IT WON'T HURT YOU," says the workshop instructor to a sweaty, trembling student. Other learners giggle or roll their eyes. While computer anxiety is often the theme of jokes and cartoons, it is a serious learning barrier that practitioners of educational technology must address.
Left untreated computer anxiety leads to decreased computer use and computer avoidance. Long-term consequences include poor academic progress, lower productivity at work, limited chances of advancement and reduced job security.
Many students, particularly older adults, may have done well with other tools, such as library card catalogs and accounting ledgers, but are now faced with the reality that these resources and much of their work has migrated to computer data bases and the Internet. Many adapt with little or no intervention, but over half exhibit some degree of computer anxiety and fall into one of three categories (Weil, Rosen & Wugalter, 1990).
Types of computer anxiety
The uncomfortable user exhibits a dislike for computers but has only a mild anxiety which is internal and/or overt. They often make negative statements about computer use. The uncomfortable user often requires more experience in order to appreciate the value of computer use rather than intervention.
The cognitively anxious user has primarily internal manifestations. Lacking confidence in their ability with computers they fear making mistakes, damaging the hardware or causing the system to crash. Under the mistaken assumption that other learners find technology easy, cognitively anxious users fear that asking for help will reveal their shortcomings.
The anxious technophobe is falling apart in front of the computer, having any or all of the following: trembling hands, heart palpitations, profuse sweating, headaches or other symptoms that exhibit obvious physical discomfort. Anxious technophobes make a high priority of avoiding computer use. One-on-one counseling and instruction is usually required.
Lowering the Computer Anxiety Barrier
When an instructor finds students who suffer from computer anxiety the following methods will help lower this barrier (Dupin-Bryant, P. (2000).
The use of humor relaxes anxious students. Reassure them that modern microcomputers are rarely broken by casual use. “Irreparable hardware damage” quips the instructor, “usually requires a large hammer or a combination of gravity and a hard floor.”
Lessons should start with basic concepts unless the skill level of all learners is known to be at a higher level. Technology-literate students may be bored by a minute-long review of the cursor, control key and hard drive, but no one will be left behind at the first step.
Technical jargon can be intimidating and should be avoided. Don’t recite the differences between JPEGs, GIFs and PNGs if a student asks “How do I get a picture next to my paragraph?” When a word is crucial a short clear definition should be offered along with a glossary of terms in the handout.
Use the student-hands-on/instructor hands-off method. Performing tasks for the anxious student reveals an instructor’s frustration and further lowers students’ self-confidence.
Allow time to let students explore their own interests and games on the Internet so that they will associate computers with fun and information as well as work.
John Berntsen, Graduate Student
SDSU Educational Technology
Berntsen, J. (2005). Computer anxiety. In B. Hoffman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Technology. Retrieved July 16, 2010