Jakob Nielsen wrote on his site that he believes that schools need to "teach deep, strategic computer insights that can't be learned from reading a manual." He gives this example:
I recently saw a textbook used to teach computers in the third grade. One of the chapters ("The Big Calculator") featured detailed instructions on how to format tables of numbers in Excel. All very good, except that the new Excel version features a complete user interface overhaul, in which the traditional command menus are replaced by a ribbon with a results-oriented UI.
Sadly, I had to tell the proud parents that their daughter's education would be obsolete before she graduated from the third grade.
The problem, of course, is in tying education too tightly to specific software applications. Even if Microsoft hadn't turned Excel inside out this year, they would surely have done so eventually. Updating instructional materials to teach Office 2007 isn't the answer, because there will surely be another UI change before today's third graders enter the workforce in 10 or 15 years -- and even more before they retire in 2065.
It is a tall order for educators. How do you make student truly literate in a skill and not just tech-savvy (a term I hate) in using a product? Teaching literacy is teaching deeper concepts that survive longer than specific applications. I hear parents say that their 6 year old can use their smartphone. Tech savvy kid. But with what real understanding?
What I am concerned with are life-long technology skills. That is more than just "computer skills" because our definition of what a computer is and will be is being changed as you read this post. Is my iPhone the only computer I will need one day? If you say that you will cling to your desktop or laptop computer, you have to consider that companies (including Apple) are already considering dropping those products from their product lines.
Nielsen offers these as general skills that he believes should be taught in elementary schools:
Search Strategies Information Credibility Information Overload Writing for Online Readers Computerized Presentation Skills Workspace Ergonomics Debugging User Testing and other Basic Usability Guidelines
If those sound outrageous for elementary school students, read Nielsen's post for more details. For example, when he says "Workspace Ergonomics" he means that kids need to be aware of the RSIs (repetitive
strain injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and "text-message thumb") that are hurting adults now, and teach young people about proper usage (frequent breaks, monitor placement, lighting etc.) and head off the headaches, backaches and RSI that will come from an entire life of tech use. Those kids will be the user interface designers of the future anyway, so start early!
But seriously, he is also suggesting that living in an interactive environment means that usability heuristics like "recognition vs. recall" or "consistency" will be concepts that an educated person will need.
Finally, Nielsen referenced a book that I checked out. The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market by Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane. The book looks at how people at work use tech and also at how researchers in cognitive science, computer science, and economics study how computers are enhancing productivity (as they also eliminate jobs).
The authors see a growing division between those who can and cannot earn a good living in the computerized economy, and see the challenge for educators to teach the new skills that will survive a changing technologized workplace. Three of those skills are ones that no educator should have a problem with including in a curriculum. The three are problem solving, understanding the relation between concepts, and interpersonal communication.