Tech Literacy Confusion

By Andrew Trotter — January 16, 2009 7 min read

Teaching literacy—reading and writing—is a core mission for schools, but today’s young people increasingly “read” 3-D computer simulations and “write” via social networks such as Facebook. A growing chorus of experts say schools should add these forms of communication to their literacy mission as “technology literacy.”

“In the past, schools were geared to teach and transmit content knowledge that was always shared face to face and through paper, limited to physical presence or a book or paper,” says Tessa Jolls, the president of the Center for Media Literacy, a nonprofit group based in Malibu, Calif., that assists schools. “The transition to the Internet means that distribution is possible electronically, requiring new process skills.”

Not content to express themselves in text, young people now use other resources for “making meaning online, including image, sound, color, space, avatars, video, and movement,” writes Rebecca W. Black, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, and Constance Steinkuehler, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the newly published Handbook of Adolescent Literacy Research.

“In order to successfully consume and produce messages in online spaces, youth must learn to negotiate or become literate not only in such myriad forms of representation but also in how such multimodal resources can interact with and complement one another,” Black and Steinkuehler write in their chapter titled “Literacy in Virtual Worlds.”

They argue, further, that technology literacy should include the processes and conventions of online communities in which young people may use the new forms of communication—for example, “fan fiction” Web sites and “massively multiplayer online games.”

But the scientific community and corporate worlds say the need for young people to receive better preparation in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—and for 21st-century careers justifies adding the fundamentals of those areas to the definition of technology literacy.

Still other groups argue that technology literacy should cover Internet safety, cyberbullying, and laws on the use of intellectual property.

Many educators, even those who agree technology literacy is important, are confused by the phrase’s competing meanings and the diverse ways of measuring it.

See Also

How would you define tech literacy? Tell us in DD‘s forum.

“What has struck me from the get-go, as a technology-literacy teacher, is it’s so nebulous,” says Carole L. Colburn, who teaches at Highlander Way Middle School in Howell, Mich. “There is no definition of what really makes a student technology-literate, or technologically literate.”

Government Action

Government efforts to promote technology literacy culminated at the federal level in a national goal, adopted seven years ago in the No Child Left Behind Act, that all students be technology-literate by 8th grade. The federal law left it to states, however, to define the concept and persuade schools to teach it.

Many states have adopted, or are working on, standards for technology literacy, and more than 10 states now have assessments of students’ technology literacy.

State and school district efforts generally draw heavily on standards developed by the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, as well as more recent curriculum frameworks released by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an education and industry coalition. In November, for example, the partnership and the National Council of Teachers of English published a framework that models how 21st-century skills can be infused into English classes.

A few curriculum and testing companies have responded to market demand for technology-literacy products.

The Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service created the iSkills Assessment, a test to measure critical thinking and problem-solving in a digital environment. Although it is designed for college freshmen, the test has been used in some high schools.

And, a company based in Portland, Ore., sells a technology-literacy curriculum for K-8 students, to help them apply technology skills in math, language arts, social studies, and science. The company also offers a technology-proficiency assessment, adopted by Texas for a two-year pilot program ending in December 2009 and involving about 7,200 students.

Still, no consensus surrounds what exactly technology literacy means. As a result, data collection remains scattershot.

In Michigan, for example, districts may choose from four different methods of reporting the percentage of students who are technologically literate by the 8th grade, according to Colburn. A district may report the percentage of students who pass an assessment; who demonstrate technology literacy by creating an electronic portfolio; who have successfully completed a class in technology literacy; or whom teachers simply have observed as meeting criteria for being technologically literate.

No Single Definition

Some new efforts may clarify the definition, however, including a high-profile push to add a technological-literacy test to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Ed-Tech Experts Sound Off

“When we have a president-elect communicating by using a cell phone, and sending text messages from a cell phone, we have really left the 20th century.”
Carol Colburn
Technological literacy teacher
Highlander Way Middle School, Howell, Mich.

“I would argue that a student equipped with strong skills in word processing will more rapidly develop and improve their writing fluency and ability to consume and interpret the writing of other. In other words, what we think of as a ‘digital’ literacy ends up really being a mechanism for enhancing students’ abilities in a ‘traditional’ literacy.”
William J. Kelly
Cofounder and CEO

“Today in education, we must teach children where they are and not where we were. ... We should work to support students in responsibly using technology to access, manage, and evaluate information, solve problems, and build and share knowledge.”
Joe A. Hairston
Baltimore County Public Schools

“Technology literacy skills historically have been defined as operational: Can you use the computer, use the mouse? Today though, information literacy skill must build on the operational by focusing on aspects like collection, organization, analysis, and synthesis—understanding what you have, what you can get and what you can do with it. Clearly, you need the operational skills to do the informational piece, but the emphasis should be on the latter.”
Timothy J. Magner
Director of the Office of Educational Technology
U.S. Department of Education

In December, the steering and planning committees appointed by the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, were scheduled to meet in Washington to start creating a framework for the new evaluation, to be added to the federally sponsored assessment on a pilot basis in 2012.

The test will be “totally computer-based,” says Steven A. Schneider, an official at WestEd, a nonprofit research and policy firm, located in Redwood City, Calif., which was awarded the contract to develop the framework and the specifications for the test.

At press time, participants in the 18-month project had not been released, but representatives of educational technology groups, high-tech industries, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills were likely to be included, according to Schneider.

The governing board says a NAEP technological-literacy assessment is needed for the nation to understand U.S. students’ ability to compete in a global marketplace and to keep pace with quickly evolving technology.

Schneider says that although the test framework will provide a clear statement of what technological literacy entails, those twin goals may also be sources of tension.

The framework is apt to be biased toward technology skills practical to assess on NAEP, which would downplay long-term science activities, for example.

“I don’t think we’re going to come to full agreement on a single definition for technology literacy, but I really don’t think it’s necessary,” says Donald G. Knezek, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based ISTE, which recently released the second edition of its widely used National Educational Technology Standards for students.

But Knezek, who is a co-chair of the framework steering committee, says he is aware that the committee is “loaded with engineering types,” as well as a representative from the International Technology Education Association, which has developed curricula and activities around STEM and design. “Their definition of technological literacy is much more industrial and career-oriented,” he says. “Our definition is much more ICT—information and communication and learning technologies.”

The likely result is “a mash-up of the two,” Knezek says. Engineering design, such as “robotics and pre-engineering kinds of stuff,” will probably be included, he says.

Knezek says that only one of six categories of ISTE’s standards for students is technology literacy, strictly speaking. That category is “technology operations and concepts,” he says.

“I think the five others are so heavily higher-order skills, and higher-order education and learning standards, they’re probably misnamed as essential learning standards for the digital age,” Knezek says.

‘Turf War’

But other competing definitions of technology literacy will also work their way into the debate, WestEd’s Schneider suggests.

Technology literacy is prone to generating heated discussion, says Kathleen Tyner, the author of Literacy in a Digital World.

“There is sort of a turf war, so people can support their fields—library science, educational technology, and so on. You can see various aims and purposes. That’s why their definitions overlap,” says Tyner, a professor in the radio, television, and film program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Tyner and other experts say defining technology literacy as a grab bag for any and every skill related to digital technology and STEM may not be a service.

By definition, literacy skills are those that everyone should have for civic participation; they should be skills within reach of just about everyone and be useful for a lifetime, Tyner says. By this view, including too many specific technical skills, high-level cognitive skills, and specialized workforce skills—even if valuable—would only make technology literacy more difficult to promote and achieve.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as Tech Literacy Confusion


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