape or interactive computer-based tutorial, time is the variable whereas the content presented is the constant: students are presented with consistent input and outcomes are achieved at the rate most appropriate to individual needs, initial competency level and learning styles of the students.

My research into adults learning to use personal computers has shown that adults employ self-directed learning strategies at least 70% of the time; intrinsic motivation leads to higher levels of personal computer competency; a foundation for learning and an active learning style all lead to higher levels of personal computer competency (Barrett, 1991). This introduction is based on the findings of that research project.

Most adults who have learned to use a personal computer have taught themselves; while that process may not seem efficient, most would agree that it is an effective way to learn, compatible with what we know about adult learning (Knowles, 1980). As an adult, your learning is motivated by real life tasks and needs, your experience is an important factor, and your time is valuable.

Learning to use a computer is a developmental process. That is, there is a sequence of activities that culminates in competency in using any computer system; the exact sequence will be different for every person and this difference may be affected by a person's learning style; the type of user interface being learned has a definite impact on the learning strategies; and there are specific stages that people go through in the learning process. This process is explained here in some detail to provide you with some background knowledge that will enhance your ability to learn how to use a personal computer. You may want to read this section again after you have gone through the learning activities in this course. To make the discussion more relevant, think back to other times when you have tried to learn something on your own and see if your experience matches the theory explained here.

The stages of learning how to use a personal computer can be broken down in four stages with three transitions between them:

Stage #0 : Unconscious incompetence -- lack of awareness or motivation to learn (people who have not made the decision to learn--we can assume that because you are enrolled in this course, you are beyond this stage)

Transition #1 . Deciding to learn -- Key variable: the reason for learning -- "Why" Motivational variables: "need and attitude"

Stage #1 : Conscious incompetence. Getting started -- the "What" -- Figuring out "What's it all about?" Having a good first concrete experience

Transition #2 : Gaining confidence -- "Learning how to learn" -- Motivational variables: "stimulation and affect"

Stage #2: Conscious competence. The actual learning process -- the "How" -- The computer has become useful, but all activities are conscious and unnatural. These skills are not yet integrated into the subconscious.

Transition #3 : Developing automatic and intuitive use -- rehearsal "practice, practice, practice" - Motivational variables: "competence and reinforcement"

Stage #3 : Unconscious competence. The learner has the skills and understanding to ask, "What if?" The technology becomes invisible; the learner's energy is focused on the task that needs to be done, not on the technology.

The focus of this introduction is not only on how adults learn to use personal computers, but on generic learning strategies, with the goal of shedding some light on the developmental process of learning. The model focuses on four stages or phases and the transitions between each of those phases. The model as presented represents a spiral or an iterative, developmental process that is repeated each time a new skill is learned. The overall goal of this course (or any course, for that matter) is to take you, the learner, through stages 1 and 2 in this process; each person has their own unique methods for moving into stage 3.

The initial learning experience is extremely important in relationship to the learning theories illustrated above, because that first try can serve as a catalyst for subsequent learning. Finding personal meaning, meeting practical needs, approaching the learning task with a positive attitude, and building awareness are essential motivational factors.

Stage 1 - Getting Started

This is the stage where the learner needs to recognize the stimulus of what is happening on the screen and decide what actions to take in response to cues from the computer. In this early stage, having a written set of procedures or an overall map to follow is useful, since the knowledge and skills have not been committed to long-term memory.

At this stage of the learning process, those students using self-directed learning can just turn on the computer, boot the program, start experimenting, and observe what happens on the screen. If the program does not have an intuitive interface, then going through a tutorial disk on the program is a good first activity. Watching a short demonstration is useful for some people, and user groups or computer dealers are good places to see programs in operation. The tutorials on the course CD-ROM provide screen recording videos that demonstrate how to use different components of the software being learned.

It is important to interact with a program at the start, to begin forming a mental model of how the program works. With a new program or a familiar application, it is useful to observe how it is similar to, or differs from other familiar programs. In learning a totally new application, there is a dual need to understand the application as well as the specific commands of the program. The learner should make notes, especially of elementary procedures, such as how to start and exit the program or open and save files.

Self-directed learners often suffer from a lack of structure that an instructor provides. Most of us unconsciously set some sort of learning goals without realizing it, and even an informal learning plan organizes activities to reduce anxiety and increase productivity. Learners should go further and consciously set stated realistic goals for learning so they can check their progress along the way and be motivated by their successful accomplishments. Using a real task can enhance motivation because the learner can make progress in learning to use the computer and get a job done at the same time.

Don't worry about learning a lot of computer terminology, or learning a lot of disconnected commands. Beginning with concrete, hands-on experience is best. It helps you become comfortable with the program through step-by-step procedures. It is important for you to recognize the stimulus the computer screen is providing, and what responses are appropriate. The video tapes or CD demonstrations are a good place to begin this process. Once a minimum level of comfort is reached, then you will have some concrete experience upon which to relate the more abstract knowledge that can subsequently be introduced. At this stage, it is important that you be shown the practical needs that can be addressed by the application you are learning. Your positive attitude toward the subject is also extremely important at this beginning stage, and the most effective role an instructor plays through the materials provided, is to provide inspiration and structure for learning.

Prior research also shows that time is an important factor in acquiring skill in using a personal computer (Mruk, 1984). John Carroll (1963) looked at "the degree of learning attained by an individual as a function of both personal and environmental factors. Factors such as motivation and aptitude will affect the time a person spends in a learning task. Factors related to the type and quality of materials will affect the time a person needs in order to learn" (Wager, 1982, p.3).

At the simplest level of the Carroll model, the degree of learning is a function of the time actually spent at learning relative to the time actually needed for mastery of a learning task (Block, 1971). Next, Carroll defined those variables that affect how much time a person spends in learning, which accounts for both the time allowed for learning and the perseverance of the learner.

The second set of variables -- for time needed -- consists of the student's aptitude for learning, the quality of instruction and the student's ability to understand the instruction. The relationship here is inverse--that is, the greater the value of these three variables, the less the time needed.

The variables are then substituted into the original equation to reflect Carroll's hypothesis that "an increase in any of the values on the top of the equation will increase the time spent and increase the degree of learning. Likewise, an increase in the value of the variables in the denominator will decrease the time needed and increase the degree of learning that will occur" (Wager, 1982, p.5).

It is important to make a commitment to an amount of time that will be allowed, on a regular basis, to complete the activities of this course. Therefore, in consultation with your partner, make a written commitment of the time that you will devote to this course. It should be noted that a minimum of 25 hours is expected for every credit earned in a "laboratory" course. One of the problems with self-directed learning is the commitment of time and the tendency to procrastinate. Make a commitment and mark it on your calendar! (You might want to enter this commitment into your computerized date book! As of the date of this publication, I recommend using a Palm.)

I also suggest that you set a target date for completing this course. Experience shows that the longer you take beyond a normal four month semester, the less likely you are to finish. Therefore, set a target date that fits with your personal and school calendar. This course is organized around five-week modules, with recommended deadlines to help you stay on track.

In summary, at the beginning of the learning process, some of the most important factors are: access to learning resources-- both video and print materials, a positive mental attitude toward the learning process, a specific need which the computer application could help answer, and enough time to devote to the learning process.

The discussion on the following pages relates to the following stages of the learning process. Depending on your learning style, you might want to skim it for content, and return to reading it in more depth after becoming engaged in the learning activities of this course. Much of the following information is based on my dissertation research into how adults gain competency in using a personal computer.

Stage 2: During the learning process

During this stage, you need to form theories and develop an abstract conceptual understanding of how the new computer program works. During this time, you should move from the primarily behavioral nature of the learning process to the more cognitive functions or higher-level skills. At this point, it is appropriate to begin discriminating between visual stimuli-- even similar stimuli-- and use some of the vocabulary associated with computer use. The associations made during this stage will store knowledge and skills in your long-term memory for later retrieval. During this transition phase, a positive emotional tone (affect) is important to provide sufficient stimulation to form cognitive links necessary for retrieval. Images and visual metaphors will contribute to more successful information storage.

It is important for self-directed learners to allow sufficient uninterrupted time for learning. Using real-life data to perform practical tasks will aid motivation. Having a cheat sheet or a minimum manual will help with the task of maintaining important commands in short-term memory. Skimming the manual before starting can give a sense of the scope of the material. Another useful skill is learning to decode the way the information is organized in the manual, using the Table of Contents or an Index. Learners should not try to memorize commands, but develop a written record of each command that is looked up. When encountering a problem that the manual will not solve, it is useful to explore assistance available, including telephone numbers of technical assistance, and the software manufacturer. There are many third-party book publishers who provide excellent resources-- often better than the original manual. These books often make access to the information easier because their organization is more logical than the original software manuals. Other useful learning aids include audio and video tapes that both demonstrate and explain the command structure and applications.

You should have on hand a textbook or written materials to use as reference as you are learning. At this stage the amount of stimulation is extremely important --not so much that you become overwhelmed, and not so little that you are bored. The affective learning environment must be positive with efforts made to help you handle the inevitable frustration that will occur. In this stage, one important function these materials provide is coaching or guiding, helping learners avoid major problems, but not totally avoiding mistakes. Another important function is also guiding you to refine your conceptual knowledge of how the program works and helping you to develop skills in "learning how to learn" the software. The goal of this stage should be to help you gain sufficient knowledge and skills to become independent and continue learning on your own.

This phase of the learning process could be described as the movement from conscious incompetence to conscious competence, when you are actively engaged in figuring out how the computer works. The affective (emotional) environment is also very important. Here is where a partner can be an important support system. Participants in a research study (Barrett, 1991) expressed a range of emotions from fear, anger, incompetence, frustration, and loneliness, to excitement, pride, fun, and amazement. Some of the suggestions for handling this frustration were calling someone for help, doing relaxation exercises, walking away from the problem for a while, taking a philosophical attitude about the process. As one learner said,

I find that almost everything I know about the computer, and I'm by no means an expert, I learned on my own. I learn best when it's just the computer, the program, the manual, and me. Having someone show me does not have the lasting effect that exploration does.

Stimulation was an important factor in learning. When asked what factors or activities kept them stimulated through the learning process, the responses in one research study were primarily related to success, joy of learning, accomplishment of real tasks, more efficiency and being able to help others. There were quite a few suggestions for learning resources, such as good books, magazines, manuals, or individuals who had been helpful in the learning process. In summary, the most powerful motivators for learning were success, access to sufficient learning resources, practical applications, and sufficient time for learning.

Stage 3: At the end of the learning process

During this stage, you will become more comfortable with the specific skills or knowledge, and begin to test the implications of these concepts in new situations. The skills will become intuitive and automatic. You will be able to understand the logic or rules and will be better able to respond to the variable needs of the situation. At this point, you will become more comfortable with problem solving when the computer does not seem to follow the rules. Competence and reinforcement --the success factor at this stage of the learning process-- is the motivation and enthusiasm to continue learning new skills. The links with long-term memory have been forged through meaningful patterns and associations, and you will be able to retrieve knowledge or skill as needed. At the level of unconscious competence, the skills become automatic, and the computer user often has a difficult time putting these skills and procedures back into words. Most adults are more comfortable working at this level.

The end of a learning project could be defined as the accomplishment of specific learning goals, although most computer users feel that there will always be something more to learn as long as they live. The self-directed learner should focus on reinforcement activities that contribute to increased competence in using a particular application. One strategy is practice and repetition of the skill until a minimum comfort level is reached and the skill becomes automatic. This is the stage at which there is decreasing dependence on those "cheat sheets" that the learner used in the previous stage. At this point, new applications can be added or variations developed from actively experimenting with the program.

You should now work independently and reinforce the skills that have been taught in order to gain confidence and competence. Future learning should focus on applying rules in different situations and solving problems. The most important role for the instruction at this stage is to provide resources for further learning and insight into different strategies for problem-solving. Much of this time should be spent on projects that are meaningful for you, giving you the competence and reinforcement to continue learning more about the computer.

In describing the activities that were used to reinforce learning, the predominant response of participants in my study was repetition and practice, again with practical applications.

I learn much better from practicing skills, in comparison to listening to directions or reading directions from a manual. I also reinforce my learning if I can show someone else what I have learned, or if I can help someone with the learning process. Another positive learning factor is if I can relate the learning to practical application.

With the Mac, when you figure out how to do something, you have an immediate intrinsic reward. You feel that you have increased your power to use this powerful tool, so you keep doing what you have learned.

Finally, learners gained skills in "learning how to learn" their computer, with time as an important factor:

I have discovered that once I learn a type of software I can transfer that knowledge to other software packages that [gain] the same skill. Computer knowledge is also transferable from computer to computer and the more I learn the easier it is to transfer and use other new computers and different software packages.

Time and patience are the key words in learning about a computer.

Following is an excellent suggestion for learning how to manage the complexity of mastering new programs or trying to computerize new tasks:

I usually apply familiar programs to new tasks, new programs to familiar tasks.

When asked to describe the feelings they had when they achieved a certain level of competence in using a personal computer, there were many feelings of satisfaction expressed, including pride, awe, enjoyment, accomplishment, and empowerment:

In summary, this last stage of the learning process is achieving the learning goals set in the first stage, feeling competent to continue learning independently, and being able to actively experiment with this knowledge and skill in new situations.

Variables that are important for learning a personal computer

From these findings, it appears that there are a variety of variables that contribute to the acquisition of personal computer competency. These variables include individual factors within the learner (cognitive, conative or affective characteristics as identified by Corno & Snow). Socioeconomic factors (and support from home and family) also contribute to variables related to motivation, the learning climate, and the time available for learning. The environment for learning is related to support variables, such as learning climate and the access to resources, and process variables, such as time, sequence, and strategies used in learning. The "state of the art" in the computing environment, and the underlying operating system, has a major impact on the quantity and type of computer applications learned. The following chart identifies some of the relationships that may exist between these variables, the environmental factors, and the outcome of the learning process, which is personal computer competency.

Variables that Impact on Acquiring Personal Computer Competency

The process of learning to use a personal computer is primarily a constructivist, discovery learning process; that is, you must construct in your own mind the knowledge and skills involved in using the computer for yourself. There appears to be no practical alternative to this discovery learning process. In addition, personal computers are becoming indispensable tools which often empower learners to achieve results which were unanticipated when they originally decided to use a computer.

Learning the Graphical User Interface (Macintosh/Windows)
(written in 1990, when the GUI was not the standard as it is today)

A lot of people insist that the graphical user interface (GUI) makes it easier to use and more efficient to learn. However, the graphical user interface may not be for everyone, regardless of the advertising "hype" that comes from the computer industry. Some people need a step-by-step approach to using a computer (press this key, type this command, follow these rules). The GUI relies more on a conceptual process. The learner needs to understand conceptually how the graphical user interface works before they can really become productive. There are a whole variety of choices to make, a whole series of "short cuts" in using clicks of the mouse that are not explicitly stated and which, if performed by accident, can lead novice users into more confusion. The fact that there are four different ways to eject a disk from the disk drive, rather than just one, provides almost too many choices for some people who are learning to use their first computer system.

This should not imply that the GUI is harder to learn in the long run. I believe that the initial learning curve is a little steeper on a GUI. There are many special skills that a beginner needs to learn that seem to have nothing to do with the task at hand: moving the mouse around; pulling down menus and selecting items, especially now that we have nested menus (another menu that opens when a selection is made); how windows work--the fact that they can overlap--and clicking the mouse in another window which might be hiding behind it, bringing it to the foreground, etc.

Gagné (1962) pointed out that following a procedure is a much less complex skill than forming a concept, which GUI users need to do from the beginning of the learning process. Novices with the graphical user interface have more initial difficulties in stimulus recognition and knowing what response to generate: with the GUI there is much to look at on the screen and so many choices to make.

One of the first contacts that the GUI learner has with that type of system is the mouse or the pointing device that is used to manipulate objects on the screen. Learning to manipulate the mouse is often an early frustration in learning to use the GUI: when to click once, when to double click, what happens when you click in the wrong place, how to correct mistakes. Learning to use the mouse is as much a physical as a cognitive learning activity, requiring more practice than memorization. Fortunately, there are many resources which come with the computer to practice these skills.

Although that initial learning curve can be more confusing for the GUI than the text user interface (TUI), once the learner gets through that initial learning curve, becomes comfortable with the mouse, and learns where to find the commands on the menu bar, the subsequent learning activities become much easier. This is especially important for the majority of computer users who will never go beyond the competent stage, based on the number of applications that they eventually use. Once you learn your first GUI application, you have learned 50%-60% of everything you need to know to learn every other GUI application. Therefore, it is important for new learners of graphical interfaces to recognize that their learning strategies will need to change, to adapt to this new way of interacting with a computer.

My data show that classes are a part of the learning process, and adult learning theory as well as my own experience confirms the fact that when learning something brand new, a class is the most efficient way to get started. Without an instructor (and at the level of unconscious incompetence), we often don't even know what questions to ask. In addition, organized instruction provides those opportunities for "teachable moments" (Havinghurst, 1948) that can enrich the learning process. However, within the context of the entire learning process, organized courses are a small percentage of the time spent in learning to use a personal computer. Many novices can attest to the problem of having a "teachable moment" without appropriate assistance available!

Support materials are important (manuals, videotapes, books and magazines, self-paced disk-based tutorials). However, users do not use software manuals all the time when they learn. This reluctance to learn from printed materials may be related to preferred learning style. However, I believe much of this resistance to using the printed word for learning to use a personal computer is the manual's illogical organization (at least for the person's learning style), or the lack of a good index. Context-sensitive "Help" files are also important, but are usually so large that they require hard disk storage.

Suggestions for learning

Computers and Learning

The personal computer has a dynamic potential for changing the way adults learn. Mruk (1984) presented three different metaphors of change: the computer as invention, revolution, and transformation (p.9). He pointed out that "the process of acquiring computer skills is a complex activity. Even the most basic understanding involves dealing with information related to the fields of computer science, psychology and education" (p.4).

The computer is having a dramatic impact on all levels of education, from pre-school through graduate school, as one school district staff developer noted:

In my work in staff development, I have never seen teachers become so excited so consistently about new intellectual content as I have since I began working in the field of computer education. Not only is the computer a powerful new tool for curriculum development, but it also provides the opportunity for teachers to become willing learners and to use that experience to take a new look at how children learn. The issues of control of the learning process, evaluation, pacing, and grouping are no different for students than for the teachers themselves. Reflecting on their own learning allows teachers to think about their students' learning experiences, their needs, their strengths, and the variety of their learning styles.

For me, the computer has become a tool for new learning unlike any other I have experienced. With it I can move in any one of a thousand directions. The possibilities seem endless, limited only by time and imagination. The computer is a window into the future, opening to new learning, new thoughts, and new knowledge. And, no less important, it is a window on the past, a reminder of what it is like to be six or eight or fourteen, beginning to grasp the mystery of some new domain. (Russell, 1983, p.107)

Computers and other electronic media are now accepted as performing an increasingly important role in the learning process at all age levels. However, the key variable in implementing these new learning technologies is the willingness to learn and to change established patterns, for both teachers in the classroom and adults pursuing their own learning projects. Becoming competent with a personal computer is placing adults back into intense learning situations which creates a need to understand both the adult learner and the processes of learning to make these activities more effective.


It has been my opinion that through the process of learning to use a personal computer, adult learners can gain a better understanding of their own learning processes. For some people, the process may awaken a spark or capacity for independent learning that may have been unrealized. Perhaps the process of learning to use a personal computer has the potential to enhance our self directed learning skills as well as our self-esteem and confidence in our own abilities as lifelong learners.

In the future, personal computers and interactive multimedia will provide a whole new environment for self-directed learning, not just for learning about the technology, but as a process to explore new bodies of knowledge. A computer providing access to vast storehouses of visual as well as textual data, will be the catalyst for a major change in adult, self-directed learning.

(Was that Conclusion, written in 1990, a prediction of the Internet that we enjoy today?)

Let's get started! You are ready to begin exploring the wonderful world of technology in teaching and learning.

A word about learning style:

You may be a visual learner. In that case, you might want to read the print materials and text references first before turning on the computer or watching the videos or CD-R Demonstrations.

You might be an auditory learner. In that case, you might want to watch (and listen to) the videos first before reading anything or turning on the computer.

You might be a tactile or kinesthetic learner. In that case, you might want to turn on the computer and get your hands on the program by first running a guided tour that might be available.

You may be a global learner...that is, you may need the "big picture" before you can understand the details. In that case, scanning the textbook, watching all the videos or CD-R demos first might be appropriate, just to get a sense of what is possible.

You might be an analytic learner...that is, you need to grasp the details first before you can understand the "big picture". In that case, go through the print materials and do the activities prior to watching the videos or CD-R demos.

The order that you approach the learning process is very individual and I would not presume to tell you which way is best. You will need to decide which method is going to work for you. Keep in mind that time is the major variable here. In this process, you can take as much or as little time as you need to learn the programs.

©1991, 2003, Helen C. Barrett, Ph.D.