In every class I teach, the medium is the PC. In every class I teach there is at least one student who still sucks at computing. I applaud them being game enough to choose the encounter, because it’s clearly a struggle. The problem is that almost all of these students carry their downfall into the room with them and ultimately feel no closer to their goal, or only a touch closer. 

What these students lack is Fluency. Computer Fluency is the constellation of core skills that comfortable users take for granted as a foundation into every computer task they approach. More and more, beginning computer classes are disappearing, not because they are unneeded but because curriculum planners see no market for them. Only truly humble students choose these classes and that’s too small a market to succeed. 

Here’s the real problem. Because fluency underlies all software use, if a person lacks fluency it doesn’t matter what computer course they choose, THAT CLASS will become a beginning computer class. It will just be a terrible choice for a beginning computer class. The center of gravity of that class dips to meet the skill deficit of these students. I have taught web design classes where people ask how many times to click an icon and don’t know the difference between a folder and a file. In class I am positive and encouraging but inside I’m thinking “I am so sorry you wasted your money on this class.” Because that student is probably NEVER going to get beyond their deficit to embrace the intended curriculum. 

Learning basic computing skills is comparable to a young child learning the physics of the world around them and a commonsense knowledge of the objects they encounter. This combination leads to success and a confident ability to predict outcomes. The students I described above are like children lying on their backs for the first four years of life and never handling an object. Or like a lifelong blind person given sight and only seeing flat planes of color: If they try to navigate an obstacle course they hit every wall. These people haven’t built a mental model of this world. The virtuality of this world is the key to dealing with it. 

And here is an unpleasant truth: Long time computer users who lack these skills are generally maintaining ignorance rather than being foiled by a confusing system. In every student I’ve known who was really bad at computing there was a central refusal to slow down and look, to observe thoughtfully and receptively. It’s like someone learning to swim but refusing to learn to float and just mechanically moving their arms and legs. First, you must open yourself to the place, you must neither stubbornly make up your own rules or imagine there aren’t any. 

It isn’t really a problem to not have a clue as long as you can embrace one when it comes along. These users are not clueless, they are clue-proof. They are not clueless, they possess an ANTI-CLUE. I’m not damning them to failure, I’m diagnosing. The Anti-Clue is a field of cognitive static that forms between the user and the computer. It prevents learning. It isn’t limited to computers, many people have a subject that feels hostile and closed to them; those are the feelings emanating from an anti-clue. 

Often there is a deep anxiety driving this, sometimes a kind of prideful, arms-folded, hanging back, waiting for the computer come forward and explain itself. Pride of course, is usually just shame, dressed up to meet the world. The biggest problem is denial and one often overlooked aspect of denial is…People don’t know that they are in denial. The whole thing becomes a self sustaining cycle of frustration. Like most of our problems, if we get caught up in pride and defensiveness we are just that much farther from a solution. The weird thing about denial is that IT is the real problem. If forces us to ask the wrong question and accept the wrong solution. If the problem is thirst, denial is the invisible cork in the bottle. When we encounter a problem that makes our emotions puff up like a peanut allergy we should assume we’ve got some denial in that area. If so, we’d probably best sit with it quietly, and ask the fear some gentle questions about how it got there and what it really wants. Once the “anti-clue” loses some of its energy we can usually get a better look at the real the real situation.