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Save or Save As: Teaching Kids Where Their Work Lives Inside Computers

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By Sheena Vaidyanathan

The third grade class is busy working in the computer lab when the teacher reminds everyone to save their files.

"Save or Save As?" someone asks.

No one has ever explained the difference to these students and no one will have the time to explain it. With a frown on their faces, students tentatively enter file names, agonizing on simple things like, "Is there an upper case in the name, how about the space, and did I check the folder?"

Young computer users vary in their file-saving styles. A few panic with the saving process; something can go wrong and a teacher should personally check the file names before they click Save. These students worry that their project may disappear in a world of files, folders and servers.

Another kind of student completely trusts in the magic of computers. They click Exit, hit Okay on the Save dialog box and leave happily. Some of these students then wonder why they cannot find their files; they accuse the computer of eating up the work they saved.They wonder why their file has to be found by a desperate computer teacher and is titled 'Untitled' and is sitting in an unknown folder. In most cases, students do not know what happens in the strange underworld of computer files. They just hope their work will be found again when needed.

Dealing with files is usually learned in the process of working with the application that matters - Word, iMovie, Photoshop for example. Most adults have worked long enough with files that they can save, backup, rename, import, export, upload, download, search and organize files without fear. They know that occasionally one must check file types, dates or file sizes. The third grader has to master this while also learning how to write a book report. No one will give them a lesson on computer file management. No one will tell them the reason for the Save As option or what is behind those strange steps they do to connect to the school file server. Perhaps they wonder what is this thing called a server anyway? Should we give our grade school students a lesson on how computer file systems?

Software has been evolving to keep the ugly file system hidden from the user. Apple took away the 'Save As' option in OS X Lion, hoping to make at least that question disappear. Students are using GoogleDocs at schools, so teachers can focus on the writing assignment instead of the file saving and finding problem. Why would we ever need to teach anyone about files? Can we just confidently rely on the Cloud to AutoSave all the time? Will an average user ever want to use a non-Cloud application and save an old style computer file?

At a time when education technology is getting a lot of attention, there is no class time allocated to technology education. While school science classes ensure that everyone knows a little about atoms, planets and dinosaurs, there are no lessons on the working of a computer. Some argue that software experts should keep this hidden; we need teach this only to the computer science students.

However, just as we need to know about animal cells, it is vital to understand a little about computers. In today’s world, one may argue that this is more important than learning about rock formations. Basic concepts on operating systems like file management should be introduced in grade school. These young students will find a lesson on how computers work as fascinating as one on electricity. It will help them appreciate the magic behind the computers they use everyday. Maybe they should have a chance to know - ‘Is it Save or Save As’?

Sheena Vaidyanathan teaches 3D design and computer programming to students in the Los Altos School District in California.