(Re)defining Computer Literacy

We live in tumultuous times. The world is changing so fast that sometimes it’s hard get a handle on what is really going on and where things are heading. Whether we consider the absurdities of politics, ominously changing weather patterns, dubious wars or advancing technology, it can often seem like common sense is nowhere to be found. I can only speak with any real authority on the last topic, technology—but it’s a hot one. Here in the US it would be fair to say that we live in a computer driven society that is, for all practical purposes, computer illiterate. We are surrounded by the ridiculously inexpensive and varied fruits of an astonishing and powerful technology which is profoundly changing how we live, work and play. Like it or not it is a runaway freight train that is rapidly transporting us headlong into the new “Information Age.” Unfortunately most are experiencing a bumpy and uncomfortable—even scary—ride. Far worse is how this is impacting our ability to thrive in the global market. As a nation of complacent, technical illiterates, we are rapidly losing our competitive edge.


Consider: the average high school graduate is not, by any realistic standard, computer literate. Whether they come from affluent or poor school districts, the vast majority of students entering college are not prepared to use computers in such a setting. Sure, most of them have grown up with computers, aren’t afraid of them and, over the years, have learned to search the web, write reports, play games, download music, communicate with their friends and many other interesting and useful things. But their knowledge is very superficial. Although most public schools have technology available, if students learn anything at all it’s how be consumers of a technology they do not understand. Many colleges and universities are recognizing that there is a serious problem here but aren’t sure how to fix it. Some try to implement remedial programs that generally don’t address the central issue. Of course it doesn’t help that often, much of the faculty and staff are not computer literate either.


Consider: in many companies, management, IT personnel and end users are at odds with each other. Today’s “corporate culture” does not include a simple, common language that allows for meaningful communication about technology. As a result, important policy decisions are often made without an adequate understanding of the technology involved; executives often need constant help with basic computer problems; IT specialists waste time helping others with remedial problems and fixing problems that should not have occurred in the first place; users are fearful of going beyond memorized procedures; help desk activity is typically reduced to bailing people out of problems that often recur because the underlying causes cannot be adequately explained or understood. Company wide there is often a great deal of resentment, exasperation and feelings of inadequacy.


At this point I can imagine someone saying “Oh, come on now, do you really believe things are that bad?” I think if you look at it objectively, the answer is a definite yes, things are that bad. Unfortunately, in business and education, gross inefficiency and ineffectiveness in the use of technology have become the norm over the years. It’s pretty much accepted that, well, This Is Just The Way Things Are. But beneath this surface of normalcy is a powerful undercurrent of uneasiness. How many people do you know who are not comfortable with computers and regularly express their frustration?


It is not surprising it has come to this. First, the speed at which technology has advanced has been so rapid there hasn’t been near enough time for the world to adjust. While many have taken to it enthusiastically, it’s reasonable to expect the vast majority of any population to be resistant to fundamental change of any kind. Becoming a digitally based society is such a profound transformation that it cannot possibly be a smooth one. More specifically, the powerful influence of Microsoft, which is how many people are first introduced to technology, has created a user interface that, while making things easy to do, obscures the simple realities behind everything we do with computers, making them unnecessarily complicated and virtually incomprehensible.


Although this technological disconnect is pervasive and weighs heavily on us, it can be overcome. Actually it can be fairly easily overcome—at least in the sense of getting out of the conceptual fog most of us are in. The first step is to establish a definition of computer literacy that is sensible and universally acceptable. You can Google and get a variety of definitions for computer literacy from a number of authoritative sources, nearly all of which are completely off-base and usually boil down to one thing: the ability to use applications (Microsoft programs are often specifically mentioned). Memorizing procedures to use software is generally how computer literacy is defined. And herein lies the problem: the reason so many people have so much trouble managing files, for example, is not because they don’t know how to do it—most people are familiar with the mechanics of using a mouse and keyboard and can open and close, click and drag, etc.—it’s because they don’t know what a file actually is. People work with files every day and don’t know what they are in a physical sense; they don’t have a clear understanding of the difference between the hard disk and memory or what subdirectories are; they don’t understand what Windows is and its role as an operating system. And yet none of this is beyond the ability of the average eight-grader to understand. For so many people to be so in the dark about the most basic concepts—concepts that are critical to mastering the most important productivity tool we have—is completely unacceptable.


The biggest obstacle to achieving a reasonable level of computer literacy was created by Microsoft (who, it should be noted, borrowed heavily from Apple). The Windows interface so distorts reality and creates so many distractions and unnecessary complications that many (probably most) people struggle for years and never figure any of it out. That is, they are unable to connect the graphical objects they see on their monitors to the physical things they represent: the simple principles and concepts are lost in all the flash and glitter. If we compare software to books, it’s as though Microsoft found all the prettiest and most expressive words and typeset them on beautifully bound pages but didn’t bother to string them together in a coherent way. When we read the words in a book, we expect them to form a clear mental picture for us. We should expect the same from our computer’s software interface; there is no good reason for the critical software we depend on to be so disjointed and inconsistent. Far too many people have resigned themselves to believing that, for them, a computer will always be a magic box that they will never fully comprehend: it will always be a struggle and they will always be severely limited. But it doesn’t have to be this way.


We must first do away with the notion that computer literacy means using Windows based software. It’s not that learning current software isn’t important, it’s just that while this alone may make one functional it does not make one computer literate. This will require quite a shift in today’s current thinking since nearly all “Intro to Computers” classes, books and courseware center around “learning Windows.” Consider a definition that we at Computer Literacy USA and the Leisure Learning Computer Center believe makes more sense:


“Computer literacy is the essential knowledge needed to function independently with a computer system. This functionality comes from an understanding of the concepts, terminology and operations that relate to general computer use and includes being able to solve and avoid problems, adapt to new situations, manage information, and communicate effectively with other computer literate people."


Note that this definition says nothing specific about software. It stresses a general understanding of the principles and concepts involved in using any computer, much like learning what side of the road to drive on and how to interpret traffic lights and street signs before getting behind the wheel of a car. Once you have a clear understanding of the digital nature of hardware, software and data you can safely and effectively begin using a computer. Once you are literate in this sense, you are prepared to become functional. From this definition we can then build a meaningful set of standards and teaching methods for computer literacy.


It has been my experience that anyone can comprehend the basic concepts in a reasonably short time. At the Leisure Learning Unlimited Computer Center, our Computer Orientation series of courses, which are for new and experienced computer users, consist of thirteen hours of lecture and demonstration before we provide any hands-on classes. In fact, many already know the hands-on aspects: they are familiar with the Windows environment and can use the mouse and keyboard to navigate through their programs, edit and save data, manipulate objects, etc. The reason they decide to take a “beginning” course is because they have far too many problems and frustrations and realize there are large gaps in the general knowledge. Even though people come in at all levels of experience, once everyone has a solid foundation and can communicate using the same language we can move on. At this point new computer users go to a remedial hands-on classes while those with more experience skip ahead to more advanced Windows classes or specific applications.


Without a consensus on how we define computer literacy and develop the educational standards for it, we will fall far short of the potential and promise of Information Age.


Bill Stewart has been the director of the Leisure Learning Unlimited Computer Center since 1990. Over 15,000 people in the Houston area have attended his Computer Orientation classes. To find out more about Bill’s work and philosophies visit www.computerliteracyusa.com. You can reach him at bstew@neosoft or 281-489-7944. The LLU Computer Center web site is www.llucomputer.com.