Sunday, February 14, 2010

21st century computer literacy

In the last month I have attend two advisory committee meetings for career and technical education for local school districts and in both the question of computer basics classes came up.  One district had canceled their basic computer skills class, the other about to.  Somewhere along the line someone - student, administrator, parent, upstanding citizen - decided the millennials were born knowing how to use a computer (my take on that in my post Digital Naivete).  One district appears to be getting a basics class back because it is can be taken for University of Washington credit while in high school (see iSchool in the high schools). 

The point of this blog is to carry on the advisory committee discussions beyond the two-hour meeting and to gain more feedback from a broader audience.  So I'm looking for those of you out in the workforce or teaching post-secondary to share your wisdom with instructional staff on the topic of computer skills for all students (not just those interested in technical fields). 

Let me get this started with a few thoughts of my own on a standalone computer literacy class in high school.

  • It's never to late - I would agree that high school students shouldn't need a basic computer literacy class, that they should have gained those skills before they reach high school. If, however, they don't have those skills then high schools must have a remedial class, just as they do for Math or English. Otherwise the problem, and the costs, just gets passed to colleges or employers.  By the way ... let's stop debating whether digital natives know everything about computers or not.  Someone needs to establish a baseline skill set, develop an assessment and make all students take the test.  If they fail, welcome to Computers 101. I'm tired of arguing about the measurable.
  • Evolution of essential skills - As with the broad-based adoption of any technology, what you needed to know to use computers ten years ago is different than what you need to know today, and what you'll need to know ten years from now will be different still.  If a Computers 101 class is teaching config.sys files, well it is irrelevant and should be dropped.  
  • Computer drivers license - To carry the last point a step further, we want to teach the computer equivalent of Drivers Ed, not Auto Shop.  The general computer user needs to know how to responsibly use the computer (anti-virus software, cyber-bullying, file management) and how to use applications.  The don't need to know how to rebuild a transmission. 
  • Information literacy - As we move away from teaching the hardware and internals, aren't we really focusing on information literacy instead of computer literacy?  Let's use file management as an example.  We need to teach creating directories and maintaining files, but that's just the mechanics.  If you look at any hard drive, particularly a shared network drive, you will see a complete disaster.  People can create directories and copy files alright.  What they can't do is categorize information so that it is retrievable.  Categorization is an information topic, not a computer topic. 
  • Teach in context - Finally, it seems to me that those skills - responsible use, applications, information literacy - are best taught, practiced and evaluated within the context of other types of coursework, not in a standalone computer class.  In my post What's the Word I suggest ten things everyone should know about MS Word.  It's my opinion that those ten items should be taught, practiced and evaluated in a language arts class, not a technology class.  I learned to write with a pencil in an English class, not in a pencil class.
Okay guys, what are your thoughts?  What are the basic computer and information skills everyone needs?  Is high school too late for that class? Should we use a standalone class or should it be embedded throughout the curriculum? 

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Mrs. Dianne Pappafotopoulos said...

As a Instructional Technology Specialist at an all girls high school, one of my duties is to teach a technology curriculum to our students. I teach several tech courses as electives as well as online courses. The need for computer courses on the high school level varies. Some students have the skills and some do not. I do think that there is a need to prepare our students for college and careers where technology is essential and used on a daily basis. Certainly, students know how to use word processing and the Internet. They are proficient on downloading images from their cameras and participating in social networking sites. They are even experts on downloading music and playing games. But if they are looking at jobs in Business, Finance, Communications, Engineering, or Fine/Graphic Arts, they will need more than these skills. They will need to be educated on how to create Excel spreadsheets to calculate formulas and import data to analyze numbers. They will need to know how to create a presentation that highlights their topic without putting their audience to sleep. They will need to know programs like Photoshop and Illustrator to manipulate images. They will need to be able to handle programming logic using code like HTML and JAVA and Flash. They will need to be able to use software programs like CAD to create animations and 3-D displays. Other important skills include being able to evaluate websites for valid information to use as a resource on their papers and how to cite their references to abide by copyright laws. Unless teachers are willing to integrate and teach these skills within their current curriculums, technology courses that highlight these areas are essential for the 21st Century student on the high school level.