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Magazines > MultiMedia & Internet@Schools > November/December 2004
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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 encounter—not 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 wrong—learning decent keyboarding skills is all fine and good—for 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 proficiency?

• 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 generation—where I have seen video of kids entering 45 words per minute with their thumbs—are 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 license—a "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 so—this 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 amazing—PC game controllers, Game Boys, joysticks, PDAs, SMS, digital phone keypads, and more. Maybe they've just passed the keyboard by?

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 replacement—next-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 line—sharing 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 functionality.

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 and learners.

Intended Consequences

So, the short-term trend—that which is near and clear—is 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.

Unintended Consequences

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 normal—the 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 PoE—Power 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 amaze—bionics, brain implants, human/silicon convergence, and more—like 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 human—emotional 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.


Stephen 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 at

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