THE WORLD INSIDE THE COMPUTER
Redefining Computer Literacy
Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor
Last month's column ("The Home Computer Revolution: Another False Start?") projected that the true home computer of the future would be a "digital utility center" that would act as a translator and a terminal, digitizing and uniting such technologies as computing, telecommunications, information storage, audio, and video. This month's installment examines the implications of these developments for educators, parents, and children.
Home computers are a long way from being digital utility centers. But they are moving swiftly in that direction. For that reason, it is important for us to keep this in mind when we teach children the computer skills they will need when they grow up. By looking at what the computer might become, we can better define the skills that our children should acquire.
This is a particularly important time to be looking ahead and examining the bundle of skills that are collectively defined as computer literacy. Personal computers have been around for almost ten years, and the proponents of computer literacy have had time to develop dramatically different points of view.
The oldest camp of computer literacy advocates sticks staunchly to the view that to become computer literate you must learn how to program. Different groups espouse different programming languages, such as BASIC, Logo, Pascal, or even machine language.
The next group of computer literacy advocates claims that programming is a narrow discipline that only a few specialists should learn. Instead, we should be teaching our children how to use computer productivity tools such as word processors, database managers, and communications programs.
A third group of people feels that computer literacy is being oversold and is, in fact, a nonissue. They claim that computers are swiftly becoming user-friendly black boxes and are simultaneously disappearing inside other appliances and are becoming invisible (like electric motors). According to this group, soon we will no longer be dealing with computers. Instead we will be operating computerized telephones, word processors, and other computerized appliances. And as computers themselves disappear, so will computer literacy. With the new easy-to-use computerized appliances, computer literacy will be about as appropriate as telephone literacy, refrigerator literacy, or bathtub literacy. Even small children will discover how to use these appliances, just as they learn how to turn on the TV, open the refrigerator door, and learn how to ride a bicycle.
Fred D'lgnazio is a computer enthusiast, the father of two children, and the author of several books on computers for young people. His books include Katie and the Computer (Creative Computing,) Working Robots (Hayden), The Star Wars Question and Answer Book about Computers (Random House), and Computing Together: A Parents and Teachers Guide to Using Computers with Young Children (COMPUTE! Publications).
Fred appears regularly as the "family computing" commentator on "The New Tech Times," a half-hour public TV program on consumer electronics that airs weekly on more than 240 stations across the country.
Fred's column appears monthly in COMPUTE!.
The Brick-By-Brick Approach
In light of the future potential and evolution of the home computer, I believe that all of the above avenues to computer literacy are limited, fragmented, and incomplete. Surely a brilliant teacher or parent can take any one of the above approaches and introduce their children to all the possibilities of computers, but what are the rest of us to do?
In homes and schools today, most children are being introduced to computers by means of what my old friend Suzie Barnes calls the incremental approach. Every year the computer comes with new kinds of software that can do one or two new things, so children are taught that this is what computers can do. As computers can do more, we add that to the list of what we teach our children. "This is what a computer is," we tell them, "and this is what a computer can do."
For example, only a few years ago computers could do nothing, so simple hands-on experience was enough. Then computers came with programming languages, so that's what we taught our children. Now they come with productivity tools, so we teach them word processing and databases. Maybe next year they will all come with modems and communications software, so we'll teach that and call it computer literacy. And the year after that?
There is nothing wrong with this approach per se, since it does provide children with a hands-on familiarity with computers. But, on its own, it gives children an incredibly narrow, shallow, and passive image of how they can interact with computers. And, even more important, how they should view themselves—and their own minds—vis-à-vis computers.
We are teaching computers the same way we would build a house if we had no concept of the whole structure, and we built the house simply by placing one brick on top of another brick, and standing back every now and then and saying, "Now this looks interesting." We are defining the ultimate structure by the way it looks in its present, incomplete, and unrealized state. And we are focusing on the primitive materials and completely ignoring the architecture.
What's more, the architecture is not merely a new technology such as the digital utility center. Rather, it is our relationship to the technology. It is the way we use the technology, think about the technology, and react to the technology. Most important, it is the way the technology teaches us to think about ourselves—especially our minds.
Toward A New Definition Of Computer Literacy
In earlier articles in COMPUTE! I have written about new approaches to teaching our children about computers. (See "Beyond Computer Literacy," COMPUTE!, September 1983; "How to Get Intimate with Your Computer," COMPUTE!, November 1983; and "Build a Computer in Your Mind," COMPUTE!, September 1984.)
I am worried that if most children's meager exposure to computers is limited to the incremental approach, they will grow up seeing computers only as automated tellers, digital watches, and point-of-sale terminals. Their image of computers will be so constrained and fettered that they will not see beyond these mundane, trivial uses of computers.
In most schools, students are learning that computers are programming engines and information processors. Programming, for example, even Logo programming, is taught in most classrooms as a mechanical skill, like mechanical drawing, carpentry, or automobile repair. Productivity programs are seen as the means to move data around—history data, biology data, economics data.
Programming and data processing are aspects of computers, but they are not the most powerful or central parts of computers. And they are not the most important computer skills our children can learn.
Experts are completely agreed on at least one point: that in the future our children will be using computers to work, to play, and so on. So the question is not whether our children will use computers but how well they use them. If our children use computers only to type text, perform tedious calculations, and prepare reports from databases, then they will be losing the chance for computers to make any significant contribution to their lives. The truth is, we don't need computers to do any of these things. We can do all of them already.
Why We Need Computers
Similarly, if computers are limited to automated drillmasters and electronic workbooks, their impact on young people will be trivial. We don't need computers to teach us facts, figures, and new subjects. We already have other resources, notably parents, teachers, movies, filmstrips, videotapes, books, audio tapes, and so on that do this rather well.
We don't need computers to teach us what to think about—that is being done already. Instead, we need them to teach us how to think better. And also how to learn better, and how to communicate better. And how to imagine better. And how to build a coherent, well-articulated code of ethics that helps us make sense of everything we learn, think, communicate, and imagine.
This is not that hard to do. All it takes is to use these "back to basics" goals as a yardstick when we teach computers to our children. This means, for example, that teaching programming is not enough. Instead we need to teach programming in a manner that will help children think, learn, communicate, and imagine better. And we can't teach productivity tools just for their own sake. We must gauge their utility by how well they help improve children's thinking, learning, communication, and creativity skills.
Our ultimate goal isn't computer literacy. It is to help our children cope with the world of the future by using computers as one of the resources at their disposal. We can help our children be more prepared for that world by stretching and broadening their image of the ways computers can be used and by encouraging them not to become too dependent on computers.
All of this discussion hinges on how we view computers. Are they separate minds that will one day do much of our thinking work for us? Are they pipelines to giant libraries of information that can provide us with a flood of new information? Are they mind enhancers and adjuncts to our brains? Or are they reservoirs of concepts, ideas, and thinking skills that we can learn, borrow from, and use to help us think better on our own?
For my own children, I prefer the final image. I don't want my children to see the computer as an office where they go to get work done, or a filing cabinet to retrieve information, or an annex to their brain that they have to plug into before they do any thinking. Instead I want them to see computers as a mental gymnasium that they frequently visit to strengthen their mental muscles. And they not only carry the beneficial effect from using the exercise with them all day long, but they can build their own gymnasium inside their head, so they can exercise their minds even when they are nowhere near a computer. I call these mental gymnastics "neoprogramming." And I believe they are the surest route to long-term computer literacy.
What Do You Think?
Is the digital utility center the revolution in home computing that we have been waiting for? Is neoprogramming the path to computer literacy? Write and tell me what you think.
Especially write if you disagree with me, or if you have experiences or examples you'd like to share. Here's my address:
P.O. Box 5406
Greensboro, NC 27403