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Recently, I ran across an article on Hacker News (do you read Hacker News?) from a Japanese news site: A New Digital Divide: Young People Who Can’t Use Keyboards. Apparently, a growing number of Japanese students never learned to type of a physical keyboard, having only been exposed to small virtual keyboards on their smartphones.

"As smartphones have become extremely convenient, a growing number of students have never laid their hands on a personal computer.”

Makes sense. We know that the smartphone generation has little use for e-mail. That mobile has taken over social media. That apps have replaced the browser.

A laptop seems like such an essential educational tool that I’ve always thought it would persist in higher ed, even as everything else went mobile. Let gaming and communication and social media and shopping and music and video and shopping and photos go mobile - but education would always need the laptop.

The reason that the computer will persist in higher education, I thought, is the keyboard.

College is - or at least should be - much about writing. Writing is embedded, entangled, and infused into every part of the curriculum.

The centrality of writing is even more apparent in online than in residential education. Online courses live and die in discussion boards and other asynchronous channels of communication.

But what happens to this “computers will live in higher ed because of the keyboard” theory when incoming students come to campus without ever having used computer? What happens when they never had to learn to type on a physical keyboard, because they have never needed to use a physical keyboard?

Maybe we can imagine a college education mediated by a smartphone. But this is not a happy thought. Critical thinking and writing are inseparable. Smartphones don’t have the real estate to develop thought. A graduate who does not write using a physical keyboard, who only communicates in the modes enabled by the smartphone, cannot be said to be an educated person.

The Japanese newspaper article does not tell us how prevalent this keyboarding disfluency is among Japanese college students. Maybe this is not really a big deal. Or maybe this is one of those weak signals that we should be paying attention. I don’t know.

What have you observed of the keyboarding skills among recent cohorts of students?

Have you witnessed the ability of students to type eroding in the face of the smartphone tsunami, and the triumph of the app over the browser?

Is typing a class that we need to bring back to higher ed?  (If it ever existed as a class, I don’t know).

Will computers with physical keyboard every disappear from campus?

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