Reading, writing, arithmetic, speaking, and listening are all considered basic skills. These skills are useful over a wide range of problems that people encounter. Now use of computer-based personal productivity tools is emerging as a new standard in education.
Many of the productivity tools are generic--that is, they are useful over many different domains. Examples include a word processor, database, and graphics. Others are highly specialized. Software for writing and publishing music falls into this category. This chapter focuses mainly on generic computer productivity tools.
Many of the fundamental ideas regarding personal productivity tools can be illustrated using a word processor. It is likely that you have used a word processor; thus, a number of the ideas given here will be familiar to you.
To begin, you know that there is a considerable difference between being able to use a writing tool--be it pencil and paper or a word processor--and being able to write [[effectively]]. The tool, by itself, does not make you into a writer.
Writing is a process designed to produce a document that communicates a message. Typically, the production of a written product goes through several steps that, collectively, are known as process writing.
Computers can play an important role in each of these four steps of process writing. While the first step may be primarily mental, there are a variety of pieces of software designed to aid in jotting down ideas and organizing these ideas. [[See specifically, software designed to aid in cognitive mapping or concept mapping.]] In addition, most modern word processors include an outliner. This makes it easy to get rough draft ideas into the machine and to reorganize them as needed.
People who have learned touch keyboarding can keyboard far faster than they can handwrite. Many people compose at the keyboard. This is particularly useful in process writing because the computer is such a useful aid for revision. It is often argued that the main value of a word processor in process writing is that it is an effective revision tool. Many writing instructors feel that the key to high quality writing is "revise, revise, revise."
Revision is an important idea in problem solving as well. There are many problem-solving situations in which one can develop a proposed solution and then get feedback from oneself and others on the quality of the proposed solution. The feedback is then used in doing revisions to the proposed solution. The feedback and revision cycle continues until a satisfactory solution is obtained.
[[There is a strong parallel between process writing and Project-Based Learning. The type of problem-solving activities that go in while doing PBL lend themselves to the "revise, revise, revise" approach.]]
Desktop publishing has become a major industry. All word-processing software contains provisions for producing a final document that is nicely laid out. Professional-level desktop-publishing software contains a wide range of aids to produce professional-looking final products. Such documents often make use of graphics and color. They may be laid out in columns, make use of a range of type styles and sizes, and be designed to help convey their messages.
A person can learn to keyboard in a hunt-and-peck mode with just a minute or so of instruction. Young children can learn such keyboarding more easily than they can learn to form letters using pencil and paper. Similarly, it takes only a few minutes of instruction to learn how to use a word processor in a hunt-and-peck mode. However, this low level of word-processor use is only a modest aid to productivity in writing. It is too slow and it does not take advantage of the powerful writing aids that are built into a modern word processor.
You need four things for a word processor to be a useful personal process writing aid:
In summary, it takes a lot of education and training to learn to make effective use of a word processor. Most people find that the investment in time and effort is well worth it. Part of this education and training can occur as one is making use of the word-processor tool to accomplish tasks at work and in one's studies. There is certainly no need to fully master a word processor before beginning to use one as an aid to personal productivity. There is no need to fully master the design of effective written communications before beginning to use design techniques.
[[This would be a good place to revisit the topic "expertise." The expertise scale for word processing and desktop publishing is rather "long." That is, it takes a lot time, effort, and talent to move from being an absolute novice to having a high level of expertise in this area. However, most people can gain a functional level of expertise with a medium amount of time and effort.]]
At the same time, it is easy to see that there is a wide range of levels of expertise in using a word processor. The person who learns on the job--and who continues to learn as a lifelong activity--will continue to grow in expertise.
There are many other productivity tools that are useful over a wide range of domains. Each shares many characteristics with the word processor. Each can be learned at a modest level with minimum effort and each is open ended--that is, each provides the possibility of a lifetime of increasing expertise.
We use the term generic tool to describe a software tool that is applicable over a wide range of different disciplines. The word processor and desktop-publishing tools discussed in the previous section are examples of generic tools. To make effective use of a generic tool, you need to know both the tool and the domain of application. You already have a reasonable level of expertise in many different domains. Thus, as you learn to use one of these generic tools, you will find that it is relatively easy to apply the tool to your areas of expertise.
There are many software tools that might be considered generic. The following list has been arranged in alphabetical order.
The common features of the tools in the generic tools list are that they are applicable over a wide range of different disciplines, and that they are designed so that an ordinary person can develop a useful level of skill in using each of the tools. Many of these tools are now incorporated into the curriculum of our K&endash;12 educational system. The definition of computer literacy that is gradually becoming commonplace is that it means a functional working knowledge of a number of the generic tools, at a level consistent with one's overall education. By functional, we mean both a knowledge of the mechanics of how to use the tools and considerable knowledge and skills in using the tools to solve problems and accomplish tasks.
Although a generic computer-based personal productivity tool can be used in many different disciplines, each tool is oriented towards representing and solving certain somewhat specific types of problems. For example, consider a database application package. It is specifically designed for the representation and solution of database problems. There is a great deal of knowledge about the representation and solution of database problems that is built into a database application package.
This is not to say that database problems cannot be represented using other application packages. For example, a database of information can be represented in a word processor or in a spreadsheet. However, neither a word processor nor a spreadsheet contains the full range of built-in aids to solving database problems.
There are many different generic tools. Part of the process of learning to make effective use of these tools is learning to classify problems according to the type of computer tools that may be most useful. This requires gaining some knowledge and experience with a wide range of these tools.
When learning a specific generic tool, there are two goals. First, there is the goal of learning to use the tool. Second, there is the goal of actually using the tool to represent and solve problems and accomplish tasks. Sometimes instruction in the use of a tool is completely or almost completely divorced from actually using the tool to solve problems. With the generic computer tools, this is a mistake.
Each generic tool requires time and effort to learn. However, each can be used at a rudimentary level with only a modest amount of training. Thus, with just a little training you can learn to use database, graphics, spreadsheet, and telecommunications software at a level that is useful to you. An appropriate approach to this learning is illustrated in the following diagram.
Figure 8.1 Continually changing our role as learner and user.
The general idea is that you cycle back and forth from being a learner (1) to being a user of your learning (2). A good teacher or a good coach can help you perceive that you need to learn more about a tool. They can do this by presenting you with tasks that are not easily accomplished with your current level of knowledge of the tool. Alternatively and/or in addition, personal reflectivity can be a driving force. You can detect when you don't have the knowledge and skills to efficiently accomplish the tasks that you want to accomplish.
You have probably heard the expression, "Don't saw with a dull saw." This refers to the idea of having inadequate knowledge and skills in using the tools needed to solve a problem or accomplish a task. As you learn to make use of generic tools, you are apt to frequently encounter the dull-saw phenomenon. For example, this may be a situation in which you find yourself doing repetitious and tedious tasks--doing things that you feel the machine ought to be able to do for you. However, you have not learned enough to have the machine do more of the work. That is the time to sharpen your saw!
In traditional high-school geometry, students learn to use a compass, protractor, and straight edge to do a number of different geometric constructions. The domain of geometry and the use of these tools are interwoven. There is a 2,000-year-old history of linking plane geometry to these compass, protractor, and straight edge tools. For many centuries, the tools of geometry have been used in architectural and engineering drawing, and in other situations where precise drawing is necessary.
Now, computer tools have been developed that are far more powerful and versatile than the compass, protractor, and straight edge. Computer-assisted design (CAD) has become a common tool of the draftsperson and the engineer. The drawings done using CAD tools can be interfaced with computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM) software and machine tools. The combination of CAD/CAM has led to major changes in the design and manufacturing of products.
This raises a very important question. What should students be learning in school? If a domain (such as plane geometry) is highly dependent on a certain set of tools (compass, protractor, and straight edge), what should happen when better tools are developed? This question is similar to the question about using a calculator rather than learning to do pencil-and-paper arithmetic.
This type of question does not have a simple answer. Computer tools are expensive and not available to everybody. Part of the purpose of a plane geometry course is historical and cultural. However, our education system is gradually coming to grips with the use of four-function calculators, graphing calculators, generic software, and special-purpose software in the math curriculum. Geometry, and the entire math curriculum, will gradually be changed as these tools are more thoroughly integrated into the curriculum.
The generic computer tools are applicable across many different domains. A number of domains have developed software tools that are highly specific to the needs of professionals in these domains. For example, accountants are faced with the task of auditing the accounting work that others have done. Software designed to assist in this auditing process is specific to the needs of accountants.
The domain of computer chip design also requires specialized software. Some of today's large-scale integrated chips contain millions of individual transistors and other components. Both the design and the manufacture of such chips are highly dependent on software written for that particular purpose.
Another example is provided in the domain of music. A variety of computer tools contain some built-in music capabilities. However, these are highly limited relative to the computer music tools that have been developed for use by professionals in this domain. Computer-based music synthesizers have become an everyday tool of many music composers and performers.
Still other examples can be found in each domain in which the computer has been developed as a powerful aid to personal productivity. In many cases, such as in accounting, the design of computer chips, and many areas of science, the computer tool and the domain are becoming inextricably interwoven. Students no longer study the domain without simultaneously studying the use of the computer tool as an aid to solving the problems of the domain.
[[At the secondary school level, CAD/CAM has substantially changed the Mechanical Drawing curriculum. The word processor, spreadsheet, and database have substantially changed the Business curriculum.]]
Historically, each computer tool has tended to focus on the problems of a narrow domain. For example, the initial word processors did not include a spell checker, a choice of type faces, or a choice of type sizes. In essence, the initial word processors were merely typewriters with memory. This is--only a small part of the domain of effective written communication.
Gradually this changed. Developers of word-processing software have explored the question of what tools are useful to a writer trying to produce an effective written communication, and how to build these tools into a word processor. This has led to the inclusion of tools such as a spell checker and a thesaurus. It has also led to the inclusion of tools to graph data, produce graphics, and incorporate a variety of type faces.
Even this expansion of the features of a word processor has not been adequate to fully meet the needs of a writer. A writer may well need to work with accounting data; thus, the writer may want to use a spreadsheet and incorporate it into a report. A writer may need to work with extensive databases and incorporate a database report into a document. A writer may want to telecommunicate a document and/or incorporate information obtained through use of telecommunication facilities. A writer may want to make an oral presentation, drawing on parts of a written document.
These diverse needs for aiding effective written communication initially led to the development of integrated software packages. A single software package, such as ClarisWorks or Microsoft Works, contains a number of generic tools, all designed to work together. ClarisWorks and Microsoft Works are each available for both IBM-compatible and Macintosh computers. The typical integrated package, such as the two just mentioned, includes a word processor, database, spreadsheet, graphics, and telecommunications. Such integrated packages have proven very popular in small businesses and in education.
Recent years have seen the development of a competitor for integrated packages. A suite is a collection of individual tools that are designed to function well in an integrated fashion. A company that produces a word processor, spreadsheet, and database may design all of these to interact seamlessly and easily with each other. From the user's point of view, the suite of software performs just as if it were an integrated package. But, each component is very powerful--a professional-level tool.
It is evident that the trend toward the development of suites of software tools will continue. Eventually, one can expect that the full range of software products from a company will interact in a seamless fashion, just as if they were one single tool. But the tool will be very complex. The various components of the tool will be continually changing. The components will undergo continual improvement, and new components will be added. Needless to say, this presents an interesting challenge to the humans who need to use the suite of tools.
[[Example: Microsoft Office.]]
A hypermedia document can contain text, sound, graphics, color, and video. These various media can be combined in a nonlinear fashion to represent and help communicate a message. Also, most hypermedia software packages contain some sort of built-in computer programming language. (Computer programming is discussed in the next chapter.)
Typically, a hypermedia document is designed to be "read" using a computer. The user interacts with the document. The document is nonlinear and different readers of the document are apt to pursue different paths as they use the document. Thus, hypermedia is a new type of communication medium. While a hypermedia document can be printed on paper or viewed as a videotape, this loses the interactivity and nonlinearity that make hypermedia unique.
It is not easy to learn to communicate effectively in a hypermedia environment. First, there is the difficulty of learning to make effective use of the various media. Think about your current level of writing skills and how long it has taken you to achieve your current level of expertise. Then think about each of the other media that are combined in a hypermedia environment. Are you a skilled graphic artist? How are your video-production and editing skills? Do you know how to make effective use of color and sound in a computer document?
Finally, think about learning to develop messages that are designed to be read in an interactive, nonlinear fashion. These are different from the linear written documents and video that we have grown up with. It should be evident that it is a major challenge to develop a high level of expertise in creating hypermedia documents.
It seems clear that hypermedia is part of the communications wave of the future. Many schools are now working toward having all of their students become hypermedia literate, even at the elementary-school level.
[[This, of course, presents a major challenge to teachers. Some teachers have achieved a high level of hypermedia expertise. Most teachers, however, do not feel competent to help students learn hypermedia and/or to to facilitate student use of such tools (for example, to grade homework assignments done in hypermedia).]]