Computer training in Australia

By Jon: First published in Online Currents – 20 (9) November 2005

I began teaching people about computers in 1989, with no training and no previous experience other than that of helping family and colleagues. I have been involved in it ever since, mainly as a face-to-face classroom teacher. After trying most of the alternatives, now and in the past, I still believe that face-to-face training by a competent professional is the best kind of computer training there is.

For a while in the 1990s everyone else agreed with me. I had six or seven training clients at any one time. The training industry went from strength to strength and almost any computer-related course could draw its share of students. By 1999 it seemed that face-to-face computer training was here to stay.

Then it all fell apart. By 2003 many large training companies had closed. A few – like WEA Sydney, where I still work – still limp along, but the overall level of interest in classroom training is down to a fraction of what it was at its peak. And it continues to drop.

In hindsight it’s easy to see why. The tech stock crash and the Y2K fiasco undermined the public perception of computing as a glamorous, omniscient profession. More importantly, the trainers had done their work too well. By 2000 most families, most offices – even most households – had their own computer guru they could consult without having to submit to formal training. The human-computer interface had standardised on a relatively simple, user-friendly graphic system. And changes to programs with each new version had become small and incremental, rather than the radical rewrites of earlier days.

But in Australia there was another factor. By the late 1990s governments and other regulatory bodies had begun to intervene in what had been an unregulated industry. Funding was increasingly tied to the delivery of ‘approved’ courses which had been developed and checked by government bodies or their appointees. It was an approach which had been used successfully in other disciplines, but in my view its effect on computer training has been disastrous.

An ‘approved’ computer course arrives on the trainer’s desk in the form of a thick manual, with a series of chapters covering various ‘topics’. The topics chosen are usually arbitrary, reflecting the competence of the author rather than the needs of any students, and the sequence is sometimes illogical, with the concepts needed to understand a particular topic often appearing in the text after the topic itself. This is usually accompanied by a set of evaluation sheets for the students to fill in, rating how well they have learned these topics. There is no space provided on the form for them to indicate whether this was actually what they wanted to learn. Sometimes the trainer gets a form too, where he or she can ‘rate’ the course. Whether these trainer evaluations are used for fuel or simply disappear into a bureaucratic black hole I cannot say, but I have never seen any evidence of them being used to revise a course.

Approved computer courses take at least two years to develop, meaning that the course is inevitably out of date by the time it is delivered. Even if the software doesn’t change, the things that people need or want to use it for usually change rapidly over time. Although in theory approved courses can be updated, the bureaucratic effort involved in doing this precludes frequent changes; outdated and incorrect material stays in because it’s just too hard to take it out. When the gap between the course and reality ultimately becomes too obvious – e.g. when new software versions come into majority use – the changes that are made are revisions rather than rewritings; so they continue to reflect the approach and emphasis of the earlier course rather than fully taking into account the features and philosophy of the new software. Drag-and-drop, for instance, was introduced into Windows in 1995, but there are still many training manuals which fail to acknowledge its existence, referring instead to that creaking antique the Clipboard. Others add it as a brief aside. None of them give it the coverage it deserves, and so far no manuals that I have seen even refer to the tremendously handy shortcut: Ctrl+Drag = Copy.

Because approved courses are modular they take a narrow focus. They teach students to make labels in Publisher, without mentioning that Word does it all much better. They teach students to do pivot tables in Excel, then they teach them all over again how to do exactly the same thing in Access, without even mentioning that the processes are identical. The increasing commonality among applications programs is ignored in favour of a rigid segregation: this course is about program A, and nothing can be said about any other program, even if it does the same things better.

Because an approved course is deemed to be perfect in itself, resources are overlooked. Most computer manuals mention that a program has a Help system. They don’t mention the presence of textbooks about that program, tutorials for that program on the Web, newsgroups for discussions of problems with that program, patches and updates for the program, or cheaper and better software that does the same thing.

Finally, in the past training establishments checked the quality of their courses by recording the students’ response to it – good or bad? But regulation requires assessability; students and trainers must now be prepared to check off what they have learnt and taught against a checklist. Can I do X? Well, maybe you can now, at the end of the course, but whether you will ever be able to do it again – or want to – nobody cares, least of all the regulators. This is the worst of approved courses: they assume that everyone wants to use their computers for the same things. It’s rather like doing a driving course which teaches you how to drive very competently from Randwick to Botany – but nowhere else.

After years of wrestling with this sort of nonsense, my approach when confronted by an ‘approved’ course is to ignore it completely and teach the students what they want to know. To be fair, other trainers believe they have value and stick conscientiously to the prescribed syllabus. And perhaps an approved course can offset the effects of a poor trainer. Perhaps. But I miss the days when I could expertly assess the needs of a computer class and provide them with the material they needed, without having to worry about whether I was covering an out-of-date syllabus rubber-stamped by a bureaucrat.