Who Needs a Full Screen and a Keyboard?

Ok, I dare you to read to the end of this editorial. It’s much longer than 140 characters!

As the editor of the K-12 Blueprint site, I don’t usually write editorials, but this week I’m making an exception. I was surprised by the results of last month’s poll on cursive writing. Our readers – a high-tech group committed to technology in education – weighed in, two to one, against the idea of dropping cursive writing instruction from the curriculum, even if it freed up time to emphasize newer, “21st century” skills.

I, personally, gave up on cursive writing with my second son, now 18 and a freshman in college. I’m not sure any official decision had been made by the state of California or even by our local school district to drop handwriting instruction but at some point my husband and I discovered that our son had never been taught to form those cursive letters. Although disturbing at first, the omission turned out not to have terrible consequences other than the fact that he couldn’t read handwritten letters from a few older relatives and was never great at forging his parents’ signatures.

I understand what cursive proponents are saying about some of the motor skills and brain development that can come from practicing handwriting but I think we can promote those skills in other, more relevant ways and it’s not a battle worth fighting, in my opinion – any more than the battle back in the mid-1900s to prevent pencils (with those sloth-inducing erasers) from invading the classroom and replacing pens.

But when it comes to screen sizes and keyboards I suddenly find myself in the old-fashioned camp. With ever-more-powerful smart phones, oodles of apps that run only on mobile devices, the growing popularity of QR codes, and the ubiquitous nature of texting, tweeting and other quick and brief methods of communicating, I’m beginning to feel like a dinosaur as I rush back to my laptop (or, yes I’ll admit it, my gigantic desktop computer) with its comfortably-sized keyboard and a screen big enough for me to read a message longer than 140 characters or view a video in enough detail to make it worth viewing.

Are full-sized screens a dying breed – only needed by those of us over 50 with failing eyesight?  Are keyboarding skills as doomed to obsolescence as cursive writing is? And, more importantly, what impact will this have on students’ (and adults’) motivation and ability to read and write coherent, multiple-paragraph essays, stories and books.

In my opinion, one of the most powerfully positive ways in which technology has impacted learning is in the area of writing. The ease with which a word processor allows cutting, pasting and modifying – making it possible for authors to edit their work without having to engage in laborious recopying – has had a dramatic impact on the typical learner’s willingness to revise and improve on an original draft. The advent of the Web and a global audience gave students new motivation to write well – as bloggers, journalists, and internationally published authors. Maine’s MLTI report on Creating Better Writers is just one of many studies that have showed the positive impact of technology access on writing skills. Equally exciting to me is the expansion from text to multimedia and the launch of a new generation of young authors able to create powerful digital stories and amazing videos.

As smaller devices become widespread in classrooms, will all that change? I’m already seeing a difference with colleagues, friends and family members a few decades younger than me: “Your email was four paragraphs long; you didn’t expect me to read it all, did you?” or “2 long 2 txt - call me.” When e-mail came along I thought I was done with playing phone tag! And how effectively can anybody (even somebody with good eyesight) create, edit or critique a professional-looking video on a handheld device?

I have no objection to smart phones and other mobile devices being used in classrooms for what they are best at: exchanging brief messages with remote peers and experts, following tweets posted by people all over the world, getting a rapid answer to a simple question, conducting polls, or tapping into a device’s GPS capabilities for navigation and field experiments. But for more extensive writing or reading or image editing or data crunching, the larger screen and easier text input options seem essential.

Am I just being change-resistant or do you agree? Weigh in on this month’s poll: Are full-sized laptops still important tools for schools?

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