Keyboarding or Computer Literacy: The New Dilemma

Our school has recently made some changes to our technology classes, to model more of an integrated approach. Gone are our days of coming to computer class once a week to learn only keyboarding. In this post I am going to lay out the changes we have made to our school, and in return I request your feedback and questions.

Do We Need To Teach Keyboarding?

typing for studentsFor years I was an elementary school computer teacher, for grades kindergarten through 5. Yes, I taught the traditional QWERTY keyboarding method, but I never practiced what I preached. I learned how to type based out of necessity, long before I was exposed to a traditional keyboarding class in high school. How did I learn you may ask? I learned the same way most digital natives did – AOL Instant Messenger. In order for me to keep up with my friends, I needed to learn how to type, and type fast so my conversations had flow. I didn’t learn using the traditional QWERTY keyboarding method, but rather an adapted version that works for me.

Being a digital native, I have a better understanding of what students are going through today when they are exposed to a traditional keyboarding class – the frustration that ensues when you are typing using a method that may not be here in the next few years. Students are smart and they know this is the case. I am asked by students weekly why they are learning how to type on a traditional keyboard when they are at home working on their iPads and phones. I question the same response.

As I mentioned, I am considered, by Marc Prensky, a Digital Native. I was born in the 1980′s and grew up with technology in my daily life. There is a great video that summarizes digital natives.

So the question I pose; do we need to teach traditional keyboarding? Well, my answer is yes, but with some adaptation necessary.

The QWERTY Method

While I do recognize the importance of keyboarding, the first change I have made was the requirement of fingers to be placed in the traditional QWERTY fingering. Let’s be honest, what are we trying to accomplish here? Do we care about where our fingers are placed, or our speed and accuracy? Studies show that the QWERTY method does not provide the fastest results when typing, so why are we focusing so much on the placement of our fingers? I do understand however, that students need to understand where keys are located, but can their little fingers manage the traditional QWERTY method?

Ask yourself, when did we learn to keyboard? The answer you will probably provide is high school. Studies show that a students’ dexterity and fine motor skills are not currently at the ability, in first grade through 3rd grade, to handle the traditional finger placement. Because of this, we have primarily taught the left-side of the keyboard from the right-side. We just wanted to make sure that the students understood the layout of the keys in accordance to others.

So, we had a 40 minute computer class scheduled where we taught keyboarding, and the only instruction that was occurring during our computer class was the instruction provided by our keyboarding software. The only role the teacher had was walking around and correcting the placement of the student’s fingers. However, we never graded their placement of the fingers, but rather only the speed and accuracy. So, what was the need for the teacher, other than finger placement, which we weren’t grading?

Since I no longer worry about finger placement, I have flipped the model of keyboard instruction. I say, let the students learn what works for them. Yes, our keyboarding software teaches the QWERTY method, but if they want to type using their thumbs or their feet, as long as they are reaching our benchmark for speed and accuracy, the more power to them! With this change, the students no longer are afraid to come to computer class, because they aren’t doing keyboarding drills and someone watching over their every move. Students are no longer afraid to place their hands on the keyboard and type the way that feels comfortable to them. We have taken this time to work on more essential computer literacy skills found in our technology continuum, while reinforcing keyboarding through practical projects.

Flipping Keyboarding

When we were looking to change our computer class, it was originally discussed to remove the keyboarding component altogether. With much reflection, we decided that there does still need to be some time to practice their keyboarding, but we didn’t want to take the time out of our classes for this. We had a whole new technology continuum to cover, so we decided to try the flipped approach.

In order to flip the keyboarding, we needed to find a software title that allowed practice anytime, anywhere and could be used on our iPads. Also, being a major proponent for game-based learning, I wanted to find a piece of software that was achievement based and provided incentives and rewards. Needless to say, I was struggling while looking at the titles that are currently widely used throughout most schools, because the teaching methods seem to still be 150 years old. After much research, I came across our new keyboarding title, QWERTYTown.

We decided to use QWERTYTown because it met all of our needs above, especially working on other devices. Yes, it runs with Flash but using the App Rover, on the iPad, everything works great. This also allowed our students to not only learn the traditional QWERTY keyboarding method, but also allowed students to work on the iPad with the on-screen keyboard in the traditional mode or the thumb typing mode. Furthermore, this met my initiative to allow students to type in whatever way they felt was natural. All that I was looking at was their results, and the results have spoken.

Our Findings Thus Far

Now that we have found a keyboarding title that suites our needs, the next step was implementation. We decided to show students QWERTYTown during one computer class, to get them logged in and started, and have since left the rest up to them until our next phase of instruction, which I will get to later.

By default, QWERTYTown sets the benchmarks much higher than what we expect as a school. For example, QWERTYTown gives medals for achievements, and the lowest medal you can receive is a bronze metal with a typing accuracy of 95% and a speed of 20 words per minute (wpm). We consciously decided to leave it at its defaults to start. Come December, we will be adjusting it back to our benchmarks, but wanted to see what the results were.

What we have found is that students in as low as first grade were achieving the QWERTYTown benchmarks, and receiving bronze, silver, and gold medals. That proves that they are exceeding what we have set for them. In first grade our expectation was only 5 wpm at 90% accuracy. Results also show that there is more at home practice occurring than in previous years. Students are now going home to complete the achievements, unlock new features, and receive QWERTY coins to deck out their avatar.

Although QWERTYTown is a far from perfect new title, and the administrative panel has much to be desired, its beginning efforts are meeting our needs. The administrative panel will have more features in the future, but for right now, it works wonderfully and met our requirements for an anytime, anywhere title.

Parent Buy-In

I am still working on parent buy-in. It is difficult to change a teaching method, especially when they have been brought up with one that works. Part of this process is educating parents on the same topics I have brought up in this blog post. While there are some parents who are excited to try something new, there are others who are happy with the traditional formal instruction, because it worked – for them. My response is, “Would you hire a doctor who still uses the same methods of practice…from 30 years ago?” Yes, that may be an extreme scenario, but it is true. The minds of children are different today, and they are learning differently. Just because what worked for us in the past, does not mean it is the best method for how children are learning today.

The following letter is one that I wrote home to parents. It explains all of the topics that I have written above, and you can feel free to download it and use it as you feel is necessary.

The Next Phase

Come December, the benchmarks will be differentiated based on the students’ achievement from the beginning of the school year, until now. We have given them opportunity to achieve on their own, and now we are going to push them to achieve more by tweaking the required WPM and accuracy. Students will also have keyboarding homework due once a week, to ensure they are keeping up with their practice. Although we have gotten away from formal instruction, we still believe in practice and being held accountable.

Teaching Computer Literacy

So now that we have flipped the keyboarding instruction, what did we do with those 40 minutes? Well, we returned that time back to the teacher…sort of. Since we had a new technology continuum, we decided it would be beneficial to use this 40 minute, once a week block, to teach the continuum during the first half of the school year. In order to do that, we would need extra help.

We found that our teachers were a little behind in technology use in the classroom. The equipment was there, but it was not being used, and we found it was because they were unsure how to integrate it into their lessons. We also learned that many teachers were unsure how to do basic tasks on the computer such as create a video, podcast, powerpoint, etc. With little time during the day for professional development, and the understanding that teachers have lives outside of school, we decided to make computer classes mandatory for the teachers as well.

By changing the computer classes to be mandatory for teachers, the teachers had to be present and complete the projects that the students learned. This provided the teachers the opportunity to not only learn the tools that the students would be using, but also give them a better understanding of the new continuum and what is expected for their grade-level. We are currently in November for this new method of instruction, but the teachers gladly gave up the prep-time that they previously had to better understand the technology and its uses.

After the new year, we are changing things around again. We decided that after the new year, it would no longer be the responsibility of the educational technologist to teach the computer classes and come up with lession. By this point, the students would have gone through the technology continuum and understand how to use to tools. Next it is time to put the tools to work by creating technology-based projects. Since the tool is no longer a concern for the teacher or the student, the educational technologists will help the teacher plan technology integrated lessons, that aligns directly with their curriculum.

Keyboarding or Computer Literacy?

So, what did we decide? Well, we decided that there is a need for both. We decided that the computer time scheduled for the students should be more purposeful than just teaching them how to type. There are other tools than just typing, and we are preparing our students to be 21st century learners. We value both skills, but the time to learn the skills needed to be tweaked.

Even though something may have worked in the past, does not necessarily mean it is right for our students today. What are you doing at your school with keyboarding and teaching new skills?


  1. Tracy

    November 20, 2012 at 5:47 am

    You said parent buy in is a problem. This can be true when what we are teaching differs from what they learned. In short tradition and comfort makes them feel the end its usually because they feel unnecessary or capable of assisting when (and if) their child requires assistance. Sometimes, it is beneficial to teach the parents what the kiddos are being taught. Invite them so they can see what their child is learning and how it is helping them.

  2. Kathy

    November 20, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I agree we need both..I currently teach 1st-8th grade technology (this is my 2nd year teaching 1st-5th) and I’m amazed at the progess the 1st-3rd graders make. I include keyboarding at all levels and set higher benchmarks each week. I integrate keyboarding, Microsoft Office skills, and computer/internet literacy. I have the luxury of not using a textbook…which allows me to use online resources daily. Parents support technology and are happy their kids are learning something they were not taught in school.

  3. Li-ling

    November 22, 2012 at 6:21 am

    I agree and understand how traditional forms of input seems so important in how to communicate, share and use digital content these days. However, I am curious how keyboarding skills might be viewed perhaps in 5 – 10 years time (or perhaps even sooner) with the now relatively smooth use of dictation tools, I find my 6 year old talking to my iPad telling it search terms.
    I think that there will always be a place for keyboard input (thinking of spreadsheets and databases) but other than that, with technological development, will dictation eventually replace the need and ability to type?

  4. Jennifer

    November 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    I’m definitely not a traditionalist, especially when it comes to technology skills and what needs to be learned or how. That said, in the 14 years I’ve been the technology teacher at my school (prek-8) I’ve always had someone questioning the value of traditional typing skills. 10 years ago I sat in on a panel at ISTE’s NECC all about teaching keyboarding. While some devices have changed, the need for traditional keyboard skills haven’t – yet. I tell people that I still teach keyboarding because the kids need it now. As far as finger placement goes, I agree with the statement “as long as they are reaching our benchmark for speed and accuracy…” My students can’t see their keyboards during typing lessons (No Peek covers) which start in 2nd grade. I couldn’t tell you if their finger placement is correct, but they know how to type.