Computer illiteracy

Time to add computer literacy to curricula

by Jim Trageser
This article originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 2, 2002.

The last two spring semesters, I've taught the Electronic Journalism course at Point Loma Nazarene University. For the most part, the course is a joy to teach — the students are bright, eager to learn, and fully literate.

Except when it comes to computers.

This is an upper-division course, so most of the students are juniors and seniors — 20 and 21 years old, on average. So this past semester, most of them were born around 1980 — or about a year before the Commodore 64.

Which means that they were raised in the Computer Age. By the time they were 10 years old, Windows 3.0 was rapidly replacing DOS, the Mac was in its second generation, and the market penetration of the personal computer was at around 25 percent.

Surely, every student in college today used computers in high school, at a minimum.

And yet what surprised me at first (before dismaying me) was how poor the computer skills of my students were. Or "are," I should say, as the problem seems consistent and I expect no change when the class starts anew in January.

The university administrators reacted well when I pointed out how much class time was spent going over rudimentary computer skills like opening a file or launching an application. The second time I taught the course, they graciously provided a student lab assistant to help out with these simple tasks — and the presence of the lab assistant allowed us to focus on learning how to report and edit for Web sites rather than learning how to save a file in WordPerfect.

Still, the fact that high schools are graduating kids who don't possess even the most basic computer skills ought to be cause for alarm.

Of course, our high schools also continue to issue diplomas to kids who are functionally illiterate, so perhaps we need a sense of scale here.

Yet the reality is this: In today's economy, the ability to sit down at any computer and figure out how to launch the word processor, open and save files, browse the Web, and perform other basic tasks is as crucial to an individual's employability as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Among the various reforms proposed for and imposed on our school systems are graduation testing requirements — that you don't get your diploma until you can demonstrate a base competency in English and math.

We need to expand that to include computer literacy.

Before getting your high school diploma, you ought to be able to show you can:

And these are just the bare-bones minimum — skills every young person needs to have to get any kind of job, to participate in our democratic society.

For those planning on attending college, we need to offer full-semester courses on using computers.

If my students aren't able to open and save files (and many of them aren't), how on earth are they going to be able to effectively use the Internet to help them complete assignments? To do research? Just to keep in touch with family and friends back home?

The college-bound really need to be able to use a commercial database (like Access or Paradox), create a simple spreadsheet (Excel or QuattroPro), create a simple address book, use the more popular Internet search engines, use the search-and-replace and spell-check functions in a word processor, and have at least a passing familiarity with Linux and Unix in addition to Mac and Windows.

These are the challenges they're going to face in college, and they're challenges that can get in the way of acquiring university-level knowledge.

Back in the 60s and 70s, most college-bound students had already learned how to type — at least among my circle. You didn't want to be having to learn to type while also carrying 18 units and trying to learn calculus, physics and chemistry.

The point is, while still in high school it was beaten into our thick skulls by our teachers that university professors and instructors expected assignments to be typed — that many would not accept hand-written assignments.

So among those of us who were planning on going to college, plans were made to learn to type ahead of time.

Today, that communication skill (typing) has been expanded to take in many basic computer functions, and those students who lack this skill are going to be behind those who have taken the time to learn it.

I'm not suggesting everyone needs to be able to program — heck, I can't do that and I've been fiddling with computers for more than a quarter-century now. I don't even consider myself all that knowledgeable about computers. If I didn't have friends who are systems administrators and programmers, I'd be lost.

But I do know that I can go into nearly any business environment, sit down at any computer they are likely to provide, and immediately become productive without having to be trained on basic computer functions. There's a certain economic security in that kind of computer confidence.

Obviously, many high schools already offer these types of courses. But as my experience attests, not enough of them are.

This isn't important just for the college-bound, either. More and more of the trades require the ability to use a computer. Auto mechanics need a computer in order to diagnose most recent model year cars. Contractors can now save time and money by filing many government forms online — while an increasing number of agencies now require forms to be filed electronically.

And no matter what your livelihood, more and more of the latest research and studies are being published online, rather than in print journals. Whether you're in a trade or a profession, if you can't follow the latest developments in your line of work on the Web, your skills are going to fall behind the curve, and along with them your business opportunities are going to become limited.

We are the nation that launched the PC Revolution — the least we can offer the next generation is a solid grounding in the daily use of the machines that continue to change the landscape.

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