Computer Skills for Research

Computer Environments, Applications and the Internet


First published on October 10, 2019. Last updated on February 16, 2020.

Chances are that you are on a computer if you are reading this, so you obviously know how to use one. However, there are some aspects of the computing environment that deserve review because being aware and understanding them will help you figure out the unintuitive aspects of various tools.

Operating Systems

An operating system allows the parts of a computer to communicate with each other, especially for naming and organizing files in memory devices such as RAM, disks, and now, the cloud. There used to be three major operating systems: DOS/Windows, Mac OS and Unix, all on desktop computers. Now the situation is more blurred, but you still need to be able to sort it out. There are versions of operating systems for personal computers (desktops and laptops), mobile devices (phones and tabled), and the Internet of Things (your refrigerator, television set, etc.). There are also de facto operating systems for the cloud, but that is beyond the scope of this work. We will be working with recent versions of the operating systems.

Macintoshes are now really just a nice graphical user interface running on Unix. Computers that look like Windows machines sometimes are actually a Unix equivalent called Linux. Much software development these days is performed on Unix or Linux systems, even if intended for Windows machines.


If you want to do more than just copy and move files around, you will need to use applications or “apps”. Word processors, spreadsheets and web browsers are applications. Some applications are free while others cost money. You can often get discounted versions of application if you are a student or work at a university. Only obtain applications from trusted sources, otherwise they may contain “malware” which can pose a security risk.

Command Line

To have sufficient power over your computer, you  may need to speak to it directly. That means using a tool called the command line. This is like using an old-fashioned computer terminal. You will type lines of words, numbers and symbols in it, often one line at a time. Cumbersome? Yes. Powerful? Incredibly!

Graphical User Interfaces

Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) let you access applications (and even the operating system) by using visual interfaces, typically shown in windows. For example, you are reading this in a graphical window. Important! GUIs often have several elements which you will need but can sometimes be hard to find. There is often a tool bar at the top of the screen, but there may also be a toolbar at the top of the window or in other parts of the screen or window. If you can’t find what you need in one toolbar, look for other toolbars. Sometimes the toolbar will be hidden until you click on a symbol or word. Panels contain useful information, and additional controls and tools. Panels are often hidden, and require clicking on something to show up, or choosing a command in a tool bar or pull-down menu.

The Internet

The internet connects your computer to the rest of the world. However, rarely do you want the rest of the rest of the world looking at your computer. So you will create content on your computer, and you will use a secure, publicly accessible server (or the cloud) to host your content. Web browsers are the most common way for people to view content on the internet. Therefore, you may be writing web pages and other tools for people to view your content the way you want them to access and view it.


Although there are application for writing web pages and performing calculation, sometimes you will need capabilities that they cannot adequately provide. So you will need to write your own program or application. To do so, you will need to use a programming language. While each programming language is different, most have certain elements in common. Once you learn about and understand those elements, then it will be easier to learn additional languages.


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