Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Educating for Technological Literacy

Over the course of twenty years’ experience in higher education, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how technology interacts with students and faculty in an educational context, and I’ve heard quite a bit of salesmanship on the topic. I’ve come to see that most of the rhetoric is just that, salesmanship. Either someone is selling some tech or someone has bought into a sales pitch, even to the point where I’ve heard college presidents threaten to fire faculty who “don’t use technology in the classroom.”

This situation proceeds from a failure to understand how student learning works, what role technology can play in it, and how technology should be integrated into the classroom. I’m first going to suggest a way of thinking differently, and then I’m going to recommend concrete ways to implement that thinking.

I’d like to distinguish between two ways of thinking about technology and education:

  1. Students should be educated using technology.
  2. Students should be educated in the use of technology.

All of our problems come from confusing the first statement with the second.

Students do not necessarily need to be educated using technology. For example, students can receive the most important benefits of all text-based education using only a pad, a pencil, and a book. But they do need to be educated in the use of technology: what it is, how it works, what it means to use it, and how it interacts with society at large. This latter kind of education I’m calling technological literacy.

Believing that we need to educate our students using technology means we continually look for the latest new gadget that will finally replace our teachers, and that’s a misguided quest. But belief in the need for technological literacy is a curricular matter, something that considers what kind of education in technology students need for their majors and their future careers. For the most part, our applied sciences have this figured out, because the tech in many significant ways is the field, or is inextricably a part of it (AutoCAD, anyone?). But step outside of the applied sciences and the problems begin, and this distinction between educating students using technology and educating students in the use of technology becomes all important.

Requiring that we educate students using technology is, I think, badly misguided. For the most part, educational technology is always an additional barrier to learning, not only a supplement. It’s a wall between students and their interaction with the material, and anyone who has worked with educational technology knows that it always requires a learning curve (which is sometimes very steep), never completely delivers, sometimes doesn’t deliver at all, and often breaks down. As a result, we spend too much time worrying about the tech and not enough learning about our subjects and developing our skills.

This isn’t to say that educational technology isn’t a benefit. I don’t think I would want to work without a learning management system, which is an online system containing material associated with each course. These systems are just too practical in some ways, especially in giving students one place to access course materials such as the syllabus, the course schedule, their grade book, and regular communication from their instructors. But anyone who has worked with them knows all of their problems. And beyond that obvious application, there are some highly effective, specialized tools, such as computer programs that help students with dyslexia, that all students should have access to if needed.

So I’m not a luddite, but I think we need to be aware of the limitations and problems inherent in focusing on educating students using technology. There is a better way of thinking, however, which is focusing instead on educating students to use technology, or on technological literacy. We live our lives immersed in a variety of technologies that we cannot escape. As a result, we should know what these everyday technologies are, how they work, why we need them, and how they connect with the larger world. As a curricular matter, then, I think all college students should receive the following instruction as a regular part of their general education curriculum:

  1. Advanced training in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and their equivalents.
  2. A basic understanding of what networks are and how they function.
  3. A basic understanding of what databases are and how they function.
  4. A basic understanding of the internet, social media, and related privacy and access issues, instruction that should be connected to instruction in information literacy.
  5. A commitment to the application of this training and knowledge in upper division coursework.

Obviously, if we provide students education in the use of technology, we will be educating them using technology, but our focus will be completely different. It will be on technological literacy, a new form of literacy badly needed in today’s highly tech-oriented world but still very much lacking in most educational institutions.

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