By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
What is technological literacy? Why should you even care?
It seems that technological literacy is one of the latest buzz phrases in education, but how many have bothered to provide a clear definition? From what I’ve seen, many people simply choose their own definitions based on their personal ideas of what the words “technology” and “literacy” mean.
First off, technology has a meaning that varies with time and place. At one time, slate blackboards and chalk were the latest technology in classrooms. They transformed teaching. Today, you could argue that LCD projectors are part of classroom technology along with a host of other gadgets. Outside of the classroom, the range of technology grows to unmanageable proportions and even includes clothes washers.
Let’s take technology, for this discussion, to mean technology in the classroom and require that it have an important computer component. Interactive white boards and iPads will fall into this range as will all sorts of computer software.
What about literacy? Literally, it means the ability to read and write. However, these days, it’s been extended to mean knowledge or competence in a particular area. I’d like to reserve this definition for another phrase, “technological competence.” Then, technological literacy can take on a very different definition: the ability to understand and evaluate technology.
The two definitions do overlap but remain separate because someone can be competent in a technology – able to use it well – and still not be prepared to understand it in a broader context and to evaluate its value and effectiveness in practice. Indeed, the most competent may have substantial biases preventing them from objectively evaluating their particular technology.
Why is all of this discussion more than just counting angels dancing on the head of a pin? Technology assaults schools and classrooms daily. School budgets have increasingly larger technology components. Too often, these expensive technologies produce no gains in learning or gains not commensurate with expenditures. Sometimes, learning actually suffers.
The blog chatter echoes the situation. Are interactive white boards the new “great white hope?” Will the iPad become the new 1:1 computer for classrooms? Can Google World change learning geography? Will social networks transform the way we learn? And so it goes.
The overarching issue surrounding this entire problem focuses on understanding and evaluating technologies, or technological literacy.
District and school decision makers must possess this ability, either themselves or in the person of readily available experts. Anyone in the implementation chain must also be able to understand the implications of the decision to use a particular technology. Finally, and most importantly, the classroom teachers must also be technologically literate. If they aren’t, then they are in a position simply to ignore the new technology thrust upon them. All of the costs, all of the decision time, all of the professional development effort – all of these are lost.
In other times, this loss would be unfortunate. Today, it’s catastrophic because we’re more or less in an educational crisis. I say “more or less” because it depends on which schools, which students, which measures, and so on that you’re looking at. In the United States, especially in core urban and poor rural schools, the crisis is quite real. The STEM crisis has been written about extensively.
Having answered the question of what is technological literacy, this discussion now turns to “Why should you care?” The answer is that technology, like computers, can help us or can really mess us up. The right technologies, all of which may not yet be invented, used properly can alleviate and even entirely remove the current educational crisis. In other words, the solution is at hand, but without technological literacy in our schools right down to the classroom teacher, it won’t be implemented, and we’ll continue down the slope to increasing failure.
Of course, knowing this solution does not tell us how to achieve it, only that we must. I’ll leave it to others to analyze how to promote technological literacy among our educators. I hope that our readers will have ideas along these lines and that they’ll be implemented quickly.
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