6th April 2001 at 01:00
What have Arnold Evans and his bookshelf got in common? Both groan when they're given software manuals. Luckily they have the Net

I wouldn't be so perturbed by the prospect of lifelong learning if it didn't bring with it the threat of a lifetime of being taught. Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against teachers. Indeed there was a time when I wielded my own stick of chalk with pride and took great pleasure in helping others to drink their fill at the fountain of knowledge. But I'm hopeless if anyone tries to do the same for me. The moment I sit down in a lecture theatre or classroom a tripswitch in the recesses of my cerebrum clunks into "off" and the synapses that matter grind to a halt. Pedagogues can use every trick of their arcane trade - judicious humour, apt analogy, vicious threat - and I'll nod sagely, doodle diligently and totally fail to take on board a word they say.

I'm not after your sympathy. In fact those of us who suffer from this problem (and surely I can't be the only one) manage very well, thank you very much. After all, it's possible to learn without ever having to come into contact with a teacher.

Ever since William Caxton printed a bestseller on how to win at chess, publishers have been churning out teach-yourself books aimed at us autodidacts who can only manage to learn if we can do so in our own time, in our own way and at our own pace.

For example, if the quality of your training in information and communications technology isn't up to scratch, don't grumble. Instead, nip into any bookshop or library and you'll find an impressive selection of titles that offer the help and advice your trainer is failing to deliver.

There was a time when the mind-numbing prose of computer manuals was the stuff of legend. An hour with a manual could turn intelligent enthusiasts of new technology into gibbering technophobes. Nowadays, writers make heroic efforts to keep things nice and simple. It means you can buy or borrow any of the popular guides without feeling you should first get a Phd in computer science.

Instead, spend a few sessions in the gym toning up your arm muscles. Some of these tomes weigh in at two kilograms and more. But, sadly, it's a fact of life that the more pages a book has, the less chance there is that they will ever be read, regardless of how impeccably they are written. So the chances are that the book you have chosen will gather dust on your (reinforced) shelf.

You'll often jot a note on your To Do list to read the book - along with the reminder to re-grout the bathroom tiles, de-flea the cat, make a will and all those things you never quite get around to. You might even take the book on holiday, convinced that with all those long lazy days to spare, you'll find an opportunity to read it. You won't.

You will return it tothe shelf where it will remain unopened, provoking little shivers of guilt every time you see it. But don't worry - books about new technology become obsolete surprisingly quickly, so it won't be long before you can donate your white elephant to the church jumble sale and rush out to buy yourself a book that's bang up-to-date - and even bigger.

You'll save yourself time, money and a possible hernia if you decide that big is definitely not beautiful and opt instead for a QGuide to Excel, PowerPoint or whatever bit of software currently has you scratching your head. A QGuide is about the size and shape of one of those naff birthday cards. The publishers work on the principle that anything a beginner might want to know can be comfortably contained on four - or at the very most six - sides of well-designed A4. The card is laminated and so doubles nicely as a mouse mat, which ensures it's always near to hand when you're using the computer.

But if you really want to get down to some serious learning, forget about books and learn to love the World Wide Web. It's the ultimate teach-yourself manual - the definitive step-by-step guide to life, the universe and everything, the autodidact's wildest dream come true. And as you'd expect, the Net is particularly good when it comes to providing training in new technology. There are countless sites offering courses tailor-made to suit everyone from the rawest newcomer to the nerdiest of propeller heads. Many offer accreditation, most charge for their services, but hunt around and you'll find plenty of tutorials and on-line manuals that don't cost a bean.

Of course, there are far more interesting things to learn about on the Net than how to use computers. Try keying "self-learning" or "teach yourself" into any of the search engines and you'll discover there are tutorials on every subject from abseiling to zymurgy. And to feel part of a wider community of lifelong learners you can join chatrooms and news groups devoted exclusively to your interest or subscribe to a number of virtual institutions where you'll receive valuable guidance on how to become a superlearner.

But despite hours on a search engine, I wasn't able to find any help on what to do if your brain switches off the moment you enter a classroom or lecture theatre. I don't suppose it's the sort of thing the Net's growing band of autodidacts need ever worry about.l See teach-yourself books round-up, page 26 Tutorials for beginners:


Free tutorials and exercises in a number of programs

Advice and support on organising your own study


That'll learn him... email Arnold at:

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