OFF-THE-SHELF TRAINING

Although computer manuals are finally becoming more intelligible, the emergence of alternatives to these murky texts was inevitable. In the past year or so, frustrated hardware and software buyers have been offered an instructional quick fix via audio cassette tapes and "electronic" tutorials.

Learning with tapes, says Lee McFadden, president of FlipTrack Learning Systems in Glen Ellyn, Ill., is "like sitting down with a knowledgeable friend at your elbow." FlipTrack has taped 16 courses for eight micros (including the IBM PC and the Apple IIe), the CP/M and CP/M-86 operating systems, and seven software packages (including WordStar, VisiCalc, and Multiplan). The tutorials are sophisticated productions, remarkably jargon-free and easy to follow. Each instructional package includes three or four cassettes and an indexed user's guide. Most of the courses retail for $49.95 to $95 and take about six to eight hours to complete.

The products turned out by Micro Instructional Inc., the other main tape training company, are not quite as slick as FlipTrack's, but there are more of them. The Fort Lauderdale Fla.-based company ships instructional cassettes for 30 computers and 40 software programs and is generating new products at the rate of eight a month.

Although Micro Instructional has recently upgraded its tapes -- for example, in the revised IBM PC cassette, "before we apply power to the system unit" becomes "before you turn on the system unit's power" -- the style is not as consistently straightforward as it could be, and the pedantic tone doesn't always make for easy listening. Micro Instructional sells individual tapes at prices ranging from $29.95 to $54.95. Each cassette contains 30 to 45 minutes of instruction per side. A user can learn the material in two sessions, says company president Dan Montague.

Rene Hushea, a salesperson at a ComputerLand in Canton, Ohio, says her store doesn't stock tapes at all, because they are not as beneficial as training disks. The disks, designed for use with particular machines, let the computer itself act as instructor. "The disks are enormously useful, because they give you the opportunity to interact with the machine," says Nelson Heller, who, as director of research at SFN Cos. in Glenview, Ill., is responsible for planning the educational publishing conglomerate's electronic products.

American Training International Inc. in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Cdex Corp. in Los Altos, Calif., are the leading manufacturers of these computer-aided training programs. The two companies use different approaches. In ATI's VisiCalc program, for example, users learn by creating a three-year projection for a hypothetical company. The top half of the screen displays a simulated VisiCalc spreadsheet, while the bottom half gives directions. "After 45 minutes, the user has about 43 minutes' experience with the actual program," says Joel Rakow, ATl's executive vice-president. The Cdex VisiCalc tutorial presents information, then quizzes users.

"Both are excellent, though very different," says Ed Murphy,software products manager at ComputerLand Corp.'s headquarters in Hayward, Calif. "ATI's is more like a crash course that gets the user using VisiCalc quickly. Cdex is perhaps more thorough." ATI currently sells tutorials, for $75 each, on 24 software packages that run on 40 machines; Cdex has training programs for the Apple and IBM PC versions of VisiCalc, and instruction on the use of the two machines themselves. Training in WordStar, SuperCalc, and EasyWriter II is available for the IBM PC, and DB Master is available for the Apple. Cdex also has a Managing Your Business series. Cdex's Apple programs cost $59.95, and IBM tutorials are $69.95. The tutorials "make a big difference in giving you some happy, positive feedback," says Stan Alari, a lawyer in San Marino, Calif., who has used several ATI programs.

Two other programs incorporating tapes and disks have appeared for the executive. The McGraw-Hill Continuing Education Center course offers, for $95, a text, six tapes, and Datapro Guide to Computers. The course covers just about anything a businessperson would want to know about computers -- and probably more.

Alpha Software Corp.'s The Executive Package -- Computing with VisiCalc and Basic for the IBM PC allows businesspeople to solve their own company's problems. Using a Harvard Business School case history style, a text lays out 40 management problems -- how to do cash planning, for instance, or how to allocate resources best. It also shows how to create models in Basic, VisiCalc, Multiplan, or Lotus 1-2-3 for solving these problems. A cassette tape gets users started, and two disks contain the formats for all the cases.

"It's an elegant, MBAish type of package," says George Lechter, vice-president of the Burlington, Mass.-based company. The $145 program, he says, gives you "access to all the business school methods without your having to go to business school."