What Difference Might One “S” Make?

Last week was one of those trips where I was either presenting, driving, flying, or sleeping.  There was one wonderful time of relaxed comradery, when I went out to eat with Steve Dembo (IL), and Scott McLeod and other notables from the Iowa ed tech community.  It was a laid-back gathering and I, oddly enough, ordered seafood and linguine.  Although it was quite good, one shouldn’t order seafood that far away from the ocean.  I should have had pork.

Interestingly, I had to browse through several pages of Flickr Creative Commons photos with “computer” and “class” in the description before I found one with computers.  Lot of robotics.

Flickr Photo by Jason Meredith

What I want to think about, in this writing (at 36,000 feet over Montana), is a conference session that I attended a while back that was actually more of a meeting of educators interested in technology education.  It is not an uncommon situation, where, in an effort to decrease the number of mandated tests, the state’s computer skills assessment has been abolished.

No one was excessively upset about losing the test.  But they are beginning to see decreased enrollment in the state’s computer applications course, the offering of which brings much needed state funds into the districts.  I mostly stayed quiet during the conversation, not knowing the nuances of the situation, and the one or two comments that I did make probably seemed pretty far outside the box — which is where I live most of the time.  But I’ve continued to think about the meeting, their challenge, and the truly impressive conversation that I witnessed.

I wanted to ask the group about what was being taught in the CompApp course, but didn’t want to waste time with any discussion that was for my benefit alone.  If it is like most CompApp classes, though, then they teach basic productivity software like word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, and databases.  This model goes back to the old Appleworks, MicrosoftWorks, and Microsoft Office suites of the same applications.  I know that many of these required computer classes have come to include web building, desktop publishing, blogging and video editing as well as other more recent applications.

I have a number of conflicting thoughts about the situation, which I would like to explore here.

First of all, many students do not need such a class.  They have grown up with computers as a principle tool for carrying on their daily activities.  They have basic word processing and presentation skills.  They’ve probably not had much experience with spreadsheets and who needs to know how to use Access (Database) anymore.  They likely do not know the intricacies of these applications, which would be a part of this CompApp course, but I suspect that they know enough that they could teach themselves what they’d need to know to accomplish immediate goals.

On the other hand, there are also many students who have not had the benefit of convenient access and have not attained the experience necessary to continue to grow their own information and communication technology (ICT) skills.  These students desperately need the opportunity to develop skills in using ICT and to gain the experience needed to be self-directed learners.

Several people in the session suggested that without a course, students could develop these skills within the context of other subjects.  This has the enormous advantage of being a much more authentic way of learning.  Still, it has the disadvantage of relying on teachers, who sometimes lack the confident to adapt their lessons to include ICT.

I have to confess that the one thing that truly bothered me about the conversation became apparent to me when someone stated that their job was to help their students gain the technology skills they will need after they graduate.  It occurred to me was that, “You can’t!”  We do not know what skills they will need.  We do not know what word processing will look like in ten years — in five years — or if it will still exist.  We do not even know if there will be something new, a new killer app, something that we have no hope of “training” them for today.

So I’ve been thinking that instead of Computer Applications, our students should be learning Computer Application.  One letter’s difference, a dropped “S,” but a world of difference when it comes to curriculum.  Computer Applications implies (to me) a specific list of software tools that students will be taught to use — one tool for a few weeks, then another tool, and then another.

Instead, I would suggest that students simply learn to apply computers to solve problems or accomplish goals.  It really doesn’t matter if they are covering all of the tools, or even if each student is mastering all of the same tools.  Students would simply learn how computers can help them do interesting things, and then gain the skills and confidence required to teach themselves, with the guidance of their teachers, the applications to make it happen.

I’d see this as being more of an independent study type course, where students have access to a wide variety of tools, projects accomplished and archived by former students, and libraries of videos of various interesting applications of computers.  They would design a project that applies to something that they are learning in another class.  I think that it would be even more authentic for students to rely on each other for help with the technology, or even connect to older students who have already taken it, through various social networking opportunities.

Or…

Do you really need a course at all.  Why not require (at some level) that every student accomplish a significant project for graduation from each school level (or each grade).  The only requirements would be that it applies to something they are learning or have learned in school, you have to be able to hand it in on a thumb drive or via a URL, and it would be assessed by instructional staff, other students, school/district governance, and members of the community.

We must have just crossed the boarder into Canada.  My feet are getting really cold.

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.