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.


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.

31 thoughts on “What Difference Might One “S” Make?”

  1. Dave,

    I had a short discussion on Twitter last week about this subject.

    I feel that at some point in the life a of a student we should develop basic productivity standards, and deliver them in a vehicle that will make the most of the learning experience. The ability to type, use keyboard shortcuts, manage files, etc is a skill that can be taught. While I dream of a day when all teachers can do this, and incorporate these skills into their classes the simple fact is these skills don’t get taught by accident. Many teachers I see are not meeting basic levels of computer literacy.

    Right now, computer applications happens to be the most reasonable vehicle to deliver these skills. In many cases our strongest technology teachers are in these roles in schools. The best approach would be to take curricular content from the grade level and use it as the framework for the applications course. Word processing and peer review as part of the Language Arts assignments, Spreadsheets of scientific data and math applications, Presentations and Publications for classes and content that happens at grade level. Applying and reinforcing skills within the curriculum, while easing the tech time crunch many teachers feel.

    The Computer applications I see is much more canned and tied to a text that is irrelevant anywhere else but on the bookstand next to the computer. http://www.amazon.com/Microsoft-Office-2007-Introductory-Techniques/dp/141884327X

    While I agree the context must change, I still think we should “teach” these skills until the skills become common in all users. Many can drive cars, but few are ready for the Indy 500, and the same is true with computer use.

  2. YES!!! This is what I believe should be happening. This is what I have been working to “make” happen. This is what I did in my own classroom. This is what should be and should have been a long time ago! All the way back when I had my first computers in the early 80s in my high school.

    “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.”

    Application is the key to understanding. When I was taught to weld in Ag Shop the real learning began when we struck our first arc. Yes, we went over safety, and learned about the equipment, but we had to drop our helmets and weld to learn.

    1. Neil,

      I was a shop teacher before I became hooked on edtech. I believe that you are right when you talk about when learning occurred at the application.

      I would like to see the application and the computer meet in real world work, while teaching some real productivity tools and shortcuts.

      Like striking the arc produces the weld, but the technique you use in the process directly influences the finished result.


  3. Of late I’ve been down on the Business Ed type “computer” classes, that in my district are taught by old school teachers that came kicking and screaming from shorthand and typing classes. Much student time and building technology is wasted in these classes fitting old curriculum into a new world. Kids don’t need to be assessed on how to create word art of how fast they type. What troubles me is how computer science courses were knocked out in place of these applications courses. So instead of teaching students how computers work, we drill them in the nuances of Word or some other horrible Microsoft product.

    I think both options David presents are good…independent study classes could replace these applications courses in the short term, fitting into our current K-12 set up, while projects can be a long term goal as we move to a more real-world applicable curriculum. If I ever get back into working at the building level I think I’ll give the independent study option a try.

  4. I must respectfully disagree. If a student does not know that a stats package exists in excel why would they think to use it? Would you simply turn students loose in a wood shop and not explain what the tools are for and why you might wish to use them? Computers are tools but there are many apps that can be used and have a wide variety of possibilities that some training is needed. I am becoming gun shy of the idea of turning students loose with tools and letting them discover what they do. Too much is not found because I don’t need it. ( But you might tomorrow and we can show you now and save some time later ).

  5. @David Through the last six years of unrestricted access to computers and other technology tools in my classroom I have moved from teaching applications to having my students use applications to create content. Not only is it possible for students to learn as they need to, but I find it preferable because it is authentic. Usually I allow one class period for my students to explore and experiment with a new tool before I have them apply it.

    Ultimately my goal is to introduce students at a younger age to the tools I am using with my junior high students so they will be better prepared to identify the best tools for them to use. I want them to apply what they learn in their content classes to create new content using the tools we have available. In essence, show them how to use a shovel when they are young so they can build a tunnel when they are older.

    @Leonard It comes back to point of need, don’t you think? Why would I teach students what all the tools in a wood shop do when I want them to drill holes in a piece of wood? When you spend too much time teaching the tool without allowing for time to apply and explore you will severely limit the ability of the student to learn. Students often need some direct instruction with tools, but they can often answer their own questions without looking to us to furnish them first.

    1. But would you turn the students loose in the wood shop and say make a house and have no instruction on how to use the tools correctly? If the idea is that you teach skills that are needed as they are needed that is one thing. But to just provide a computer with lots of apps and say go to it create something wonderful is folly. Instruction is needed along with authentic assignments.

  6. First I have to say that I appreciate David’s recognition of the population of students for whom technology is not convenient and is sometimes not even present in their households. I work with adult basic education students (working on GED, work credentials, etc.) and although a few are very tech savvy, many can do no more than check their email and operate their cell phones. For this group, a class teaching the basics of common applications would improve their employability skills if nothing else.

    Aside from that, I love the idea of teaching through exploration. The little bits of technology education that I have included in my classes have been much more effective when I briefly overview the possibilities of a given technology tool, and then instruct students to “play with it”, see what it can do, and share it with their classmates. The ability, and in fact the encouragement of sharing ideas with each other is a key concept for both education and the work world of today.

  7. I consistently find that most of the students cannot just teach themselves an application. They don’t know the steps to learn a complex application (or process) like Final Cut or Excel (beyond filling out cells).

    Yes, they are digital natives, but for the most part they are good at the things they do. Text. Facebook. Games. Music (listening, and a very little creating.) There are of course the one or two that master some application, but these are few and far between. We think they’ve mastered the cell phone, but my entire class is always astonished when I show them what they can do simply by texting Google. I can’t think of a single student that had known about that prior to being shown.

    Show me a Freshman that can either format a document to some standard, or figure it out without help and I’ll show you the top technology student. Sure, the rest will blindingly fast text their friends their frustrations with the assignment while finding their favorite music via Project Playlist, but the emails to the teacher with the assignment will have no capitalization or punctuation and the document will not be attached. (And yes, Email IS still a valid and necessary form of communication.)

    They need guidance and a push in the right direction. I agree that they don’t need (nor should they) learn specific applications. They need to be exposed to as many different applications and computer systems as possible so they can learn the similarities and differences and how to figure it all out. They need to be taught how to go find their answers and they need to be shown what they can do with technology. MOST of them will not on their own.

    We are doing them a HUGE disservice to assume that digital native means technology literate.

  8. @Ryan : I could not agree more “We are doing them a HUGE disservice to assume that digital native means technology literate.”.
    Most of the students I come in contact with, in a private high school where every student has access to technology and has had most of their lives, are remarkably ignorant of what they can do with the technology they have and how to find answers to questions they have about it. To assume that most students do not need training is foolish. They do.
    I see this every day.

  9. In a recent study US Department of education indicates that the students who use online learning in addition to the classroom are more productive. This is definitely a move forward towards the use of online learning in mainstream education. Online learning is fun and interactive, the students who experience this are encouraged to use it more often. The ability to share and learn from other students anywhere in the world is a definite plus point. Technology is constantly changing. The www has now evolved into “Web 2.0” and is the second wave of the World Wide Web.Most of us still follow the textbook type of teaching, where the students are made to by-heart, recite and write what is taught by us. In an era of global connectivity teachers should be actively involved to make the students aware of the digital tools available and how effectively they can be used for learning purposes. There are many online platforms to make learning a group activity, where students interact with each other and learn to create flash cards,videos, photos and flash cards online effectively for learning purposes. We could make studying a sporting event so children are actively involved and learn faster. Though class room education cannot literally be replaced by e-learning online education has its own advantages. Today’s net generation like to discover new things and learn from hands on experience. when they look for information online,not only will they try different search engines, they will also search for interactive materials. The goal should always be to enhance child’s learning abilities and confidence while at the same time preserving the relationship with your child. Such learning methodologies creates a sense of “self directed” learning and problem solving attitude among students.A balanced combination of online education and proper guidance of class room education can get the best out of students.

  10. I think students need to know how to THINK about computers. How computers are a tool to find, evaluate synthesize or communicate information and new learning. Instead of how to insert a new slide in a Power Point (my second graders learn this- why is it being taught again in ninth grade computer literacy?), students should learn about RSS feeds, readers, how to read terms of service and privacy statements…

    My ideal computer application (no “s”) course might be an overview of currently available tools- and what they can do. Taught by instructors and mentor students who like to play with new tools and imagine the possibilities. The final assessment for such a course? Use of one of the tools (or a personally discovered and investigated tool) to meet a learning goal, along with the rationale for why this tool is the best to meet the needs of the project.

    1. One of the issues is that, while a second grader can learn how to insert a PowerPoint, not all 9th graders have done this. We have not caught up in reality to that ideal world yet. I am in an extremely fortunate district that is well on our way to one-to-one, and has tech everywhere, but in the trainings and conferences I go to there are teachers that talk about how they just got a teacher station, or it’s 10 years old, no projector, no lab. Given student mobility, changing curriculum, the fact that a current 9th grader was in your second grade class seven years ago when this was worse of a problem, given all of this there are 9th graders, graduates even that have never had the chance to discover, and don’t have these basic skills. We can’t just say they can figure it out, or they should have had it when they were in second grade.

      “I think students need to know how to THINK about computers.” this is of course true. If we can get this across to them, then they CAN better learn on their own. And yes, an overview, “here’s what this can do, now have at it” … is a fine way to go (as long as you differentiate the advanced student with the one that does not know how to right-click). The key difference in what David said and what you said is you still introduced a tool and showed them what it could do. This “introduction” to various tools, features, functionality is necessary otherwise we’re hoping they find the right things. (Do you think a student is going to find and learn Word, or choose to become an expert PhotoBooth user if given the freedom to discover on their own?) That one kid that missed PhotoBooth and delved into Word will be much more successful in life.

  11. I think this is a great idea! As a new teacher, I find that there’s so much that I want to teach my students in middle school but don’t have time! I think that one of the greatest skills that we can give our students is the ability to THINK! New technologies are coming out all the time and they won’t always have a class to teach them the newest version of a program. If we can teach our students how to USE a computer instead of operate one, THAT’S how we can prepare them for the future.

    Giving students a project that forces them to explore a program on their own to discover the answers gives them a much better chance of being able to duplicate that process in the future when a teacher is not present. Most students don’t know how to answer a question without a teacher or a textbook. What if we taught them how to EXPLORE and CREATE on their own?! That is true computer literacy.

    I do disagree with completly doing away with the basic concepts of proper keyboarding and word processing. Those are tools that students not only need now, but also in the future. As a middle school teacher, a student can know all about the computer but if they can only type 15 WPM, how far will their knowledge really take them? Those are basic skills that are necessary to success.

  12. Hi Dave, this post and all the comments made me ‘think’ and even moved me to respond. As an educator, one of our top goals for our students is to help them think. Technology is a tool to help enhance their learning and students are at all different levels with their learning and their skills. Having tech skills and being able to think about how to use their tech skills is a process itself.

    Let me see if I can make this analogy (it is clear in my mind, but it is a different skill to process it out my fingertips isn’t it?) Like learning a language, let’s say Japanese, we have many facets to enhance our development. If fluency is our target goal, then we take steps to achieving that goal– we spend time daily in that target language practicing in a variety of contexts be it shopping, socializing or learning idioms to better express ourselves in the finer nuances of that language. It helps to have direct instruction in that target language from someone who speaks that language doesn’t it? AND what if i already learned all the basic ‘vegetable’ words in Japanese and I have mastered that lesson? Do you think my teacher can help guide me into the finer, more delicate vegetable words to help me build my vocabulary further or is that a waste of time?

    When we use/teach/integrate technology into our classroom learning, our students are all over the board–some digital natives are technology illiterate, and there ARE some basics skills that are necessary to teach them so that they can move forward (anyone have a researched list on what these basic skills are by the way?)….but TIME to practice, to immerse oneself, i feel, is one of the biggest supports we can give to our students when they learn with technology.

    Okay…that’s my 1¢, the other 1¢ agrees that seafood should not be eaten far from the sea. 🙂

  13. I agree with many of the previous comments on this posting. Many of our students do have the skills necessary to engage with technology, far more than some of the classroom teachers they spend each day with. As a classroom teacher often trying to engage her students in technology use it is frustrating to me when others around me see technology as only the computer teacher’s job.

    In lower elementary many children already know how to use mom or dad’s iPhone apps, their DS, or many other forms of technology. Students are often more engaged in these gadgets than their own schoolwork. Why don’t we allow students more interaction with technology to help increase their guided use of the internet and let them exchange ideas and solve problems together?

    I also understand the argument that typing skills and basic computer use skills must be taught. However, did I learn proper keyboarding from Type to Learn? No, I increased my speed through daily time spent using AOL Instant Messenger as a middle and high school student. Teaching the basics is important, but it is also important to go beyond the basics to encourage student creativity and engagement in technology.

  14. Hi David,

    I know it’s over two years after the fact but I’ve just come across your post and I’d have to say that for the most part, I don’t think much has changed and the ‘S’ is still securely affixed. I’m lucky enough to teach MYP curriculum which is very flexible in terms of content. This year, I’ve tried to move my focus away from skills and more into concepts like digital citizenship, effective online searching, licensing of creative content and assessing the reliability of information.

    Focusing on concepts rather than skills allows the students to take their work in different directions and though there is often not an explicit focus on specific skills, skills get learned or taught as students use a range of applications to accommodate the needs of their chosen solution. As the students become more comfortable with the computer and the various applications, they’re less afraid to try new applications because they can see the similarities with the applications they are familiar with. So instead of being 100% unfamiliar with a new application, they can see it as maybe 70% familiar. Suddenly learning how to use 30% of an application doesn’t seem so daunting.

    Focusing on making students (and teachers) comfortable with using computers and removing the fear of technology by helping them to understanding how to avoid or fix their mistakes is far more important than, as you’ve said, teaching specific computer applicationS.

  15. I really like your last point about having some type of tech assessment before students move to the next grade or before they graduate. However, the problem I see with this is how to control for plagiarism? and how or who sets the standard to be learned at each grade level or for graduation since we do not really know what is an important 21st century skill?

    I would suspect that some or many students would not take it seriously and just try to gather up some project or answers from the internet and pass it off as their own. this is what seems to be happening today in many of the classes that i’ve observed in which “real” learning is not taking place. instead, i am seeing mediocre researching going on and no higher level evaluating/synthesizing of information. this leads to ask then, would doing a project-based, end of the year assessment really cause students to think critically? or are we looking more for students’ ability to apply technology to solve and/or create??

  16. Next time you are flying and have time to sit and ponder consider the following. Pencils were leading edge technology at some point and although students were surrounded with pencils, they needed to learn how to write legibly. Hammers have been around most of our lives, but that does not guarantee that we know how to use one or use it well. Even though computers have been around and our students grow up “connected” it does not mean they have the basics.

    Have you ever really sat down and watched a student type on a keyboard. The two fingers they use must get tired. Who is teaching them basic typing skills, and with these skills, how much time could be saved over the course of a lifetime and applied toward other endeavors.

    We often talk about teaching for the “unknown future” but many students head straight into the work force and those skills are easier to define. Students who are heading to university and will not enter the work force for 5 – 7 years, they are facing a greater chance of the unknown. Check the percentages of students entering the work force versus university and let’s prepare students for their next step.

    Teaching a technology course, (applications) is valuable for every student – every student! When the course is taught is the bigger question. My belief is the course should be taught much earlier in the students formalized schooling and built upon from there. My son learned Powerpoint in grade five, and that was back when Powerpoint was considered cutting edge. He continued to build and use technology because he knew how to swing the proverbial hammer and use the metaphorical pencil.

    Have a great flight and happy pondering.

    1. Although I could take minor issue with some of what you’re saying (Who’s to know what’s known or unknown about the future we’re preparing our children for) I wholeheartedly agree with you about the basic use of technology, though I standby that the most effective use of tech is learned when learning it within some context where it is being applied, not just practiced.

      One exception might be keyboarding. When I was at the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction, we established a computer skills curriculum, and after some pretty thorough research, determined that 3rd grade was the best place to learn keyboarding, and there were inexpensive devices available then to help them to develop those skills. Some schools did a very good job of implementing that, including the elementary school that my children attended.

      I am curious about how tablets might be changing the skill of typing. I am a very good, very fast typer. I took typing in 1967, on manual typewriters. But I personally find it easier to thumb on my iPad Mini and even my standard size iPad. Typing on glass seems very different to me.

      Thanks for making think a bit 🙂

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