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Trying to breath life into the fingers...

Posted By: Christopher Moffett on July 24, 2002
While this is an old thread moving at glacial speed I feel that this is an interesting question and worth picking up again. Perhaps we can breath some life into it by opening it up into a larger context and adding some flesh to the issues. I would be interested in hearing responses to this initial foray. Put those typing skills to work....

Allow me to suggest that there are two separate issues here. The first is whether the teaching of keyboarding skills belongs in a software applications course in the first place. And the second is to understand how much time and energy should be expended on such skills at all. This second issue is the real kicker for me.

As to the first, I would suggest that with computers being used increasingly by more and younger people, teaching these skills in high school is less than ideal. The most likely scenario is that students have already developed keyboard habits that are inadequate, potentially harmful, and difficult to unlearn even if the teacher has a firm grasp of teaching movement. However, if the ideal solution of teaching good keyboard habits as soon as a person begins to use a keyboard is not a possibility, then I would argue that the best solution is to incorporate it into the classroom as soon as possible. If that means introducing it into a software class in high school then that’s what it takes.

This leads to the second issue of how much time should be allocated to such skills. If there have been no formal learning opportunities for these skills prior to this class, then I would passionately argue that, in fact, one quarter of a course is WOEFULLY inadequate. This might seem strange, especially if you figure that by this time most students would have managed to pick up keyboard habits through experience that will likely get them by. But actually I think that this is a problem, because now you come up against older, more ingrained, habits that will stand in the way of learning more efficient and healthy patterns, and will actually greatly increase the amount of time that needs to be spent—that is, if the teacher is even up to this difficult challenge.

Assuming, however, that Toni did not simply mean that keyboard skills ought to be taught elsewhere, then I haven’t yet address fully what I suspect is behind the gut feeling that they are already spending too much time on this. I can think of two related reasons why one might speculate that this is the case.

The first is that we tend to forget how much time and exploration it takes to pick up these “basic” skills. Once we learn to run or read or type we begin to take that skill for granted. As it should be. If we had to wonder whether such skills were there for us before we began any activity, natural selection would have long ago weeded out such hesitators. It is natural to forget and take for granted. That is how we know the skills have really been learned. But from a pedagogical perspective, looking back we have to realize how many countless hours we spent preparing ourselves before we even stood up, never mind engaged in complex patterns of movements with ten different fingers. (Actually it’s even more complex than just the fingers, but that is another book altogether.) Not that standing up isn’t already incredibly complex, but my point is that we somehow manage to undervalue the need to master typing. It just seems so benign and mundane.

Actually this is the second reason, and it snuck up quickly. Somehow or another almost all of us—barring larger difficulties—can manage to type. And this, we feel, is only likely to improve the more we do of it, so once we dispense with a few formalities there is nothing left to do but just jump in and type. And we might as well be typing something rather than nothing (like “The quick brown fox….” or “qrrrt fiqut blmw…”) So what’s the big deal? Or so one would wonder. And there is some truth to this line of thinking, but only just a little. In fact, my experience is that learning to type quite quickly drops off after enough habits are formed to “get by” and then is likely to plateau for the rest of a person’s life. (I still can’t seem to get the hang of using the left shift key.) Of course you are in fact getting by, so who cares whether you have “good technique” or can type 100 words a minute? Well, nobody, except that what all too often happens is there comes a time when that plateau drops off without much of a warning and only then does one begin to recognize how much was at stake. And while we easily fool ourselves into thinking that debilitating pain and loss of hand function in daily life is unlikely, a fluke, and always happens to the other person, this is not a strong basis for pedagogical planning. In fact the long term costs to society as a whole, I would argue, FAR outweigh the minimal time and energy that can be expended now. The long term damage, while unexpected in its enormity and separated in time from its root causes, is nonetheless absolutely predictable as an effect of inadequate instruction and poor self-use, at both an individual and societal level.

Where I would likely agree with Toni's initial feeling that too much time is spent on finger techniques is that it no doubt seems like an eternity--a dull spot designed to suck all interest from the learning experience. I remember my typing class in high school with its rote drills and complete lack of student-teacher interaction, and you couldn’t pay me enough to sit through that again. Compound this by simply watching others go through the tedium, and you have the educational equivalent of watching paint dry. I don’t know what to say. Other than that unless people begin to appreciate what is at stake nobody is likely to figure out how to make this interesting and rewarding in its own right. This is a shame because I have no doubt that it could be a fascinating learning experience if taught by someone who understood the richness of the material and knew how to convey that to others.

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 Keyboarding Skills by Toni Marquard on November 2, 2000
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