Technological Literacy: The Key to Education Reform

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.

22 Responses

  1. Harry, you say this:


    Do you have any theories, or hunches, or studies that explain this?

    Is it that the technology-using classroom teachers are technologically illiterate?

    Could it be, Harry–to resurrect an old difference–that the very notion of “blended instruction”–blending the oil of the classroom technology with the water of the new ICT’s is the new technological illiteracy?

    Would it be a contribution to education to declare a moratorium on technology advocacy until we figure out why so little of clear value has been accomplished so far with all of the new gadgets?

    Might we prophets and preachers of the new technology faith be the real problem?


    • This is the quote that got away from me:

      “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.”

    • I hope not. I think not, but I know that some become that in the quest for profit. I think that some things never change.

      I like to imagine an army general in the bronze age being besieged by sword vendors claiming to have created a new process for sword making that was superior. “Buy my swords; win more battles.” It just didn’t work out well.

      One day, along comes another sword vendor with this new fangled steel sword and the same old claims. The general, tired of being hounded by sword salesmen, sends him away without even looking at the goods. The competing general didn’t, and guess who won the next battle?

      The point is that you must be able to distinguish between real and phony educational technology ideas. The issue is knowing how to choose well. Technology is not what most educators understand. Few are well equipped to make these decisions.

      We prophets and preachers of technology must help them out by doing more than just promoting technology. We should provide some means of distinguishing between the good and the bad — or between the advantageous and the mediocre.

      Because I have a pecuniary interest in my own efforts here, my remarks tend to be suspect. It’s too bad that I took my ideas, about which I am very passionate, and turned them into products from this point of view. However, I hope it’s good for education. (I strongly believe that it is.)

  2. To me, technological literacy is simply a term of the time we live in. It was less than 100 years ago when everyone knew the difference between a forelock and fetlock, or a dock and a pastern, as simple horsemanship was simply a way of life for most. I think the biggest issue today for establishing technological literacy among educators is around being locked into the rituals of our past. We have all grown to accept cell phones but how many of us ONLY own a cell phone and have no home phone number, or land line, as many of our youngest adults? We have an abundance of technology in our classrooms desperately trying to automate the methods of our past experience, and literacy to a teacher is mostly about which button does what. Literacy to a student however is probably more of how can it better change the social aspects of their life. Technology literacy for teachers might best be taught by students. Technology literacy for students might better be managed as a discussion around application rather than as a lesson on how-to.

    • One of the problems of innovation is changing the way people think about and do things. Lecture. Demonstration. Lab work. Reading chapters. Doing problem sets. And so it goes.

      Merely doing these things in an automated fashion will not make for change and may make things worse.

      BTW, technology is not just cell phones and computers. The real technology of today is software. I could go on for a long bit about that but will refrain.

      I fear that teachers fear technology because students are so far ahead of them that they think they’ll never catch up, and teachers feel that they must be in charge. Breaking this paradigm may open some floodgates. It’s already happening in some classrooms.

  3. “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.”

    I have brought up the book many times in the past, but I wonder how many people have read Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class, which I, coincidentally enough, just mentioned in a comment on Jim’s last post. Christensen very much agrees with your first point, but he has a small disagreement with your second point (which you may not even realize you made).

    Christensen believes that the technological advances which will be (but are not yet) associated with online education will cause an explosion in student achievement. (And for Steve’s comment, by the way, he has the data to show why.)

    He also has data for the part with which he disagrees. We are not “slipping down a slope of increasing failure.” An objective analysis of data indicates that American education has been steadily improving, following a curve of incremental improvement consistent with all incumbent technologies. The problem is that that rate of improvement is not good enough for our needs, so it has the feel of failure.

    Is the current use of technology not doing what we would hope for at this time to bring on the promised improvement? That is correct, according to Christensen. It is also predictable and consistent with the improvement curve of disruptive technologies. Disruptive technologies always struggle at first as they try to find themselves, but when they realize their potential, they explode in quality and destroy the old technology.

    One example is the transistor, which in its infancy had nothing like the quality of vacuum tubes. The companies that were making a fortune with vacuum tube technology spurned the transistor and the tinny sounding radios that used them. Eventually transistor quality improved enough that they upstart companies, like SONY, that invested in them found themselves controlling the market, while the old vacuum tube companies, like Zenith, collapsed.

    • I love this book! I met Clay briefly when it first published. I have also spoken with Michael Horn, his co-author and another version of the book is due out very soon. It is truly a must read for leading educators. Ironically they never expected it to be as popular as it has become.

    • John, you are certainly correct that we have been improving. Much of the rest of the world has been improving faster. Our apparent backward movement is a result of the educational theory of relativity (just made that up). Don’t get off that motorcycle just because a super fast car made it look as though you were standing still.

      I have been attempting to tell people that we are still in the experimental stages of educational technology for a long time now. I also have been working to follow all of the innovations and even to incorporate the better ones (for my niche) into what I do. I have to run very fast to keep up and not fall behind.

      I do not see a transistor-like effect in education coming at us now. Instead, I see lots of different ideas for using technology, and many of them have merit. More do not. I suspect that some combination of ideas will eventually win out. Disruption in education is possible, but I suspect that the change will be relatively slow. Even the transistor takeover of electronics was not all that fast. I bought one of the first ones for $5 (plenty of money back then) to build my own one-transistor radio.

      Let’s just take a short detour to look at the transistor. What did it do? Initially, it was a lab curiosity. Then, someone figured out how to use it to make something different. One such thing, as you point out, was the transistor radio. It was small, light, and used little power. Very importantly, it was cheap. The sound was not great, but AM radio didn’t require great sound. Once you have improved on enough parameters, you win. Cost, size, and power were sufficient.

      What will it take in education? So far, educational technologies (e.g. interactive whiteboards, tablets, and much of the software) have increased costs without equivalent gains in learning.

      To win, educational technology should cost less (necessitates lower costs for hardware and Internet connections, which are coming), produce better learning (more retention and longer retention of understanding), make learning happen more rapidly, and ease the burdens placed on teachers. We’re almost there. However, do not expect the world suddenly to turn upside down.

  4. John,I haven’t read Christensen but his ideas as you cite them resonate with me.

    (Perhaps the new technologies don’t always “destroy the old technology”–radio still flourishes, although in a dramatically different role in the technology hierarchy.)

    Does Christensen indicate which of the old educational technologies will be destroyed or radically transformed when the new technology prevails?

  5. John, Christensen emphasizes the environment or “model” in which technology is inserted. Thus, “cramming” the latest disruptive technology (e.g., free, user friendly, yet powerful non-enterprise social networking media) into traditional classroom structures won’t work.

    For the “explosion” (that you mention) to occur, educators would need to experiment with alternative models or environments that are simpler, cheaper, and better — and completely online is exactly that.

    The part of Christensen that I don’t quite buy is the reduction of market forces for disruptive innovations into non-consumers (type I) and low-end consumers (type II). Applied to students in educational settings, I think it’s one dimensional.

    For example, excellent, quality instruction can be provided with simple, inexpensive tech. The quality wouldn’t necessarily be better with more bells and whistles. And I can imagine high-end or “sustaining” consumers being attracted to the disrupting innovations, too. -js

    • Jim, this summary statement of yours cuts to the heart of the matter:

      “…“cramming” the latest disruptive technology (e.g., free, user friendly, yet powerful non-enterprise social networking media) into traditional classroom structures won’t work.”

      If you are right, some of our writers here who are searching for ways to “blend” learning, to bring the new technologies into the classroom, or somehow attach them to a classroom-organized curriculum and pedagogy, are part of the resistance-to-change movement, although they would bristle at this idea.

      Although we are seemingly all apostles of the new ICT, we are really of at least two camps, the Blenders, who think the new technologies and the old classroom can coexist, and the Leavers, who think the new technologies will compound our educational problems until we face up to this clash of technologies issue.

      Is there some way we can focus attention on this issue as the overriding one?

      • Steve, consider it done! -js

      • Blenders and Leavers. Nice contrast!

        Classrooms will remain at lower grade levels.

        Higher education will feel the brunt of the oncoming educational technology wave and already is feeling it quite a bit today.

        Because the K-12 schools must act in loco parentis, it makes sense to me to divide the discussion into the K-12 and post-secondary areas. I see higher education having to change a great deal and soon. K-12 will muddle along with attempts at blending. Eventually, they’ll figure out that classrooms are only for discussions and watching over our children. Schools as physical entities have similar purposes. They are somewhere to go where adults can help to shape your social being as well as your intellectual side.

        However, the K-12 world will move toward “learning to mastery” and will abandon grades as subjective evaluations and replace them with actual accomplishments. Technology will make this possible and even necessary.

  6. I think that this is important, because kids ARE literate in technology, sometimes more so than they are literate in the English Language.
    I definitely think that the gap between levels of education needs to change.
    You’re very right in the difference between urban and rural education. But I really think that online education can mend that gap. In most instance online education is becoming available to children who are in the rural areas that don’t have the same privileges as those in the urban areas.

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  13. just say 2 reasons why it is important for one to be technologically literate.

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