Getting started with computers

by Alan Zisman:   2000

    Turning it on

    Unfortunately, there's no single place to find the power switch! There may be a button on the front of the computer ('The Box'), or there may be a large switch on back of the right side of the box, or one on the back. Many Macintosh computers have a button on the keyboard to turn the computer on. You may also need to turn on the monitor. Most, but not all monitors have a power button on the front. (Others have the switch on the side or the back).

    As well, sometimes, a computer isn't really off-- it may be just sleeping. If that's the case, pressing the spacebar on the keyboard should wake it up-- and it should come back to life within a few seconds.

    If you've turned your computer on, it will have to 'boot up'. This will take a moment or two-- it's not ready if your mouse cursor is an hourglass, but when you have an arrow, and you can click on things on the screen ('The Desktop' in computer-talk), it's ready to use.

    Turning it off

    When you're done, don't just turn it off. If you do, your work may not get saved, and needed files may be damaged. And it will take longer to restart next time, since it will check its files, looking for problems. When you're done:Click on the Start button, then click onShut Down, then click on Shut Down. The computer will whirrrr for a moment, then either automatically turn itself off, or show a screen saying that it is OK to Shut Down now. (If you see that, turn the power switch off).
    Shut down windows dialogue

    Using the mouse

    Before we get started, practise moving the mouse. Notice how the cursor on screen moves as you move your hand. While Mac mice have only one button, most PC mice have two buttons (or even three buttons). In that case, theleft mouse button is the only one we're going to use. Get in the habit of holding the mouse with your index finger resting on that button, so that you can easily click it-- one time to select, twice to actually do something.

    About 'windows'

    Microsoft Windows gets its name because the screen gets covered with windows-- rectangles of screen space filled with a running program. You can have multiple programs running at the same time, and some programs can fill multiple windows of space, so it can get confusing, especially since windows can cover and sometimes hide other windows.

    Open a windows by double-clicking on the My Computer  icon in the top-left corner of your screen: My Computer icon

    • notice that you can move the window around by dragging the dark blue Title Bar along the top of the window.
    • notice that there's a little rectangle labelled My Computer on the bottom of the screen-- on the Taskbar.
    • you can make the window larger or smaller by dragging the margins-- easiest is to use the bottom left-hand corner for this. Move the window, then double-click on My Computer again to open a second window. Move it partly cover the first one.
    • note that if part of a window is showing, you can bring it to the front by clicking anywhere in it.
    • notice the three little buttons (or icons) in the top right-hand corner of any window: icons in the top right-corner

    • The __ icon minimizes the window-- but its name is still showing on the Taskbar along the bottom. Click on that button on the Taskbar to bring it back.
    • The square icon maximizes the window-- it fills the entire screen. You can still get to other running windows by clicking their name on the Taskbar. Up in the top-right corner, you'll see a new icon with two, overlapping squares. This restores the window to its previous size.
    • The icon closes the window, shutting down the program. (If necessary, you'll be reminded to save your work).
    • If there's too much to fit in the window, you'll see scroll barsalong the right-side and possibly the bottom of the window. Moving the little 'elevator' (officially called the 'thumb') up and down shows more of the hidden stuff. (Alternatively, press the Page Up or Page Down keys). If the left-edge of your work has disappeared, move the bottom scroll bar thumb all the way to the left. The size of the thumb indicates how much of the contents is visible-- the smaller the thumb, the more stuff there is.
    Close down one of the My Computer windows-- leave the other open.

    Drives, folders, and files

    My Computer is your tool to look at the drives, folders, and files on your computer-- letting you, for example, find saved work to continue working on it, print it, copy it, etc.
    My Computer window
    (Depending on your version of Windows, and how it's been set up, you may have a fancier version of this... don't worry; it will work the same way).

    Your computer has a Floppy Disk drive (Drive A:) for reading and writing disks that you can take home or move from computer to computer. A hard disk drive (Drive C:) is inside the computer's case, and holds most of the programs run on the computer. You can also save work there, but then you can't easily access it from another computer. A CD-ROM drive (often, but not always Drive D:) runs programs on CD-- games, encyclopedias, etc. It can be used to install programs onto Drive C: You can also play standard audio CDs.

    You may have other drives showing as well-- other hard drives, network drives, etc. There are also icons for the Control Panel and other things we'll ignore.

    Double-click on the hard drive (C:) icon. A window will open up with a lot more icons.

    Some look like file folders, and they're referred to as (surprise!) folders.Others, with various icons, represent files saved on that hard drive. If you double-click on one of the folders, yet another window will open up, showing the contents-- more files, and perhaps other folders.

    Folders are a way to organize your work, making it easier for you and the computer to find what you're looking for. Get in the habit of creating folders that represent a logical (to you) organization scheme... we'll see how in a moment.

    Starting Programs

    Playing with windows is mildly fun, but to get any work done, you need to start up a program. Learn the name of the programs you're most likely to use:

    Word Processors

    • Microsoft Works
    • Claris Works or Apple Works (most often on Macs)
    • Microsoft Word
    • Word Perfect


    • Netscape Navigator or Netscape Communicator
    • Microsoft Internet Explorer
    • Netvista (and then you'll typically start up Netscape)

    Common Educational Programs

    • KidPix
    • StoryBook Weaver
    • MathBlaster
    • lots and lots of others!

    Once again, you start programs up in one of a variety of ways.

    • There may be an icon (a little picture) on the desktop (the computer screen), with the name of the program you want underneath. If that's the case, double-clickon it to start the program. (That means click twice fairly quickly. Click-click!) Some people find double-clicking difficult-- you can click once, whichselectsthe icon, then press the Enter or Return key on the keyboard.
    • If you don't see an icon on the desktop, Click on the Start buttonto open the Start Menu.You may see several icons at the top of the Start Menu-- if what you want is there, click on it to select. Otherwise, click on the icon labelled Programs. You see a long list of icons-- the ones with little pictures of folders are submenus, with more icons inside them. Be patient-- eventually, you'll find the icon you need to start your program. Click on it!

    Starting CDs

    Many programs-- especially encyclopedias, games, and some educational programs need to be run from a CD-ROM disk. In many cases, simply inserting the disk into the drive will start up the program (Windows 95/98/NT), or will open a window on screen, showing the icon for the program (Mac). If that's the case, double-click the icon to start the program.

    Opening a saved document on a floppy disk

    You may have a document file on a diskette-- perhaps a file you saved, or something that a colleague sent to you. After putting the disk in the floppy disk drive (hold the labelled end with the label facing up), you can open the program to view it or change it:

    Double click on the My Computer icon (usually in the upper-left of the screen). Double-click on the icon reading: 3 Floppy (A:) to look at the contents of the disk. If you see an icon for your file, double-click on it to open it. It should automatically load into the proper program. Note that Windows computers generally cannot read diskettes from Mac computers..

    Opening your file in an application

    In the bad old days, each computer program worked its own way. Now, most work in similar fashion for common tasks like opening, saving, and printing files. For example, if you've already opened your application (for example, a word processor), and you want to open a previously-saved file:
  • Click on the File menu (the word File near the top-left of the screen). A menu will drop down.  Click on the word Open. (Or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+O). You'll will see a Dialogue Box (a standard way for the computer to get more information from you-- in this case, the name and location of your file). You should see something like this:
Open dialogue box
If you see the name of your file--great! But often, you won't. If it's on a floppy diskette, click on the down-triangle (or down-arrow) (in this picture, next to the words Computer Intro), near the top-centre of the window.
Look in... A list of drives will drop down, allowing you to choose, for example, the 3 Floppy (A:)Click on the drive you want. With luck your filename will appear. You may need to move to a different folder on your drive. If the folder name appears in the main window, double-click to open it (or click once then click on the Open button). If it's not visible, click the down-triangle then pick the hard-drive (C:) above the open folder-- this will show other folders on the drive, allowing you to navigate where you want.

If it doesn't, you may need to click on the down-arrow to the right of Files of type: Files of type...A list of file types will drop down... try picking some other file type-- or, if possible, All Files (*.*), to see everything in that drive or folder.

When your file is open, you can work on it some more.

Saving files

Save your files often while you're working on them-- that way, in case of disaster, you cut your loses. Don't wait until you're finished to save. In particular, save before you print.

The first time you save, you need to give your file a name, and tell your computer where to save it. Click on the word File near the top-left corner (on the menu bar). Then click either on the word Save or Save As... (Or click Ctrl+S). (we'll see the difference between the two in a moment). You'll see a dialogue box almost identical to the one for opening a file.Again, you can navigate to a different drive or a folder. This time, type in a name for your file. Note the following:

  • Your name can consist of multiple words, and mix words and numbers, upper and lower case. However--
  • You can't use several characters such as *, ?, : as part of your file name
  • Don't end your file name with a period.
  • If you are running old, Windows 3.1 or DOS programs, you can only use up to 8 letters, with no spaces.
  • Don't make your file names too long. Try and keep it to a few words at most.

If you need to, you can make a new folder to store your file. In the Save window (dialogue box) cllick on the icon resembling (to my eye) a file folder with a water drop hitting its right-hand corner. New folder buttonA new folder icon will appear, with letters (highlighted in blue) sayingNew Folder. Type your preferred name to change it and press Enter. Now double-click the folder icon to open it, allowing you to save your file inside it.

When you're done, click on the Save button, or press the Enter key. If you change your mind, you can click on the Cancel button, or press the Esc (for Escape) key.

Save vs Save As

The first time you save, both of these menu items work identically. After that, they work differently. From then on, choosing Save will quickly save your file without asking any questions. Choosing Save As, however, will again show the Save dialogue box, asking you for the file's name and location. Most times, you don't need this-- but sometimes it's handy-- to save a copy to a new location-- getting a copy stored on your hard drive onto a floppy disk to take home, for example, or to save it with a new name-- letting you start work on one student's report card, change the student name, then save it with the new student's name, for example.

Printing Files

We often need paper copies of our work. To print your file, click on theFile menu, then choose Print. (Or use the Ctrl+P keyboard shortcut) (I'll bet you could have figured this out!)

Again, the computer needs to ask a few questions, so you'll see the Print dialogue box:

Print dialogue

If you have more than one printer installed (including a computer fax-modem), you can choose it from the top drop-down arrow list. You can also specify how many copies you want, and whether you want to print the whole document or just selected pages. Note that to print just page 3, you need to tell it to print From 3 To 3.

Print Preview

A handy option in many programs is Print Preview-- this lets you see a miniature view of how your pages will print. Get in the habit of using this-- it will save a lot of wasted paper and effort, especially printing from the Internet. (You'll be surprised how many Internet pages print out blank or turn out to be 40 page long documents).

Cut, Copy, Paste, and Undo: The Clipboard

One of the handiest ways that computers can make your work easier is by using the clipboard. The clipboard is actually a metaphor-- it's not a physical part of the computer. Instead, it refers to the use of the computer's memory to store some of your work so you can use it again in another context.

The clipboard always works with the following four steps:

  • Select the part of your work that you want to use (how you do this will vary from program to program)
  • Choose Cut or Copy from the Edit menu (or use the toolbar icons or keyboard shortcuts: Ctrl+X to cut or Ctrl+C to copy). If you choose Cut, you selection will disappear. If you choose Copy it won't look like anything happened.
  • Move to the place where you want to re-use your selection. This could be a different place in the same document, in another document using the same program, or in a totally different program.
  • Choose Paste from the Edit menu (or use the keyboard shortcut:Ctrl+V). Your selected information should appear.

You can use this:

  • To copy names and addresses from a list to a letter
  • To re-use comments from one child's report card for another
  • To add pictures to a word-processed document
  • Lots and lots of other ways. The moral is that you should never have to enter anything more than once.

Try this:

Open WordPad

Windows includes a simple word processor: WordPad. It lacks spell check, columns, and other basic features, but it's free and it's included in every copy of Windows. You'll find it by clicking on the Start Button, then on the Programs icon, then on the word Accessories,and finally clicking on WordPad.
  • Type a few words.
  • Select them by waving your mouse over them, while holding down the (left) mouse button. Note that your selection will appear as white text on a black background.
  • Press a key-- notice that your selection disappears! This is normal-- don't panic. Click on Edit then Undo to get them back. (Or press the Ctrl+Z keyboard shortcut).
  • Copy the selection to the clipboard using Edit/Copy or Ctrl+C.
  • Click after the selection to get your cursor back without erasing your selection.
  • Press Enter a few times to move down a few rows.
  • Paste using Edit/Paste or Ctrl+V. Press Enter. Paste again. Press Enter. Paste again.

Notice that you can paste the same thing multiple times-- but if you copy something else to the clipboard, your original selection is no longer remembered. The clipboard only holds one thing at a time.

Leave WordPad running, and open the Paint program.

Open Paint

Windows also includes a free, but low-powered paint program. You'll open it the same way as WordPad: Click Start/Programs/Accessories/Paint.

Play with colours along the bottom and the tools along the side, and make a picture. Don't worry about making great art-- for now, just get something drawn quickly. (You can always spend more time playing later-- there's lots you can do with the simple paint program). When you've got something drawn, we're going to select it, copy it, and paste it into your word processor:

  • Choose the Selection rectangle tool-- the dotted-line rectangle on the top-right of the tools (on the left-side of the Paint window).
  • Select part of your picture by holding the mouse button down and dragging it from the top-left to lower-right... the selected part of your picture will have dotted lines around it.
  • Copy to the clipboard, using Edit/Copy or Ctrl+C (just like in your word processor)
  • Switch to WordPad by clicking on its name on the bottom Taskbar
  • Press Enter to go to a new line
  • Paste your picture, using Edit/Paste or Ctrl+V
  • notice that the picture's colours are reversed, because it's selected-- just click somewhere else and the colours will be restored.
You've just made an illustrated document.Your students can use this in story writing, or you can use it to embellish your handouts.

Congratulations! You're ready to start using these skills. Have fun!

More: (January 2008):

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan