There is a wealth of book, CD-Rom and Web resources that can teach the quirks of that 'impossible' program. So, technophobes, what excuse will you use now? Laurence Alster reports
So great is the dread many teachers have of information and communications technology, that the initials ICT might stand for Incurable Computer Trauma. "You'd never get me near one of those," they mutter, looking at a PC as though it had fur and fangs.
Why such fear and loathing? Technophobia, perhaps: some people just don't like machines, seeing them as unnatural elements in a life that would otherwise be pleasant and uncomplicated. Their ideological kin are the neo-Luddites for whom anything technical represents another means of exploitation disguised as innovation. And then there are people who dislike ICT just because it looks too complicated.
Some of this must be down to poor training, which is perhaps worse than no training at all. Too often, teachers' first taste of ICT is from someone more keen on showboating than steering novices through the shallows. You know the type: characters who babble about RAM, hard disks, refresh rates and processor speeds while clicking icons, menus and multiple screens. It's a performance that can put people off for good.
What a shame. Not only is ICT a valuable teaching and learning aid, it is increasingly an unavoidable part of modern life. Teachers who got off to a bad start should try to put it behind them and learn what can be achieved even by ICT beginners. And to do this they need look no further than the numerous self-training aids on the market.
These come in various forms: magazines, books, CD-Roms and websites, not forgetting the built-in tutorials that accompany computer programs. Individuals will develop their own preferences but a good starting point for many is the most traditional form - the book. Long familiarity with pictures, pages and words makes books less threatening than the new-fangled stuff.
The For Dummies series recognises this, and the books go through the basics well enough. But there's a difference between being called a dummy on the cover and being treated like one by the content. Dan Gookin's PCs for Dummies (IDG Books, pound;18.99) is typical in its use of chapter headings such as "Memory (RAM-a-lama ding-dong)" and cringe-making mnemonics like "Plug, plug, plug your modem gently into the wall; merrily, merrily, merrily, comm is such a ball!" Like the dull layout, this gets more than a little wearing after a while.
Rather than try to jolly you along, other texts crack on a pace and are better for it. "No computerese!" pronounces Microsoft Office 2000 Professional at a Glance (Microsoft Press, pound;18.49), a promise made good in a well-presented, jargon-free, click-by-click guide to the most basic and more complex tasks in Word, PowerPoint, Outlook and the rest of the suite.
Rich Levin's KISS Guide to Microsoft Windows (Keep it Simple Series, Dorling Kindersley, pound;12.99) has a more attractive layout with pictures and Womble-like characters grinning in the margin, but the book is over-reliant on long explanations rather than simple diagrams.
Better by far is the 12-part series Essential Computers, from the same publisher (Dorling Kindersley, pound;4.99). A perfect match of form and function, these small boks take readers from first principles to more complex matters with a minimum of fuss and maximum effect. This is also true of Terry Burrows' Creating Presentations (Dorling Kindersley, pound;4.99) which through imaginative use of colour, cross-reference and layout, illustrates not only how effective PowerPoint presentations can be, but also how much fun it is to design them.
Jackie Sherman's Basic Computer Skills Made Simple (Butterworth Heinemann, pound;8.99) could scarcely be more different. As devoid of colour as it is of frills, it features big, black-and-white pictures of application windows with every step of a task labelled and clearly explained. Unpretentious and effective.
Those who like their media more mixed might enjoy books that link printed hints and advice to CD-Rom exercises to make learning more interactive, though it is doubtful whether PowerPoint 2000 (ENI Collection, pound;17.99) will be among them. While the CD-Rom of this title in the By Example series has some good examples and exercises, the page layout is unattractive and the text sometimes hard to follow.
Though nowhere near as specialised - for example, the book only gives a few pages to PowerPoint - Step by Step Microsoft Word 2000 (Microsoft Press, pound;23.99) makes a better job of connecting any of dozens of CD-Rom exercises to printed instructions and the quick reference sections at the end of each chapter are particularly helpful.
Good as a number of these dual-media books are, the constant switching from page to screen can be as tough on the neck as it is on the eyes. Which is why users might gain as much relief as instruction from Microsoft Office 2000, which at pound;29.99 is a bargain for six interactive tutorial CD-Roms from Focus Multimedia. With just short of 2,000 tutorials, the disks are certainly comprehensive and they're just as easy to use. A Microsoft Office 2000 application window appears on the desktop and a lesson is delivered through sound and vision, with guidance provided by captioned pointers, text frames and highlighted areas. In Demo mode users follow a task being performed before Teacher mode invites them to practise the task; mistakes have to be corrected before the next step can be made. The only snags are the rather speak-your-weight advice delivery and a window plonked immovably in the middle of the desktop (which makes it hard to practise in a separate application window), but the asking price makes it unreasonable to grumble too much.
Perhaps the same principle should apply to learning aids on the Internet; after all, most are free. But some websites simply frustrate with their gimmicks. Office 2000 for Collaborative Projects (www.actden.com) is one. Presented by cartoon characters Sue Special and Jim Jingle, the site introduces PowerPoint with some excellent animated graphics. A pity Sue and Jim spoil things with their very long chit-chat.
Free Online Training With Freeskills (http:freeskills.efront.com) has no such clutter, covers a variety of applications and illustrations and good instructions. And if any teacher is still wondering if all this is really necessary, a visit to Terry Freedman's Using ICT in education (www.ictineducation.org) will still all doubts. Come to think of it, this first-class site might be the best starting point of all.