Tips for Helping Someone Learn to Use Technology

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“Isn’t everybody on the Internet?”

Nobody thinks that anymore, right? The numbers support what I imagine many of us are finding in our daily conversations with family, friends, and neighbors — when it comes to technology, access and know-how are not universal, and technology is unevenly distributed across society.

A crisis as extreme as the COVID-19 Pandemic will inevitably expose some of the technology inequities that may be easy for some of us to overlook under normal circumstances. In an earlier blog post, I highlighted some resources for people who do not have access to broadband at home. But access is just one half of the equation — what about having help learning to use technology?

In libraries, helping people use technology is an essential part of our everyday mission. With the libraries closed, we will have to be more creative about how we help. In times of crisis, as communities come together to support one another, I imagine that many people are stepping up to be technology teachers for family members, friends, and neighbors who are looking to use technology in new ways as a critical connection to society.

If you have found yourself stepping into the role of technology trainer, we can help! Below are some tips that may help you help others to learn to use technology, plus some of the ways that we can directly help.

How Librarians Approach Helping People Learn Technology

Be patient. Understand that the person you are helping may not have a frame of reference for anything that you are talking about. Imagine what it would be like if you suddenly need to understand quantum physics to be able to do your taxes. That’s what it is like for them. Set your tone accordingly.

Set goals and limits. Decide at the beginning how much time you are able to spend, figure out what you can reasonably accomplish in that time, and communicate that with the person you are helping. Offer to schedule time later in the day or week to continue learning.

Also — are you willing to be de facto tech support for friends and family? If not, make that known up front. (You might be surprised how fast word of a family member’s computer expertise can spread.)

Watch your language. Always avoid jargon. What is jargon? Any word that has a special meaning in the context of technology. Cursor, mouse, click, text box, search bar — ask the person you are helping if they are familiar with the words you use, then either define them for them, or think of creative ways to describe things. (“Click the blinking “I” in the rectangle where you can type things.”)

Be even more patient. It isn’t uncommon for someone who is learning to use technology to get frustrated, impatient, or otherwise generally grumpy. Your instinct may be to get grumpy back — after all, you’re trying to help! But know that these kinds of behavior are probably tied to frustration and possibly embarrassment. Be kind, slow down, and remember that, by helping someone learn to use a computer, you are giving them a gift that they may not yet know that they wanted.

Follow up. After you teach someone about technology, check in later — maybe a few hours, a day, or a week — to see how they are doing with it. Maybe they mastered the skill you taught them, and this will be another opportunity for them to thank you for your patience and expertise. Or, more likely, they either (a) forgot some key elements and could use a refresher or (b) never understood in the first place, but only pretended to so that they understood to save face and skip out on frustration. If you are committed to helping somebody learn, make sure to keep asking them how they are doing.

Helping People In Person

If you are helping a person who you live with learn to use technology, here are a few more things to keep in mind:

Schedule a session. Rather than helping someone every time something pops up, schedule tutoring time. This will help with the limit-setting, mentioned above. Schedule tech tutoring dates with a loved one, and stick to the schedule.

Fight the urge to do it for them. (Unless that’s what they need.) We all know how much easier it can be to fill out a form, set up an account, or download an ebook for someone than it is to teach them to do it themselves. If you can, though, take this time as an opportunity to create deeper learning. Our belief at the library is that everyone can and should learn to do important, basic tasks on a computer.

An obvious exception — if someone who you help has a time-sensitive need, such as an application for benefits, that might not be the time to teach them computer basics. Do it for them, and then schedule learning when the pressure is off.

Helping People Remotely

If someone you care for is socially distancing (or if they just live far away), you can help them learn to use technology remotely. Here are a few extra tips to help you navigate this situation:

Be doubly patient. Not only does over-the-phone tech teaching require you to clearly describe every step using only your voice, you also miss out on nonverbal communication cues to help you know how your student is doing. Allow extra time, take it slowly, and just do your best.

Use the phone and the device. Despite all of the advantages of modern communication technology for teaching, the best setup for most tech tutoring situations will be to use the telephone to talk. That will ideally also free up the device you are helping the person to learn so that they can focus on the task at hand.

If the phone is the device, suggest that they use speakerphone so that they can look at the device while you talk.

Be realistic. Your chances for success are better if you set reasonable expectations. You will not be able to teach someone everything that they need to know about technology in one phone session, but maybe you can get them one step of the way there.

How We Can Help

Although we cannot provide the in-person help that we normally do in our locations at this time, you can still rely on the Library for support.

DigitalLearn — Computer Basics Tutorials from CLP

If you are looking for a good starting point to help someone use a computer, try DigitalLearn. These bite-sized videos cover a full set of basic skills in an easy-to-understand format. Send them relatives, or watch them together with someone who you are teaching.

Talk to a librarian

Our locations may be closed, but you can still get in touch with a librarian for help with computers (or anything else). Here’s how to connect with a librarian:

  • Phone — We are unable to answer phone calls at this time, but call 412-622-3114 and leave a message and a librarian will call you back as soon as possible.
  • Email — Write us at info@carnegielibrary.org and a librarian will write back with help.
  • Chat — Go to www.carnegielibrary.org, and look for the chat window. Librarians are online during business hours.

If you are helping someone use technology, know that you are doing something that is meaningful and important, especially in times of crisis. We know better than most that it can be difficult, but by spending time working with someone who needs help, you are helping them to stay in touch with community, get access to important information, and to connect to the wider world. Keep up the good work, and ask us for help if you need it.

Man on a phone while looking at a laptop.

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