Do What You Think Is Right

Last week I featured a worksheet that had been generated by a student. The worksheet was essentially a checklist of things to do on a weekly basis to keep her machine working and clean. Only two items on her list have attracted comments: expunging the history files, and cookies.

Most of us would agree that both histories and cookies are a mixed benefit. When you are really into surfing, it is easy to pass through a site that you like, but neglect to bookmark. Depending on what you’ve been doing, the history file can help you go back and get that special URL. Of course the other half of the coin is that anyone else can get on your machine and see what you have been doing. Like some of my readers who commented on the necessity of erasing the history file, I think for the typical senior student working on a personal computer, no harm can be done by simply not worrying about it.

However, as most tutors have observed, senior students often show a healthy concern for computer and Internet security. In that case, there are several commonly available little applications that can periodically go through and clean up traces of where you have been. I have the image of the old Walt Disney “Alice in Wonderland” movie in which a dog walks along with a broom on its tail and sweeps away its path as it goes.

Since my whole effort is to get the students into doing useful work in a reasonably safe environment as quickly as possible, I would rather not introduce any more manual tasks than necessary – especially is those tasks are of the nature of doing non-productive work, such as manually erasing temporary files.

Many of the same comments go for cookies. The student’s worksheet indicated that she routinely cleans out her cookie file, but for all the bad press cookies get, they were invented for a good reason, and that reason is still valid. And just as with the histories, keeping out the bad cookies can be automated with any of the standard anti-spyware programs. Why add more busy work? So I take a rather easy-going approach to cookies, and I realize that many users take a more cautious approach, even to the extent of monitoring every attempt to place or access a cookie. It all boils down to what you are comfortable with.

When I ride in an automobile, I always wear a seatbelt, and my vehicles all have airbags. That just makes sense to me. When I rode a motorcycle, I always wore a helmet. That just makes sense. Yet I know people who do neither. In this case, automobile accidents are so common that extra precautions are sensible and do not interfere with driving. Wearing my belt does not reduce my effectiveness as a driver. In contrast, for all the publicity about spyware and virus or trojan attacks, the equivalent of getting hit by a drunk driver or a jack-knifed semi does not exist on Internet (we could argue that an analog does exist, but it is rare compared to actual malware). Therefore showing our students the rudiments of how to keep their machines safe is important, but let’s not make them paranoid.

So having said that I agree why with my readers who think the student went overboard in her check off sheet activities, why did I feature it with approval? The answer is simple: she is obviously advanced enough to now what she is about. And she generated the weekly activities as something that makes sense to her. In a real sense, she is a success. That does not mean she has to be like me or you or anyone else. As long as she isn’t doing things that are obviously dangerous or likely to result in grossly inefficient operation, why not let her be?

A good teacher must always strive to distinguish between teaching the subject and teaching the subject in an idiosyncratic fashion. We should strive to give students enough tools to let them develop their own methods. Knowing the difference is difficult, particularly when you are tutoring in a subject you enjoy. I wish I could claim to be better at it.

For more in-depth tips on tutoring seniors, see the complete tutorial here. I also have posted a tutorial on elementary decision theory for those who might question a physician’s diagnosis (important for seniors) or anti-terrorist activities (important for everyone) but haven’t had the framework to analyze the data. That tutorial can be found here.

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