Am I a “spell-check” or an “autocorrect” educator?

By October 3, 2015Education

“What’s better: spell-check or autocorrect?”

Simple question. However, when you really look at it, the concept, and the application, is not as simple as it seems.

So, let’s look at these two ingrained tools in modern typing.

First, you have to know how I learned to type. In the “business ed” classes in my high school, we had small student desks lined up perfectly in rows and columns with typewriters sitting pretty on each desk. Now, this was before electric typewriters so I learned the old school way. Type, proofread, liquid paper, type correctly, proofread, liquid paper, repeat until it’s right. Time consuming. I had no concept of the wonderful world waiting for me in the future. In 1976, liquid paper was my friend.

When working on my studies years later in college, I was introduced to electric typewriters and the magic that permanently liquid papered the world of liquid paper from my daily grind. The “electric” part didn’t erase my inherent capacity to commit the mistakes but it certainly made repairing my mistakes less messy.

In my growth as a digital immigrant, I moved on to computers and word processing. That’s where spell-check came to the front. I could not understand how a machine could intuitively “know” how to do my proofreading for me. Actually scanning my paper, finding my misspelled words and highlighting these for my review. Giving me options to choose correct spellings and even correct my grammatical errors. The machine knew where I had gone wrong, knew the best options to take and offered me the choices, even providing me counsel on the best choices. But, and this is important, the spell-check option never took over, never intruded, it only helped me. The “intelligence” of the machine never forced itself on me. It helped me but it never took over.

Move on to our next stage: autocorrect. You’ve done it. Tapping on that piece of glass. Moving the tip of your finger over the lighted keyboard. Tread carefully at this point. Many is the time when a sender sent without going back and correcting autocorrect. We now have a system where the machine thinks it knows better than we do. The machine has a belief in itself that overrides our own work. The machine even anticipates what we want to say, or spell, and gets the word out before we even complete the sentence. By the machine’s thinking, we now have a perfect email or document ready to communicate our most wondrous thoughts. Suddenly the “intelligence” has taken on what appears to be “arrogance”. But the wheels come off if we trust it and just hit “send”. Sadly, only after we’ve emailed do we go back and actually read what we sent. How many texts have we had to repair? Correcting autocorrect often becomes just a common and frustrating part of typing and texting.

Has the technology, at least in this aspect, gone farther than we needed? Autocorrect, certainly increasing the speed, often does more harm than good? What was wrong with spell-check? Isn’t there something to say for an “intelligent” machine providing everything needed to find and correct my mistakes but leaving the decisions in my hands? Are we not intelligent as well? It may be that we have autocorrect features when we don’t need them but we have to tolerate them because it’s just the paradigm of accepting technology as it comes at us.

When we think about these ideas, it might serve us well to apply some of this to our changing educational systems in the 21st century. The industrialized teaching system was good, perfectly sequenced and orderly in fashion.

But there’s a skip here in this scenario. As educators, we would have to admit that we too often act more like an autocorrect for students. We tell them, we direct them. We make their decisions. We dole it out when we think it best. And only we decide when, what and how much. We autocorrect too often. And just like that errant email, what is produced at the end may not have been what was intended.

Spell-check beats autocorrect every time.