Keyboards, Quill Pens, and the
Future of Work
by Stephen Abram, M.L.S.
I have a theory. I think we have to prepare our students
for the world they will encounternot the one we
suffered through. Sounds obvious, but so often we seem
to forget. This came home to me in a recent experience
that reminded me of my own school life.
I debated the principal in my children's high school
about the point of keyboarding classes in the curriculum.
Don't get me wronglearning decent keyboarding
skills is all fine and goodfor now. My concern
was that my kids were being subjected to a second
year of keyboarding courses, which I believe is a waste
of valuable in-class time and teaching resources. On
my side of the debate:
Surely keyboarding doesn't need 2 years for
Aren't learners better served learning thinking
skills over endless training in a specific, limited
skill like typing?
If the emerging dominant device is a palm-sized
handheld, how useful are skills in using an entry
tool the size of a small piano?
Aren't today's learners likely to spend most
of their working lives with a variety of input options,
including voice-activated browsing and typing?
Lastly, in a thumbster generationwhere
I have seen video of kids entering 45 words per minute
with their thumbsare keyboarding skills worth
the focus many educators place on them?
On his side of the debate. . . . Well, I won.
Along the way, I was reminded of my own experience
in Grade 6. I was 12 and our teacher required us to
get a writing licensea "novel" concept.
Why? I think that she was protecting the classroom due
to the fact that we were required to write with inkwell
and quill. Yes! You may surmise that I am quite old.
I don't think sothis was actually 1966, a mere
2 years from the summer of love! The justification given
was that no businessman (yes there was a guileless sexism
in those days) worth his salt would write with a ballpoint
pen. They were so déclassé! It was asserted
that more modern businessmen used fountain pens, while
the best traditionalists were fans of nibs, quills,
fine ink, and blotters. Everyone practiced the penmanship
skills under the tutelage of our fine teacher to prepare
ourselves for business life. To my enduring shame, I
never got my license and I am positive the blue/black
stain remains on the floor of my classroom to this day.
Then again, my career hasn't suffered due to lack of
inkwell and pen nibs.
Keyboards and quill pens. What's the connection? Well,
I think that just as my earnest teacher valiantly tried
to endow her unruly class for the business world of
the future with the skills of the 1940s, I worry that
by not fearlessly keeping a mental model of the world
of the future, we risk preparing our learners for the
world of the 1970s instead of for the challenges of
this millennium. Perhaps keyboards are just sooooo last
century and we're blind to it.
Look at how image and status played a role in choosing
to teach penmanship with old and revered instruments.
Later, many of us were challenged in our work lives
by our poor keyboarding or typing skills as PCs and
terminals were dropped on our desks. I can hear my parents
now: "Oh dear. Don't take typing as an optional credit.
Professionals have secretaries to do that for them."
Ha! Did we ever have to play catch-up! Are we channeling
our own experiences rather than recognizing the differences
in this generation? If we look closely, their skills
with so many other form factors are pretty amazingPC
game controllers, Game Boys, joysticks, PDAs, SMS, digital
phone keypads, and more. Maybe they've just passed the
Clues to the Future of Work
Let's look at a few of the things we dealt with and
see how they're going to change for our learners' lives.
I grew up in a vinyl world. I still have my 45's and
my LP collection (jargon that draws blank stares from
most kids). I just can't bear to part with them, although
I did discard the turntable. Vinyl is now a retired,
though nostalgic, format. Indeed, cassette tapes (and
their Australopithecine evolutionary branch of 8 track
tapes) retired years ago. While many of us still remain
attached to our CD-ROM music collections, this format
is also on its last legs and due for retirement within
the decade. We can already see its replacementnext-generation
MP3 files available through subscription sites like
Napster and Apple. Indeed, those MP3 Players are bestsellers
right now, with Apple's iPod leading the pack.
Some boomers like me remember 8mm and 16mm home movies
and films that we could borrow from the library. We
recall the debate about Beta versus VHS formats for
videotape. It is cold comfort if you chose right and
bet on VHS. Your collection will be as difficult to
view in a few years as it is now difficult to read those
5-1/4-inch floppy disks. My local video rental store
has announced that it will retire all tape formats within
the year in favor of DVD. Feel safe with DVD? I heard
DVDs are due for retirement in less than 10 years. With
ubiquitous broadband and emerging DRM standards, it
will be as simple a matter to rent movies online as
it is to acquire music today.
I grew up in a home that had a party linesharing
our phone with another household to keep the costs down.
Seems so quaint today! I do recognize the voyeuristic
appeal of discussion lists and chat rooms as extensions
of the guilty pleasure of listening in on the party
line! We've gone through the massive changes in telephone
technology, from dial to pushbutton (many kids don't
even know why we say "dialing" to use the phone), from
analog to digital, and then from wired to wireless.
What's next? Phones moving to personal communication
devices with a whole host of unheard-of services and
So many of us still retain a mind-set that bandwidth
is limited. Will today's learners work in a world where
that is a consideration? I started at 110 Baud and went
through the 300, 1200, 2400, T1, T3 broadband ladder.
With North America likely being fully broadband in all
regions by the end of 2006 (President Bush's goal and
likely to be met earlier, according to insiders in the
communication industry), and with no telecommunications
company investing R&D in anything but wireless technologies,
I don't think the mind-set of scarcity will play much
of a role in their lives with regard to this factor.
Our work tools have mutated as well. For those of
us who grew up with typewriters and marveled at auto-correct
and liquid paper, word processing terminals, WP software
on PC's, spell-checkers and grammar advisors, automatic
translators and the rest seemed magic. The latest version
of Microsoft Office with its Research Panes and Smart
Tags, integrated content from more than 120 major providers,
offers some pretty whiz-bang opportunities for workers
So, the short-term trendthat which is near and
clearis for the fully converged device. This generation's
personal communication device (PCS) will be GPS-enabled
and know where it is, offer streaming media and Web
search as well as short messaging services (SMS). It'll
be a beeper and an MP3 player, and it will offer access
to all your e-mail in a PDA/Pocket PC-style environment.
Voice features like multiple lines, conference call,
voice recognition, voice mail, and call display will
all be normal. The screen will be color, and all of
this will operate globally in a wireless mode. This
is the goal for now.
Oh, wait. My phone already does all of this! It also
runs MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. I can download
more than ring tones and so many previously unimaginable
tools and games. It's a camera and can also record short
videos. Your phone number can now follow you for life
as a personal ID. In some parts of the world, television
can be accessed through the phone. Simple phones that
just offer the ability to talk will become disposable
devices like drug store cameras and phone cards.
You can see the scary part! What we thought was the
future is already here. One wag once said, "The future
is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." It's
not the robot-powered world I imagined as a child watching
Lost in Space and Star Trek. It's still
pretty transformational though, and learners who grow
up in this world don't realize it's special. It's just
normalthe new normal.
So what will come down the pipe? Every time I try
to imagine something new and wonderful, I discover it
already exists! Last week, I saw a demonstration of
PoEPower over Ethernet. Yes, partially wireless
electricity driving the wireless nodes of library buildings.
I have seen videogamelike interfaces that explore huge
decision spaces in ways that match human behaviors more
closely than not. I see software suggesting paths for
research that actually make sense and improve the process.
I find book sites suggesting reading for me that actually
matches my interests and reading level. I search across
many databases in the library in addition to the OPAC
seamlessly and find what I want ... actually find it,
not just a reference to it! I see medical technologies
that amazebionics, brain implants, human/silicon
convergence, and morelike wearable computing,
like GPS mapping eye-glasses, like skirts that wirelessly
display TV and clothes that track your medical condition
or general health.
So, as we prepare our learners for the world they
will encounter, what matters? What matters most is to
clearly know that which makes us humanemotional
intelligence, making good choices, thinking critically,
and choosing to understand, not just conform. The tools
that technology provides are merely tools. As society
and our world become more dependent on technology, it
becomes even more critical that we raise a generation
of learners who question the role it plays in their
lives, especially as technology becomes even more seamless,
makes more decisions for us, and becomes less visible.
Much as we needed to teach media literacy in the short-term
television age, we now need to make our learners aware
that when Google's algorithm, designed by teams of very
bright people, chooses what is displayed in their search
results, it is not their choice and they should question
it rather than blindly accepting it.
Abram, MLS, is 2004/5 president of the Canadian
Library Association and is vice president of Innovation
for Sirsi Corporation. He would love to hear from you