Saturday, July 25, 2009

Digital Naiveté

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a study from North Carolina Central University, which finds that college student's perception of their own skills with Microsoft Office falls short of their actual performance with the tool. 75% of students indicated they had a high proficiency with MS Word and most were able to complete the basic tasks, but they could complete only half the moderate task and none of the advanced tasks. Excel was worse. 69% of students indicate an average proficiency but the average student could only do two of the basic tasks and none of the moderate or advanced tasks. PowerPoint is the one tool where they seem to correctly assess their own capability.

So let me summarize for my business and IT brethren:
  • don't get rid of your help desk yet
  • don't get rid of your Intro to Word and Excel online training classes yet
  • don't be surprised if you continue to see documents where the space bar is the primary tool for indentation
  • get ready for more inane PowerPoint presentations (when all you got is a hammer ....)
I'll leave the rigorous peer review to someone with a little more time on their hand, but the numbers sure sound consistent with what I hear from technology teachers on the school advisory boards where I serve. They say that a large percentage of students in high school simply don't have the basic computer and software skills (computer literacy) they need in the work place. Oh, don't worry, they can text and download music no problem. It's things like adding a network printer or changing page orientation to landscape that confuse them.

This is not, however, a rant against those students. I don't expect them to know what they need to know with any great accuracy at this point in their lives. I certainly did not when I was 17, 18, and 19. This is really a rant against parents, administrators and teachers who give these students a free pass simply because they're digital natives - a term I despise. The teachers I talk to say that students are not interested in taking those classes and that their parents fully support that because they use the computer all the time. Add to that the test-crazy education system we have established and if it ain't on test, why bother studying it.

So this is the point in the rant where I suggest how we interject computer literacy into the basic school curriculum, right? Not going to happen this time. I went to school at a time when paper and pencil were the only things available and to college when the electric typewriter was cutting edge. Somehow I figured out how to do justification, hanging indents and table inserts without the help of the Edmonds School District. I'm sure that today's students can do the same.

I would, however, suggest that businesses start adding a basic computer literacy test as a requirement for all positions that require computer work (which is most these days). We spend way too much money on basic computer and software skills and there is no reason that should be required with the coming generation (they are digital natives, after all). Colleges and Universities might want to add it to their admissions requirements for the same reason. If students and their parents are really concerned they can look at programs like the SAM Challenge or ICDL.

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

All Access Pass

Several weeks ago there was some back and forward between data management (DM) types on Twitter about a vendor who was using Microsoft Access as a back-end database for a demo of their software product. The question was whether to take the vendor serious if they are using Access. For any number of reasons I won't discuss here, most IT professionals don't consider Access on par with "real" database management systems. Without wading into that discussion, educators preparing students for DM roles should be aware of the perception and select the appropriate tools for the class.

  • But wait, there's more. Access is a database management system (dbms), but it is also an application development environment and an ad hoc reporting tool. If you are teaching Access as a software application then you should be giving your students a complete overview of all the capabilities. If, however, it is your intention to teach database design, SQL, etc you had better not have a lesson plan on the Forms builder tool. A DM professional will immediately discount a database class that spends a week making and formatting pie charts in Access. They will also discount the students in that class.
  • Talk the talk. At it's core, Access is an end-user dbms geared toward non-professionals. As a result, you will come across "end-user friendly" terms for things that have industry accepted names. Don't use the friendly terms and don't let your students use them either. Not knowing the right terminology just confuses the conversation and lowers the student's credibility.
  • Walk the walk. As with terminology, an end-user dbms will deploy tools that make some tasks easier by either hiding or eliminating complexity. Do your students a big favor and make them get their hands dirty with the complexity. Take the example of creating a table. Access offers a nice interface to quickly type names and select data types (it's in SQL Server too), but I would suggest the students review the equivalent data definition language (DDL) and it wouldn't hurt them to code the DDL from scratch. Same goes for creating queries. It's a real a joy to do a seven table join in a graphical, drag-and-drop tool, but the student is much better off learning to write the SQL now and moving to the graphical tool later.
Which brings us back to the perception issue. For an introductory course or for students who aren't specializing in data, Access is an acceptable starting point. For those students who want to focus on data, however, you would be doing them a great disservice by limiting their experience to Access. You should put a significant portion of their work on SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL or any of a number of enterprise-class dbms tools.

Now if you are having some issues creating and managing that type of environment at your school I'd suggest a conversation with the folks at your nearest DAMA chapter.