Tuesday, June 7, 2005

The Trouble with Two-Finger Typists

I've been doing some more thinking about the obstacles Tablet users face when confronted with the pen. I touched on this idea in Training I - Do your users think in ink? In that post, I suggested that a lot of folks had difficulty learning a set of skills different from, yet similar to, skills they already had mastered. Like a skier learning to snowboard, they found it frustrating to change gears with the new skills.

While it may appear to be splitting hairs, I think there is another similar, but distinct, phenomenon at work here, too.

I recently met with a group of student Tablet users and discussed with them how they were using the Tablets. This was a group identified by various faculty members as "good users" of the technology. I was very surprised to find that most of them claimed to not use the pen very much at all, even when taking notes in class. By their own estimates, they used the keyboard far more often than they used the pen, though they used the pen as a mouse even when in keyboard mode.

I suspect there are many reasons for this:

  • Many programs are simply not readily usable with, let alone optimized for, the pen. They are keyboard-centric.
  • Document composition, a big part of school life, is definitely a keyboard activity.
  • With the Tablet in keyboard mode, the teacher can't see what they are actually doing, and most students spend a fair bit of time in IM even in class--if they can get away with it.

But aside from these reasons, I think there is something else going on.

When the students told me that they tended to use the keyboard even for notes in class, I asked how many of them were touch typists. Much to my surprise, none were. All used some variation of hunting and pecking, although they were practiced enough with this mode of working that there was more pecking than hunting.

As we discussed this, they acknowledged that they knew they could type faster by learning to type by "proper" methods. However, they weren't really much interested in doing so. They could type well enough to get by and weren't interested in trading what they already had to learn something that even they acknowledged is better. There was not enough motivation or perceived need to justify the hassle even with the expected gain in efficiency.

When I learned to type in high school, the method used was pretty stodgy, relying almost exclusively on drills to train my fingers where the keys were. It was drudgery of the highest order, especially for someone who has a hard time sitting still even when the subject is interesting. I had strong motivation to learn to type, though, so I suffered through it. (The fact that the teacher was a young, pretty, pleasant, charming woman helped, too. If I had had an old battleaxe of a drillmaster, I might not have stuck it out motivation or no.)

These days, there is Mavis Beacon and a legion of copycats that provide games and ease the pain of learning to type. (At least it appears so. Maybe not and that is why the students weren't interested.) The process of learning to type, front and center when I took my class, is now somewhat hidden behind the fa├žade of play.

I wonder how much this same phenomenon is at work in the students' reluctance to learn to use the pen efficiently. And I do think that for note-taking, it is generally a much more efficient tool than the keyboard. Even though an accomplished typist, my notes are more meaningful when I write as opposed to type them. I usually don't capture more words, but I can demonstrate relationships between concepts more easily, I can draw arrows and pictures and diagrams, I can emphasize something quickly with a pen. While I could do all this with the pen and the keyboard together, the efficiency is greatest with the pen alone. But one needs to be willing to climb that learning curve to get to that point.

When I think about this situation from a training perspective, a couple of things come to mind. First, maybe we need some sort of Mavis Beacon for the pen. Certainly when I first began training people to use Microsoft Windows 2.0 I relied heavily on Solitaire to help them get comfortable with the mouse. Play can be a strong motivator, though obviously from the students' comments, not necessarily strong enough by itself.

Second, it may be that one reason I find the pen more efficient for taking notes is that I do know how to take good notes. I don't think a lot of students do, as I've indicated before. An approach I hope to pursue is to do the training in note-taking skills--but have the students do it all with the pen. They will be learning pen skills and (I hope) developing pen habits but in context of note-taking skills. This has something of the Mavis Beacon approach to it as well, as this particular skill set is rather hidden in a larger context.

One last aside: I asked one of the students if I could look at his class notes to see what I could see in them. To my surprise, most of them actually were hand-written and not typed. He did have one set of notes that were typed and were beautifully organized. It turns out, though, these were copied verbatim from the instructor's notes on the board. I'm not sure what this means, or whether it means anything at all, but it was an interesting surprise.


  1. Well, I'd probably vote for the fastest way to learn 10 finger typing.

    While I sat through a semester learning touch typing, I'm glad I did. I'd vote now for a crash course with direct instruction and no distractions. But I know this isn't a voting deal.

    It would be interesting to run a little experiment, say direct instruction (stodgy, I think you said) vs. game based instruction.

    Let the students select which group they want to join. Given the chances of individual differences among your students, there's no pedagogical reason to randomly assign them to instruction groups.

    Better yet, also ask them to declare how proficient they want to become, say in a week. Use that declaration as the dependent variable of the experiment.

    This could be interesting!

  2. Have you considered the Tablet PC PowerToys? The bottom two are neat ways to train users to better utilize the pen. There are some neat things in there like the music composition toy and the font making toy as well.

  3. Personally, I agree that the fastest way to learn something is the best way. While I moaned about the "stodgy" classroom experience, the reality is that it wasn't terrible, parts were enjoyable, and I learned to type well and fast. And I learned to do so in a semester. I lose interest in games quickly and never found Mavis all that appealing.

    That said, I came from a generation that didn't grow up on entertainment (well, Gilligan's Island, Batman, etc., but not 24x7 like so many of our students seem to have had). I wonder if there is a difference or if that supposed difference between the generations is overblown.

    I like your idea of a comparison test. I wonder if I could pull something like that off over the summer, when most of our students live far away. I have found pizza to be a great motivator for students. Maybe some of our day students would do this in exchange for pizza and pop (or soda in the local vernacular).

  4. Mike,

    I like the PowerToys, and have high hopes for the crossword puzzle toy in this regard. I do find it a bit quirky, though less so than version 1. For learning pen control, Solitaire is still a great way to go, too.

  5. Hi Mark!

    This is probably interesting for you: The German hospital of Ingolstadt has recently finished a pilot project introducing TabletPCs for doctors to minimize efforts of data acquisition and transfer into computer systems. Although the case study from Microsoft sounds very positive (about 6000 work hours saved…) the reality is different. They have only 5 Tablets in use, because the doctors refuse to use the Tablets. Interesting is the reason. They do not like to write because when the write, they want their handwriting converted into typed letters and not leave them in ink. Because the conversion is very error prone, it takes longer than to take the notes on a sheet of paper and later convert the “manually” by retyping using a stationary PC. Most of the doctors claim to be able to type with 10-fingers, thus I think this is the same or at least a similar problem you observed with your students.