Back to basics,& ICT in schools

July 9, 2009

200907090809.jpg A good article in the Independent today on the growth in the market for coaching in touch typing skills and the willingness to parents to pay for it. It brought back a memory from schooldays when our Headmaster more or less forced his academic sixth to sit RSA stage III typing. At the time this was a shock, we were after all the academic elite , the 5% of the population that would go to University. Not only that we would be paid to do it with a full grant, the right to claim social security during the vacation and no fees. Typing was the sort of thing they taught to girls at the Secondary Modern. For those not familiar, back in those days we all sat an exam at the age of 11 which divided us into two groups, those who went to Grammar School for an academic education and those who went to Secondary Modern for more basic education and skills based training. There was an opportunity at age of 13 for some to be promoted, but they always suffered having fallen two years behind. I should say that I don’t approve of either the 11 plus (as the exam was called) or the social attitudes evidenced above but it represents the realities of the time..

We didn’t take the Headmaster seriously at first. He had tried to ban beards earlier that year and as the rebellious offspring of the sixties we had all stopped shaving with immediate effect. Our school union had been disbanded, so we elected the same three people to the same offices of all schools societies and achieved the same result. However on this one he stuck to his guns, and he also secured the first school computer. More accurately a 300 baud acoustic coupler linking to a computer at a local technical college which (and this was revolutionary) allowed you to type directly using Basic rather than using punch cards. We used that computer to fake our physics practical results. After all you knew what the answer was meant to be so a standard error and some numbers soon produced tables that could be copied out after the event. I think then it dawned us that keyboard skills would have value in the future. I remember seeing my math’s teacher typing with two fingers slowly while I could move both my hands at the slight left to right angle that allows you to cover all the keys. To this day I get frustrated on skype chats by people who just don’t have that skill.

We were also sent on computing skills course, progressive for 1971/2 and I had my first experience of punch cards. That included being taught how to use a punch card machine and being told that acquiring the skill would provide a job for life! Punch cards are an interesting example of a technology handover. They originate in machine generated music and the control mechanisms for weaving and other machines during the industrial revolution (see picture). The migration to polling, market research and accounting allowed IBM to grow and develop. To this day I still see IBM operating systems as dominated by a punch card mentality, reading a series of instructions. Mind you those of us who learnt to program using punch cards learned discipline. A reject on the first compile error required an attention to detail and design that a modern generation of programers finds it all to easy to avoid.

Despite the radical changes that are coming in technology, somehow or other I think the keyboard will survive, along with the screen. Voice is good but requires you to think to much in advance of speaking. Also you or other people have to hear you speak. I can now put the headphones on in a train, or set the hifi going and write, a very different process from speaking. Of course the delivery technology will change. virtual keyboards on any surface, screens that appear in front of your eyes, all of those things will continue, but an investment in ten fingered typing will still pay off. Mind you, does anyone remember a wonderful device that came out back in the 80s? It was a single hand held device operated with four fingers and thumb that allowed you to type faster than a keyboard, if you were prepared to invest in training your mind and your fingers. It never took off, but maybe its time for a return? Another argument for typing is that it is so much faster than writing, which means its still preferable to a touch screen with character recognition.

OK, so typing survives, what other basic skills should we teach in schools? Well I have a five suggestions (very open to others), few of which are taught in schools which is a pity as they all could be,

  1. You need some basic understanding of HTML, editing wikipedia gives you this and software products such as text expander allow you to automate things. But you have to be able to get behind WYSIWYG from time to time and edit more directly. Best way there is to install the WIkipedia software in school and use it for collaborative writing and school projects. Allow those who acquire skills to become admins (much more fun that being a prefect) and guide others. Take on WIkipedia editing tasks on local history, get your school entry up todate. Engage, involve and learn.
  2. Technical drawing or design, ideally in three dimensions also helps. I used to enjoy technical drawing and was self taught, investing my own pocket money in a T-square and board. It wasn’t taught in Grammar School, but I was an enthusiastic carpenter and it was useful for designing furniture. I also loved the construction question at the start of geometry exams for the same reason. The point about this is that it gives you a sense of balance, of representation and also representing three dimensions in two. The best screen designers I have known have been architects,
  3. Printing and publishing skills. Back in school we acquired an old cold metal printing machine. You had font trays full of metal or wooden letters that you assembled backwards and stacked with wonderful tightening devices into forms that you laid into the press. With one foot you started to pedal and the rollers swept over the ink plate before coating the letters and withdrawing in time to imprint the paper that you had placed with one hand seconds earlier. As the pattern returned you took the paper out with another hand. A feat that involved considerable co-ordination and meticulous preparation. We also entered printing competitions where you were judged on evenness of type, elimination of white runs in text and such like. All of that gave you a sense of page design. To this day if I am writing marketing literature, I create the design template in Pages and write to fit within the space.
  4. A paranoid attention to the use of styles in word processing. This should be taught from day one in school. No carriage returns to create a line space, no changes of font sizes or colour. All of that should be styles, that way you can change things quickly, other people can use your work without reformatting. There have been times when I have wanted to garrotte colleagues who do not understand how to do this, or worst still understand how but not why! Its not something you should learn later, by that time bad habits have been formed, learn it young and stay paranoid.
  5. Object orientation, its never too early to learn the basics of this approach to system design (and it applies to humans as well as computer programs). Key concepts such as inheritance and polymorphism are easy to understand and will influence the way that people think, and the expectations they have of new tools and technologies. Its not just about re-use, its about designing at the right level of granularity whether you are thinking of organisations or software. It also helps people understand a modern social computing environment in which tools and data from multiple sources integrate in novel and different ways. Thinking in terms of applications leads to linear thinking, lack of adaptability and resilience.

If anyone wants to add to that feel free. Remember I am talking here about about skills, many of which are not ICT specific but create core capabilities when the brain is plastic and more able to learn, that can be applied to an uncertain future. Too many schools teach current

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