by Inabeth Miller
Inabeth Miller is librarian to the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also administrator of the Educational Technologies Data Base Project.
Thousands of voices are rising in a chorus of "Computer Literacy for All." We are being asked, cajoled, required to change our school curricula, our work patterns, our lifestyles. Like immigrants to a new technological society, taught again by our children, we are promised a better future if we can learn to manipulate its symbols.
The traditional meaning of literacy is the ability to read and write. A "learned" or "literate" person has been exposed to writings and is thus considered educated. Literacy has been considered a necessity for functioning in modern society, despite many conflicting and romanticized historical examples of illiterate successes. Those who could read became the priests and advisers to kings in many cultures. More recently, the ability to read was deemed necessary to becoming a citizen, driving a car or seeking employment.
The search for literacy has replaced elitist literati with nearly universal ignorami. The education establishment has long ignored the individual who could paint, write music, manipulate tools, perform physical feats, instead concentrating on its primary mission of unlocking numbers and letters.
And still we have acquired these nonliterate skills, outside of most formal institutions. We have learned to use a paintbrush, to play instruments and compose, to improve physical skills-sometimes with enough force or passion to cause great societal change. We have developed tools and begun to use them with little attention from our great institutions of learning.
We till the land with giant tractors, we cross our cities and countries in different forms of transportation, we communicate by telephone, we operate a variety of sophisticated machines and appliances without formal school courses or labeling them as new literacies. Imagine if every technological invention was accompanied by a literacy course. From "ballpoint pen literacy" to "automotive literacy," from "powerboat literacy" to "microwave oven literacy," an unending stream of irrelevancies would become the modern educational curriculum.
But the new wave, the computer explosion, is knocking at the doors of every educational institution, forcing a response from those most ill-equipped to define the situation. It started quietly, surviving previous incarnations that left many schools untouched, despite some mainframe "skeletons" that still haunt the basements of buildings. Though large computers have been generally accepted for administrative purposes, their economic and academic credibility never materialized.
Micros first appeared in suburban, engineering based communities' schools, where parents placed both child and computer on the doorstep and offered themselves as the instructional and teaching resource. Sometimes it was the teachers who received a small grant, or brought in their own computer from home, and began writing programs in BASIC or building a library of questionable gameware. Few uses touched any school curriculum.
Who would have imagined the groundswell, encouraged by "packaged goods" advertising, that played upon the fears and aspirations of an unsuspecting parent population? Every state legislature is presently debating the issue of computers and schools. Every superintendent and college president must deal with the issue of computer literacy and its place in the curriculum structure.
What is meant by computer literacy? The search for definitions is already filling the pages of many journals. The desire for marketability comes in conflict with a search for educational elitism. Those two paths will remain for the foreseeable future. Schools will continue to perpetuate ambiguous courses while industry makes them irrelevant and obsolete.
A national panel, asked to define "computer literacy," eventually came up with a grandiose umbrella that sounded like everything anyone ever wanted to know about sex (substitute computers) and a "do it your way" philosophy. Most definitions fall into certain predictable categories that could be labeled "compuse," "comprogram," "compistory" and "compethics." "Compuse" begins with all the how-to advice: how to turn the machine on and off, how to insert a piece of software, how to use a joystick or a mouse and how to apply the computer to various tasks. (Can you imagine a course on the light switch?) Included in this area are sessions on keyboarding (formerly called typing), starting at grade one. Watching the class make triangles is like an art class where every child draws the sun. Adult "compuee" courses are filled with immature, inappropriate exercises that reinforce feelings of incompetence.
"Comprogram" courses are what most institutions regard as literacy. In such courses many languages are taught, the most common being Logo, BASIC, Pascal. Some high schools are teaching more computer languages than foreign languages, although in the foreseeable future far fewer students will ever program a computer than will need a working knowledge of another tongue. Soon programming in present languages will be obsolete. Even access to a computer will be by voice or touch rather than by keyboard. Yet we persist in codebreaking techniques, for that is what we have learned to do, however ineffectually, during the past century.
"Compistory" adds another dimension, giving this technology a place in human history not accorded to the wheel, aerodynamics, splitting of the atom or even the human events of the twentieth century that have brought our world to its present situation. How many schools that are mandating computer literacy courses, with extensive background in the evolution of the computer, require some attention to contemporary world history?
Those institutions that have tackled "compethics" courses recognize that students deserve some information about liabilities and limitations of technology. Questions of copyright and integrity, of equal access and abuse of power, of dependence and overdependence, of human-machine interaction are discussed, though usually in a brief and "thou shalt not" framework that fails to result in the student seeking reasonable, effective solutions.
We must incorporate computers into our schools and into our lives. Although every new group seeks to build its own dynasty, protecting its own little niche in the corner of human knowledge, it is absurd to let this happen once again, to let the tool become the substance. Even as a temporary measure, the computer must be integrated into the total lifeline of the school, not segregated with its own staff and curriculum.
Let those who would be programmers or researchers study computer science as a discipline. Let there be attention to questions of access through labs and lap computers, through libraries, homes and multi-institutions. Let market pressure require that the technology be simple to use, without courses, without massive amounts of reading, without stuffing our institutions full of computer insanity. We must stop acting impulsively, in a flittery, jittery response to pressure. Let us use those new pencils to create, to dream, to solve those problems that have eluded us. Let us begin a planning process. We must not waste our intellectual space on false literacy pursuits.
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