The worst group project I ever had was with a student who didn’t know how computers work.
In their defense, computers are complicated. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most people have never so much as opened a command prompt, let alone changed their shell or ran a virtual machine. The reason why Drexel has an entire degree dedicated to User Experience and Interaction Design over at Westphal—and indeed, the whole point of a user interface—is because most people will never need to know these things in their day to day. Computers are extremely powerful tools. You don’t need to know how to build a car to drive a car.
Unfortunately for my group member their issue was painfully, embarrassingly simple.
The project was a MATLAB project. Our group had to write a program to do some math. Numbers go in, numbers go out. Not too bad. The odd part was that each group member had to write and turn in their own version of the project, probably to prove we could all navigate the program.
They could not navigate the program.
They asked me for help, and I asked them to share their screen. The error they were getting was an extremely common one: MATLAB can’t open a program unless that program is where it expects it to be. The program simply wasn’t in the folder they told MATLAB to look in. It’s a two-second fix, given that you know where your files are saved.
They didn’t know where their files were saved.
So I asked them where they usually saved their documents and other schoolwork. And they minimized the window to show me the default MacBook desktop screen absolutely covered with every single file they had ever made or used.
Now, if you’re one of those people who save everything to the desktop and don’t know why that’s wrong, I apologize for singling you out. The American school system has failed you. It’s not your fault. I’m here for you.
Computers are like filing cabinets; they only work right if you like to keep things organized. If you save every document you write to the desktop, not only will it be harder to find what you need when everything’s just sitting around in a big pile, but if something goes wrong and you need to do a system restore, the desktop gets wiped. Every file on it will be deleted. Permanently.
If we continue the file cabinet metaphor, this is like leaving all your papers scattered around an office when the fire sprinklers go off.
Now, this is not just a PSA about proper file directory organization. The student I was working with is just one of many people who didn’t know that much about computers and didn’t have any way to learn. Does Drexel offer classes on basic computer literacy? Do high schools? Mine sure didn’t. For most of us, classes on computer literacy are only offered at Hard Knocks University (Remote Campus).
This is a real, significant problem for today’s population. Computers are continually being integrated into every single facet of our lives, for better or for worse. Can you imagine being in IT at a major company where the CEO doesn’t understand why they can’t have the same password for their work computer and their bank account? Many of us think of it as a problem for the older generations, but it’s really not. I see it most often in iPhone and iMac users who have never had to fix any weird stupid Microsoft issues, who have never had the ability to even consider third-party peripherals, who have never had to google how to stop HP Print Scan Doctor from turning on their computer at 11:15 pm every single night.
The solution, contrary to popular belief, is absolutely not “have everyone buy Windows PCs so we can all suffer together.” The American school system needs to invest in actual computer classes, taught by people who actually know what they’re doing and can teach it in a way where students actually learn something.
We can’t go through our lives not understanding the tools that enable us. You don’t need to know how to build a car to drive a car, but you should probably learn how often you need an oil change. Computers will only get more complicated, and we all need to know how to use them.
Not Linux, though. Nobody needs to know how to use Linux.