Will computers raise technological literacy?

In the midst of all the uproar early this year over fights about budget balancing and squabbles in primary elections, there was a little-noticed announcement from The White House about a new "educational" program to be called "America`s Technology Literacy Challenge." As far as the national media were concerned, the announcement sank without trace. That`s a pity because the thinking behind the program deserves a little attention from voters, parents, and students. But, first, let`s ask what the

Will computers raise technological literacy?

Jeffrey N. Bairstow

Grou¥Editorial Director

jeffb@pennwell.com

In the midst of all the uproar early this year over fights about budget balancing and squabbles in primary elections, there was a little-noticed announcement from The White House about a new "educational" program to be called "America`s Technology Literacy Challenge." As far as the national media were concerned, the announcement sank without trace. That`s a pity because the thinking behind the program deserves a little attention from voters, parents, and students. But, first, let`s ask what the announcement actually means--never an easy task with White House pronouncements.

The idea behind America`s Technology Literacy Challenge, says President Clinton, is "to make every young person technologically literate by the dawn of the 21st century." I`m not sure how the President defines "technologically literate," but the phrase does have a nice presidential ring to it--and it`s suitably vague. Being in the scientific publishing field, I`ve long felt that the two primary goals of education should be literacy (the ability to read critically and write lucidly) and numeracy (the ability to quantify matters and express ideas mathematically). But how do you define technological literacy? Perhaps it is a synonym for what used to be called "computer literacy." I never liked that concept, either.

I`m comparing "technology literacy" with computer skills because in "America`s Technology Literacy Challenge" Mr. Clinton challenges the private sector, schools, teachers, parents, students, community groups, state and local governments, and the federal government to build a program that would provide access to modern computers for all teachers and students and connect every school and classroom in America to the information superhighway.

Mr. Clinton thinks that this will hel¥make all children technologically literate--"equipped with the communication, math, science and critical-thinking skills essential to prepare them for the Information Age." He hopes to do all this by the application of a $2 billion Technology Literacy Challenge Fund to be spent over five years "to catalyze and leverage state, local, and private-sector efforts so that our schools provide all our children with a greater opportunity to learn the skills they need to thrive in the next century." This is all very laudable, no doubt, but is the technology literacy goal realistic? Is it even appropriate as a goal?

There`s an implied view that the application of computer technology will go a long way toward solving educational problems. "Technology has transformed the American workplace. It can also transform classrooms and the way schools operate," claims Lou Gerstner, chairman of IBM. Mr. Gerstner has a vested interest in selling computers, of course.

But for most of us, the education imparted to us came largely at the hands of a few gifted teachers without the assistance of any kind of technology--except, perhaps, an overhead projector. In my case, a venerable English teacher taught me how to express myself in words, a young and enthusiastic science teaching intern brought experimental science alive, and a patient math teacher knew that I would eventually gras¥calculus (and I did!). All of which is a roundabout way of saying that teachers are far more important than technology, especially in the precollege years. And there`s little evidence that computers will hel¥a poor teacher to teach more effectively.

A counter challenge

Before we rush into providing every student with access to the "information superhighway," shouldn`t we concentrate on providing those basic literacy and numeracy skills to everyone? You can`t make good use of the Internet without reading and writing skills, and you can`t evaluate a bank`s mortage or car loan offerings without some basic math skills. The challenge here is not to provide technology literacy, it`s to restore teaching to a desirable profession so that young people will choose teaching as a career. What`s needed is a program I`ll call "America`s Teaching Challenge" to encourage bright young people, especially scientists and mathematicians, to enter the profession.

But the demand has to come from our society--individuals, social organizations, businesses--that we put teaching and teachers first. And let`s put computer technology a distant second or third in our priorities. Until we make demands on our schools to concentrate on the basics and ask our legislators to provide the funding, we`re going to get more band-aid programs like "America`s Technology Literacy Challenge."

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