Computer-Competency Tests Should Be Required

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In a recent post about ads for fake virus scanners and their propensity for snagging less experienced/more gullible users ("Microsoft declares war on 'scareware'"), I asked the following questions:

Should users have to pass a computer driving test? If so, what questions do you think should be on it?

[ Also on InfoWorld: "Microsoft declares war on 'scareware'" | Learn how to secure your systems with Roger Grimes' Security Adviser blog and newsletter, both from InfoWorld. ]

(There should probably be a similar test for parents -- but that's a topic for a different day.)

I thought my post would generate some interesting responses from the residents of Cringeville, and I was right. I wanted to share some of the better suggestions I received.

Reader F. T. wants "a mandatory course on the 'Internet for Dummies' - which covers such 'advanced' topics like scaling down picture attachments from your digital camera to a reasonable size for sending so it doesn't fill someone's e-mail box as well as the concept of using e-mail in general."

In other words, E-mail 101, or how to not be a bandwidth hog. Fair enough.

Techie W. W. has a long wish list of "driving instructions" he wishes every user would master. Here's a partial list:

  • How to get to the command line
  • How to get to the command line and type ipconfig /all
  • How to start Task Manager and what it can tell them
  • How to browse a hard drive with Explorer and the command line
  • How to compress a file without WinZip
  • How to manually run Windows update from My Computer
  • How to Add Remove programs
  • The bandwidth ramifications of streaming videos/stock quotes/music/etc
  • Why and when not to close the error message dialog before calling for assistance

He also wishes users would use software for the purposes intended -- for example, Excel is not a word processor or project management tool.

T. H. wants to ask users the following security question:

"If your bank, credit card, or anyone you do business with asks for your PIN or identification because your account has been compromised, do you send the information? What if they just want to confirm info? What do you do?"

(He also wants them to identify whether their computer has a CD/DVD tray or a coffee cup holder. And no, "all of the above" is not an acceptable answer.)

I have my own ideas. I think some clever programmer out there should create an interactive quiz that comes up on screen whenever a new user tries to log onto the Net. Show them a screen shot of a phishing e-mail or a Nigerian 414 scam or one of the various hoaxes floating around and ask them to make a choice. If they pick the wrong option, they get shown the correct answer and asked another question. If they get that one wrong, they get another question, and so on.

Newbies can't log on until they get at least three consecutive correct answers. Do that three times in a row, and the quiz goes away and they get unfettered access to the Net -- less like a punishment, and more like mandatory education.

Of course, not everybody agrees we should limit access only to the Net savvy. As frequent commenter Loerps noted:

"At first blush, a computer test seems like a good idea. However, this would prevent many folks from getting access and this would be a bad thing.

"Perhaps this should be handled like taking out a loan. If someone can't pass the test, then someone who CAN pass the test must co-sign for them."

(He was kidding about the last bit.)

It really boils down to whether you believe Net access is a right (like freedom of speech) or a privilege (like driving a car). In other words, are you born with it or do you have to earn it by proving your competence? More and more, I'm leaning toward the latter.

As we become more dependent on the Net for everything -- education, the economy, social interaction -- the ability to safely navigate becomes vital, in part because scammers will exploit it even more. The biggest problem on the Net today isn't insecure software or cyberthieves; it's stupidity. (OK, maybe willful ignorance is a nicer way to put it.) Users are always the weakest link.

I predict one day you and your computer will have to pass a test before you can log on, to ensure you know how to drive and that your machine is patched and up to date; just as we use driving tests and vehicle inspections today.

If you need to do this before you can get on highway, why not the Infobahn?

This story, "Computer-Competency Tests Should Be Required" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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