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Keyboarding and QWERTY for students

QWERTY keyboard with Surface Pro
QWERTY keyboard with Surface Pro
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A popular website featured a story on March 31, 2014; QWERTY Must Die: Welcome to the Future of Typing. With the rapid rise of mobile devices, namely phones, perhaps QWERTY input is cumbersome and begs for a different input solution. For all other devices, including tablets, there is no more efficient way to input text than the traditional keyboard. Should anyone read this article and take it to an illogical extreme, the death of the QWERTY keyboard is far away. To quote Mark Twain, the rumors of [QWERTY] death have been greatly exaggerated.

In education, the use of PCs, laptops, and tablets are the devices of the day. One could argue for tablets vs. laptops, depending on the learning needs. But the overarching need for keyboard input is undiminished no matter the device type. Some would suggest that keyboards on tablets are not necessary because of touch screens, but that is a misconception. The ability to create content requiring significant amounts of text requires a physical keyboard. Typing on an LCD keyboard is simply a slower and more cumbersome experience, even with the swiping keyboards. The text input speed of touch typing far surpasses any other option available today. For limited amounts of text input, the LCD and swiping keyboards work just fine, but the usefulness quickly diminishes as the workload increases.

Schools are finding out that tablets are often limiting without a keyboard attachment. Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District discovered after rolling out a significant number of iPads, keyboards were required to use the intended software. That should not have been a surprise, but indeed was. It is becoming a common misconception that touch replaces the need for touch typing input. Different tasks and software require different methods of input.

The need for keyboarding extends beyond just the obvious for word processing. However, word processing, or more aptly stated, writing papers, surely requires the use of a keyboard. At primary levels of education, touch screens might be sufficient to match the curriculum needs, but as students’ progress to secondary levels and into higher education, the keyboard is a required tool, and touch typing a necessary skill.

One of the most interesting things in education is that students are put in front of computers at a very early age, yet the skills to efficiently create content are often ignored. Yes, this means touch typing skills. Schools are challenged by only so much time for instruction, but it is short sighted to ignore touch typing instruction. Touch typing skills extend far beyond just the efficiency. There is a significant correlation between writing quality and touch typing speeds. Writing quality generally improves when writing with a word processor, but only when typing speed exceeds handwriting speed. Students that touch type faster are more likely to edit and create more revisions. Writing and content creation is an iterative process, and the efficiency of input is an important tenet. The average hand writing speed differs among age groups, but 12-15 words per minute is about the range at secondary levels of education and above.

When schools require students the use word processors, it is curious why there is so little focus on developing a skill that will have lasting educational benefits throughout a student’s academic life. The misconception that typing is not a very important skill, or not necessary, impedes the educational value of computing. Schools need to require touch typing skills from the initial implementation of computer technology. One might be interested to know that a study in 1932 (Wood and Freeman) demonstrated that 2nd grade students were able to type as fast as 70 words per minute, on manual typewriters! The myth that one can type well enough using the two-finger hunt and peck method is problematic and unnecessarily limiting. It is perfectly reasonable to expect students to achieve typing speeds of at least 30 wpm. That doubles handwriting speed, and likely will result in better quality writing and increased academic performance.

Why so many schools continue to make touch typing optional is not a mystery. The lack of qualified teachers is one, but software can easily ameliorate any knowledge deficit. There are scores are excellent software programs to teach touch typing.

It comes down to the understanding of the value of the skill. Learning achievement is correlated to typing/keyboarding skill. Let’s not get caught up in the mobile hype and make an illogical assumption that QWERTY is dead. It’s more alive than ever before.

Not only will QWERTY live on, but the computer is not going the way of the dodo, as the March 31 article suggested. The author unilaterally declared that “…traditional PCs are increasingly going the way of the dodo—and so are the keyboards that control them.” This is terribly short sighted and hyperbole. While mobile devices continue to evolve, it is not axiomatic that PCs dissipate completely in favor of mobile devices. For some mobile devices such as the tablet, the keyboard remains an important productivity tool.

There is a place and use for every type of device, and it is not a zero sum game. Keyboards and QWERTY will remain a primary method of input for many devices used in education, including tablets.