How many of you can type at a reasonable speed, say around 50 words per minute? If you're not sure, test yourself by clicking this link. I tend to average around 65wpm with text that I don't know, higher if I'm typing original text. My typing has actually slowed in recent years, when I was at university and probably doing the most typing I've ever done, I averaged around the 80wpm mark without too much trouble. As with anything its down to practice.
But why is it important? The fact is, to be productive you have to be able to type. No one, despite millions being spent on research and development, has come up with a better method of text entry than the qwerty keyboard. Sometimes it's just the case that an old design is... the right design! Take a look around a Year 7 classroom (and later years, I'm not singling them out) and you'd be shocked at how poor the typing skills of students are - it's not unusual to find students that only use one finger to jab at the keys in an incredibly painstaking process that takes, unsurprisingly, forever.
The technology of each generation does tend to dictate the set of skills they end up either consciously or inadvertently learning along the way. If you go way back, it was usual that students learned to take notes in short hand, or touch type (no looking at the keys, ever). Move forwards to the 1990's and for well over a decade people round the world suddenly became amazingly adept at typing because of the growth of instant messaging over the internet. It wasn't uncommon to have an AOL IM account, Yahoo Messenger and MSN messenger all running at the same time, with at least 6 conversations on the go all at once, with the taskbar flashing like a police car at you, demanding your attention. Every young person at the time knew how to alt-tab their way around each box and hammer out messages at well over 100wpm without thinking - they learned to adapt because you had to!
Strangely, that seems to have been the golden age of communication online. Since that time all the messenger services have died off for one reason or another and nothing really has replaced them. In that time, we've had the advent of touch screen devices and a real shift away from traditional PC use, meaning that today's students simply don't use computers in the way people of an older generation are used to, or expect.
This is actually causing quite a problem. I asked a class of Year 7 students recently, "how many of you use a desktop PC or laptop at home on a regular basis?" Approximately 3 hands went up - 10% of the class. At first, this surprised me. We asked other classes and the numbers never rose much above 20% of students in each group. This goes a long way to explaining some of the problems we have when students arrive at secondary school, especially the length of time they take to adjust to our way of working, but particularly to how a computer works. The number one problem used to be that students could not understand the idea that one "drive" was theirs and another was shared on a network and they can't save to it. Now it's that coupled with the fact... students don't really know how to use a traditional computer at all!
Why was I surprised, though? My own desktop computer sits in a cupboard at home gathering dust, not because I'm not interested in computing any more, but simply because there isn't a need to use it. Desktop PC's are anti social machines that require you to sit usually out of the way and, these days, don't actually offer any compelling functionality unless you're doing tasks which require a powerful machine. This is compounded by the fact I now have a very portable and powerful laptop in the form of a Surface Book which means I have even less motivation to use a desktop, but... I still use a PC every day!
So what are younger people doing? They're using tablets and, predominantly, phones. Why wouldn't they? The internet is available in its entirety in their pocket, they can communicate and listen to music, share experiences and have everything they need in one place. They're extremely adept at using these devices and are quick to share new applications, methods of working or just things they think are interesting. In this way, they're the equivalent of our MSN generation, they've learned to use the technology available to them and adapted to it perfectly.
The outcome of this is, strangely, that we have in many ways returned to the early 1990's where there is a about to be a real need for the teaching of "ICT" skills again. Students are brilliantly aware of the technology that is prevalent to them, but woefully ill equipped to deal with a working world that they will move in to. Yes, I acknowledge that touch screen/tablet technology will become more acceptable in business, more mainstream and more integrated with traditional machines, but the bottom line is, to do decent work you are going to need to be adept at using a mouse, keyboard and desktop operating system. No one has come up with a better method of working and I cannot see this changing in the short to medium term.
One thing you can be certain of, however, is that these technologies will merge. Look back and you see the perfect example being modern smartphones. Where once you needed a computer to browse the "full" internet, a music player to store your music and a phone for communications, they are now all one device. Laptops are already changing to have screens which detach to become tablets but no one has found the perfect medium yet and may never do.
Apple have spent millions on research into touch screens and traditional computers and Steve Jobs, before his death was adamant there was no way that touch screens worked on traditional computers, the two just don't match, it's interesting, then, that Apple are now desperately trying to sell iPads with keyboards and touting them as "computers." The fact here is that Microsoft may well have accidentally gone down the right path after all with Surface in that it's a fully featured PC in a convenient form factor. Only it's absurdly expensive...
Anyway, the bottom line is, to be productive we need typists. We need people who can work across a range of technology and, sadly, right at the time when our students need it the most... we've killed off ICT. Nice work, CAS!