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Look, no hands!

Don't be a scaredy-cat. Just buckle up and take the joy-riding approach to learning IT, writes Arnold Evans. No one gets hurt when you crash a computer

It's just like learning to drive a car," well-wishers will tell you when they describe the trials and tribulations of mastering a personal computer. But there are crucial differences as well as similarities. When a learner driver makes a mistake, he could well end up in the obituary columns.

But you can recklessly joy-drive your computer - even crash it - without ever endangering your life or damaging the machine. The worst that can happen is that the computer will hang up. Then all you have to do is switch it off, switch it on and start all over again.

You will harbour unspeakable grudges against the computer for having behaved in the way it did; it, on the other hand, will blithely let bygones be bygones. It won't even remember the incident. The only sure way of wrecking a computer is to lunge at it with a Black Decker - or a cup of coffee.

When you learn to drive, you almost certainly need to have someone sitting next to you; if you are at the computer, this can be a disadvantage. You'll want to make your mistakes in complete privacy. You'll laugh about them one day.

But wise guys do have their uses. Get their telephone numbers. When things go wrong (as they will) get and ask for help.

Children, too, have their uses. Some of them are remarkably knowledgeable about IT and relish the opportunity to teach Sir or Miss. Making a clean breast of your abject ignorance will have the additional benefit of improving your relationship with the pupils: if you are prepared to learn from them, they might return the compliment.

The major manufacturers pride themselves on the quality of their help-lines. But resist the temptation to phone from home: let the education authority at least pay the bill.

If you really don't like asking people for help, you can always ask the computer. Operating systems and the bigger applications have, contained within them, acres of digitised help, succour and salvation. Usually, a click of the mouse is enough to summon any of this priceless information on to the screen. All you have to do is key in some word or words associated with your current headache, and the computer will respond by finding you the relevant information.

If you happen to be in bed, worrying about the problem, on-screen help won't do you much good. It's then that you'll appreciate having a book you can dip into (see page 37). You'll find some in the major bookshops, but to appreciate the amazing range of titles available contact the invaluable mail-order company that's stuck with the nerdy name of Computer Manuals.

In its warehouse, it has hundreds of books aimed specifically at beginners. The titles are enough to make your heart rejoice - The Idiot's Guide to Windows, Easy Excel, The 10-Minute Guide to Word and, if you really feel you need things made easy-peasy, Kermit Learns How Computers Work.

That's a slim volume, but some of the tomes stocked by Computer Manuals will weigh almost as much as your computer. They might be heavy to carry, but they don't make heavy reading. In the main, they are well written and lavishly illustrated. Their publishers know only too well that if they are to make megabucks, they have to make the text easy enough for ordinary people to understand.

Acorn users are going to have to look elsewhere. They'll find that Semerc has two excellent publications by Geoff Love which will help beginners unravel the mysteries of the Arc and the Risc PC.

Those who like learning in a structured way might well be tempted by the open learning programmes offered by CIA Training Ltd. Its meticulous step-by-step manuals (which come complete with discs of data) offer a gimmick-free, no-nonsense guide to the best-known PC software. Companies like Quay2 cram all their training materials for Apple Mac on to multimedia CD-Roms. So you can enjoy on-screen tuition, watch video sequences, and use a search facility to find an immediate answer to any pressing problem.

If you believe a picture is worth a thousand words, you may be tempted to take the couch-potato approach to mastering IT skills. Windows and Mac users will find a range of videos devoted to the major applications. Using them is a bit like teaching yourself cookery by watching dear Delia's delightful programmes. Secretly, you know that it is never going to be as easy as she makes it look yet her demonstrations give you the oomph to overcome doubts.

The Sunday Times sponsors a suite of inexpensive videos on the major Windows applications. MacAcademyWindows Academy also has an extensive library of video tutorials. Softvision has some valuable titles, but would object strongly to any suggestion that all you have to do is sit and gawp at the telly, hoping to pick up skills by some form of osmosis. Its videos typically contain about three hours of programmed learning material.

You see a procedure being demonstrated, and then press the "pause" button to try it yourself. It's only when you master each step that you click on "play" triumphantly and graduate to the next. If you're unsure which approach suits you best, try the PC Beginners Starter Pack. It contains books, discs and a video. Everything, it seems, that you could possibly need except for a Black Decker or a lethal cup of coffee.

* Computer Manuals 0121 706 6000 for a range of books and videos, including PC Beginners Starter Pack (Pounds 24.95) SEMERC 0161 627 4469 for the Acorn Companion (Pounds 12) and Acorn Companion 2 for Risc PC and A7000 (Pounds 12). Taylor Made Films Ltd 01264 335577 for the Sunday Times videos (Pounds 14.99 each) Viewtech Film Video 0117 977 3422 for Softvision's extensive range of videos (Pounds 79.95 each). MacAcademy Windows Academy 0800 834043 for various videos (Pounds 39.95) CIA Training Ltd0191 549 5002 for Open Learning courses (from Pounds 12.95 to Pounds 69.95) The Learning Zone 01483 211 456 for Quay2 titles (ranging from Pounds 9.95to Pounds 59.95).

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