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When it comes to making software easier to use, software companies are sending mixed messages. On one hand, they're adding tutorials, wizards and coaches to guide you through tasks--which shows how complex the procedures were to begin with. On the other, they're reducing free technical support and users' manuals (the one for Windows 95 was a skimpy 95 pages).
Fortunately, a plethora of training products and services has sprung up to fill the void.
Suppose you've bought or upgraded to Windows 98 (see last month's column). If you're like many people, you need training, which comes in several forms: classes, books, videos and software programs. What does each approach offer?
Classes are by far the most popular learning tool. They offer a structured mode of learning with personalized guidance from instructors. The downside: You must commit to being present at a certain time and place. A class demands your attention, and you can't repeat it without cost. The class moves at one pace, whether you're brilliant or bewildered.
I sampled classes at a community college, an adult education company and a computer superstore, as well as a school district's adult education class. Although the settings ranged from homey to slick, all provided competent training. Six hours of instruction, either in one or two sessions, is typical and is enough to get you going.
Because the alternatives are comparable in quality, your best bet is to start with the cheapest. Ask other business owners for recommendations. Look for extras such as a manual you get to keep or free consultations after the class.
Books have obvious advantages. They're cheap, portable and easy to find. You can peruse them at your leisure and skip unnecessary sections. The disadvantage: If you can't understand the book, you're out of luck.
Microsoft Press publishes guides for its software programs. Its Quick Course series ($14.99 each, 800-677-7377) offers software training for people in a hurry. Microsoft describes the books as straightforward, easy-to-follow instructions for building useful business documents. The Step by Step series ($29.95 per book) is more advanced, and the training is self-paced. Each Step by Step book comes with a diskette of practice files.
CD-ROMs and videos combine attributes of classes and books. With pictures and sound, they may match your learning style better than the printed page. They're more flexible than taking a class but not as portable as a book. You can play them repeatedly and control the order in which you learn, but the products may impose structure you don't want.
Virtual Training Co. in Santa Clara, California, markets a line of training CDs that provides an average of eight hours of lessons with voice-over narration ($49.95 to $99.95, 888-872-4623). The CDs work with both Windows and Macintosh systems.
Software help exists for every price level and personality. For Windows 98, as for earlier bestsellers, you should be able to find at least one training tool that meets your needs.
Robert Schmidt is a computer and business writer in Culver City, California. He can be reached at ,firstname.lastname@example.org
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