Computer skills to last a lifetime, not just until the next software version

If I had a pound for every list of “21st century skills/competences/literacies” I’ve seen recently…. But still, Jakob Nielsen makes some telling points about the need to move away from the old application-centric way of teaching people to use computers (is anyone still using the European Computer Driving Licence? what value does that accreditation have now? near zero, I’d guess). As an aside, Nielsen does practise what he preaches in terms of writing for online readers: when I came to choose excerpts to include in the clipping below, there’s very little ‘waste’ in his writing that you can easily leave out.

Clipped from

Life-Long Computer Skills


Schools should teach deep, strategic computer insights that can’t be learned from reading a manual.

I recently saw a textbook used to teach computers in the third grade. One of the chapters (“The Big Calculator”) featured detailed instructions on how to format tables of numbers in Excel. All very good, except that the new Excel version features a complete user interface overhaul, in which the traditional command menus are replaced by a ribbon with a results-oriented UI.

Sadly, I had to tell the proud parents that their daughter’s education would be obsolete before she graduated from the third grade.

There is some value in teaching kids skills they can apply immediately, while they’re still in school, but there’s more value in teaching them deeper concepts that will benefit them forever, regardless of changes in specific applications.

Teaching life-long computer skills in our schools offers further benefit in that it gives students insights that they’re unlikely to pick up on their own. In contrast, as software gets steadily easier to use, anyone will be able to figure out how to draw a pie chart. People will learn how to use features on their own, when they need them — and thus have the motivation to hunt for them. It’s the conceptual things that get endlessly deferred without the impetus of formal education.

Following are some general skills that I think we should teach in elementary school.

Search Strategies

Today’s search engine market leader might be gone in 20 years, and the search page layouts that currently dominate all search engines will almost certainly change. So, we shouldn’t teach the kids Google hacks.

Information Credibility

Information Overload

Writing for Online Readers

media. Thus, we should teach students how to write hypertext and not how just to write printed documents.
Communicating clearly on the Internet, intranet, and other interactive media is an increasingly important job skill. Extensive research has shown that users read online media very differently than they read print media. Thus, we should teach students how to write hypertext and not how just to write printed documents.

Computerized Presentation Skills

Workspace Ergonomics

As life gets more computerized, RSIs (repetitive strain injuries) such as carpal tunnel syndrome and “text-message thumb” are hurting more people. We should teach people how to protect their health, and how to set up a workplace according to established ergonomic guidelines.


We shouldn’t turn everyone into a programmer, but the basic debugging concept is a fundamental survival skill in the computer era. Most spreadsheets contain formula errors, for example

User Testing and other Basic Usability Guidelines

Just as all kids shouldn’t have to become programmers, we also shouldn’t turn them all into usability specialists or interaction designers. That said, the more we conduct business in an interactive environment, the more important it is that we understand the fundamental principles that facilitate easy interactions. Understanding usability heuristics like “recognition vs. recall” or “consistency” will be as important to the educated person as having dissected a frog.


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