A few years ago, I read an article making a strong argument that Ctrl-F is the most important computer skill for the modern researcher or student. For those of you who don’t know about Ctrl-F, it’s the keyboard shortcut that allows you to search for content in a page. It is one of my most-used shortcuts; I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I use it every single day, whether to find my place in a Twitter feed, seek out notes left for me by a colleague in a document, or locate the information I want to cite.
Yet, the Atlantic interviewed a Google “search anthropologist” (side note: WHAT?! What a cool job!), Dan Russell, who said NINETY PERCENT of people don’t know about Ctrl-F. That, my friends, is crazy. The fact is, what is means to be a good researcher and student is changing now that connected computing is the norm. When I was a child learning research skills, it was all hard copy. If you were lucky, you had access to a typewriter (!) or maybe, maybe a computer that could spit out your paper on a dot matrix printer. Any information intake happened through reading physical materials. The research skills that mattered included navigating a card catalog, using an index, and befriending a librarian. Now, it’s rare that I need to visit a library for anything other than pleasure. The vast majority of my research is done online. The skills that matter include clever use of keywords for search engines, persistence in the face of a paywall or a corporate information restriction, and a good understanding of how information is archived digitally. And yes, the ability to use software efficiently, including the use of keystrokes, also matters a lot. Did you catch that Russell found that Ctrl-F makes people 12% faster in their search behaviors? That adds up. Other skills that really matter for research and learning today include being able to use social media effectively, including multi-media. I also think it’s incredibly important to be able to code, the more the better. As I’ve mentioned before, this is an area where I am weak, but even my basic HTML coding skills serve me well on a surprisingly regular basis. I’m big on learning to use my tools better, and will do geeky things like read posts on the Microsoft product blogs for tips. At one point, I Xeroxed (another old school technique falling by the roadside) a cheat sheet of keystroke shortcuts for Word and PowerPoint, my most frequently used programs. If you share my interest in becoming a faster, cleverer computer researcher, here are some other resources:
- Technology posts on the Smarterer blog
- Code School: Try Ruby
- Learn Code the Hard Way
- Khan Academy
- Keyboard shortcuts on Ubuntu
- OS X keyboard shortcuts
- Windows keyboard shortcuts
One final note–although technology has changed the way we seek and communicate information, I firmly believe that some aspects have not changed. Specifically, being able to write well and speak clearly will never stop being important, even as the details of what that entails shift. The most successful people will be the ones who blend the newly important technology skills with old-school communication talents.