Once upon a time, before the advent of computers, typing was considered to be a secretarial skill. It was taught primarily to women, who were commonly expected to adopt junior roles within the workplace and prepare documents for senior (male) colleagues. Phrases like "take a memo" or "compose a letter" would be the precursor to a bout of rapid activity on an old-fashioned typewriter, where each piece of A4 paper had to be fed in manually, ink ribbons ran out mid-sentence, and a single mistake could entail having to redo the entire page.
Today, almost everyone in the UK will be familiar with typing. From home computers and laptops to smartphones and tablets, typing is an absolutely essential skill for people of all ages and backgrounds. Computers and the Internet are used for everything from shopping and socialising through to communications and work, and it’s rare to find a job that doesn't involve typing to some extent nowadays.
Make sure your (type)face fits
Any office or desk-based position will demand an appreciation of the internet alongside basic keyboard skills that can be gained on a typing course, while management or sales roles will also involve entering data onto a PC and being able to use email. Indeed, email has become so ubiquitous nowadays that its use is demanded in pretty much every advertised vacancy, while even manual or unskilled roles like HGV driving will necessitate the ability to enter data at journey’s end, or check stock inventories in the event of missing items.
It simply isn't viable to hold down a job without at least being able to check emails and undertake basic word processing - all of which can be taught on a typing course. Even a complete beginner to modern technology can overcome their uncertainties about using a keyboard, while performing the basic operations required to navigate the web, write a letter or type up notes from a meeting.
Typing v word processing
People wishing to undertake a more specialised course in word processing can absorb themselves in the challenges of page formatting and recording macros. By contrast, a typing course will simply focus on teaching people to use a keyboard effectively. The QWERTY layout of modern keyboards was deliberately designed to slow typing speeds by being inconvenient, so it can take quite a bit of time to familiarise yourself with letter positioning. A truly effective typist should be able to use all their fingers and thumbs on the keyboard simultaneously, moving them up and down across the three rows of letters almost automatically. However, untrained novices will almost inevitably start off with the time-honoured “hunt and peck” technique - searching for each letter and then triumphantly jabbing it with a finger.
It's at your fingertips
Unlike the manually operated typewriters of yore, today's typing devices are engineered to make the lives of their users as easy as possible. Features like automatic correction of spelling mistakes, capitalisation of words after a full-stop and automatic paragraph formatting have made a typist’s job far more forgiving than before. Great effort has also been expended on developing ergonomic keyboards that minimise the risk of conditions like tendonitis or Repetitive Strain Injury - both of which can result from excessive typing or a poor posture.
Typing seats are now ergonomically engineered to provide adequate lumbar (lower back) and arm support, and it is easy to find articles online describing the optimal relative positions of chair, desk, monitor and keyboard. Gel-filled wrist rests help to alleviate tendon-related issues, while orthopaedic or soft-touch keyboards can cushion the repeated impact of fingers striking keys over a long period of time.
A very different type
Early typewriters from the 1880s had their keys arranged in two semi-circular rows, all connected to a curved central module. Each key represented both a letter and a number, with the equivalent of today's Function key switching between them. The letters were also arranged in an order that would baffle modern day users, with Z at the start and Y at the end, interspersed with symbols for fractions like 1/3 and 7/8.
The challenge of using QWERTY keyboards on smartphones and handheld devices has recently been the subject of extensive analysis by academic experts on both sides of the Atlantic. Through a combination of computational optimisation techniques, probabilistic error correction methods and simulated thumb movements, they concluded that a far better layout involved arranging the letters in cubes of four at either side of a mobile device’s screen. The results showed that this new layout (christened KALQ after its first row of letters) allowed better operating speeds and fewer errors when users were typing with their thumbs and holding the device with their fingers.
However, despite these intriguing alternatives, typing courses will continue to teach the time-honoured QWERTY method to students - for the foreseeable future at least.
By Neil Cumins