From 2000-2003 I was a creative writing major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a university most well-known for its schools of engineering and computer science. Guess I could have thought that decision through a little better, but I’m glad I didn’t. I even lived in a private dorm adjacent to the engineering campus, Hendrick House, surrounded by some of the strangest, most intelligent and most wonderful people I’ve ever known, almost all of them engineers. When I arrived at UIUC, I knew the bare bones of computering—how to type, how to use a Web browser, how to use a word processor, and play a few games, but not much else. However, over the course of three years living with these technological elite, I picked up more than a few tricks not only about using computers, but about how to fearlessly teach myself more. And now I pass that on to you.
Attaining fearlessness in the face of learning more about the computer lies in the art of reversibility. The most common fear my students express is that they will press the wrong keys or click the wrong thingies and destroy their computers. I try to assure them this is highly unlikely, but that discomfort still remains. Certainly I felt that way 10 years ago. I discovered over time that there are particular steps you need to take to ensure that, if the worst happens and your computer stops working, you can back out of your mistake or recover your computer. With the following steps accomplished, you’ll find that you feel much less hesitant about stepping outside your comfort zone.
Back-up, Back-up, Back-up!
Computers come and go as hardware gives in to time or your desire for the next best thing, but whatever machine you have, its true purpose is to access your files. Be they personal documents, pictures, music, movies, and more—storing, viewing, and manipulating these files is the reason we have computers. Having your files backed up, which is to say, stored in more than one physical location, is the first and most important safety step you can take before you start experimenting with what your computer can do. Check out my previous blog post on backing-up for more information. When you know your files are safe even if you kill your computer in some manner, you’re free to be much more adventurous. Even still, do your best not to kill your computer.
Make Sure You Know Where Your Software Is
Next after your files is your software. Where’s that disc for Microsoft Office? Or Photoshop? Did you download that antivirus software or did it come with your computer? Make a list of all your essential software, write down where it came from, and make certain you still have access to it should it need to be repaired or reinstalled. Trust me, there’s little worse than paying full-price for a piece of software, reformatting your hard drive, and then realizing you lost the stupid disc. Blargh!
Keep a Record of Your Activation Keys
Of course a lot of software these days requires an activation key to install. These would be the long strings of characters broken up by dashes that you see on the bottom of retail software packages or sometimes on the CD sleeves. If you purchased software as a digital download, these keys should have been given to you after the point of sale as well as emailed to you. Keep those keys written in safe place—you’ll need them when you least expect them.
Keep Track of Your Passwords
Many sites that might contain important information for and about your computer are password-protected, particularly your email and potentially your off-site back-up service if you were good and heeded my sage words in the above-linked article. For help in maintaining your passwords, try a lovely service I and many of my colleagues and friends use called LastPass.
Learn the Ins and Outs of Restore Points
Since Windows XP (Or was it 2000? That was 13 years ago. I can’t remember!) Microsoft has included its most important feature: restore points. Basically these are “snapshots” of your computer’s programs and settings that are taken when you install a program, when you download updates, or when you trigger them manually. You can use these snapshots to essentially send your computer back in time to when it still worked. Restore Points have saved my bacon numerous times and will do the same for you, so learn how they work here. Mac users have an even cooler system in Time Machine.
These are the steps I recommend for setting up your learning safety net. Take care of them first and your fearlessness will begin to grow as you discover how to recover from your mistakes, which, yes, you will make many of. Been there, still there, still doing that, every day! Now, it’s time to undertake a few projects.
Learn How the File Explorer Works
Though this is both a step in becoming a fearless computer learner and actively fearlessly using your computer, I honestly can’t think of anything more important to learn after you’ve got down the basics. Proper file management will help you better organize your personal files and teach you a lot about how your computer accesses the different files it needs. For instance, all the programs you use in a Windows computer are stored in a special folder on your hard drive called “Program Files” except for the core windows files and programs which can be found, aptly, in the “Windows” folder. Click here to learn more about the Windows explorer or click here to learn about Mac's finder. Practice making folders, moving files in and out of them, and copying them to external or online storage for back-up purposes.
Try Some Self-Guided Tutorials
The Internet is home to an endless number of people who want to help you learn. Finding quality tutorials, however, can sometimes be a trick. May I recommend the Goodwill Community Foundation’s Free Computer Training? They have both printed tutorials and narrated videos to help you along. You can learn about Microsoft Office, Windows 8, email, social networking, and more.
Optimize Your Windows Computer’s Start-Up Time
Though Windows 8 computers can start up at blazing fast speeds, they and earlier versions of Windows can be dragged down by any number of issues that you should address. The first is excessive start-up programs—too many programs running at once when your computer powers on is, in my experience, the most frequent cause of slow-down. Check out this guide to disabling unnecessary start-up programs in Windows 8 or Windows 7. Next up is redundant Internet security programs—are you running both Norton and McAfee security suites? Having more than one of these types of programs running at once can seriously degrade your computing experience. To uninstall any program, go to the Start Menu and choose your control panel, then select Programs & Features and uninstall whatever you want to uninstall (you poor Windows 8 users: to get at the Control Panel, press the Windows key and R, type in Control in the command prompt and press Enter). You might also have malware on your system—check out this guide from MakeUseOf.com, one of my favorite computer sites. And finally don’t forget to defragment your hard drive (computers with Solid State Drives or SSDs do not need to defragment): Windows 7, Windows 8.
Try Some New Software!
The Internet is home to so much free and wonderful software, it literally brings a tear to my eye (but so does the future scene from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, so take that with a grain of salt). Give some a try! Mix some audio with Audacity; make your photos fantastic with Picasa; or if you just want to kick back and be entertained, try the VLC media player with your DVDs to skip annoying FBI ads and normally unskippable previews. Need more? Check out my beloved OSSWin or Open Source Mac for more software than you will know what to do with.
Looking for a real challenge? Try Linux!
Back when I was in college, my friends got me to experiment with running Linux, and I can never thank them enough. Linux is a free and open-source operating system that anyone can modify and repurpose. There are many different versions of it out there for varying uses, but you probably ought to try Ubuntu Linux, as it is by far the easiest to use for beginners. Check out this guide to Ubuntu for beginners.
Now, why in the world would you want to install a different operating system on your computer? I mean, it’s already got Windows on it, right? Isn’t that good enough? Well, it depends. Windows is a proprietary operating system that only Microsoft can modify. Upgrading to new versions of Windows can be costly, and it can be a true pain to reinstall it should the need arise, most notably because most new computers these days do not include restore discs, a trend that I find very disheartening. But Linux costs nothing. It will always cost nothing. It is updated much more frequently than either Windows or Mac, it is much zippier than both of them, and if you learn enough about it, you can customize Linux to look and act exactly the way you want; this last bit will be a big advantage for people who hate the new design of Windows 8. In a nutshell, you can make your computer truly your own. And in learning how to use Linux, you'll learn all sorts of things about how your computer runs that you'd never have been exposed to running Windows or Mac. One word you’ll get used to: dependencies.
Now, this is definitely not a step for the faint-of-heart, but if you’ve followed my steps at the beginning of the article and you decide you hate Linux (paying special attention to my back-ups blog in its section about creating rescue discs), you can bring your computer back to the way it was before you installed Linux.
Remember: Google is Your Best Friend!
As you experiment with your computer, you’ll run up against many questions. Google links to the sites that have the answers. Simply phrase your question, type it into Google, and I promise you, you’ll find countless forums and how-to sites with detailed instructions from other users who have been there before! Follow in their footsteps—not everything is going to work perfectly, but if one set of instructions doesn’t help, move on to the next and you will find lots more to try and hopefully an answer.
The tablet and the smartphone may have become ascendant in many homes and pockets, but your PC is far more powerful and versatile than either of them. I hope this guide will help you become more comfortable as you learn its ins and outs.