How To Learn To Use Any Software Application You Want


What's All the Hype?

In order to use a software application with students productively, an educator must have first-hand knowledge of the application itself. We all have time and physical constraints which limit our ability to learn applications. After all, we can spend up to 10 hours a day working with students, 4 hours of that day assessing how our students are doing, 5 hours planning for the next lesson, and if we're lucky, we find some time to sleep.

This tutorial will highlight the qualities of each learning modality commonly used to learn new software applications. Each modality has its own unique properties. As you'll see, one modality does not necessarily far exceed another. We encourage you to re-evaluate your choice of learning tool every time you are put in the position to learn a new application.

Books As Learning Aids

The Good of Books:

1. Books accommodates the level of users- Training manuals are written for various audiences. If you know your way around a computer and have no experience with an application, there's a book for you. If you have had prior experience with the program, but do not know everything there is to know, they have your book, too. Even if you're not sure what a mouse is, they have a book for you, too.

2. Books allow you to learn away from the computer- There are no system requirements here.

3. Visual books lead the way- We would encourage you to find books with as many visuals as possible. A very successful series is the visual learning books where everything is taught through diagrams. This is great for programs you are totally new to.

4. There are no physical or time limits associated with books- This allows to learn at your own pace whenever you can find the time.

5. Look for project oriented books- For most people the best way to learn is to learn by doing. If you have to choose between different books, always choose a book that enables you to complete a project. You're sure to get a lot more out of it.

Limitations of Books:

1. Some books are very bulky- There are a few series of books a lot of people will not purchase just because the are heavy and cumbersome.

2. Books get outdated quickly- Every year a new version of that software you want to learn about comes out with something new. The publishers get to take a look at the software before you. But, by the time a book about software is in print, you have roughly six months before the application's next version comes out.

3. Some books are not interactive- Publishers are getting the message that people learn by doing. Most publishers are rolling out some quality CD-ROM's with their books. But, still a great number of books are naturally not interactive.

4. Some books assume you understand basic computing (i.e., use of the mouse, Operating System). If you happen to come across one of these and you're lost, you probably should find some basic lingo on the program.

CD-ROMs As Learning Aids

The Good of CD-ROMs:

1.Allows you to go at your own pace- you can pause, start over, or in most cases, just keep repeating something easily.

2. CD-ROM's are very interactive, they allow for instant assessment - In a lot of cases, CD-ROMs are a great choice for learning. They start right up when you put them in the machine. They constantly assess how you are doing and where you may be going wrong.

3. People enjoy the multimedia experience- The use of video and audio CD-ROM Articles can be a rewarding experience.

Limitations of CD-ROMs:

1. Not many quality CDs are available for purchase. This mostly do to the fact that just about every publisher puts them in with their books. This has greatly diminshed the quality of CDs, since in the publisher's eyes the CD is just an add on.

2. Some CDs require a good deal of knowledge about an operating system in order to use the CD. If you bought a CD to learn about Windows 98' because you want to learn how to play a song, you may run into some trouble.

Hands-on Training

1. Live people can help you on the spot- In a lot of situations you just can't beat having a live person monitoring your progress. They can share their experiences of the program with you. If they do a lot of training, they can share some common mistakes with you.

2. It makes it more personal- Having a live person guide you through a process provides you with a sense of comfort and security.

3. Hands-on training affords you the opportunity to practice in real time- Live feedback is invaluable to the learning experience.


1. Quality of instruction varies greatly- Watch out for canned training modules or instructors that do not accommodate your specific technology training needs. Professional development is a large field. Some trainers get in a rhythm and forget about the most important part of training, the personal aspect. Make sure that the person helping you is able to adapt to your needs and just doesn't act as an extension to a textbook.

2. Cost- Training for a staff of 20 can cost as much as $10,000 for 10 sessions.

3. Qualified trainers are far and few between- It is near impossible to hire a group of five people that have a comprehensive knowledge of every program your entire staff will need. The best advice we can offer is to hire a diversified group of individuals to train your staff.

Online Support

The Good of On-line Support:

1. In most cases on-line help is free or at offered at a very low cost. Remember, you get what you pay for.

2. On-line Articles are very interactive in most cases and can provide you with a great deal of instant feedback.

3. On-line support covers a great number of applications. Articles on all major applications are just a click away.

Limitations of On-line Support:

1. You need to be on-line- You need to find the time to sit down in front of the application, get connected, log-on to the site, and load the application. This limits you both by time and space.

2. You need to have a decent understanding of the Internet-Basic training in Interent use sometimes falls short and this often leaves first-time users (beginners) in the dark.

3. Very little content oriented applications have on-line training that is currently available- We expect this to change with time. Especially since distance learning is getting red hot.

Learn About What You Want To Use

What You Can Expect From the Software! One of the biggest gripes of professional technology specialists who work with educational staff is that the staff, for the most part, does not understand what an application is used for. A great number of staff may be anxious to learn an application simply on a colleague's recommendation. However, without achieving an understanding for what the outcome (not always tangible) that an application can produce, you will have a difficult time understanding what the purpose of that application serves.

A big problem with a great deal of software is that the packaging and literature associated with the product just does not tell you in "plain English" what it can do for you. Instead of using simple terminology like: "This program is a word processor. It will help you write and type a basic letter", the phrasing on the packaging may read: "Advanced Document Publishing Solution. Utilizing and advanced user interface." Needless to say, in many cases the software companies do not help you to understand the nature of their products in simple terms.

Before deciding on software, identify an outcome/product you wish the application to produce for you. Then locate the software you will need to achieve your goal. If it is a productivity function such as keeping track of names and numbers, research which application would best help you achieve this. The best source to ask is probably a close friend or colleague who is knowledgeable about computers. If you do not know anyone like this, check out an on-line guru/expert site. These sites have resident experts that answer questions on all types of topics including software.

View standard unbiased reviews of software at Cnet-

Criteria to Use for Software Selection

The following criteria should be considered when choosing software applications:

1. Every piece of software has requirements that must be met by the computer system it is running on. These requirements must be met in order for the program to even run. The first thing to check is the Operating System (i.e. Mac, Windows, Lynx) it is made for. Secondary to that is to make sure your system has the right processor and enough RAM.

Many people may think that this goes without saying. But, as educators, we use many different systems. We need to be sure that these programs will run on the computer systems that we will be using with students.

2. There is a step learning curve when it comes to software. Some software is relatively easy to use, just about anyone who picked up a mouse can use it in minutes. Some applications seem as if they were put on this Earth to complicate your life. The best advice we can give you on this one is to get to know the lingo (vocabulary) of each program first. If you can identify the basic parts of the application, your chances for success are much greater.

3. You should be very familiar with the operating system of which you will be using the given application. Some of the modalities that we will discuss will expect this of you. Some products that help you learn software are targeted for one individual Operating System. Needless to say, if you are learning PowerPoint on a Windows-based system and the book asks you to press "Open Apple + C," you may run into a problem.

What They Don't Tell You?

Can you remember back to the days when you would purchase a program and you would return home with what seemed to be a 400-pound box? The massive book would cover every thing you could ever do with that program. Are those days over?

Yes and no! Not every application comes with a hardcopy user guide. Those that do often pale in comparison to the old user guides. Today software manufacturers save themselves printing costs by creating what is called the "Help File." The help file is a small program that is integrated into the software application itself. If you look on the menu bar of just about any application, you will see a help menu. This menu will lead through the basic uses of the program. The quality of this file varies greatly among programs. We are seeing a great number of programs launched with Interactive Help Files that make tough applications seem easier. We should see this trend continue.

As a whole we would suggest you try using the "Help File" as your first source of information on any applications you decide to use. It will save you money and in many cases, a great deal of time and worry.

The Bottom Line

Any teacher will tell you that it doesn't matter what teaching style or methodology is used to achieve a goal, as long as it is achieved. There is no one best method for learning the use of applications. It all depends on your situation and circumstances. While hands-on training may seem the ideal method, if cost, time, and lack of a qualified training staff is an issue, then you may want to view other options.

Many school districts have begun to form study groups. These groups learn applications as a team and then adapt them to their curriculum.

Just remember, every time you wish to learn a new application, evaluate your resources and situation and then look for the method that best suits your needs.