Typewriters understood digital education long before us

How did we manage? Power Point is actually difficult to learn. Still we ones did. We have even managed to integrate it into our working-process. Same thing with typewriters, classrooms … and next. Well, all these are a bit different. But, are they really? Here´s what we can learn by not focusing their big differences.

When the typewriter came once, some learned to write faster than others. The secretarial profession changed. Then the computer and the word processor arrived. The secretarial profession changed once again.

But when the computer arrived, and we started to write our own documents, we hardly started writing faster than the secretaries, rather slower.

A not totally unusual sight at an office around the 1930s.

Actually; why did we take on the computer and the word processor, things became, at least initially, significantly worse than how it was before?

With the index finger, it´s difficult to beat a person well-trained in typing.

Many people of today do not know fingering.

It’s fair to say that we took on the computer and word processors, and replaced the typewriter, so that we could achieve things that neither a typewriter, nor a secretary, could do.

This is a good example of productivity constraints. It’s not all about making things faster and cheaper.

Substituting the typewriter with a computer was simply neither about the speed nor cost.

Digital education is not a game about productivity.

The big difference when the computer and the word processor came was that people who didn’t write themselves before could start writing themselves. It changed the way they worked. They were now able to constantly amend the document, back and forth. Their thinker- and typing-process could be integrated into one and the same thing.

Old typewriters of today have high collector value. Could easily cost several hundred thousand USD.

The value of that type of change simply knocked out the value in the old view of creating documents.

We can also see it this way: that when we had typewriters, and you were to change a document, it could actually take an enormous amount of time, because more than one person would be involved. Sometimes you simply had to stand last in line and wait your turn to get help. Therefore you also skiped doing some of the possible changes. You put a cap on yourself.

We always take the working process as such into account when we work. It’s just a matter of whether we are aware of it ourselves or not.

The secretary controlled the typing-process.

Doing things all by ourself can change the way we work.

When I got my PhD in the 1990s, an older professor told me that in his day, in the early 1980s, a doctoral student had only “three attempts.” The dissertation was printed on a regular old typewriter, with the help of a secretary, and changing the text was both an expensive and slow process. Therefore, you were only allowed to ask for help writing it “finished” three times. In those days, doctoral students needed to think through much more carefully than they do today, before making a change.

Jan Guillou is one of the most successful Swedish book-authors. He is well known for still typing on an old fashioned type-writer.

In my country, there is a well-known author, pict, who still uses a physical old typewriter for this very reason. He claims it forces him to think better before writing. I’m sure he’s absolutely right about that.

What he probably hasn’t considered, however, is to start writing his books in a completely different way than before. He certainly hasn’t considered that then, perhaps, at least after some time, he might start writing even better books than he already does.

Alternatively, actually more likely; he is aware of all this but knows how difficult it can be to relearn something fundamentally, not the least if it is about ways of working that you have become accustomed to over several decades. Maybe he just doesn’t want to learn new things. And as long as he continues to be successful with his “old way” of working, it will be difficult to get him to rethink.

The teaching of the old form can of course continue to be successful in a digital education world … as long as it is just successful.

But that does not prevent new technologies from gaining more and more ground.

The interesting thing about “digital teaching” is not that teaching is digitised and that it can now be done “faster and cheaper”. What is interesting is that we can now start doing things in an educational situation that we simply could not do before.

Who knows how far away from the old form of teaching this change can take us?

Power Point was released 1987, actually not developed by Microsoft – they bought it after just three months. Today it is claimed to be used by at least 500 million people.

It is no longer common for us, today, to enlist the help of someone else to make our own Power-Point images. It would be too slow, and expensive, simply. Not the least; quality would go down if we did.

Teachers of today have simply made the creation of their Power-Point images an integral part of their development process. We think, and do, while we think, and do. We even use the doing of our Power Point-slides as a way to “think education”. It has become one and the same thing.

The classroom, as such, is actually a technology that was developed almost several hundred years ago. It became a very successful “invention”. We were then able to gather larger groups than otherwise. The previous form of one-to-one teaching at home, home-schooling, could now be replaced with a cheaper technology.

But…we then also became able to start doing things within the framework of that technology, the classroom, which was genuinely difficult to do at home. For example, we could put expensive, physical maps in the classroom, geography, things that were otherwise too difficult, expensive and complicated, to drag around to all the homes. It changed education in geography.

When that happened, the classroom became something more than just a productivity-tool.

The classroom, in its day, ones became a successful invention in relation to the technology of the past. It even changed teaching as such.

Is that something we just have forgotten?

A classroom of today is a technology that has limitations that a computer does not need to have at all. We all already know it. One such is, for example, the limitation in time and space. We also cannot put as many people as we want in a classroom, but digitally we can. Only these “little productivity-things” create big changes.

We miss the whole point if we just see these tools as a way to cut down on cost and increase speed. They are far more than productivity-tools.

But the interesting thing about substituting a classroom with a computer is not when it is purely used in order to increase productivity. The interesting things arise when we start doing things we not even could do in the classroom.

-> How to make online-education gazillion times more social, interactive and live than off-line-education ever can be

It would be as strange today to fight for the preservation of the old physical classroom as it would be to fight, say, 20 years ago for the typewriter not to be replaced by the computer.

It would actually be as strange today to fight for the preservation and immutability of the teaching profession as it would be to fight, say, 20 years ago for the secretarial profession not to change.

Yet the history is not only full, but rather overcrowded, of resistance to the introducation of new technology.

In that sense, we really don’t live in a unique moment in time – it’s actually the total opposit.

Right now, not many people are fighting for the old overhead projector with its plastic films to be moved back to the classroom – it´s Power Point today. We already have that change behind us.

We have actually moved forward with the help of new, and better, technologies earlier in history.

Classrooms and meeting people in real life is very nice, can also be very useful for learning things, if done well. But digital education is actually about something else.

We should not forget that, as a new technology arrive, it is far from just a matter of continuing to do what we are already doing, only faster and cheaper.

Instead, it’s about achieving things we could not do before.

Share perhaps this post with a teacher, or a manager of a training-organization, that at this moment is struggling with Power Point.

Sometimes it can actually feel a bit lonely preparing for a Power Point-presentation.

2 thoughts on “Typewriters understood digital education long before us

  1. I enjoyed your fascinating and thoughtful article. Charles Zaner, a pillar in American Handwriting, once said in the early 1900s that he did not fear the typewriter but rather looked forward to the day it would be small enough to carry around in your pocket!

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