Home Page of Problem Solving Book

Introduction to the Book

Chapter 1: Introduction to Problem Solving

Chapter 2: Overview of Resources in Problem Solving

Chapter 3: Intelligence as Resource

Chapter 4: Tools as Resource

Chapter 5: Accumulated Knowledge as Resource

Chapter 6: Education and Training as Resource

Chapter 7: A Computer System

Chapter 8

Process Writing

Generic Computer Productivity Tools

Goals in Learning Generic Tools

Tools Can Change a Domain

Special-Purpose Computer Tools

Integrated Packages and Suites

Computer Tools Can Create a New Domain

Activities and Self-Assessment

Chapter 9: Computer Programming

Chapter 10: Final Remarks

References and Resources

Search Engine in Lieu of Index

Chapter 8: Personal Productivity Tools

Reading, writing, arithmetic, speaking, and listening are all considered basic skills. These skills are useful over a wide range of problems that people encounter. Now use of computer-based personal productivity tools is emerging as a new standard in education.

Many of the productivity tools are generic--that is, they are useful over many different domains. Examples include a word processor, database, and graphics. Others are highly specialized. Software for writing and publishing music falls into this category. This chapter focuses mainly on generic computer productivity tools.

Process Writing

Many of the fundamental ideas regarding personal productivity tools can be illustrated using a word processor. It is likely that you have used a word processor; thus, a number of the ideas given here will be familiar to you.

To begin, you know that there is a considerable difference between being able to use a writing tool--be it pencil and paper or a word processor--and being able to write [[effectively]]. The tool, by itself, does not make you into a writer.

Writing is a process designed to produce a document that communicates a message. Typically, the production of a written product goes through several steps that, collectively, are known as process writing.

  1. Conception of ideas and development of these ideas. This may involve brainstorming, doodling, making brief notes, and a lot of thinking.
  2. Development of an initial draft. This involves getting the conceptualized ideas into words.
  3. Obtaining and making use of feedback. Feedback from oneself and others is used to produce revised versions of the initial draft. Often this involves repeated cycling back to step 1 and/or 2.
  4. Polishing the final draft for publication. This includes final cleanup on spelling and grammar. Nowadays, it often includes formatting the materials in a professional manner using desktop publishing techniques.

Computers can play an important role in each of these four steps of process writing. While the first step may be primarily mental, there are a variety of pieces of software designed to aid in jotting down ideas and organizing these ideas. [[See specifically, software designed to aid in cognitive mapping or concept mapping.]] In addition, most modern word processors include an outliner. This makes it easy to get rough draft ideas into the machine and to reorganize them as needed.

People who have learned touch keyboarding can keyboard far faster than they can handwrite. Many people compose at the keyboard. This is particularly useful in process writing because the computer is such a useful aid for revision. It is often argued that the main value of a word processor in process writing is that it is an effective revision tool. Many writing instructors feel that the key to high quality writing is "revise, revise, revise."

Revision is an important idea in problem solving as well. There are many problem-solving situations in which one can develop a proposed solution and then get feedback from oneself and others on the quality of the proposed solution. The feedback is then used in doing revisions to the proposed solution. The feedback and revision cycle continues until a satisfactory solution is obtained.

[[There is a strong parallel between process writing and Project-Based Learning. The type of problem-solving activities that go in while doing PBL lend themselves to the "revise, revise, revise" approach.]]

Desktop publishing has become a major industry. All word-processing software contains provisions for producing a final document that is nicely laid out. Professional-level desktop-publishing software contains a wide range of aids to produce professional-looking final products. Such documents often make use of graphics and color. They may be laid out in columns, make use of a range of type styles and sizes, and be designed to help convey their messages.

A person can learn to keyboard in a hunt-and-peck mode with just a minute or so of instruction. Young children can learn such keyboarding more easily than they can learn to form letters using pencil and paper. Similarly, it takes only a few minutes of instruction to learn how to use a word processor in a hunt-and-peck mode. However, this low level of word-processor use is only a modest aid to productivity in writing. It is too slow and it does not take advantage of the powerful writing aids that are built into a modern word processor.

You need four things for a word processor to be a useful personal process writing aid:

  1. Keyboarding skills. You need not be a touch typist, even though it is helpful. Many professional writers are not touch typists. They look at the keyboard and they use only a couple of fingers from each hand as they keyboard. However, they know where the keys are and they have considerable speed. The skills that they have developed are adequate to fit their needs.

    To learn to make appropriate use of all fingers on both hands and to develop speeds in the 20-to-30-words-per-minute range takes a considerable period of instruction and practice. For many people, it takes about 8 to 10 weeks, spending about an hour a day. A speed in the 20-to-30-words-per-minute range is a good indicator that the learning is embedded in one's procedural memory. This skill is not lost if one does no keyboarding over an extended period of time, such as a long summer vacation.

    Most people can learn to keyboard at a speed that is two to three times their handwriting speed. In addition, most people find that their keyboarding results are far more legible than their handwriting.

  2. Word-processing skills. For example, how do you do a cut and paste? How do you do a search and replace? How do you use a spell checker and a thesaurus? How do you create tables, alphabetize a list, or automate the production of an index and table of contents? The manual for a modern word processor may be many hundreds of pages in length.
  3. Word processor-assisted writing skills. In essence, paper and pencil provide a linear writing environment where it is difficult to correct errors and even more difficult to make significant overall revisions to a document. Interchanging the order of two paragraphs requires recopying an entire page or more. The word-processing environment is different. It takes a lot of training and experience to unlearn some of the linear and restrictive writing habits that are required when working with pencil and paper, and to learn to take advantage of the power of a word processor.
  4. Desktop publication knowledge and skills. Before the development of desktop publication, many people made a living in the design, layout, and typesetting of print materials. Both design and typesetting were skilled professions. Now, desktop publication tools have made the writer more and more responsible for design and "typesetting."

In summary, it takes a lot of education and training to learn to make effective use of a word processor. Most people find that the investment in time and effort is well worth it. Part of this education and training can occur as one is making use of the word-processor tool to accomplish tasks at work and in one's studies. There is certainly no need to fully master a word processor before beginning to use one as an aid to personal productivity. There is no need to fully master the design of effective written communications before beginning to use design techniques.

[[This would be a good place to revisit the topic "expertise." The expertise scale for word processing and desktop publishing is rather "long." That is, it takes a lot time, effort, and talent to move from being an absolute novice to having a high level of expertise in this area. However, most people can gain a functional level of expertise with a medium amount of time and effort.]]

At the same time, it is easy to see that there is a wide range of levels of expertise in using a word processor. The person who learns on the job--and who continues to learn as a lifelong activity--will continue to grow in expertise.

There are many other productivity tools that are useful over a wide range of domains. Each shares many characteristics with the word processor. Each can be learned at a modest level with minimum effort and each is open ended--that is, each provides the possibility of a lifetime of increasing expertise.

Generic Computer Productivity Tools

We use the term generic tool to describe a software tool that is applicable over a wide range of different disciplines. The word processor and desktop-publishing tools discussed in the previous section are examples of generic tools. To make effective use of a generic tool, you need to know both the tool and the domain of application. You already have a reasonable level of expertise in many different domains. Thus, as you learn to use one of these generic tools, you will find that it is relatively easy to apply the tool to your areas of expertise.

There are many software tools that might be considered generic. The following list has been arranged in alphabetical order.

  • Computer-assisted design (CAD). Notice how this computer application relates to spatial intelligence in the Howard Gardner list of multiple intelligences. CAD software is used to do architectural and engineering drawings of products that are to be constructed. A CAD system can be used in the design of all sorts of products. Such software is used in place of the ruler, compass, protractor, and other tools formerly used by the draftsperson.
  • Database. A database is an organized collection of information, often specific to one particular topic. A telephone book is a database of names, addresses, and telephone numbers. A computerized database is much easier to edit (add entries, make corrections, delete entries) than a printed database. A computerized database is designed to make it easy to locate needed information. It is also designed to make it easy to sort information into a desired format or to prepare reports based on parts of the information. For example, a customer database could be used to produce a report on all customers located in Ohio or Pennsylvania who spent more than $100 during the past three months.
  • Desktop presentation (to accompany oral presentations). The overhead projector, filmstrip projector, movie projector, [[slide projector,]] tape recorder, and video projector have gradually merged into a computer-based system. Material to be presented is stored on computer disk in digital form and edited using the computer. The presenter then uses the desktop-presentation system interactively when making the oral presentation.
  • Desktop publication. A computer system is used to store, edit, design, and lay out the materials that are to be published in printed form. Output may be to a printer, to film used to make plates to go on a printing press, or directly to a printing press.
  • Graphics (paint and draw programs). Notice how this computer application relates to spatial intelligence in the Howard Gardner list of multiple intelligences. A paint program has some of the characteristics of a set of painting tools, while a draw program has some of the characteristics of a set of drawing tools. Taken together, these tools can be used to accomplish a wide range of graphic artist tasks. Moreover, photographs can be digitized and then edited using computer graphics capabilities. Similarly, individual frames of video material can be edited using computer graphics facilities. The graphics that are produced can be used in a word-processing document, in desktop presentation, or in other types of computer applications.
  • Graphing (for graphing data and functions). Numerical data is easily converted to a wide range of different types of graphs, such as bar graph, line graph, pie chart, and so on. Mathematical functions can be represented graphically. For example, a three-dimensional mathematical surface can be represented on the computer screen and then rotated to allow viewing from different perspectives.
  • Groupware. Notice how this computer application relates to interpersonal intelligence in the Howard Gardner list of multiple intelligences. This software combines telecommunications with personal productivity tools. It is designed to facilitate a group of people from different locations in working jointly, both simultaneously and individually, on a computer-based project. Increasingly, groupware will include provisions for the users to talk to each other and see each other as they work together.
  • Hypermedia. A hypermedia document is designed to be used [["read"]] interactively by a computer user. It may combine text, sound, graphics, color, and video in a nonlinear fashion. The nonlinearity and interactivity mean that "reading" a hypermedia document requires the use of a computer. Increasingly, our educational system is working to have students become "reading and writing" hypermedia literate.
  • Math systems. Notice how this computer application relates to logical-mathematical intelligence in the Howard Gardner list of multiple intelligences. There are a number of comprehensive software packages that can solve a huge range of math problems. Such software can solve the types of problems that students struggle over in algebra, calculus, and other math courses. The use of such software in these courses leads to a drastic change in the nature of the courses. And, of course, it leads to a drastic change in the ability of students to actually solve the types of problems they are studying in the courses.
  • Spreadsheet. Notice how this computer application relates to logical-mathematical intelligence in the Howard Gardner list of multiple intelligences. A spreadsheet is designed to aid in doing bookkeeping, accounting, and modeling of business problems. It can also be used in other computational situations in which one works with a table of numbers and formulas. A key feature is that the computer system can automatically rework all of the computations represented in the table whenever you make a change to any of the numbers or formulas.
  • Telecommunications (for communication between people and databases) [[(for communication among people, information, and machines)]]. Notice how this computer application relates to interpersonal intelligence in the Howard Gardner list of multiple intelligences. Telecommunications is the electronic link between people, computers, and other machines. This may be via a local area network, perhaps just connecting people, computers, and machines that are all in one building. It may also be a worldwide connection, using local and long distance telephone lines, satellites, microwave systems, and fiber optics. Intelligent, digital connectivity is having a major impact on the societies and people of our planet.
  • Word processor. Notice how this computer application relates to linguistic intelligence in the Howard Gardner list of multiple intelligences. A word processor is software designed to aid in writing. A modern word processor contains a number of features, such as a spell checker, thesaurus, graphics, and graphing, that may be of use to a writer. There is no clear dividing line between a word processor and desktop-publishing software.

The common features of the tools in the generic tools list are that they are applicable over a wide range of different disciplines, and that they are designed so that an ordinary person can develop a useful level of skill in using each of the tools. Many of these tools are now incorporated into the curriculum of our K&endash;12 educational system. The definition of computer literacy that is gradually becoming commonplace is that it means a functional working knowledge of a number of the generic tools, at a level consistent with one's overall education. By functional, we mean both a knowledge of the mechanics of how to use the tools and considerable knowledge and skills in using the tools to solve problems and accomplish tasks.

Although a generic computer-based personal productivity tool can be used in many different disciplines, each tool is oriented towards representing and solving certain somewhat specific types of problems. For example, consider a database application package. It is specifically designed for the representation and solution of database problems. There is a great deal of knowledge about the representation and solution of database problems that is built into a database application package.

This is not to say that database problems cannot be represented using other application packages. For example, a database of information can be represented in a word processor or in a spreadsheet. However, neither a word processor nor a spreadsheet contains the full range of built-in aids to solving database problems.

There are many different generic tools. Part of the process of learning to make effective use of these tools is learning to classify problems according to the type of computer tools that may be most useful. This requires gaining some knowledge and experience with a wide range of these tools.

Goals in Learning Generic Tools

When learning a specific generic tool, there are two goals. First, there is the goal of learning to use the tool. Second, there is the goal of actually using the tool to represent and solve problems and accomplish tasks. Sometimes instruction in the use of a tool is completely or almost completely divorced from actually using the tool to solve problems. With the generic computer tools, this is a mistake.

Each generic tool requires time and effort to learn. However, each can be used at a rudimentary level with only a modest amount of training. Thus, with just a little training you can learn to use database, graphics, spreadsheet, and telecommunications software at a level that is useful to you. An appropriate approach to this learning is illustrated in the following diagram.

Figure 8.1 Continually changing our role as learner and user.

The general idea is that you cycle back and forth from being a learner (1) to being a user of your learning (2). A good teacher or a good coach can help you perceive that you need to learn more about a tool. They can do this by presenting you with tasks that are not easily accomplished with your current level of knowledge of the tool. Alternatively and/or in addition, personal reflectivity can be a driving force. You can detect when you don't have the knowledge and skills to efficiently accomplish the tasks that you want to accomplish.

You have probably heard the expression, "Don't saw with a dull saw." This refers to the idea of having inadequate knowledge and skills in using the tools needed to solve a problem or accomplish a task. As you learn to make use of generic tools, you are apt to frequently encounter the dull-saw phenomenon. For example, this may be a situation in which you find yourself doing repetitious and tedious tasks--doing things that you feel the machine ought to be able to do for you. However, you have not learned enough to have the machine do more of the work. That is the time to sharpen your saw!

Tools Can Change a Domain

In traditional high-school geometry, students learn to use a compass, protractor, and straight edge to do a number of different geometric constructions. The domain of geometry and the use of these tools are interwoven. There is a 2,000-year-old history of linking plane geometry to these compass, protractor, and straight edge tools. For many centuries, the tools of geometry have been used in architectural and engineering drawing, and in other situations where precise drawing is necessary.

Now, computer tools have been developed that are far more powerful and versatile than the compass, protractor, and straight edge. Computer-assisted design (CAD) has become a common tool of the draftsperson and the engineer. The drawings done using CAD tools can be interfaced with computer-assisted manufacturing (CAM) software and machine tools. The combination of CAD/CAM has led to major changes in the design and manufacturing of products.

This raises a very important question. What should students be learning in school? If a domain (such as plane geometry) is highly dependent on a certain set of tools (compass, protractor, and straight edge), what should happen when better tools are developed? This question is similar to the question about using a calculator rather than learning to do pencil-and-paper arithmetic.

This type of question does not have a simple answer. Computer tools are expensive and not available to everybody. Part of the purpose of a plane geometry course is historical and cultural. However, our education system is gradually coming to grips with the use of four-function calculators, graphing calculators, generic software, and special-purpose software in the math curriculum. Geometry, and the entire math curriculum, will gradually be changed as these tools are more thoroughly integrated into the curriculum.

Special-Purpose Computer Tools

The generic computer tools are applicable across many different domains. A number of domains have developed software tools that are highly specific to the needs of professionals in these domains. For example, accountants are faced with the task of auditing the accounting work that others have done. Software designed to assist in this auditing process is specific to the needs of accountants.

The domain of computer chip design also requires specialized software. Some of today's large-scale integrated chips contain millions of individual transistors and other components. Both the design and the manufacture of such chips are highly dependent on software written for that particular purpose.

Another example is provided in the domain of music. A variety of computer tools contain some built-in music capabilities. However, these are highly limited relative to the computer music tools that have been developed for use by professionals in this domain. Computer-based music synthesizers have become an everyday tool of many music composers and performers.

Still other examples can be found in each domain in which the computer has been developed as a powerful aid to personal productivity. In many cases, such as in accounting, the design of computer chips, and many areas of science, the computer tool and the domain are becoming inextricably interwoven. Students no longer study the domain without simultaneously studying the use of the computer tool as an aid to solving the problems of the domain.

[[At the secondary school level, CAD/CAM has substantially changed the Mechanical Drawing curriculum. The word processor, spreadsheet, and database have substantially changed the Business curriculum.]]

Integrated Packages and Suites

Historically, each computer tool has tended to focus on the problems of a narrow domain. For example, the initial word processors did not include a spell checker, a choice of type faces, or a choice of type sizes. In essence, the initial word processors were merely typewriters with memory. This is--only a small part of the domain of effective written communication.

Gradually this changed. Developers of word-processing software have explored the question of what tools are useful to a writer trying to produce an effective written communication, and how to build these tools into a word processor. This has led to the inclusion of tools such as a spell checker and a thesaurus. It has also led to the inclusion of tools to graph data, produce graphics, and incorporate a variety of type faces.

Even this expansion of the features of a word processor has not been adequate to fully meet the needs of a writer. A writer may well need to work with accounting data; thus, the writer may want to use a spreadsheet and incorporate it into a report. A writer may need to work with extensive databases and incorporate a database report into a document. A writer may want to telecommunicate a document and/or incorporate information obtained through use of telecommunication facilities. A writer may want to make an oral presentation, drawing on parts of a written document.

These diverse needs for aiding effective written communication initially led to the development of integrated software packages. A single software package, such as ClarisWorks or Microsoft Works, contains a number of generic tools, all designed to work together. ClarisWorks and Microsoft Works are each available for both IBM-compatible and Macintosh computers. The typical integrated package, such as the two just mentioned, includes a word processor, database, spreadsheet, graphics, and telecommunications. Such integrated packages have proven very popular in small businesses and in education.

Recent years have seen the development of a competitor for integrated packages. A suite is a collection of individual tools that are designed to function well in an integrated fashion. A company that produces a word processor, spreadsheet, and database may design all of these to interact seamlessly and easily with each other. From the user's point of view, the suite of software performs just as if it were an integrated package. But, each component is very powerful--a professional-level tool.

It is evident that the trend toward the development of suites of software tools will continue. Eventually, one can expect that the full range of software products from a company will interact in a seamless fashion, just as if they were one single tool. But the tool will be very complex. The various components of the tool will be continually changing. The components will undergo continual improvement, and new components will be added. Needless to say, this presents an interesting challenge to the humans who need to use the suite of tools.

[[Example: Microsoft Office.]]

Computer Tools Can Create a New Domain

A hypermedia document can contain text, sound, graphics, color, and video. These various media can be combined in a nonlinear fashion to represent and help communicate a message. Also, most hypermedia software packages contain some sort of built-in computer programming language. (Computer programming is discussed in the next chapter.)

Typically, a hypermedia document is designed to be "read" using a computer. The user interacts with the document. The document is nonlinear and different readers of the document are apt to pursue different paths as they use the document. Thus, hypermedia is a new type of communication medium. While a hypermedia document can be printed on paper or viewed as a videotape, this loses the interactivity and nonlinearity that make hypermedia unique.

It is not easy to learn to communicate effectively in a hypermedia environment. First, there is the difficulty of learning to make effective use of the various media. Think about your current level of writing skills and how long it has taken you to achieve your current level of expertise. Then think about each of the other media that are combined in a hypermedia environment. Are you a skilled graphic artist? How are your video-production and editing skills? Do you know how to make effective use of color and sound in a computer document?

Finally, think about learning to develop messages that are designed to be read in an interactive, nonlinear fashion. These are different from the linear written documents and video that we have grown up with. It should be evident that it is a major challenge to develop a high level of expertise in creating hypermedia documents.

It seems clear that hypermedia is part of the communications wave of the future. Many schools are now working toward having all of their students become hypermedia literate, even at the elementary-school level.

[[This, of course, presents a major challenge to teachers. Some teachers have achieved a high level of hypermedia expertise. Most teachers, however, do not feel competent to help students learn hypermedia and/or to to facilitate student use of such tools (for example, to grade homework assignments done in hypermedia).]]

Activities and Self-Assessment

  1. Select a word processor you know how to use. Obviously, this word processor can be used to enter, edit, and print text. Make a list of other features in the word processor you have selected. How does each contribute to helping a person complete a writing task? Which of these features are most useful to you?
  2. Examine the list of generic tools given in this chapter. If you know of some other computer tools that you feel belong in the list, add them to the list. Then analyze the list from a personal point of view. What is your current level of expertise in using each of the tools? What are your learning goals for each of these generic tools?
  3. Select a domain that interests you. Analyze it from the point of view of usefulness of the generic computer tools listed in this chapter. How would the teaching and learning of this domain be affected by having these generic tools thoroughly integrated into the curriculum?
  4. Select one of the generic computer tools that you routinely use. Analyze it from the point of view of how it increases your personal productivity. Cite evidence of ways in which it increases your personal productivity. You may find that you can also give good examples of how it decreases your personal productivity.
  5. Again, select a domain of interest to you. Perhaps it is a domain that you are studying in school, or perhaps it is a domain in which you work. Analyze the domain from the point of view of specialized computer tools. Are there any specialized computer tools that are routinely used by experts in this domain? How is the teaching and learning of this domain being affected by computer tools that have been specifically developed for this domain?

Top of Page