The right type for the job

4th April 1997 at 01:00

Keyboard skills are essential requirements for work today. Sally McKeown samples some programs that teach them.

My car is falling to pieces. This is of no particular interest to anyone except me, my bank manager and a garage that does a nice sideline in counselling and lifts to work. But during the time I have spent at the garage I have reflected on the skills needed in the workplace, and I have come to the conclusion that schools do not equip pupils for the world of work. We spend so much time on handwriting, spelling and punctuation, but what school leavers really need are first-rate computer keyboard skills, a good telephone manner and the patience of a saint.

In the office, there is Jackie who orders parts and produces invoices and guarantees. Now she is clearly a veteran of the keyboard. Her hands undulate and flow over the keys in a deceptively leisurely manner but I would hazard a guess that she tops 60 words a minute. Wayne is a hunt-and-peck merchant who averages 10wpm with a good wind behind him.

Just about every job these days requires workers to input data or access databases for information and stock control. But it's not just in the workplace that IT skills are needed. What about those doing course work for exams, or university students who are increasingly required to produce word-processed assignments?

For those poor souls who have been educated in the traditional manner, using pen and paper, there is that enormously frustrating period when they try to make the transition. They are used to scribbling their deathless prose at a uniform speed and suddenly they are reduced to transcribing their work at snail pace. Their fingers can't keep up with their brains. No wonder so many of them still write their essays longhand and then type them. They take years to master the intricacies of moving blocks of text or cutting and pasting because they never use the machine for drafting, only for copy typing.

If we are serious about using technology, we must make sure that the keyboard is not a barrier. Touch-typing is the equivalent of joined-up handwriting. We would not expect pupils to print all their exam work in block capitals but hunt-and-peck keyboard skills are the equivalent. Yes, people can attain reasonable speeds if they persevere but most people don't.

So, when and how should we teach these skills? The ideal time is at the start of secondary school. There are more machines and, by the age of 11, most children have a wide enough hand-span to cover the keyboard comfortably.

There is a whole range of software which provides keyboard training. One of the first was Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing (Pounds 29.99, Multimedia PCApple Mac, from most software dealers). After an initial diagnosis, the software creates an individualised learning programme. The bottom half of the screen displays a keyboard with a pair of hands poised over the keys. The top half displays the text for copying. As you type, so do the "guide" hands, reminding you of correct hand placement and finger reach. There is a Workshop where a clock, metronome and meters help to monitor speed and accuracy and, in the Arcade, a Racer game provides variety as you practise.

Type to Learn (Pounds 49.95, WindowsMac, from TAG and iANSYST) provides a thorough grounding in all the keys, including numbers. There are four games including one based on American Sign Language and a management system to keep track of the progress of a whole class. The basic drilling is thorough but it is very American and there is too little attention to current educational thinking to make this a first choice.

The Touch-type, Read and Spell Computer Course (prices from Philip Alexandre) is designed with the needs of dyslexic learners in mind. The structure and vocabulary is based on the Hornsby Alpha to Omega scheme and the text and screen colours can be customised to suit individual preferences. All the vowels are learned first so that the learner is typing real words from the beginning. It has more than 600 short modules and the in-built assessments seem to help some students' auditory and visual memory.

Another program for dyslexic pupils is the Fairley House Touch Typing Program, Micro-Type (Pounds 34.95, MS-DosBBCArchi-medes, from Beverley Scheib) which is designed to be used by primary-age children with minimal adult intervention. The package comes with a folder of practice sheets which help to reinforce spelling patterns. Beverley Scheib, who wrote the program, is a keen advocate of touch typing: "I was working with children with dyslexia who had a number of problems including poor handwriting and co-ordination and literacy problems.

None of the typing programs was suitable because they did not adhere to principles of good practice. They were full of nonsense words and improbable letter sequences. So I devised MicroType. Ideally, it should be used every day for 20 to 30 minutes for half a term. If that sort of approach can be instituted, there is a vast difference in motivation."

The National Council for Educational Technology has recently received a number of requests for advice on keyboard skills for disabled learners. Deaf students need to touch-type so they can take notes while watching a signer or lip-reading, and blind users may be totally reliant on technology for all their writing. Touch Type (Pounds 49, Acorn, from Semerc) speaks the letters as you type them so it is useful for blind users. Another useful Semerc package is Five Finger Typist, (Pounds 45, WindowsMac) a structured training program for one-handed typists.

However, typing may not be appropriate for all disabled users. Lesley Rahamim, advisory teacher at the CENMAC special needs centre, says: "Technology has moved on since the days of copy typing. There are now a number of packages which provide on-screen word banks or predictive facilities. In the old days, when people used typewriters, accuracy was vital but now the important thing is to enter a first draft as quickly as possible and then to correct the spellings and edit the text. Changes in technology, such as speech input, may make typing skills obsolete."

Maybe the school leavers of the future will have to learn to talk nicely to machines, as well as to customers. Meanwhile let your fingers do the talking.

Sally McKeown is a senior programme officer with the National Council for Educational Technology

Iansyst Ltd The White House, 72 Fen Road, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB4 1UN tel. 01223 420101

SEMERC 1 Broadbent Road, Watersheddings, Oldham OL1 4LB tel. 0161 627 4469

TAG 125b Pelham Road, Gravesend, Kent, DA11 0HN tel. 01474 537886

The Touch-type, Read and Spell Computer Course Philip Alexandre, PO BOX 535, Bromley, Kent BR1 2YF tel. 0181 464 1330 fax. 0181 313 9454

Beverley Scheib can be contacted at 1 D'Abernon Drive, Stoke D'Abernon, Cobham, Surrey KT11 3JE

CENMAC Eltham Green Complex, 1A Middle Park Avenue, Eltham, London SE9 5HL. Tel. 0181 850 9229

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