Spelling is basic, engine skills aren't. Where does tech fall on that list?

By Bill Buchanan

I can't decide if this is just an example of friends helping each other out, or a refusal to learn basic skills now that most of us write with computers. Either way, it raises an interesting question. So I'll put it out here for others to chew over.

Fernando  Socorro Fernando Socorro

In November I was talking to Fernando Socorro, the energetic soon-to-be-PhD in Cultural Studies who has signed on as the campus's newest faculty tech trainer. He has TA'd or taught about 15 classes, here on campus and in San Francisco.

As an instructor, sometimes he comes up against the "a friend will do it" attitude.

Here's a sample. He gets a paper in Microsoft Word from a student. Only the paper isn't formatted correctly; it uses tabs, or maybe multiple hits on the space bar, instead of indents to situate copy on the page. When Socorro challenges the student to get it right--part of the drill, after all, is using the right format--the student shrugs and tells Socorro, "I don't need to know how to do that. A friend does it for me."

So here's the question: how much do we need to know about the technological tools we use? If I can't apply basic formats in widely used Word, is that feeble, like not knowing how to spell--"I don't need to spell, 'cause a spell checker does that for me"--or is it more like driving, where it's totally acceptable that I find someone else to tune my car?

Where's the line?

With advanced computing technology making further inroads into just about everything, wherever the line falls, it's moving.

I don't think a universally correct response exists, but Socorro has interesting answers, and it's now his job to teach technological skills to people at UC Davis. So we talked about it.

Socorro has no doubt about Word. He expects his students who use that software to know how to format a paper with it. (He's also precise about writing, and says he has even stopped using contractions in all but his most casual email, to make his writing match academic style. The details matter to him.)

It's essential to know how to use common tools, he said, and for students and professionals, ordinary word-processing software is essential. That's because writing is hard enough already. When you're writing, you don't want to fuss with the word-processing software any more than you want to fumble with your turn signal when changing lanes on the freeway.

"If you are already thinking about what you have to write," Socorro said, "mulling over how you are going to format it and write it properly just makes everything more complex."

Well, then maybe that means the student who asks a friend to format the paper is OK. The student focuses on the writing, and delegates the formatting. Isn't that just sharing skills?

No way, Socorro said.

"The sharing of skills is different from the apathetic laziness that simply depends on others to do stuff for you," he said.

So when is tech knowledge optional? That depends on the individual and context. Socorro said the latest social networking tools, for example, might not be optional for younger students. The tools can help those students "build community and reinforce and discover who they are," he said. "Such venues can be instructive and uplifting, even comforting."

"Of course, they can be a cool waste of time, and also dangerous."

But for young users who can properly express themselves through writing, he said, social networking tools can help them "present a powerful image of who they are as people, as possible future fully empowered citizens."

"Actually, I do not think there is much knowledge out ther e that I would consider optional," Socorro said. "There needs to be a balanced use of much of the information--a balance fomented by familiarity with the tools. And it all depends on the context."

When we talked in early November, Socorro hadn't begun teaching his tech seminars for Information and Educational Technology. He had just started his job, and was working part-time so he could finish teaching classes and wrap up his doctorate. He was talking to different groups about what they want from the training.

It'll probably include translating the jargon. It usually does.

"I'm a tech geek. I love all this stuff," he said. "And I know a lot of people aren't that interested."

Socorro, 53, was born in Cuba, grew up in Florida, moved to San Francisco in 1994, got a bachelor's degree in Social Science Interdisciplinary Studies from San Francisco State University in 1999, then came here to get his PhD. At UC Davis he has taught two courses: one on race and ethnicity, one on cultural representations of women.

He's expansive and thoughtful. I expect his tech classes will be pretty useful. And if you're supposed to know Word, and don't? Don't expect him to tell you it's OK. He really wants you to know what you need to know.

Bill Buchanan, a senior writer and editor in the Information and Events area of Information and Educational Technology, writes this column for each issue of the IT Times. Write him at wrbuchanan@ucdavis.edu.