Do We Really Need Computer Applications Classes?

Right now I think we pretty obviously do. In the long run I think we'd be better off without them though. David Warlick asks a similar question in his blog and a companion poll. The way he asks it is “Are computer applications something that should be taught in a class, or something that should be learned by the students, independent of a class curriculum?“ (A summary of the comment discussion of his post may be found here and is worth reading.)

Kids today do figure out a lot of "computer stuff" on their own. They certainly could figure out a lot of the things we generally teach in computer applications courses. The problem is that they don't. I gave placement exams for a computer applications course for years and very few, perhaps 10%, of those who thought they "knew it all" actually knew enough to test out of the course.

I'll never forget overhearing one know it all tell a classmate "I wish I had known this stuff last year!" There is a lot that students generally do not learn on their own. In word processing few figure out automatically page numbering, headers and footers or footnoting. Doing it manually makes for quite a mess so you'd think they'd have incentive enough to learn it but for some reason few do. Perhaps it doesn't occur to them that it is possible.

In spreadsheets few students learn any but the most basic and simple of formulas. Graphing? Again generally only the most basic features. Almost no one learns databases. The one application kids do tend to learn a lot about is presentation software like PowerPoint. Even that is not all good though as they learn the features but not how to use them wisely. I've seen some feature rich presentations that fell apart on content and readability.

But to me having a special course in learning these applications is a waste of time. I believe that it is much better to teach these tools in some sort of context. Teach word processing features as they are needed in English so you can focus on concepts with the mechanics being secondary. For example use a word processor to teach outlining. Use the word processor to teach footnotes, end notes and bibliographies. Let the software handle the mechanics saving enough time for more repetition in different contexts.

Teach graphing in math courses and let the students use a spreadsheet to draw the graphs. Is it really useful for students to spend a half hour with a ruler and crayon to draw a bar graph and them spend another half hour taking the same numbers and putting them in a pie chart? Why not use the whole hour to show different kinds of data in different types of graphs? That way you can focus on the important concepts of picking the right sort of chart for the data. And you can spend time talking about why different graphs work and others do not and how the data matters.

Christy Tucker argues that a mix of integrated and separate is the way to teach computer applications and she has some good points. Her main point is that students should be given a solid base in a dedicated course but then what they learn must be integrated into the general curriculum. I don't disagree. I do think that the base should be taught as early as possible. Think reading.

In first grade reading is a specific subject. By second grade reading is a part of just about every subject. Long before high school reading is long gone as an independent course but students still learn new words and use reading in every course they take. That's the model we need to follow for computer applications.


Comments (12)

  1. I really like your analogy about how we teach reading; I think that is a great way to explain it.

    I know that in my post I mentioned computer application courses in middle school, but I’m rethinking that now. Starting in first grade or kindergarten really would be more effective, especially since that would allow that many more years for other teachers to integrate the applications.

    Your post sparked another thought for me this morning. Certainly, there are a lot of teachers who really don’t know the technology well enough to be able to teach it themselves. What if we did some "just-in-time" team teaching with a computer science teacher (or someone technical)? For example, if the math teacher wanted to teach graphing, he or she could invite the comp sci teacher in for a class or two to teach kids how to create and edit charts. The math teacher could focus on the data visualization aspect, like you say, but with support for the technical side of things.

    Hmm…I need to think about these ideas more. Thanks for the link and for making me think!

  2. Brian Scarbeau says:

    Our school did away with the required computer applications course a couple of years ago in the high school and allowed high school students to take any of our computer science courses to meet the semester computer course requirement.

    I just finished an online computer applications course that will be required of all new students to our school. Any student can take an exam and bypass this course if they want. However, many have failed because they don’t know or forget about concepts.

  3. Alan Perkins says:

    It is all very simple to suggest that ICT/  Applications can be taught through cross curricular work, or through the students teaching themselves independently. But from my experience it is very rare for students to push themselves to learn the more extensive and maybe useful parts of applications unless shown – the idea that a student will see the benefits of using a more advanced application like Flash which takes time and a great deal of work to be able to use such an application to solve problems. Students will always opt for the easy PPT presentation in any subject –  teachers in other subjects would also choose this because it is easy…..a few years down the line you will not have older students producing amazing professional animations to place on the school website etc….

    As Christy suggests a mixture of the two needs to be taught. Note in every English class in recent schools at least once a week I see the teachers having a quiet reading period to extend their vocabulary – why the students will not sit and read on their own and this needs promoting and supporting. The same is true for ICT -without it their will be the few students confident with a high level of technical literacy and a large majority ending in death by PPT!

  4. I like the idea of just in time training. I used to make guest appearences in English classes at the start of the major research project to demonstrate how to get documents formatted in the way the English teachers wanted them. The students should all have known how to do it because they had either had or tested out of the course where we taught those things. But as others have pointed out without a need to use them retention is not what we’d all like.

    Why didn’t the English teachers teach that stuff themselves? Eventually they did but first they had to learn it themselves. The sight of ENglish teachers feverishly taking notes while I talked I am sure inspired some students to do the same. Well I hope so anyway. 🙂

    That of course highlights the need for more training for teachers. I used to do that with a once a week hands on training event for teachers. It was optional though so you can imagine how many who could have benefited didn’t come. Those who did learned a lot and used it in and out of class.

  5. Carmelo Lisciotto says:

    Training is sometimes better on the back end when you have the right questions in your head.

    Carmelo Lisciotto

  6. We do need to teach our students — or at least the students in my school — computer applications. The first month in my Webmastering, CS I and PreAP CS classes are mostly computer applications. Kids today do figure out a lot…

  7. I really like Carmelo’s comment: "training is sometimes better on the back end when you have the right questions in your head." I’ve certainly taught that way. Intentionally I sometimes let the kids make their amateur mistakes in Word, struggle with the cumbersome problems they encounter, then show them a feature that makes their lives easier. Page numbers and headers are prime examples.

    Students will retain the information better, I think, if they learn the computer applications in the course of doing a project. The downside to this is the time you add to (say) a research paper project if you allow for teaching word processing. But I’d rather add the time in to a project than spend an entire semester teaching applications.

    That said, I teach computer applications as a stand-alone course — just like many teachers.

    One hybrid that may work: the computer teacher teams up with the English teachers. Around term paper time, the computer teacher introduces page numbering and all those other term papery skills.

  8. Carmelo Lisciotto says:

    Megan in my opinion your method allows for the greatest volume of retention with student.

    Carmelo Lisciotto

  9. christine says:

    yes i think that kids should have computers at there desks because its teaching the kids a lot more than just writing and maybe in the futcher we will be using computers all the time like work classes and lots more places we will also be using lots more tecnolagy for padicting the weather and when a tsunmi is coming. so i think that this year on the news that every student in schools in australia should or in other countrys as well.

    i’m 38 years old and i have a 6 year old daughter and when she use the computer for lots of learning and she is so smart now and knows lots of things. please put computers in childrens schools.

    thanks for lisening.

  10. I love to look at the logs of this blog to see how people are finding it. It looks like close to half

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