Mac Lab Report

No, Kids Aren't Born Knowing How to Use Computers, Save Files, or Burn CDs

- 2005.01.31

I had a conversation with a student the other day. We are making PowerPoint presentations about the planets.

Sounds a little simplistic for high school students, doesn't it?

Well it is and it isn't. Without revealing any names, of course, from the Dave Barry Department of I Swear I Am Not Making This Up for The Most Part, I present my

Annual Rude Awakening Regarding How Kids Are Supposed to Be Computer Geniuses

This is a conglomeration of conversations I have actually had with several different students. No one has been as bad as all of them put together, but some are pretty close....

The scene: We've been working in class for a week to do PowerPoints. They are due today. Kids were allowed to do them at home and bring them to school.

Me: I'm sorry, but the disk you brought from home is blank.

Kid: Blank? Blank? Really?

Me: There's not a thing on it.

Kid: My father/mother/sister/friend swore to me they saved it.

Me: You need to verify it for yourself. When you hit Save, it just goes to the last directory used. The computer doesn't know where you want to save it. You have to tell it.

Kid: How do you do that?

Me: Do you have a Mac or a PC?

Kid: I don't know.

Me: What do you mean you don't know?

Kid: My computer isn't a Mac or a PC. It's a [long pause] I don't know what kind.

Me: Is it a Dell or Toshiba or Gateway? Is there some kind of sticker on the front?

Kid: Yeah, it has one, but I don't remember what kind it is.

Me: Well, it's probably a PC. Do you know which version of Windows you are using?

Kid: What's Windows?

Me: It's an operating system.

Kid: What's an operating system?

Me: It's . . . never mind. Do you know how to change the directory when you are saving?

Kid: No.

Me: Well, it's kind of like this (demonstrating using a Mac), but the drives won't have names, they'll have letters. If you're using Windows XP there will be some kind of descriptive words next to the drives. You need to pick the drive you want to save it on, like the CD-burner or the floppy drive or the USB flash drive.

Kid: I don't have any of those.

Me: You don't. Then what were you going to save it on?

Kid: A disk.

Me: A CD or a floppy disk?

Kid: A CD. I guess.

Me: Did you have a CD-R disk?

Kid: I guess.

Me: Can you just email the file to me?

Kid: No. I'm not allowed to send emails.

Me: Chat?

Kid: No.

Me: Visit a web page where you can upload the file?

Kid: I don't know how to do that.

Me: Upload files?

Kid: Go to web pages. It never works for me.

Me: What do you mean, you can't find web pages?

Kid: When I type them in, they never work. I can't find your home page you have on the poster on the wall. (www.AstronomyTeacher.com) It never works. I think it's broken most of the time.

Me: It's not case sensitive. Maybe you're putting a space between the words.

Kid: Should I not be?

Me: Okay, let's start over. If you can't do it at home, why not do it in class using the computers I have here?

Kid: I don't know how. You don't have PowerPoint.

Me: All my computers have PowerPoint. What makes you think they don't?

Kid: I couldn't find it.

Me: It's in the Applications folder.

Kid: At home I just get my Dad to start it for me.

Me: Did you try to start it here at school?

Kid: I did, but nothing happened.

Me: It was already running. You just need to have an open window.

Kid: There wasn't a window.

Me: I know, you need to open one.

Kid: I tried, but it didn't.

Me: (demonstrating) All you need to do is go to the File Menu and pick New...

Kid: Oh! Okay, I'll try that.

[time passes]

Kid: It didn't work on my computer.

Me: Why not?

Kid: It said an error.

Me: What error specifically?

Kid: The application was . . . locked.

Me: You need to log in.

Kid: Oh yeah.

[time passes]

Kid: How do I save it?

Me: Just hit Save. Then give it a name you can remember. Then save it again - do a Save As... and put it on the server.

Kid: I don't know how to do that.

Me: The instructions are on the monitor, taped right there. [I get another kid to help, trying to finish logging in attendance.]

[next day]

Kid: Where did I save my work?

Me: You should have saved it on the server. [Checks server] It's not here, kid.

Kid: I saved it like you told me.

Me: You probably saved it on the local drive again, just like you did at home.

Kid: Can I get it back?

Me: You can if you know which laptop you used.

Kid: I didn't write the number down.

Me: I guess you'll be either starting over or checking each machine individually?

Kid: Do I have to? I did the work. It's not my fault you can't find it.

Me: Well, you can either keep looking or start over. Or you could do a poster and type the words with this typewriter over here.

Kid: Where's the screen?

Me: Screen?

Kid: Doesn't this typewriter have a screen?

Me: Maybe you'd better stick with the computer.

Kid: [starting over] But I hate computers.

Me: Let me see if I can find some colored pencils.

The moral of the story:

  1. Computers, even Macs, are still too hard to use.
  2. Someday, somewhere, every person has their first experience with a computer. Try to remember what it was like when you didn't know anything. Be patient.
  3. You'll note that none of the questions the kid asked had anything to do with the content I was trying to teach. If technology is a barrier to learning, either find a way through the barrier or remove it completely by not using the technology. Use magic markers if you have to.

How did the story end? We eventually found the kid's file and fixed it up, and the kid will be presenting it next week. It wasn't a particularly efficient or pleasant experience for any of us, though.

PS: Do you have a rash of kids bringing disks in that show a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file that should open on your Mac but won't? Make sure you tell them to close the document before ejecting the disk.

Microsoft Office apparently needs to close the file before a Mac can read it, and it can't close the file if the window is open. I get "Could not open file due to a disk error" consistently, and this seems to fix it.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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