We have done it like that for a long time
At the moment we are having a discussion at school about productivity suites in our school. Until now we have taught our students the latest version of Microsoft Word on Windows. Without a doubt, MS Word is the mainstream word processor in education, at home and business.
We will be a 1:1-iPad school starting from next September and need to decide what software we will be teaching our students in class. The Flemish curriculum does not specify any brand, so schools and teachers are free to choose a productivity suite.
Personally, I feel reluctant to choose MS Word as the word processor to stick to: it has a fairly steep learning curve en we have noticed that the skills students acquire in the first and third grade are almost never used in other subject areas so they get lost. Let me clarify: in the first year of secondary school, students learn MS Word to write short text and create a lay-out. They do learn a lot: text wrapping, styles, numbering, etc. In the third grade in computer science, they build upon this knowledge with sections, headers and footers, citations and footnotes, … The whole shebang. When students reach the fifth grade, they need to use these skills intensively to write a high school equivalent of a thesis.
Every year we notice that the knowledge and skills they learned in the first and third year have disappeared by the time they really need them.
So the question arises whether this learning path with MS Word is the way to go.
Can we postpone the instruction on advanced features of the word processor to a later moment in the school career?
Writing skills and motivation
Apparently students don’t “play by the rules” when they use a word processor for their writing assignments and they don’t have the attitude to use styles, sections and other useful tools to avoid turning writing a text a living hell. Probably they don’t see the advantage.
And is it really necessary to get every writing assignment printed on a sheet of paper and dropped in the teachers’ inbox at the teachers’ lounge? This text most certainly not: I’m publishing it to the web. I won’t print it because I will reach a much smaller audience than when I publish it on the internet. Even more: I don’t need a word processor for most of my writings. The user interface is distracting and I have no need for all these tools (I wrote this in iWriter on my iPad).
I also don’t care a lot about text formatting: your browser (and my markdown-syntax) will do it. I bring structure to the text with a title, headers and an occasional block quote like this one:
What do we want to teach? A product or a skill?
Each student who is intrinsically motivated, learns better. Can we all agree on that? The odds are rather small that there are many students in your class who get intrinsically motivated by writing an essay and handing it in to you. Of course there are some letter crunchers that go crazy on writing a 600 word book essay, but this is a small minority.
What does work? Connecting with others. Yes, I will go and have a look at the visitor stats of this blog post tomorrow and I will rejoice if my tweets get retweeted and posts get liked. It pushes me to write better articles.
And does every writing assignment have to produce a written text? No! Is drafting a scenario for a video not a writing assignment? Or what about creating a digital portfolio in a blog?
A learning environment with technology allows for new tasks to be developed that could not be completed in a tech-free learning environment. Do a Google Search on SAMR, please.
And what about the “mini thesis”?
Of course students will benefit from learning the skills to deliver a long text with great text formatting. But let’s teach it when they need it and are going to use it. Or even better: probably your student will have watched a series on YouTube: “How to edit text in MS Word”.