Hey, Computer Teachers, stop wasting students' time! (Part 1)

Despite increased globalization; despite the need to prepare students to access, evaluate, synthesize, and build upon information and media; and despite the drive to promote Creativity, Innovation, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, Communication, and Collaboration, the curriculum of many schools' secondary Computer Information Technology programs tends to hinge on keyboarding and Microsoft Office. Let me explain, for those who are not already with me, why this is a waste of our students' time and our parents' taxpayer dollars. There are a growing number of voices clamoring to get rid of the "Computer Teacher", arguing that in today's atmosphere of integrated technology we are irrelevant and redundant. If we're teaching 7th to 12th graders Keyboarding and MS Office classes, that is 100% true. Don't get me wrong, a curriculum steeped in keyboarding and productivity applications is quite appropriate and often essential at the 2nd through 5th or even 6th grade levels. By grade 7, though, if we're not bumping up our game and addressing the actual standards for our grade level, rather than reiterating elementary school, we're doing our students a serious disservice.

Preparing kids for the future, not the past

In terms of keyboarding alone, a quick Google search will show you that everyone from the BBC to the Wall Street Journal has heralded the end of the Keyboard and Mouse. Leaving the whole dying skill issue aside, though, what about just prepping students for career survival in the 21st Century?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections' Occupational Outlook Handbook, careers in Office & Administrative support, you know, the people who need killer keyboarding clerical speed and accuracy and tons of experience with MS Office, tend to be some of the lowest paid careers with the poorest growth. The fastest growing career in this sector, at 24% (Faster than the 12% national average), receptionists make a whopping $25,240 per year or $12.14 per hour. The highest paid career in this sector, Postal work, which averages $53,090 per year or $25.52 per hour, is shrinking rapidly at 26% per year. This doesn't seem like a great way to spend our time in computer class.

On the other hand, careers in Computer and Information Technology are growing and are well compensated. Software developers, for example, make an average of $90,530 per year or $43.52 per hour, and that field, like most in CIT is growing at 30% (much faster than the national average, a measly 12%). This is why so many industry leaders, politicians, and celebrities have gotten behind projects like Code.org. I've posted this video before, but it's worth a re-post.

Perhaps this overwhelming need for highly qualified people to fill these positions is the reason behind President Obama's multiple public statements that we need to spend more time teaching computer programming and game design.

Further, you'll be hard pressed to find many industry leaders or National Presidents bemoaning the lack of people who can type over 30 words per minute at 95% accuracy or have memorized how to set tabs in Word 2010. This is why there was a National STEM Video Game Challenge last year instead of a national STEM Clerical Challenge. 

Skills that all students need vs. skills that a only a few need. 

Far be it from me to say that we should not prepare anyone for a career in Office & Administrative support. If someone dreams of being a customer service representative, we should support that. With that in mind, though, let's make electives elective. If someone wants to take a typing class to improve his or her keyboarding skills, then offer a semester long keyboarding class at the high school level as an elective. If someone wants to take a class solely focused on productivity applications, such as Microsoft Office or iWork, offer a semester long class at the high school level as an elective. If you're teaching a required Computer Information Technology class, your school should be able to expect more from you. 

Basic survival skills

Okay, so this is a basic skill to survive school today. Agreed. It's obvious that students need to know how to use word processing applications and their computer keyboard just to type the multiple "papers" (ahhh, our antiquated education system) that are going to be required of them. The research I cited in 2008 hasn't changed, though. In terms of keyboarding instruction, "mastery is most efficiently attained in the fifth- to sixth-grade years" (Keyboarding research and resources). Further, "Most research supports starting students on formal keyboarding around grade 4," (Education World). Our students begin working on Keyboarding and Microsoft Office in second grade, and it continues through grade six. By that point, students should pretty much have it down. This has no place in the secondary curriculum, except as an elective (see above).

Meanwhile, many computer teachers are ignoring the basic survival skills our students really need. When Instructional Technology Trainer, Consultant, and TEDx speaker Jim Gates, addressed the PA Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) State Leadership Workshop, in 2011, he not only encouraged computer teachers and curriculum leaders to give up teaching keyboarding and MS Office as religion, but also encouraged them to focus on skills the students really need to survive today's computing environment. These include research skills, managing digital resources, simple image handling and editing, Copyright law and Creative Commons, presentation skills, and creating simple hyperlinks.
We ask students to work with digital media all the time. From researching online and managing what they find, to editing and presenting their reports, students are living with digital media. Students live in a hypertext world, yet few know how to create a hyperlink. They live with digital images and sounds yet know very little about how to edit them. We tend to assume that because they're the "digital natives" that they somehow automatically know how to do all that we ask them to do. Such is not the case. (Jim Gates, 2011).

Until recently, my school had a keyboarding and Microsoft Word test that all eighth graders had to take. Failure meant remediation in a class that by all reports was miserable drudgery. Thankfully, the administration of my district, being intelligent and forward thinking, not only saw that this was a ridiculous requirement, but also that students should instead receive training in online safety and netiquette.

Students preparing for the world of today (tomorrow aside) should never be asked to memorize steps to use a specific app. Microsoft Office has changed it's basic interface ten times! Rather, students need to understand the logic behind how various types of applications work. For example, most web services place their log in and sign up links in the upper right hand of the site. You would be surprised at how few students of 12 years old come to me knowing that.

Most importantly, students should know how to go grab the tools they need to get something done. Teaching a Word class is missing the point. I've often pointed to Vicky Davis' post, Get Past Teaching Apps: Build and Use a Student Technology Toolbelt, which notes that true technology fluency is "the ability to determine and use the appropriate technology tool(s) for the task at hand in a manner that allows seamless transfer of created objects and documents to flow easily between the selected tools without outside intervention." A class that builds those skills is going to revolve around project based learning, not how to use a specific app or skill-and-drill typing class.

What do the standards say?

About the time we got rid of the typing / Word test, the K-8 CIT department in my school adopted the ISTE NETS as the official standards for K- 8, which was an intelligent forward-thinking decision. Being a middle school teacher, I've built my curriculum around these standards. Of course, I haven't ignored my State's (PA) Computer Information Technology Standards for grades 6-8. Believe it or not, I even use the all powerful Common Core standards when developing and implementing my curriculum. Not one of these documents recommends that I even mention keyboarding, let alone an intensive study in clerical applications. The NETS and PA CIT standards, in fact, both focus largely on  ideas such as, explaining the differences between a scripting language and a coding language, troubleshooting systems and applications, communicating information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences using a variety of media and formats, and Creating multimedia projects using student-created digital media.

This begs the question, "Where did this whole keyboarding / office apps obsession come from anyway?" It's certainly not in the standards! Grades 3-5 actually addresses keyboarding in standard 15.4.5.D: "Demonstrate the ergonomically correct use of more sophisticated input technologies," which is exactly where it belongs, according to the aforementioned research. It's also not specific to keyboarding, but rather all input technologies. I was led to believe that this obsession came from the NBEA, but their Information Technology Standards don't mention keyboarding or memorizing commands in MS Word either. Where does this come from? Maybe we're just living in the past; maintaining traditions for traditions' sake. After all, that's what education is all about isn't it; hanging on to old methods and ideas whether or not they have any merit?

Look, I'm a Business teacher, not an IT specialist.

Okay, I get it. Keyboarding and Office Apps is a comfortable curriculum. It's easy to teach, and the students are experienced (after all, they've been doing it since 2nd grade). Programming is hard. So is game design, for that matter. Once we add in all of this multimedia authoring, copyright law, netiquette, and online publishing / social networking stuff that is in the standards, this gets really cumbersome. It gets really crazy if our students are trying to integrate these skills into authentic projects-based learning. That's messy. How are we supposed to manage all of this stuff, let alone grade it?

I feel your pain, and I struggled for a few years with this mess myself. In Part 2 of this rambling mess, I hope to share how you can transform your computer classroom into a relevant, standards-compliant, juggernaut of 21st Century STE[A]M-tastic awesomeness.

For now, check out these awesome resources:
As always, good luck and DFTBA...


  1. Excellent!! I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head. In my own school I have been pushing for the removal of the apps showcase around Microsoft or Apple. Instead, we should focus on web design, coding, etc that, if taught, automatically move your thinking skills and focus to the next couple of levels up.

    It's no wonder that the industry, public sector are all crying foul when we focus on Office skills. It an easy way to 'pad' your GPA for college. That's about it!!

    Thanks for the good writing and supporting evidence to move forward the discussion.

  2. Mr. Walters, thank you for voicing what has been on my mind for the past several years. Your points are well taken and on point. I've made a major shift last year to provide more project based learning and the use of creative tools for my computer class for the reasons you have stated. Technology changes so often that we must have a flexible approach to how students will use computers now and into the future.


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