Computer Literacy: Necessity or Buzzword?

Article excerpt

While the concept of computer literacy has existed for some time, the name has certainly changed. Whatever the name, the concept of computer literacy still has merit. By looking at the history of the computer literacy movement for grounding, we can build a definition for the next century and affirm that learning computer basics is a good thing for library staff to do.

The term computer literacy seems to have faded from library literature, but has the belief that the general populace should possess a basic computer-skill level faded as well? Have we already achieved this nebulous goal, or has the goal been redefined into something else? Are the skills we used to define computer literacy now called computer competency or possibly one of a host of terms, such as digital literacy, computer skills, Internet literacy, Informatics, computer proficiency, and others that have been used for more than two decades?

Whatever the name, the concept of computer literacy still has merit. By looking at the history of the computer literacy movement for grounding, we can build a definition for the next century and know that learning computer basics is a good thing for library staff to do.

History of the Computer Literacy Movement

People have been trying to define computer literacy for some time. As early as 1968, the National Science Foundation (NSF), at the urging of President Nixon and Congress, took a leadership role by adding the study of computers to the science curriculum of the United States. NSF held a 1980 conference that gathered computer scientists and classroom teachers to make the first attempts at defining computer literacy, as well as indicating that it was a multifaceted idea. (1)

Another component in the rise of the computer literacy movement was the marketing of desktop computers to both businesses and individuals in the early 1980s. The general populace was just being introduced to the idea of owning their own computers, corresponding with the introduction of the IBM and Macintosh Apple PCs to much fanfare. Time Magazine even named the computer its Man of the Year in 1982. (2) The eighties brought the computer out of laboratories and into homes, setting the stage for a new era of thinking about these machines.

A brief look at the number of articles indexed under the heading "Computers--Study and Teaching," the subject heading most closely related to computer literacy in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, shows a dramatic increase in the mid-1980s (see figure 1). In 1984 Donald Norman said:

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

   Computer literacy is a common catch phrase, a popular
   slogan that whets the appetite of politicians and
   academics. But what does it mean? How would we
   produce it? Computer literacy can mean a hundred
   different things; there is not just a single concept
   involved, but a large variety of them. (3)

At this time he also proposed a scheme for four levels of computer literacy. The first level consisted of mastering what Norman believed to be basic, general concepts, to which the understanding of algorithms, architecture, and databases was key. The second level required an understanding of how to use a computer and accomplish something useful with it. The third level of computer literacy was the ability to program and the fourth level was the understanding of the science of computation, or "where the professional resides." Norman opined that everyone should achieve at least the second level of his computer literacy scale. (4)

Almost a decade later Howard Besser noted:

   Anyone involved in discussions around the development
   of a computer literacy curriculum in the 1980s
   recognizes the ambiguity of the term. Courses in programming,
   word processing, and even in explanations
   of basic components (such as how to use a floppy disk)
   all were termed computer literacy. (5)

He also made the observation that most hardware and software being used train people would be obsolete in the future, just like Apple IIs and Wordstar are obsolete now, so it is better to teach computer concepts instead of specifics. …