by Scott Weberg, www.scottosplace.com

As I talk to homeschool parents about teaching computer skills to their children, the majority feel that they are lacking the knowledge to teach anything about computers. Many wonder if the subject is even important enough to attempt. In this article I will offer some answers to the questions that these parents have. Why is it important to consider teaching my kids computer skills? Which computer skills should they learn, and at what age? And how do I teach these skills when I don’t have them myself?

A basic aptitude with computers and technology is becoming a requirement in our society’s education systems. Based on my own research, about 10 states currently require some form of computer proficiency for high school graduation, and at least another 7 states require high schools to offer computer courses as an option. Increasingly, colleges are recommending proficiency in computer skills to be competitive during the application process. If a college education is in your child’s future, a computer skills course is something to seriously consider.

In the workplace, computers are everywhere. Back in 2001, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that 40% of all workers used word processing, desktop publishing, or the Internet for their job; 35% used spreadsheets or databases, and over 60% of managerial workers regularly used a computer at work. Industries as diverse as retail stores, the restaurant business, engineering, manufacturing, and architecture all make heavy use of computers. Even your state’s Department of Wildlife is likely to have an official policy on computer use in the workplace these days. (I found one online for the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife, dated January 9, 2007.) Almost any employer your child can end up working for today will view computer proficiency as a plus for some positions.

Beyond the requirements of education and work, use of computers is fast becoming a way of life. In 2008, Pew Internet Research found that more than 1 in 3 consumers shop online via their computers, and 3 in 4 adults used the Internet for a wide range of reasons. Facebook added 100 million users in less than 9 months, and over 100 million bloggers post online daily. Having an “online presence” is becoming a requirement for companies to reach customers and organizations to build and maintain membership. Computers are here to stay, and they will intersect our children’s lives more than they intersected ours.

A lot of homeschool parents wonder which computer skills their children should learn, and at what age? Keyboarding and using a mouse are good to master by sometime around 10 or 12. This will allow your child to use the computer to write papers and do other school work when the time comes. There are a few computer programs for children that teach keyboarding. For even younger children there are many educational computer programs and games available that will teach letters, colors and numbers while at the same time familiarizing them with the basics of interacting with a computer.

A general level of computer knowledge is very useful, and would cover both computer devices and common applications. This would include how a PC or Mac works, how to organize files and the “desktop”, how to install applications, and how to troubleshoot common problems. Knowledge of using computer “peripherals” such as memory sticks, USB drives, and printers is good to have. Effective and proper use of email, instant messaging, texting, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) can be discussed. All of these skills can be acquired in middle-school years, though parents may want to wait until their child is older before introducing them to texting and social media.

One of the main skills that will be utilized in almost any work environment is proficiency with office applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. Microsoft Office is the most popular of these office applications, and OpenOffice.org provides a free suite of applications that are very similar in functionality. A thorough understanding of the main features of these applications, and the correct way to use them, will set your child apart from many in the workforce today.

If your son or daughter has an interest in computer programming or developing web pages, these are great subjects to let them explore, but would not be required outside of some very specific technology career paths.

If you cannot teach computer skills yourself, here are some suggestions:

• Look for a home school co-op with a good teacher. If you can’t find one, see if someone in your local homeschool group might be able to teach the subject, and help them start a co-op.

• Purchase a curriculum that teaches these skills. There are a handful of homeschool curriculums out there. The Essential Computer Skills curriculum at www.scottosplace.com is a good place to start!

• Can’t find a good curriculum for a particular computer subject? There is a lot of good information on the Internet. Do some searches and see what you can find. Some sites I like for the more advanced subjects are www.w3schools.com (tutorials on all aspects of building web pages), drjava.sourceforge.net (a free environment for students to write java programs), and www.python.org (info on the Python programming language).

• Look at the local library or bookstore for a book on a particular computer subject. I would recommend first searching www.amazon.com to view the customer reviews for computer books. Pick a book that gets high reviews and seems appropriate for students. New computer books are often cheaper to purchase online than from a bookstore.

A final word to the overwhelmed parent: Even though computer skills are important to acquire, they are not as important as Math and English and other “core” subjects. If you are already stressed just trying to cover the basics, then a computer skills course can wait until next year. If your child has 1 or 2 semesters of computer skills before they graduate high school, they will be doing well. If they end up not taking any computer courses, the world will not end. Your goal should be to include computer skills material to the degree that makes sense for you and your children. SW