Computer Applications: Separate, Integrated, or Both?

David Warlick has a new post entitled What about Computer Applications? where he asks this question:

“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?”

He also has a new poll which gives the following three options:

  • Taught in a course
  • Learned and demonstrated by the students
  • Explicitly Integrated in to other subject areas

I’m not answering the poll this time because I don’t want an either/or answer; I want a both/and answer. I think this is a false dichotomy. Some introduction to office productivity applications as a separate class is helpful, and it can actually encourage more of the integration into other courses. Vicki Davis has mentioned that since she has been teaching blogging and wikis that her students have been going out to other courses and asking to use the technology. The other teachers love it because now they can use the technology with lesson plans that really focus on pedagogy, learning, and applying the subject matter rather than interrupting the flow to teach basic technology. I do think that these office applications (not necessarily Microsoft; OpenOffice would be fine) are better taught at the middle school level like Karen said in the comments to David’s post (or earlier–I learned word processing in 4th grade, and that was 20 years ago).

Also, David’s comfortable just going in and playing with applications to learn the features. Not everyone is, and not everyone has enough time with a computer to do so even if they can learn it on their own. I think it’s especially important to explicitly teach applications in disadvantaged districts where most kids don’t have computers at home. The middle school where I taught had over 95% free/reduced lunch. When I asked kids to type up poems, many of them centered their text by holding the space bar down until the text got to where they wanted it. When others were typing paragraphs, they hit Enter at the end of every line instead of letting word wrap handle it.

Speaking as a former corporate software trainer, when people learn on their own, they tend to find one solution which does what they need (or pretty close) and then stop looking to see if a better solution is out there.

  • How many people create charts in Excel using the chart wizard rather than selecting the data and pressing F11, which instantly creates a new chart?
  • How many people delete text that was typed with the CAPS LOCK key accidentally left on in Word, rather than selecting the text and pressing Shift-F3 to change the capitalization?
  • How many Word users, even adults in professional environments, really know how to use styles correctly or to customize the AutoCorrect settings?
  • How many Excel users know how to create automatic subtotals?
  • How many of you reading this just learned something new, or at least realized there were things you didn’t know?

I think you can really gain a lot by teaching in a class with an expert. The catch is that the applications then need to be applied back in classrooms and integrated with everything else. I think you’re more likely to have the applications integrated if you prepare students with the basics though.

(As a side note, I can’t find the specific post on Vicki’s site where she mentioned students going out to other courses. Her blog isn’t loading well this morning and I got tired of waiting for it. I’ll try to update with a more specific link later in the day.)

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Updated 3/7/08 with new link to David Warlick’s post

5 thoughts on “Computer Applications: Separate, Integrated, or Both?”

  1. Natalie,

    I absolutely agree that databases can be integrated into projects in the curriculum. Database design is always going to make more sense if you can apply it to something right away, preferably something you care about. That’s the case whether you’re talking about middle schoolers or cubicle farm residents.

    I’ll add a couple of ideas for teaching and applying databases to the list you started:
    * Music or movie collections (I started to type “CD” collections and then realized that isn’t necessarily the right medium anymore!)
    * Database of articles and authors from the school newspaper
    * Band instruments or other music equipment
    * Sports equipment (either for the school or a club)
    * Options for a dream vacation (include fields for location, cost, pros & cons, etc.)

  2. I agree with you about the power of informal learning. I’ve seen a lot happen in both corporate and ed environments when the learning was self-motivated or connections were made between the student and their world/job. Also, I feel that showing students a direct application and having them experience execution within a practical context is powerful learning. Perhaps basic application curric. should be given as an introduction. About db…I think that there maybe options of being able to teach database concepts to students as part of integrated curriculum… Scenario A: Students take part in basic business management participation for a fundraising project/store, they want to develop a customer database. Scenario B (for those in advanced design): Students could develop their own simple social network within a school intranet.

  3. What, your students aren’t creating databases at home for fun? 😉

    I do think that separate computer applications courses can be an opportunity to teach things like *effective* presentation techniques rather than most of what we see in PowerPoint (even from teachers–and I’ll admit I was guilty of some pretty crappy ones when I taught and was first learning PowerPoint too).

    I also think that databases are much harder to learn on your own than the other programs. The initial learning curve for Access is just so much higher than for any of the other Office programs. Relational database design isn’t something you’re going to just intuitively pick up unless you have a book, a teacher, or both. (Well, maybe there are people who can, but not the average student.)

    Thanks for the comment, and I hope you continue to teach computer applications for many years to come!

  4. I am in my tenth year teaching computer applications (word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentation, and Internet). I would agree that students gain a lot from having a dedicated computer applications teacher. The teachers in other areas know enough to get by but a student in a technology class is in the software enough to really get a feel for it.

    Even the students who have computer access at home are not generally motivated to get into Office. I would probably have a coronary if a student said, “I’m having problems with a database I created at home…” instead of “How do I get music to play on my MySpace page?”

    Exposing them to the various Office applications will give them a feel for tools that they would not otherwise know about.

    Just my 2 cents. 🙂

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