Keyboard Wizard links kids with computers

A best education-business partnership award goes to the Faculty of Education and VTech for teaching tool

by Bruce Mason staff writer

He hasn't built a better mouse, or trap, but the world will beat a path to Marv Westrom's door.

The UBC assistant professor in Education has created a device to teach what every eight-year-old is keen to learn--keyboard skills to access computers.

The Keyboard Wizard 2.0, which has just earned the Learning Partnership of B.C. award for best education-business partnership, resembles a downsized laptop with a small liquid crystal display screen and a child-sized keyboard (90 per cent of the regular size). It's packed with innovations but priced under $100 to keep it affordable for schools and parents.

"Mastering the keyboard is a psycho-motor skill subject to learned errors," says Westrom. "The Wizard spots repeated mistakes and designs specific drills to correct the problems."

It contains two games and can be hooked up to a printer or used as a word processor. And although it can be powered by an adapter, it will run for a school term on batteries.

Richmond-based VTech Electronics Canada--which has a large collaborative project with the faculty to conceptualize educationally sound tools for the classroom--approached Westrom. He designed the Wizard with a team in Hong Kong. Another team of experts, including teachers who designed B.C.'s typing curriculum, developed a teaching manual that accompanies each machine.

After three hours of drill every week for two months on the Wizard, children will be able to enter text much more quickly than they can print or write.

It's short-sighted to think keyboarding skills will become obsolete with voice-activated computers, says Westrom.

"Recognizing a word or phrase is trivial compared to understanding instructions," he explains. "Writing essays and other activities will require keyboards for many years to come."

What next? Westrom is hoping to create a calculator for VTech, which will help children understand fractions.