Note from Gary Stager…

In 1989, a great friend, colleague and pioneer in educational computing, Steve Shuller, authored the following literature review. Steve was Director of Outreach at Bank Street College during its microcomputer heyday, co-created New Jersey’s Network for Action in Microcomputer Education (N.A.M.E., now NJECC) and was a Director of the IBM Model Schools Project. Shortly before his untimely death Steve prepared this literature review for the Scarsdale, NY Public Schools, hoping that it would contribute to the end of tiresome discussions regarding keyboarding instruction.

Steve would be horrified that this trivial issue lives on in a field that has matured little in the past fourteen years. I share his work with you as a public service and in loving memory of a great educator.


Keyboarding in Elementary Schools
Curricular Issues

Stephen M. Shuller
Computer Coordinator
Scarsdale, NY Public Schools

August 1989

Introduction

We are currently in the midst of a world-wide revolution, moving from the Industrial Age to an era in which information is the primary product (Toffler 1984). As information processing tools, computers are central to this revolution. The ability to interact with computers is an essential skill for the Information Age, one which our schools will need to address to prepare our students to meet the challenges of this fundamentally changed world.

The educational reform movement of the 1980’s has recognized the importance of computers in education. For example, A Nation at Risk (1983) calls for the high school students to:

(a) understand the computer as an information, computation, and communication device;

(b) use the computer in the study of the other Basics and for personal and work-related purposes; and

(c) understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies. (A Nation at Risk 1983, 26)

Virtually every other reform proposal has included similar recommendations. The educational community has responded to the futurists’ visions of the Information Age and the reformers proposals by working to integrate computers into the curriculum at all levels.

At present, people interact with computers by typing words on typewriter-like keyboards. Even though computers may someday be able to understand handwriting and human speech, in the currently foreseeable future-which in the Information Age may be only a dozen years or so at best-keyboarding skills are necessary to make computers do our bidding. Thus, keyboarding is an essential enabling skill for using computers in schools and in society, and must be included in Information Age curricula (Gibbon 1987).

Even though there is virtual unanimity that students should learn to keyboard, there is considerably less agreement on how, how much, when, and by whom. This paper will consider the teaching of keyboarding in elementary schools, examining these questions as a guide for curriculum development.

Keyboarding and Typing: Historical Context

Computer keyboards are similar to typewriters, Industrial Age tools invented by Christopher Sholes in 1868 and first marketed by Remington in 1873 (Yamada 1983). By the end of the 19th Century, typewriters were considered reliable writing tools, and started becoming widely used in offices (Pea and Kurland 1987). The first typing instruction was provided by typewriter manufacturers in about 1880 (Yamada 1983). It took public schools until 1915 to begin teaching typing as a high school occupational skill (West 1983).

By the 1920’s, educators began to experiment with using the new technology-typewriters–to help children learn to write (Pea and Kurland 1987). These experiments were quite successful. In the largest-scale controlled study, Wood and Freeman (1932) followed 2383 students as they learned to write on portable typewriters over a two year period. They found that the students who used typewriters wrote with more expression, showed higher reading scores, became better spellers, and enjoyed writing more than students learning to write using conventional methods. Similarly, Merrick (1941) found that typewriters helped the English development of high school students. Even so, typewriters did not catch on in education.

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, there was another smattering of interest in using computers in language arts (Balajthy 1988). Edward Fry, a noted reading specialist at Rutgers University, published a book on using typewriters in language arts which was not widely used. Perhaps seeing a new window of opportunity, Fry (1984) revised his text and reissued it as an approach to keyboarding in language arts.

Since we have known for more than half a century that keyboarding can help elementary school children learn language skills, why have typewriters only rarely found their way into elementary school classrooms, in sharp contrast to the current push to put computers into schools? One answer is that schools by and large reflect the perceived needs of society. Industrial Age schools resembled factories, and funds for typewriters were only available to prepare the relatively few students who would become clerks and typists. Information Age schools must prepare the vast majority of students to use computers because they are information management tools.

But why start elementary school students on computers? Here there is less direct pressure from society and more interest from educators who see the potential to enhance education. The two main factors spurring this interest are the transformation of professional writing through word processing (Zinsser 1983) and the transformation of writing instruction through the process approach (Graves 1983). Computers can greatly facilitate implementation of a process approach to teaching writing (Green 1984; Daiute 1985), so many educators are interested. In the current social milieu, the taxpayers are often willing to supply the necessary equipment.

Keyboarding in Elementary Schools: Curricular Issues

Given that we would like to use microcomputer based word processing as a tool to teach writing, what sort of keyboarding skills will elementary school students need? There seem to be three main alternatives. If they have no familiarization with the computer keyboard, they will have to “hunt and peck.” If they know where the keys are but not how to touch type, they can “peck” without much “hunting,” preferably using both hands. Finally, they can learn to touch type.

Everyone seems to agree that keyboard familiarization is in order, but whether to stop there or to teach touch typing to elementary school students is controversial. Advocates of the keyboard familiarization approach argue that students can type quickly enough to facilitate their writing without touch typing, that touch typing demands too much from limited time and computer resources, and that touch typing skills are quickly forgotten unless the students continue to practice regularly. Advocates of touch typing counter that students who develop the “bad habit” of keyboarding with two fingers find it very difficult to learn correct touch typing skills later and that such skills will ultimately be very important because of increased speed and efficiency.

There is widespread agreement that elementary students need to be able to type at least as fast as they can write by hand to avoid interfering with their writing process. A number of investigators have determined elementary school student handwriting rates. Graham and Miller (1980) found that students in grades 4 through 6 can copy text at a rate of 7 to 10 words per minute (wpm). Graves (1983) found a range of 8 to 19 wpm for 9 and 10 year olds when composing. Freyd and Kahn (1989) found an average rate of 11.44 wpm among 6th graders. With no keyboarding instruction (familiarization or touch typing), students of these ages can generally type 3 to 5 wpm (Wetzel 1985, 1987; Stoecker 1988). Different testing procedures probably accounts for most of the variation in these results. Wetzel (1987) reports that 10 wpm is generally accepted as a benchmark writing rate for students in grades 4 through 6.

Can students learn to type as fast as they can write with a keyboard familiarization program and word processing practice alone? The results are mixed. Freyd and Kahn (1989) report two studies in which students were able to type at writing speed with just keyboard familiarization and practice. one group of 6th graders started with an average rate of 6.62 wpm in October. With one hour of word processing per week, they had increased their average speed to 10.12 wpm in May. On the other hand, Daiute (1985) found that 11 and 12 year olds could write more words by hand in 15 minutes than they could type on the computer even after six months of word processing experience. Dalton, Morocco, and Neale (1988) found that 4th graders were initially comfortable word processing without touch typing instruction, but became frustrated later in the year as they needed to enter longer texts into the computer. In this study, however, students began using the word processor with no previous keyboard familiarization, so the results are not surprising.

Advocates of touch typing frequently claim that teaching touch typing to students who first learned to type without proper fingering techniques is very difficult or impossible (Kisner 1984; Stewart and Jones 1985; National Business Educators Association 1987; Abrams 1988; Balajthy 1988). No empirical evidence is presented to substantiate this claim, however. Wetzel (1987) interviewed several typing teachers, some of whomwere concerned about the “hunt and peck unlearning” problem, but others were not concerned, based on their own teaching experiences. West (1983) reports successfully teaching “hunt and peck” typists to use correct touch typing finger positions with about 10 hours of instruction.

By grade 3, children are developmentally able to touch type on electric keyboards. Advocates of touch typing generally agree that students should receive instruction just prior to the time they will need to use touch typing skills for word processing. If studen ts do not regularly practice typing, their skills can deteriorate in as little as six weeks (Warwood 1985). Wetzel (1987) found that students regress in their skills if they do not practice regularly after 20 hours of initial instruction. He cites business education research that students tend to retain their skills once they reach a plateau of 20 wpm. Gerlach (1987) ,found that with continued practice, students continue to improve their speed. In her study, 6th grade students who averaged 9.71 wpm after a 6 to 8 hour keyboarding course improved to 12.27 wpm four months later with continuing word processing practice.

Business educators have proposed a number of touch typing programs for elementary school students, some based on a recommended amount of instruction, others based on a performance criterion. Kisner (1984) recommended touch typing instruction in 20 to 30 minute periods, to a criterion of 20 wpm in Grade 3 or 25 wpm in grades 4 through 6. These recommendations seem to comefrom the experience of business education teachers with high school students rather than from keyboarding experience with elementary school children.

Jackson and Berg (1986) recommend 30 hours of instruction spread over two or three years, with weekly 30 minute review sessions. Instruction should take place in 20 to 30 minute periods, using a combination of software and a textbook. The recommended course sequence follows the traditional typing course, starting with the home row and introducing two new keys per session, with appropriate drills. Teachers should monitor the students continuously to make sure they are using proper form. Instruction should emphasize speed, not accuracy.

In 1987, the National Business Education Association (NBEA) proposed standards for keyboarding instruction in elementary schools. The NBEA recommended that elementary school students learn touch typing to a criterion of 15 wpm, and middle school students further develop their skill to a criterion of 25 wpm. Not surprisingly, the NBEA recommended that business education teachers, rather than elementary school classroom teachers, provide the instruction.

Wetzel (1985) surveyed the literature on touch typing programs for elementary school students, finding that fifth graders could be taught to touch type 22 wpm with a nine-weeks of daily instruction for 45 minutes, and fifth and sixth graders could achieve 40 wpm by spending one hour daily for a full year.

Alternatively, a more limited keyboarding instruction program consisting of instruction in correct fingering techniques and practice with a computer typing tutorial could lead to an average typing rate of 10 wpm in four weeks of 35 minute sessions or 15 wpm in nine weeks of such sessions. He also observed third, fourth, and fifth graders using word processors without touch typing instruction, finding that those who could type from 7 to 10 wpm were able to make adequate use of the computer for word processing. Given the heavy demands on teaching time in elementary schools, the relatively low level of typing skill needed to facilitate word processing and other computer activity, and the students’ ability to increase typing proficiency through continued computer use, Wetzel recommended a limited keyboarding program to accomplish a typing speed of 10 wpm in a relatively short period of time.

In a later paper, Wetzel (1987) modified these recommendations to take into account differing amounts of computer usage. If students regularly use computers at least two hours per week, Wetzel feels that they will get enough practice to sustain typing skills, justifying a 20 to 30 hour period of initial instruction in touch typing. If students characteristically use computers one hour per week or less, only a much more limited program of keyboard familiarization is recommended.

Stoecker (1988) developed a touch typing program ofinstruction designed for use by elementary school teachers. After a four week course, 20 sessions of 30 minutes each, fifth and sixth graders achieved typing rates of about 12 wpm. Stoecker’s program consists of student and teacher materials for use with any word processor. He has found that elementary school classroom teachers can learn to use this approach through a one day long training workshop.

Balajthy (1988) emphasizes the importance of integrating keyboarding instruction into the language arts curriculum. He cites recent studies showing that keyboarding can improve language arts skills, results which are consistent with the typewriter-based studies of the 1930’s and 19401s. Balajthy, like Wetzel, finds that students can achieve adequate typing skills with a limited period of keyboarding instruction-about 8 to 10 hours-followed by regular practice with computer activities. Like Stoecker, Balajthy recommends teacher- keyboarding instruction using a word processor rather than use of a software-based tutorial. Balajthy (1987) cautions that unless students have significant amounts of ongoing typing or word processing activity, touch typing instruction is a waste of time because skills will deteriorate rapidly.

One reason why Stoecker and Balajthy recommend keyboarding instruction on word processors with teacher supervision is because computer tutorials cannot monitor correct fingering and other aspects of proper touch typing. Stoecker (1988) reportsthat non-typists tend to use two fingers unless a teacherobserves. In contrast, Mikkelson and Gerlach (1988) performed acontrolled study in which third to sixth graders worked with a computer typing tutorial. Half of the students were supervised and encouraged to use proper touch typing form; the other half were observed but not supervised. The results were surprising–both groups made similar progress in typing skill, and there was no difference between groups in propensity to use correct touch typing techniques.

If Mikkelson and Gerlach’s results are generalizable, it would be possible for elementary school teachers to obtain satisfactory results by teaching touch typing through limited individual work with a computer typing tutorial. Such instruction could take place on classroom computers while other activities were taking place. If students need to be supervised to insure proper fingering techniques, then either elementary classroom teachers will need to be trained to teach touch typing or business education teachers will be needed.

Keyboarding and the Future

In their Database of Competencies for Business Curriculum Development, the NBEA defined keyboarding as follows:

Keyboarding is defined as the act of placing information into various types of equipment through the use of a typewriter-like keyboard. Typewriting and keyboarding are not synonymous. The focus of a keyboarding course is on input rather than output. (NBEA 1987, A-19)

Keyboarding is seen as a way to input information into a computer so that it can be manipulated. Thus, initial accuracy is less important than speed, ability to manipulate text is more important than formatting skills for specific types of documents, and composing is more important than transcribing (so it does not matter so much if the typist looks at the keys).

These distinctions recognize important changes in the purposes for which people type on Industrial Age typewriters and on Information Age computer keyboards. Yet, if we look closely at the keyboarding programs proposed by business educators, we find a methodology geared to the Industrial Age purpose of transcribing rather than the Information Age purpose of composing (Freyd and Kahn 1989).

This discrepancy is not surprising. As Naisbitt (1982) observed, people tend first to use a new technology in the same ways they have used older technologies which seem similar. only after a (sometimes lengthy) period of incubation do we see new directions or uses that grow out of the technology itself. So, at this point it is useful to take a step back and consider whether we might be looking at the keyboarding issue all wrong.

Graves (1983) has determined that five and six year old beginning writers compose at a painstakingly slow pace of 1.5 words per minute. At that rate, writing down a six word sentence can take up to nine minutes. Even five and six year olds who are unfamiliar with keyboards can compose more quickly and easily oncomputers than by hand (Wetzel, 1985). Graves has remarked that “one can imagine starting kids off writing on keyboards and save handwriting until motor skills are more highly refined.” (Green 1984).

Fry (1987) has proposed that schools eliminate the teaching of cursive writing and substitute keyboarding. He points out that cursive writing is not taught in European schools; students learn manuscript, and then develop their own handwriting style through shortcuts. By teaching cursive writing instead of keyboarding, Fry says, “we are training for the last century instead of for the next century.”

The issue of touch typing versus two-finger typing may be similar. Gertner and Norman (1984) have observed that the main advantage of touch typing is in copying. Copying is important for Industrial Age clerks and typists to transcribe business documents, but it is irrelevant to writers using word processing to compose and edit. By insisting on touch typing, are we training for the last century instead of for the next?

The New York State Keyboarding Curriculum

The New York State Board of Regents Action Plan to Improve Elementary and Secondary Education Results in New York calls for instruction in keyboarding to be “included in the State-developed English Language Arts Syllabus.” A state education department curriculum guide entitled Developing Keyboarding Skills to Support the Elementary Language Arts Program further stipulates that “approximately 18 to 20 hours of instruction should be devoted to keyboarding instruction within the framework of the Language Arts Program in the elementary grades.” (New York State Education Department 1986, 23).

The state keyboarding curriculum closely parallels material published by the National Business Education Association and by-state and local business education personnel. As described above, this means that the general thrust of the guide recognizes different needs and objectives between traditional typing instruction and keyboarding instruction, the recommended teaching strategies follow a more or less traditional touch typing approach. The influence of the business education community is apparent from the Suggested Readings offered in Appendix B. Of the 25 references listed on pages 29 and 30, 15 are to business education sources, and only 4 are to computer education and 3 more to general education sources.

The state curriculum clearly reflects the relative strength of business educators compared with computer coordinators in New York. For example, under “General Guidelines for Achieving Outcomes,” the guide suggests that:

business education teachers should be called upon to assist in the development of keyboarding curricula, in-service training, and selection of materials and methodology. (5)

Under “Planning for Teacher Awareness and Training:

… the business education teacher … can be very helpful in developing the plan and for training other teachers inappropriate keyboarding techniques. Business education teachers can also serve as a resource once a program is in place to conduct follow- activities as needed. (6)

Under delivery of instruction, the curriculum calls for students to learn touch typing, including correct fingering, posture, and eye contact (away from the keyboard, that is). The guide stops short of requiring business education teachers to teach the keyboarding courses, but states:

Teachers who have been trained in keyboarding methodology are of considerable importance in achieving these goals. (7)

In contrast, computer coordinators are mentioned only once in thecurriculum guide. The guide clearly views computer coordinators as technicians rather than instructional leaders, suggesting that they can be helpful in scheduling labs, repairing equipment, finding software and the like. The next sentence reminds the reader that knowledgeable high school students can also provide “considerable assistance.” (7)

To its credit, the state keyboarding guide does focus on integrating keyboarding into the language arts curriculum, as suggested by Balajthy (1988) and others. But it leans so heavily for its methodology on the perspective of the past that it is” suspect as a guide to the future.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There is widespread agreement that elementary school students need keyboarding skills. Whether keyboardfamiliarization is sufficient or whether students need touch typing skills depends on the nature of the school’s language arts and computer education curricula.

Touch typing courses are only effective if students receive a substantial period of initial instruction followed by regular practice throughout the school year. Touch typing courses can be recommended when computers are fully integrated into the language arts curriculum and when students regularly have at least two hours of individual computer time per week. In this type of environment, the initial touch typing instruction should occur at the time when students will first become involved with computers on a regular basis. The initial instruction should be provided either by specialists or by classroom teachers who have been given training in how to teach touch typing.

In situations where students make more limited use of computers, the evidence at hand suggests that a program of keyboard familiarization is sufficient to provide adequate keyboarding skills to support word processing and other uses of computers in elementary schools. Keyboard familiarization can be taught by classroom teachers assisted by appropriate computer software.

As we move further into the Information Age, fundamental changes in our school curricula will follow, paralleling the changing needs of society. Envisioning these changes, we can imagine a time when keyboarding will replace cursive writing asan essential skill for elementary school children, complementing a language arts curriculum using computers extensively for such activities as writing with word processors. Developing an Information Age language arts curriculum with keyboarding as a fundamental skill should be a central focus of our long-range curriculum planning.

References

Abrams, Jeri. “Keys to Keyboarding.” Boston Computer Society Education Special Interest Group News 4 (November/December 1988): 6-12.

Balajthy, Ernest. “Keyboarding and the Language Arts.” The Reading Teacher 41 (October 1987): 86-87.

Balajthy, Ernest. “Keyboarding, Language Arts, and the Elementary School Child.” The Computing Teacher 15 (February 1988): 40-43.

Daiute, Colette. Writing and Computers. Reading, MA: AddisonWesley, 1985.

Dalton, Bridget M., Catherine Cobb Morocco, and Amy E. Neale.

“I’ve Lost My Story!” Mastering The Machine Skills for Word Processing. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, 1988.

Freyd, Pamela and Jessica Kahn. “Touch Typing in Elementary Schools-Why Bother?” In William C. Ryan, Ed. Proceedings of the National Educational Computing Conference 1989. Eugene, OR: International Council on Computers for Education, 1989.

Fry, Edward. Computer Keyboarding for Children. NY: Teachers College Press, 1984.

Fry, Edward. Quoted in “Keyboarding replacing writing: Penmanship should be out and typing in, professor says.” The Associated Press, 2 February, 1987.

Gentner, Donald and Donald Norman. “The Typist’s Touch.” Psychology Today 18 (March 1984): 67-72.

Gerlach, Gail J. The Effect of Typing Skill on Using a Word Processor-for Composition. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, DC, 1987.

Gibbon, Samuel Y., Jr. “Learning and Instruction in the Information Age.” In Mary Alice White, Ed. What Curriculum for the Information Age? Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1987.

Graham, Steve and Lamoine Miller. “Handwriting Research and Practice: A Unified Approach.” focus on Exceptional Children 13 (1980): 1-16.

Graves, Donald H. Writing: Teachers-and Children at Work. Exeter, NH: Heinemann, 1983.

Green, John 0. “Computers and Writing: An Interview with Donald Graves.” Classroom Computer Learning 4 (March 1984): 21-23, 28.

Jackson, Truman H. and Diane Berg. “Elementary Keyboarding-Is it important?” The Computing Teacher 13 (March 1986): 8-11.

Kisner, Evelyn. “Keyboarding-A Must in Tomorrow’s World.” The Computing Teacher 11 (February 1984): 21-22.

Koenke, Karl. “ERIC/RCS Report: Keyboarding: Prelude to Composing at the Computer-” English Education 19 (December 1987): 244-249.

McCrohan, Jane. Teaching Keyboarding: The first step in making the computer an effective writing tool. Paper presented at the New Jersey Educational Computing Conference, 1989.

McLean, Gary N. “Criteria for Selecting Computer Software for Keyboarding Instruction.” Business Education Forum 41 (May 1987): 10, 12.

Merrick, Nellie L. “Typewriting in the University High School.” School Review 49 (April 1941): 284-296.

Mikkelsen, Vincent P. and Gail Gerlach. Teaching Keyboarding Skills to Elementary School Students in Supervised and Unsupervised-Environments. ERIC Document Number ED301152, 1988.

Naisbitt, J. Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming our Lives. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

National Business Education Association. Database of Competencies for Business curriculum Development, K-14. ERIC Document Number ED 294064, 1987.

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office [1983]).

Pea, Roy D. and D. Midian Kurland. “Cognitive Technologies for Writing.” In Ernst Z. Rothkopf, Ed. Review of Educational Research, Volume 14. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 1987.

Stewart, Jane and Buford Jones. “Keyboarding Instruction: Elementary School Options.” Business Education Forum 37 (1983): 11-12.

Stoecker, John W. Teacher Training for Keyboarding Instruction– 4-8: A Researched and Field Tested Inservice Model. ERIC Document Number ED290451, 1988.

Warwood, B., V. Hartman, J. Hauwiller, and S. Taylor. A Research Study to Determine the Effects of Early Keyboard Use upon Student Development in Occupational Keyboarding. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University, 1985. ERIC Document Number ED 265367.

West, L. The Acquisition of Typewriting Skills. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1983.

Wetzel, Keith. “Keyboarding Skills: Elementary, My Dear.” The Computing Teacher 12 (June 1985): 15-19.

Wetzel, Keith. “Keyboarding-An Interview with Keith Wetzel.”

Making the Literature, Writing, Word Processing Connection. The Writing Notebook, 1987.

Wood, Ben D. and Frank N. Freeman. An Experimental Study of the Educational Influences of the Typewriter in the Elementary School Classroom. NY: MacMillan, 1932.

Yamada, Hisao. “A Historical Study of Typewriters and Typing Methods: from the Position of Planning Japanese Parallels.” In Dudley Gibson., Ed. Wordprocessing and the Electronic office. London; Council for Educational Technology, 1983.

Zinsser, W. Writing with a Word Processor. NY: Harper and Row, 1983.

Although I’m only 48, I have been working in educational computing for thirty years. When I started, we taught children to program. We also taught tens of thousands of teachers to teach computer science to learners of all ages. In many cases, this experience represented the most complex thinking about thinking that teachers ever experienced and their students gained benefit from observing teachers learning to think symbolically, solve problems and debug. There was once a time in the not so distant path when educators were on the frontiers of scientific reasoning and technological progress. Curriculum was transformed by computing. School computers were used less often to “do school” and more often to do the impossible.

Don’t believe me? My mentor, Dan Watt, sold over 100,000 copies of a book entitled, Learning with Logo in the 1980s when much fewer teachers and children had access to a personal computer.

Things sped downhill when we removed “computing” from our lexicon and replaced it with “technology” (like a Pez dispenser or Thermos). We quickly degraded that meaningless term, technology, further by modifying it with IT and ICT. Once computing was officially erased from the education of young people, teachers could focus on keyboarding, chatting, looking stuff up, labeling the parts of the computer and making PowerPoint presentations about topics you don’t care about for an audience you will never meet. The over-reliance on the Internet and the unreliability of school networks ensures that you can spend half of each class period just logging-in.

Teachers with post-graduate degrees are being compelled to receive iPad training. My 95 year-old grandmother figured it out all by herself. No tax dollars were harmed in the process. Apparently, we also need to provide teachers with interactive white board training so they may hung unused in their classroom, just like all of their peers.

We have National Educational Technology Standards published by the International Society for TECHNOLOGY in Education that are so vague pedestrian that no computing is needed to meet them. In fact, it’s likely one can satisfy the NETs without the actual use of a computer. Despite standards and district tech plans that are a cross between a shopping list and a desperate plea for teachers to consider modernity, most school kids are powerless over the technology so central to their lives. Nobody even bothers to ask the question Seymour Papert first posed 45 years ago, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?” This is a tragedy.

What kids do get to do with computers tends to be trivial and inservice of the educational status quo. Gone are the days when educational computing conference programs were home to the most progressive thinkers and revolutionary ideas in education. Teachers were considered thought leaders and scholars who were required to write peer-reviewed papers in order to present at such events.  Today one merely has to promise 75 quick and easy things to do in 37 minutes with the hottest product being peddled to schools. Another popular topic is incessantly about how your colleagues won’t or can’t use the latest fad.

I am sorry, but social media is not a school subject. There are conference workshops on using Twitter and masters degrees in educational technology that culminate in a rap about hashtags.  If social media is any damned good, it needs to be as complex and reliable as a dial-tone.  PLN, PLC, PLP, etc… are just fancy alphabet soup for having someone to talk with. We should not need an National Science Foundation grant to make friends.

I had an educator approach me at a conference recently to volunteer that “Our school is not ready for Google Docs.” Set aside whatever you happen to think about Google Docs; it’s a word processor in a Web browser, right? I told the tech director, “Congratulations, your school district has apparently managed to employ the last breathing mammals in the solar system incapable of using a word processor.” Isn’t it odd that technology directors are not held accountable for such failure over three decades? Could they possibly be enabling co-dependent behavior and helplessness in the teachers they are meant to lead?

If the percentage of teachers using computers remains constant over time, regardless of how we lower expectations, shouldn’t we ask a great deal more of them and set our sights higher?

I’m so old that I knew the guy responsible for “Guide on the side, sage on the stage” (Chris Held) and “Ask three before me,” (Leslie Thyberg) I even knew the gentleman responsible for “computer literacy.” (originally called computing literacy) His name was Arthur Luehrmann. I often find myself mumbling, “I knew Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur Luehrmann was a friend of mine. You sir are no Arhur Luehrmann.”

When Luerhmann coined the term, “computer literacy,” he intended it to mean computer programming the intellectual pursuit of agency over the computer and a means for solving problems.

Don’t believe me? Read this 1980 paper transcribed  from a 1972 talk.

I know what some of you are thinking. Not every kid needs to learn programming. You don’t have to be able to fix a transmission to drive a car, blah blah blah…

First of all, the educational technology community and schools seem to have decided that no kids should learn to program. I’d be happy with the same nine-week programming class I was required to take in 1975.

Second, computer programming is not like fixing a car. It’s much more like designing the car, making sure all of its systems work in an integrated fashion, mitigating the environmental impact of cars and imagining their impact on society. Computer science is a legitimate science that has profound implications for learning all sorts of other powerful ideas, working in diverse fields and making sense of the world. You just would not know this if you go to school.

Why would it even occur to educators to deprive children of such rich learning opportunities?

If you have the audacity to speak of digital literacy or technology literacy and do not teach computer science, then this is the first time in the history of education when the functional definition of “literacy” has been so devalued, diminished and degraded. All other expectations for literacy increase over time.

There you go Stager, you radical crank. How dare you ask teachers to develop new knowledge and empower students? You’re just some stupid utopian who happened to have a great 7th grade computer programming teacher 35 years ago. Well, I’m not alone.

In January, I was in London to keynote at BETT. At the same event, the Secretary of State Michael Gove announced that the UK government was scrapping the “harmful and dull” national ICT curriculum and replacing it with computer science at all grade levels. He called the current curriculum a mess and wondered aloud why schools bother to teach Excel or PowerPoint to bored students? Coincidentally, I wondered in 1996 why we were investing so heavenly in ensuring that we create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills?

When a conservative politician and I agree on education policy, who could possibly be on the other side?


Related reading:

ictqatarIn March I had the great honor of being the keynote speaker at the 3rd ICTQatar ICT in Education national conference in Doha, Qatar. That was my 3rd trip to Qatar over the past couple of years.

Following my keynote, a nice young gentleman asked if he could interview me. I was happy to oblige and we found a vacant lounge area on the college campus where the conference was being held. That’s when the hijinx began.

First of all, the interviewer didn’t have a tripod. I convinced him that going handheld was a bad idea and helped him prop the camera on top of a camera bag. Then midway through the interview, one of his colleagues inexplicably walked into the lounge, headed to the light switches and cut our lights. After we objected, the guy spent a few minutes trying to turn the lights back on. After failing to do so, he shrugged and said, “Go somewhere else.” Eventually, the lights were turned on and a tripod emerged.

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Despite these technical difficulties, I believe that the interview came out quite nicely and I was able to explore some issues in-depth. You might think of it as my “UnTED Talk.”

If you have 42 spare minutes, you might wish to watch this video. Pleae not be put-off my the incredibly unattractive poster image displayed in the static video player below.

Many thanks to ICTQatar for the terrific job of putting the video on YouTube.