Making computers easier to use


At my son’s school they have a computer lab. Actually what they have is better described as a computer museum. It boasts 14 aging Macs covering three models that sport five different and creakingly old flavours of operating system.

The lab has reached a point where something has to be done. After each class the poor teacher has to run around like a maniac and reset each machine so it is usable for the next class.

So a group of us parents got together and raised enough money to re-equip the lab with 14 new P4-based PCs running Windows XP Pro and a new server running Windows 2000 Server. We should be getting things set up in the next few weeks.

Hold on! I can hear a group of you beginning to howl: “Replace Macs! You’re mad! Macs are the perfect platforms for schools. They’re more reliable, blah, blah, blah.”

Yeah, right. And who’ll do the maintenance on the Macs? We had a service company giving us a few hours a week at a pretty good rate, but given the antiquity of the existing Macs, we were at the point where the service was hardly effective. They’d fix one problem and be faced with two more, and the budget doesn’t have any fat in it to do more.

At least using Wintel systems we have parents who can provide support and maintenance and, most importantly, we got pricing on the new PCs we couldn’t get on Macs.

What’s interesting is the drive in schools for computer education to be given to all grades – first through ninth. I contend that until you can read and write, you shouldn’t be touching a PC (which could exclude a few adults, I know, but that’s a separate issue).

Let’s face it: Computers are not easy to learn whether you’re a child or an adult. How often have you seen an employee of your company struggle to use the latest version of some tool? I’ll bet you have often watched in surprise and then with growing frustration as users thrash around trying to come to grips with a new application. Finally – resisting the desire to whack the employee around the head and shout “Idiot!” – you manage to get them comfortable and functional enough so that you can escape back to your desk where you find a gazillion trouble tickets all requiring the same teaching process.

What we’re suffering from is a combination of poor application design and a reliance on generalized operating system services. When you save a file under Windows and Macs you also can perform a range of file operations, such as deleting and renaming.

That’s great if you understand what you’re doing, but many users don’t, and the end result is they rename a file or delete everything in a subdirectory, and then the sobbing begins.

What’s needed is a different model for how the operating system and applications work. Can you imagine an operating system that would be absolutely non-technical and where you could perform all file and system management operations intuitively?

That would, of course, require the operating system to hold your hand and keep you out of trouble – something current operating systems fail at completely. It also would require file handling, storage management and network access to be more obvious and simpler than they currently are.

The result would be that children and adults would be able to use computers more easily with fewer problems.

I’m sure someone, somewhere, is working on the problem, but I’m afraid a solution might well be a long way off. And for now I am not sure what can be done to make computers more effective tools for educating children.

Gibbs can be reached at