It started with sounds of discouragement floating down the hall from the desk where my son was in his online classroom. He was wrestling with the iPad as he typed in his writing assignment letter by letter. It was excruciating and slow as he searched for the letters on the QWERTY keyboard displayed on the flat surface of the tablet. When he tapped the SUBMIT button, the assignment disappeared. With frustration–and resignation–he began typing again. After all, it was only two or three sentences that were required, but for the inexperienced hands of an eight-year-old child, the task seemed insurmountable. And yet he did it. Again. Only to hit the SUBMIT button once again and once again the assignment vanished. POOF! Into thin air.

What followed were the unmitigated tears of a child who had done everything in his power to do what was asked of him only to be met by the indifference and passive derision from a piece of hardware. I felt awful for him. My heart broke. My child, undone by a dumb object. Any intelligence, artificial or otherwise, seemed to be absent from the tablet that sat, inert and offending, on my son’s desk.

Wasn’t it hard enough having to stay home every day and sit in front of a screen for upwards of six hours? Having to use a keyboard to type in assignments that would normally be written by hand was like adding insult to injury.

I came to my son’s aid, wiping away the tears and consoling him, offering to type his words as he dictated them to me. We managed to complete the assignment and outsmart the dumb tablet, submitting it successfully for the third and final time.

It didn’t stop me from thinking about how unrealistic it was to expect an eight-year-old to master keyboarding while also learning about reading, writing, math, history and science. I even googled “is writing or typing better for children?”

The results suggested the act of writing helps with retaining information–remembering. I know this because oftentimes I will scribble down my grocery list and promptly forget it at home, but I remember that I have to buy a tin of diced tomatoes and a dozen eggs. The thought doesn’t even occur to me to type up a list on my mobile phone.

I cast back into my own education and remembered taking a keyboarding class in grade 11. Of all the high school business courses being offered, I thought “typing” as it was then called, would be the most useful and so it has turned out to be.

I clearly remember sitting at the electric typewriter, repetitively tapping the keys: aaa, sss, ddd, eee, fff. And then ;;;, lll, kkk, jjj until my fingers began to cramp. Tests involved having an orange plastic cover placed over the desk so I could not see my hands on the keys, while typing in the letters, numbers and symbols that appeared on the overhead projector.

That keyboarding class has served me well ever since. My fingers fly across the keys of my laptop, keeping up with my every thought, correcting my words if I wish to go back and edit them. I have transcribed countless conversations for stories, articles, documents and more.

I can’t imagine doing my job without the ability to type the words I am thinking. Then I imagine my son and how he is expected to type the words he is thinking. Only, he’s still learning how to read and spell. How on earth is he expected to be proficient with a keyboard?

I believe this was both an unintended consequence and gross oversight of online learning during the global pandemic. There have been many skills educators, students and parents have had to learn in short order out of necessity. I don’t believe typing made the list.

Even my husband, who works in technology, admits he is a terrible typist and dreads writing up his documents for this very reason.

I have come up with some workarounds for my son, like using the dictation feature, but many of the apps he uses disables this function.

The best solution has been putting pencil to paper for written assignments, snapping a photo and uploading it. Holding that tangible piece of paper and seeing the lead take shape of letters, words and stories has given my son the self confidence to persevere. Having something to show for his efforts is unmatched by the tablet on his desk.  I know he will be expected to hand in more assignments that require him to search for the right letters on the keyboard, and I know he will struggle with it again. One day I hope he decides to take a keyboarding class so that finding the letters on the keys is second nature. Until then, there is a fresh stack of lined paper and sharpened pencils on his desk so that he can focus on the words he wants to write and not the keys his little fingers continue to search for.

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