What does it mean to be ‘computer literate’?

It’s terrifying to examine the ‘what we’re looking for’ section of a job advert. Even for a seemingly casual administration job, the employer requires a 2:1 degree, infinite levels of charisma, and the ability to talk to gorillas. But aside from the ‘required skills’ that make you feel massively insecure, there are some that are just downright confusing. What does it mean, for instance, to be ‘computer literate’?

We’re all tempted to call ourselves the next Bill Gates on our CV. Our ability to multi-task on our phones and personalise our laptops (without reading the instructions!?) can fool us into thinking that we’ve ticked off that box on the job advert. In reality, we literally can’t stroll into the interview like Bill Gates, as that would be embarrassing, and because there is much more to ‘computer literacy’ than you might think.

The harsh reality is, everyone knows a little about search engines, word processing, virus scanning and keyboard commands. To stand out from the crowd and be considered truly ‘computer savvy’, you need to learn more. But what are the things you have to know? Here’s what.

Search engine etiquette

Discovering the meaning of the ‘I’m feeling lucky’ option under the Google search bar when you were twelve probably made you feel quite special. But there’s a lot more to search engine etiquette than simply throwing in some words and choosing between the first couple of results.

A computer becomes a much more powerful research tool in your hands if you know how to use advanced search, and refine your web results based on the time and place of the websites’ publications.

It’s also useful to know about Boolean Operators, which are simple words (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘not’ or ‘and not’) used to combine or exclude keywords in a search, resulting in more focused results. There are also cues among the results that you can spot, in order to discern reliable results from bad ones before even clicking on them.

Web browser basics

Web designers know what ordinary people need to do on an ordinary day. But ordinary people tend to be consumers and, as a worker with great IT skills, you need to think as a producer, creating and manipulating content for your business to send out to partners and customers. Producers need to use their web browsers productively, by understanding more than simply what web designers make obvious.

You can increase your efficiency by gaining several techniques under your belt: importing and organising bookmarks, editing URLs to navigate to a different page, clearing the browser cache to improve performance, setting links to open only in new windows, and understanding common error messages.

This last skill would be ideal for spotting dodgy websites and checking the system for bugs and spyware. Although most computer maintenance is automated or unneeded at this point, certain websites can create the need for a manual virus scan. You’ll know when to do this if you have a good knowledge of how your browser moves content into your hard drive.

You should also be able to solve basic networking problems to ensure connectivity to the internet. Learn how to check what path network traffic takes to get to its target, how to determine your IP address, and to translate DNS (Domain Name Systems) to IP addresses. A domain name is easily memorised by humans but has to become a numerical IP address for the purpose of computer services and devices. Does that sound too complicated? Get used to it. summer-office-student-work-large

Word processing protocol

Word processing is the oldest use for a computer, and probably what you thought you had nailed down. Although its functions have been put into other applications (for instance, emails), word processing is still extremely important and there are more things to learn beyond changing font sizes.

Spell checking, table creation, working with headers and footers, tabs, columns, autotext, index and charts; it’s all important to be able to create a range of document types. You can also enhance your design skills by learning about background watermarks, tab stops, style guides, and HTML elements.

Many of these are less complicated than they sound, but greatly boost your Word skillz and capabilities when all are mastered. HTML elements, for instance, are simply text elements of the kind that appear on web pages. You would simply add interactivity to the element and then you’d be able to click it and activate it with keyboard commands.

This is clearly a useful feature and one of many that could easily get into the habit of using.

Common keyboard commands

Keyboard commands are like another language that is universally spoken by every operating system. A basic understanding of this language will allow you to get jobs done more quickly and smoothly, without the friction of having to move around a mouse.

There are online tutorials you can take to brush up on your knowledge of keyboard commands, and the more you use them, the more your knowledge will stick. You’ll feel happier and more confident with a computer overall if you know how to cut, copy, paste, select, open, close, save, hide, close, check and carry out dozens of other actions by barely moving your fingers.

Excel spreadsheet skills

Spreadsheets offer incredibly powerful opportunities for analysing data. If you do your homework, you’ll be able to do more than just do a shopping list on there. With certain skills, you’ll be able to turn a grid of numbers into actionable information.

You can learn about, for example, formulas, which are expressions that calculate the value of a cell. Functions are predefined formulas and are already available in Excel. They can allow you to do things like counting the number of cells within a range that meet a condition that you set (for instance, being below 5). So you can use Excel as a calculator to reach conclusions about potentially huge amounts of data.

This is the kind of stuff you may have learned in IT when you were 16 but have completely forgotten now. Learning this may sound daunting but again, there are online resources for that.


Hooking up hardware

It’s important to know your terminology about hardware. If the workplace tech guy tells you that your Ethernet cable is unplugged, it would make everyone’s lives easier if you knew what he was talking about.

It’s useful to know what certain bits of hardware are and what purpose they serve. For instance, Ethernet is the dominant form of wired network connection these days, with speeds that are so fast they make it worth having cables.

It’s also worth knowing the following list of facts. The CPU is the brain of your computer; fibre optic cables don’t use copper; a firewall is a router that restricts the data moving between an internal network and the outside world; a FireWire can transfer big data files much quicker than USB; Moore’s Law is the theory that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months and thus doubles a computer’s speed.

If all of that is too much, at least learn what the holes on the side of your laptop are there for. Know what goes where and what the shapes of certain cables are. This is useful, for example, so that you can hook up a computer when needing to move to a new workstation. Also, armed with this knowledge, you won’t have to worry about accidentally taking out an unimportant-looking cable from someone else’s computer and destroying all their work.

All in all, being computer literate is a long way off being a rocket scientist, but if you master certain skills, you’ll certainly be able to do more and work faster than the average computer user. In an increasingly digital world, that can only give you an advantage in the job market.