Most people, even people who consider themselves computer illiterate, have very little trouble picking up the basics of Office applications. After all, using Word isn't that different from writing a document on paper. The equations in Excel are an awful lot like the maths they learned in school. PowerPoint is like piecing together an art project.

But Access isn't like anything else.

Many new users find that Access has a steep learning curve when learned outside of an Access course. The problem isn't with Access itself; the problem is with relational databases.

What is a relational database?

If it were easy to explain relational databases, we wouldn't need an Access course to understand it. However a very simple explanation is that in a relational database each piece of information such as customer name, customer address, invoice number, and part number is a separate piece of information. Each piece is linked to others using relationships. For example a customer name is linked to a specific invoice number which contains part numbers.

We've generally learned to store data in a linear fashion, meaning one item after another in sequence. Customer records stored in a file cabinet alphabetically by last name is a linear storage method. The problem with linear storage is that if you want all customers who live in London or all customers who ordered a blue widget in March or April 2005, someone must go through every record to find the ones that match the criteria.

In a relational database, customer name is no more important than any other piece of information. Since the data is stored in a non-linear fashion, it's easier to spot patterns or to pull information according to complex criteria.

Excel makes the problem worse

Microsoft Excel is a terrific product for creating workbooks, but it is not a true database. It contains some simple commands that are very useful for simple, 2-dimensional databases. These are easy for users to grasp but are not like relational databases. As a result, users might continue to use Excel rather than moving up to the power of Access. Courses can show Excel users how to transition to a true database application more easily.

An Access course can help

Because humans tend to think linearly rather than relationally, people often have trouble learning Access on their own. An Access course can help users gain a good foundation in the fundamentals of relational databases as well as introduce them to the features of Access that allow them to store and retrieve their data more efficiently.

Even people who learn very effectively with the "learn it as you use it" technique often need the direction of an Access course to understand databases. For users who don't like traditional classroom training, e-learning solutions are available on CD, allowing students to progress at their own pace and their own schedules. An Access course can take a lot of the frustration out of learning the difficult concept of databases.