Typing as gateway drug. How schools prime kids for technology

When I was a senior in high school, my mother talked me into taking typing.

She wanted me to be able to type my own term papers in college, but she was worried that typing would ruin my GPA. After all, my large male hands would be much more clumsy than the svelte female hands of those who were planning to make a living with a typewriter.

Ricky and I were the only 2 boys in Mr. Adams’ third period typing class. There were exactly 2 manual typewriters in the back of the class. Ricky was a freshman with shaggy hair that faintly smelled like the sweet smoke of his favorite recreational passion. I was a straight-laced kid bound for a religious college who was afraid of almost everything. We sat at the back plodding on manual typewriters while the rest of the class zipped away on electrics.

Today a manual typewriter is more a relic than technology, but back then it was a way to show your prowess sort of like the folks who use Linux instead of Windows or the Mac OS. Ricky and I started slow, but eventually surpassed most of the girls in speed and accuracy despite the need to manually move the carriage back at the end of every line.

In the end, I got an A in typing. I’m not sure what grade Ricky got. Since that fateful class there have been few days that I haven’t typed something (thanks, Mom)—not the slow two thumb typing on my iPhone, but but touch typing at an honest-to-goodness keyboard.

Typing has changed a lot since those days of physically moving a big piece of metal around at the end of every line. My entire laptop computer weighs less than 3 pounds and it corrects my mistakes often as soon as I make them. Back then, adding an image to a document involved physically pasting something into the pages you were typing. Today, I search for images on Google, then drag them into the document I’m typing. The text magically moves to flow around the image.

My wife teaches second grade at a local elementary school. This year, she was helping them to create a report on a favorite state such as Colorado or Hawaii. She had them look up the state flag and principal product on Google. They copied the flags into their reports by using Google images to find the flag and then dragging it into a Google document where they wrote about the state and its principal product.

I was quite shocked that she was teaching second graders to use Google, but how will these kids access information as they go through high school or in their careers afterwards? The only places I regularly see typewrites are in second hand stores and on old movies. Google has totally changed our way of life. How many of you remember using a card catalog in the library to prepare a report? Put those hands up high. I thought so. All three of you can put your hands down now.

I was at Dartmouth College when they decommissioned the card catalog at the college library in the 1990s. The card catalogs were left in place for a number of months to allow people a chance to adapt. I would walk through the library and lovingly touch the beautiful and largely unused cabinets, but the librarians were excited by the newly computerized card catalog. I couldn’t believe it, but in talking with them, I found that they wanted the computers since they gave the students access to much more information and far more quickly than the cards ever would.

I was very sad to see the cards go away because I knew how to use them and had relied on the cabinets and cards for many papers—they had become my friends and watching them go away made me feel old. Many times we balk at replacing older tried-but-true technologies with newer ones or even teaching our kids new technologies because the old ways were good enough. Today I can’t imagine a world without computers or Google, can you?

Do we need technology in education? Absolutely! My kids are going to inherit a world that is very different from the one I have helped create. Their tools will certainly begin with the things they’re doing today much like my journey began with a manual typewriter, but that journey will not end there. Thirty years ago, I could never have imagined Google or the ability to drag and drop a picture into a report.

Like the wise librarians who welcomed the computer into the library, we need to give our kids access to new technology so they can make it into their future.