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Just what is that thing called programming?


 

 

 

 

 

The Basics:

Basic #2, Part 4 -- Getting Training

December, 2009

It can't be said too many times that employers in almost any white or gray collar occupation will assume that their applicants are proficient in the Microsoft Office applications and the internet. And it's equally true that more and more blue collar occupations rely on the PC. However, the hardest step of all may be getting training in these areas.

Through talking with some teachers, we've discovered that, while the kids may have a "computer lab" session once or twice a week, formal training in those labs may be absent and while the lab instructors have an interest in computers, they may have little or no formal training themselves, so they really aren't in a position to offer expert direction, beyond the most basic of tasks. To be proactive, then, means that parents need to find training elsewhere if their labs aren't doing the best training.

While several alternative ways of getting training are available for adults, we found that the options for children and teens are not only limited, they're almost non-existent. So you ask why. There may be three reasons:

In the face of this situation, we've tried to provide a broad array of the existing approaches to further training. A principle we started with is that learning is individualized. There is no single best method for everyone. It depends on the learner's particular style. So try a few of the options and see which you and your kids like best.

Getting Started

The Public Library:

Many of our public libraries offer introductions to the Internet, keyboarding, Word, Excel, Access, and Power Point in the form of 90-minute lectures with hands-on experience. They're designed for adults, but may offer a very good way to get the basics down. Caution: these are only the basics, but may provide enough to allow your kids to go further on their own. These lectures would be appropriate once the child reaches middle school/junior high.

Microsoft Office Training:

After examining all the different types of training, perhaps the best is actually put out by Microsoft itself. However, when their name comes up in the internet search using "Learn Microsoft Excel", the description is: "More great ways to learn to use Microsoft Office programs ... Enjoy free videos on Access 2007 and Excel 2007 from Lynda.com." You don't immediately catch on that the listed site is where to go to get an online, put out by Microsoft, tutorial with voice. As such, let me give you the URL:

http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/training/default.aspx

Learning on Your Own -- Books:

It's a good bet that, if you talk to someone actually in the computing field -- from programmers to DBA's to network administrators -- they will tell you that much of their learning came on their own. In fact, things move so quickly in this field, that the only way to keep on top of the latest developments is to keep up on your own. And, very important, most will tell you that there really is a difference in how material is taught. Some resources make the material clear and easy; others leave you in a hopeless mess.

This will be particularly important when working with kids. Many computer books are meant to be used for reference. As such, they often run 700 to over a 1000 pages long and cover every option available. This kind of text can be really overwhelming for the novice learner.

What follows are our observations about what is available. The list is by no means complete. They may be many other good books and sources.

For middle school and high school students, there are two types of texts which could be quite appropriate: the "for Dummies" books and the "Step by Step" books. These both offer enough information to be really helpful, but not so much as to be overwhelming. And don't be put off by the "dummies" designation. I have found these books helpful for even the professional trying to get a start in a new language (i.e., me).

Another helpful set of books are the 3-D Visual Series from IDG Books. I found "Teach Yourself HTML Visually" to be quite helpful to start on web programming. Finally, don't hesitate to buy more than one text. Each text has its own way of explaining ideas and if the first one doesn't do it for you, the next one might.

For the younger ones, we have not managed to find one book that talks about and teaches the standard applications, i.e., Word/Excel/Power Point, as opposed to providing games, etc. We're still looking.

Learning on Your Own: Lynda.com

We'll talk more about other online courses later, but one service has 1) proprietary lectures/course content written specifically for Lynda, and 2) seems to move at a pace that is slow enough to provide the student time to find the appropriate buttons/menu items to click on, and 3) allows one for around $25 a month to have access to thousands of different course contents.

Personal Opinion: Lynda.com may well be a real "value" in training.

Formal Coursework in the Classroom: Colleges and Universities

Formal coursework in the classroom has the advantage of requiring X amount of time be spent on the topic. This is particularly relevant when so many school activities and athletics vie for a student's attention.

Junior colleges and some 4-year colleges and universities offer courses for a reasonable fee ($50 to $250 per course). Most have the lecturer using a smart board, so that the lecturer's computer screen and mouse movements can be seen by the students. The best make use of a lecturer up front plus a helper who stands at the back and can see the students' screens and offer help so no students fall behind. This type of course might be appropriate during a summer break for a mature high schooler.

One very effective program that we are familiar with is at the University of Missouri Saint Louis (UMSL). Let me give them as an example, as hopefully, you can find something like this in your area. The UMSL Computer Education & Training Center offers day-long courses (1-2 days) or 2-3 hour evening courses over a longer period of time. The lecturers at UMSL have written their own texts for use with the courses and they are excellent, providing enough information to be useful and not so much as to be overwhelming.

One note of caution: The UMSL computer program is a separate division at UMSL, not connected to the degree programs in computer science. And this is the norm. If you go to a college or university class schedule and look at their Department of Computer Science classes, you will find that, for the most part, application courses are not taught and the only program languages taught tend to be Java, C, and/or C ++. Amazingly, few teach the most modern/advanced versions, Java EE 6 and C#. These are the versions used to write Enterprise-wide applications in industry and government and are mainly taught either within the corporation or by sending employees off to a (usually very expensive) training course offered by several independent companies. However, the coursework within a computer science degree program will set one up well for courses they might encounter on the job.

Online vs. In the Classroom

There are also lots of online courses. Although many of the online universities are more interested in a full-time student taking courses toward a degree as opposed to a one-course enrollment, many seem to be flexible. Also, many junior colleges offer the same courses online that are offered in the traditional classroom.

One key question which will tell you a lot and one which you absolutely should ask is "where does the content come from for this course." There are three major possibilities:

  1. eBook online, with exercises/homework/exams online
  2. hardbound textbook, with exercises/homework/exams online, but not course content.
  3. online lectures, written specifically for this particular course, again with exercises/homework/exams online.

An eBook is simply an online copy of a hardbound text you can buy at any bookstore (Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Borders). Currently, the largest eBook seller is eBook.com. Most eBooks cost about the same as the corresponding hardbound text, because the content is exactly the same. What you may be asking yourself is why take the online course, why not just purchase the eBook or the hardbound text?

The answer may depend on:

Programs Similar to Book Clubs

There are some courses that work like the Book Clubs of old. That is to say, you will get a very good offer by signing up. For example, a free learning disc might be offered. Then, periodically, additional lessons/discs are sent for other courses that you might be interested in -- much like the book club that periodically sends you a new book they have selected for you.

These can be good deals, so long as one meets the obligations and quickly returns items not desired. However, from personal experience I know that returning items on time is sometimes harder than it looks. So, do be sure when you sign up to receive a disc that you understand the program and any obligations it may entail.

Computer Camps

Finally, if you have a child who really seems to be taking to computers and may want to take it further, summer computer camps offer a great, fun alternative, especially if they're into game programming.

What You Can Do For Yourself and for the Kids

Everyone learns somewhat differently. Above we've tried to give you some ideas of where to go to get Microsoft Office training. By all means, try several. If one doesn't work, the next one might. I had been programming in .NET for perhaps five years before I came upon a text which, for me, gave the best explanation of what that programming language was about.