Developing Employment-Related Office Technology Skills

Publication October 1999

The purpose of this project was to develop guidelines for teaching employment-related office technology skills, particularly those offered in office technology, based on the practices in schools already judged to be exemplary in their program design and teaching practices.   A key assumption in asking about effective teaching practices was that teachers and students would need to balance three elements in learning to use desktop software applications:

  • How the technology operates
  • Business concepts being applied
  • Expectations of a given work setting

Teaching software effectively is becoming increasingly important.  This is particularly true for general-purpose business software such as word processors, spreadsheets, databases, graphics presentation, and telecommunications.  If almost all employed workers will need to use some portions of such software, clearly, large numbers of people need to learn to use general business applications software.  Most importantly, they need to transfer their knowledge from the learning setting to business settings, and they need to be able to continue to learn new software as versions change and new software displaces old.

The dynamic nature of business technology makes questions about what to teach, content questions, prominent in the vocational education field.  This is especially the case in the business education literature, since the need to teach computing technology is compelling for business occupations.  Much attention has been given to what technology businesses are using and the employment competencies students need to work in such settings.  Less attention has been given to how to teach technology skills effectively for employment purposes.  This project focused on teaching practices.

This research allowed description of the teaching and learning practices in exemplary programs at mainly the postsecondary level from the view of students, teachers, and employers.  These secondary and postsecondary programs were judged exemplary by state- and national-level professional staff because of their reputations for responsiveness to current employment needs, innovative programs, comprehensive office technology programs, and consistent student employment placement.  These programs have been innovative in the variety of program scheduling options made available to students and their responsiveness to diverse student needs.
In five technical/community colleges and one technical high school, at least three students, at least three (or all) teachers, and three employers were interviewed over the course of a six-month time period. A total of 48 teachers, students and employers of program interns were interviewed.   Each school was visited one to three times to observe classes and talk with these three groups.  A critical-incident approach was used to identify particularly noteworthy program aspects.  Pilot-testing of the interview showed that it was easiest for teachers and students to think about challenging software aspects to teach/learn.  These interviews were the basis for developing program development guidelines. 

Two key findings were apparent from this research. One was the largely decontextualized teaching of introductory software use, even when business examples are the textbook frame of reference.  The second was the dominance of systematic teaching practices over more discovery-oriented minimalist teaching practices.  A third finding of this study was concern about the image of various employment fields, particularly the contrast between “office technology” and “information technology.”  This image affects whether programs will be offered, who will teach them, and how they will be taught. 

With regard to the first finding, the question of how teachers and students balance the teaching/learning of software operation in conjunction with business content, the finding was that instruction in software operation dominates.  Teachers saw themselves primarily as software instructors.  This is especially true in the beginning stages of instruction.  Business content becomes prominent at advanced courses that explicitly focus on office operations and the use of technology as a support tool.  The primary employment use for technology was that of facilitating office communications.  This meant that if there were any prerequisite knowledges or skills that students needed, they were keyboarding skills and basic written English communication skills. 

With regard to the second key finding, the question about specific teaching practices, the teaching assumptions implicit in the most popular instructional materials showed the most prominent approach to be systematic, step-by-step processes that engage students in comprehensive software instruction.  An alternative has been suggested by research, largely in industry settings, for a minimalist approach to teaching software.  While it was expected that this approach would be observed in exemplary school settings, it was conspicuously reserved for the most advanced levels of instruction, if it was present at all.  Possible explanations for strong preference for structured, systematic instructional approaches and the lack of awareness for minimalist techniques are included in the discussion of the findings.

According to the interviews with all three groups, students, teachers, and employers, the open-ended office tasks encountered in the advanced coursework were also likely to be encountered on the job.  Realistic, work-like projects reinforced the “basic skills” that businesses say they expect schools to develop—computing skills, attitude and work ethic, written and oral communications, keyboarding, handling telephones and voice mail, using basic equipment such as copiers and fax machines, and handling mail services.  Even as employers expect students to come to entry-level jobs with these skills, they also recognize that students will be learning specific work procedures once employed.  The challenge for students as employees is to be responsive to these learning opportunities.

The ability to learn in an office setting appears to be dependent upon possessing the dispositional traits that are required for being part of a support staff.  An important part of what students learn in Office Technology programs is the kind of work that they will actually be expected to do.  Interpreting expectations and priorities and knowing how to ask questions were frequently part of the traits or competencies that could only be learned on the job.  Learning such tacit skills is discussed in terms of Discourse learning, or moving from students’ primary Discourse of schooling to the Discourse(s) of employment settings. An implication of thinking of technology-related education as being part of a Discourse is that the systematic approach to instruction is framed in the Discourse of the tool and its functionality.  Instruction is about the tool.  On the other hand, the minimalist approach is framed in the Discourse of the office.  Moreover, instruction is within the Discourse, not about it.  That is, the knowledge constructed is largely tacit and relates to how office workers, as a type of people, do things, as opposed to what the tools can do.

In summary, two different goals can be prominent in employment-related programs.  One implicitly recognizes the situation of schooling.  The other very explicitly focuses on the eventual employment goals.  When the goal is developing employment-related office technology skills, balance is needed between gaining technology skills and understanding the eventual work settings in which such skills have meaning.

One goal can be software skill development.  If so, then the skill-hierarchy model should prove helpful in interpreting the target skill level with various tools.  Curriculum content and instructional materials are chosen accordingly.  On the other hand, the goal of instruction is also movement out of the schooling Discourse and entry into the employed-worker Discourse—to become a certain kind of person.  If this is the case, then the model of skill acquisition needs to be applied to fluency with the ways of being an employed worker, not simply to facility with the tools of the trade. 

When success in a work setting is the goal, the Discourse of an employment setting should eventually become more dominant than the Discourse of schooling.  This means the sooner the context and content of the employment field can become dominant in the learning setting, the better for allowing student participation in the employment Discourse.  The instructional guidelines gleaned from exemplary office technology school settings suggest ways in which students might be assisted in their progress as they move from schooling Discourses into work-related Discourses for using technology.

Lambrecht, J. J. (1999, October). Developing employment-related office technology skills. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Download the report (PDF)