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Practical Technology Skills

This blog is a revision to a column I wrote for Direct Media publications. Normally, I wouldn't repost something I wrote for hire, and I certainly don't wish to anger one of my publishers. However, since this blog is primarily accessed by one of my graduate seminars, I think the publisher will appreciate that I am extending my thoughts for educational purposes. I'm also more than willing to encourage businesses to visit the Direct Media home page.
Page numbers seemed to be a half-inch lower on each successive page. I stared at the mid-term paper, handed in to me by a junior at the university, and thought back to my fights with dot-matrix printers.

When I was an undergrad, my Epson FX/80 printer jammed often and would sometimes rip pages after the sprockets slipped out of alignment with the punched holes of the perforated paper. Surely the undergraduate author of this paper suffered the curse of a similarly possessed printer, I told myself.
“I guess when I changed the margins I forgot to retype the page numbers. At least I remembered to use five spaces to indent each paragraph.”

Sure enough, changing Microsoft Word’s options to enable viewing of “non-printing characters” revealed a document littered with extra spaces, manually numbered pages, and the occasional extra “hard return” used to maintain double-spaced text.

The next week, I used three class meetings to discuss what I think are essential word processing skills. Simply because they’ve grown up using computers doesn’t mean that college students know how to use popular software effectively.

Regardless of the application, there are some features that seem to apply to all popular word processors: tabs, styles, and page numbering are the most basic of these features.

I decided to ask other instructors if they were having similar experiences. Sure enough, most of the English instructors felt word processing skills were lacking, while our students had no difficulties preparing complex presentations. Many of the students we see can work wonders in iMovie and customize Web pages with minimal effort. There had to be an explanation.

I have come to think the difference in skills has to do with the “fun factor” and how we approach writing throughout the school years. If we allowed, and even encouraged, far more visually appealing documents, students might learn the real power of Word, Pages, OpenOffice, or WordPerfect.

Too often, word processing and spreadsheet applications are treated like the old technologies they replaced. My Epson printer supported variations of a single, simple, typestyle. By telling my students, 20 years later, that they can only use Modern Language Association approved formatting, I might as well be asking them to use a dot-matrix printer.

As an English teacher, I’m certainly not arguing that my students should stop caring about the words. What I am suggesting, and many instructors agree, is that communicating is now more than words. Even the textbooks we use to teach English demonstrate the value of varied fonts, color-coded text, and graphics.

When I taught at Fresno State, I asked students to exploit the power of Word. I was stunned by how quickly they begin to explore advanced features. (Fresno State's writing program was overseen by two professors quite willing to experiment with new ideas, thankfully!)

“I only used Word for papers before this class. I just did everything else on the Web,” a young woman told me. “I didn’t realize Word could actually be fun.”

Her paper had nice cover page, including a photograph relating to her paper topic. There was then a customized table of contents, which relied on the proper use of headings throughout the document. She had modified the default styles, making the font choices reflect her topic while still retaining an easy-to-read font for the text of the paper. Charts and tables reinforced her research.

Most importantly, it was her best writing of the semester. She told me that since it looked great, she had a realization: “People might read it.”

Discovery, driven by personal interest in a topic, is exciting to watch. Applications associated with work became tools for creative expression.

Word was no longer a mere homework tool, associated with drudgery and rigid rules left over from manual typewriters and carbon paper. Students even started to compare different applications, deciding which word processor they liked the most. They also came to appreciate that skills learned in one application can be applied in similar applications.

Once two students discovered you could insert an organization chart in Word, they became the class experts on diagramming family trees, company organizations, and flowcharts. Another student, a statistics major, taught himself how to use the equation editor included with Word.

Students began experimenting with spreadsheets as well. Basic, unformatted data included in papers became color-coded tables with properly aligned decimal points. It didn’t take long for students to learn you could update a spreadsheet in Excel and a related graph in Word would be updated. Best of all, I didn’t discuss any of this in class.

The English instructors at the university have talked about ways to use the World Wide Web to teaching writing, as well as the value of producing films and podcasts in our writing classes. What we hadn’t discussed until recently was how we could make something as common as word processing more relevant.

Most of my students are more humble now, having discovered how much they didn’t know about word processing. They assumed being able to type a document in Word was enough to consider yourself “expert” in the application. I cannot blame the students; we have not stressed practical knowledge enough in some of our classrooms. The other technologies often seem more fun, even to teachers.

When I first started teaching, a handful of “experts” thought our students needed to learn programming skills. Now, many of these same “experts” are suggesting we teach multimedia production skills. Ironically, the computer skills that are used in more workplaces get overlooked.

Our high school graduates should know how to create visually effective documents using word processors and spreadsheets.

Unlike video editing, the computers and software needed to create “fun” documents do not need to be the most powerful, most expensive computers on the market. Students with almost any home computer can enjoy playing with fonts, colors, and graphics. Once they find that “typing” and “word processing” are not the same, students might wonder how we ever managed to express ourselves in plain text.


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