Teachers and software manufacturers can spend much time and energy creating ‘Getting Started” guides for software. Yet users report that they prefer a trial and error approach involving getting ‘stuck in’ to exploring a new package (Shneiderman & Plaisant 2004 p532, Capobianco & Carbonell 2001). Conole et al point out that “practice has shifted from a culture of reading the manual of instructions to a ‘just-in-time’ culture based on immediate need.” (Conole et al 2007 p117). This article outlines the findings of a study that set out to explore the extent to which this experimental approach to learning software was in evidence amongst staff and students at University Campus Oldham, part of the University of Huddersfield. In particular the study examined whether people with higher levels of computer confidence made use of different strategies for gaining help.
A survey was constructed using a Google docs survey template. The questionnaire was open to staff and students based at University Campus Oldham. The students study on a range of courses from the University’s seven academic Schools (Education and Professional Development, Applied Science, Human and Health Sciences, Computing and Engineering, Art and Design, Business, Music Humanities and Media). Three different questions were asked:
- What would be your likely preparation for learning a new computer application?
- If you’d started a new application and were stuck, how would you access support at home?
- If you’d started a new application and were stuck, how would you access support at in College or work?”
Respondents were also asked:
- What type of Help packages they preferred (respondents were allowed to choose as many as they liked from a list).
- Their occupational status (focussing particularly on computer use).
- Where they access computers.
- To rate their computer ability. This was asking for a subjective rating of between 1 and 7 (1=complete beginner 7=computer expert). The rating was used as an indicator of self-confidence in approach to computers.
Comparisons were made between students and staff respondents and between those who rated themselves as having a good ability with computers (rated 5-7) and those who rated themselves lower (1-4).
There were 114 responses: 59 from staff and 55 from students.
“You've just got a new computer application (not a game). Please rate how likely it is that before you start you would:”
Chart 1: Use of tutorials or manuals
It is notable that most respondents chose “just getting started” rather than to find a more structured approach to learning the application, such as using tutorials, manuals or books. Not surprisingly those who rate themselves less able with a computer are less likely to adopt this approach then those who rate themselves more able.
“You've started using a new application, but you're stuck. If you were at home please rate how likely it is that you would:
Chart 2: Use of different help mechanisms at home
When respondents have a problem and are at home they will tend to seek out organised help facilities by accessing the application’s help rather than ‘just keep clicking’ There is a difference between the likelihood of staff and students using the online help, with students being as likely to seek help from a friend. Those who identified themselves as less able users are more likely to ask someone else in the house, and less likely to search for help online.
"You've started using a new application, but you're stuck. If you were in work / school / college please rate how likely it is that you would":
Chart 3: Use of different help methods at work/University
When in place-based learning situation (for example on campus), students and staff tend to gain help from a colleague or someone sitting close to them Students are less likely to use the program’s online help.
"Which types of help do you prefer?"
Chart 4: Preferences for help type
By far the most popular type of help was “Text with screenshots”, with all other types being relatively equally (but far less) popular. “Just text” was clearly the least popular type of help, but respondents did not show much more enthusiasm for either video or contextualised help.
"Please rate your computer ability"
Chart 5: Self-rating of computer ability
Here the relative spread of perceived ability perhaps reveals increasing familiarity with computers; no one rated themselves a complete beginner and only one person rated themselves a 2. However, when comparing non-IT workers with non-computing course students, it is noteworthy the student group as a whole rate themselves as much more competent (75% grade 5-7) than the ‘workers’ group (42% 5-7).
Overall, users were comparatively unwilling to use the online help provided within applications. This could be attributed to the problems people find with various online help packages which have often “been modeled on their paper counterparts, to the degree that in many cases they are simply “a user manual with some rudimentary search and browse capabilities” (Dominick et al. 2001, p.1) or just to a dislike of text-based help.
The readiness of all respondents to seek help from someone else more experienced, be it a lecturer, technician or supervisor, was pronounced in a ‘work / college’ environment. But users would also seek help from “someone sitting near” them- someone with more experience was not necessarily specified. This perhaps reflects the almost universal experience of students and those whose work involves computers of using computers in an environment which might be described as a “community of practice”: the most efficient help is the quick, contextualised demonstration (as suggested by Pol et al. 2009) and it is assumed it will be available from a colleague.
The popularity of “text with screenshots” and the unpopularity of “just text” help is not surprising given the visual nature of today’s computer interface. The comparative unpopularity of all kinds of video help, however, does call for examination, given that it should answer this visual need equally, if not better (see Dickey2007, Choi and Johnson 2005, p225, Shneiderman & Plaisant 2004 p533 and Pol et al 2009). Purchase and Worrill suspect that familiarity colours users’ attitudes to help, and this may go some way to providing an explanation for this phenomenon (Purchase & Worrill 2002 p555). This could be an area for additional research.
Do the subjective computer ability ratings reveal any support for the idea that today’s younger users have undergone a sea-change in their attitudinal approach to computers? The evidence from this survey is not overwhelming; as noted above. However, what is perhaps worthy of comment is the fact that all ages and users rate themselves as moderately competent, with the mean competency being 5.578 (where the scale is 1=complete beginner 7=Computer expert). Given the constituency of this survey (mainly undergraduates and those working for a University), that is perhaps not surprising and it might be interesting to carry out a similar survey among the ‘general population’; how confident with computers are the whole of today’s society and what is the breakdown according to age and class?
This survey has confirmed the general reluctance to use help until difficulties are encountered (not to pre-learn). This is something that needs to be addressed by teachers and software authors; most software has considerable depth, and there is a tendency to find a way of doing things with any program and then to stick with it, ignoring the improvements to performance possible with a wider knowledge of the program’s affordances. Any learning package needs to make the access to help as easy and inviting as possible
There is a clear preference for ‘asking a colleague’ because of its efficacy: a quick, contextualised demonstration works. This raises the question as to whether online help could go some way to replicating this by offering easy to access and demonstration-based solutions which enable users to learn operational procedures or form action schemata (see Dutke and Reimer, 2000).
There was a preference for text and screenshot help which leads to the conclusion that any help package should include help of this type. However, familiarity may increase the appreciation of video based help. Further research is necessary to establish this.
Further research into computer confidence might be useful, particularly focussed on the circumstances that lead to people feeling such confidence, how they think they came to be that way. Confidence is good motivationally and the answer to such questions might give us some indications of how to foster it.
Senior Lecturer in Technical Theatre
University of Huddersfield
MSc Multimedia and Elearning Course Leader
University of Huddersfield
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