Journey to the Center of the Core: Computers and the Internet in the Core Curriculum

Article excerpt

Introduction

No industry is untouched by the information technology revolution. Commerce, education, communication and socialization are among the areas that are undergoing radical transformations. At most universities, fundamental IT skills have not risen to the level of must-have competencies such as math and English. Surprisingly, many universities do not assess IT skills or require a computing course in the core curriculum. Critical IT competencies are often taken for granted, to the detriment of students who lack computing and Internet skills.

Not too many years ago, requiring students to demonstrate a basic level of computer competency was an issue on many college campuses. Several institutions developed computer literacy courses that all students were required to take. The primary focus of these courses was developing basic skills in the use of applications such as word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. Eventually, these computer skill-based courses began to disappear as many educators believed that students were entering the university well-versed in basic computer usage.

While most students today have exposure to computers and experience using the Internet, a gap is emerging between functional and analytical uses of computing technologies. Students may be able to word process and surf the Internet, but they often do not understand the fundamentals of how and why these technologies work. An analogy is often put forth that relates using a computer to driving a car.

Certainly, one does not need to know the engineering principles or mechanical processes that make an automobile work to be a successful driver. But the comparison of the automobile to the computer is incomplete. Whereas the results of driving a car are distinct and finite, the outcomes of using the resources and information that emanate from computer technologies are infinite and complex. Cars get us from point A to point B; information technology allows us to reinterpret the journey.

We have entered the age of ubiquitous and pervasive computing. Universities are again pondering what defines computer literacy and what specific skills are needed to effectively utilize computer technologies. Computer literacy has traditionally been defined as the ability to use computers to perform a variety of tasks, but that definition is no longer adequate. Computer literacy no longer simply means viewing a computer as a collection of applications; it also means using the computer as a means of communication and a source of information (Hoffman, Blake, McKeon, Leone, & Schorr, 2005). These same authors provide an expanded definition of computer literacy. Specifically, they state that computer literacy includes both "information literacy, the ability to evaluate information found online, and critical computer literacy, the ability to incorporate computing technology in support of critical thinking" (p. 164). Moreover, computer literacy must now be extended to digital literacy, as students are increasingly expected to interact with information and content made omnipresent by the fact that it is digitized and available on a cadre of devices.

The challenge of redefining a core course in computing lies in operationalizing the expanded definition of computer literacy. This is a major undertaking as the functional definition of computer literacy is expansive. This paper describes an initiative undertaken by two computer science and information systems professors to assess and remediate IT skills needed by all students at one regional university, regardless of major. The project is evolving along three dimensions: identification of discipline-independent IT competencies, assessment of IT skills among current and incoming students, and curriculum development. Each dimension is elaborated upon below.

Identifying IT Competencies

Preliminary Research

A preliminary investigation was undertaken to formulate a framework upon which a special topics course offering could be developed. …