Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 80 / JANUARY 1987 / PAGE 86

The World Inside the Computer

Fred D'Ignazio, Associate Editor

Computers For Adult Literacy

In his book Illiterate America (Doubleday, 1985), Jonathan Kozol unleashes a bombshell: 25 million American adults cannot read the poison warnings on a can of pesticide, the front page of a newspaper, or a letter from their child's teacher. Another 35 million cannot read well enough to function successfully on their job. That's 60 million people-more than a third of all U.S. adults-who are functionally illiterate. These figures cause the U.S. to be ranked 49th in literacy out of the U.N.'s 158 nations.
    Among disadvantaged minorities the problem is even worse. Forty-seven percent of all black 17 year-olds are functionally illiterate. By 1990 that figure will be closer to 50 percent. More than 40 percent of all welfare mothers cannot read or write. In Boston, 40 percent adults are illiterate. And in Utah, which spends more on education, per capita, than any other state, 200,000 adults are unable to read well enough to find employment.
    The numbers keep getting worse; we're turning out more and more illiterate children from our schools every year, and it's costing the U.S. an estimated $100 billion in lost income. According to a national study on adult illiteracy, we are "A Nation at Risk."

What Can Be Done?
I think we can use personal computers to fight illiteracy. As a computer enthusiast, I have long been impressed with the way a personal computer can transfer power to an individual. In this case, the computer needs to transfer the power of literacy to individuals.
    One company cannot solve the problem of adult illiteracy on its own. The problem is too gigantic. An industry group must be created, along the lines of the High Sierra Group. The group should come up with an industry-wide:
• Design of a small, portable personal computer that can be put into the hands of millions of illiterate adults.
• Design of educational software that teaches these adults some fundamental reading and writing skills-in a practical, applied way relevant to these adults' daily lives.
    At a superficial level, the problem looks easy. We design the computers and the software, and we put them into the hands of the needy individuals. Then they follow our programmed instruction, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and learn to read and write on their own.
    Nothing could be more naive.
    Kozol warns against the quick, easy technological fix. "Those who market personal computers," he writes, "have begun to foster an insidious idea that individual learners, sheltered in the privacy of their own homes, may now at last be able to determine, shape, and supervise their own instruction. They can determine the pace, the pressure, or the necessary repetition of a predetermined sequence of ideas. However they cannot shape the content; nor can they subvert the passive stance which the computerized agenda has congealed ... People can press buttons. The buttons allow them the illusion of manipulation. It is a disarming substitute ... for anything like real control over their lives."

Gaining Personal Control
I have more faith in personal computers than Kozol, but I think he has identified the central problem: It is lack of control-personal control over one's life. If an army of technological do-gooders descended on adult illiterates promising "Literacy Today the Programmed Way," the effort would surely fail. Illiteracy is more than not knowing how to read or write. It's a dismal swamp of environment, schooling, family life, personal values, attitudes, and circumstances. And people are sinking deeper and deeper into that swamp. Simply handing them a personal computer would be a cruel trick. It would be like handing them an oar to save them from drowning, then forgetting to hold on at the other end.
    To rescue people from illiteracy, we have to give people both hope and control. And we have to make sure that the learning process doesn't lie completely between the learner and the machine. Other human beings (fellow computer enthusiasts, that's you!) need to be involved. As Kozol says, "Mechanical means too frequently have mechanistic ends." It is important to design the software and the administration of the literacy program to make sure that we improve people's lives and well-being, not just improve their literacy score.
    Adult illiteracy is a frightening, daunting problem. But it also can be a wonderful opportunity. We're moving quickly to a new era, a "post-Gutenberg" era, in which books must coexist with television, radio, movies, computers, videos, electronic music, and global telecommunications. With the maturation of compact disc technology, we'll be able to create interactive, multimedia books, complete with animations, Sesame Street-like dancing numbers and words, still photographs, and high-fidelity music. Like our own personal storyteller, our books will speak to us, show us pictures, and teach us.
    Few literate adults are prepared for this new online, interactive, multimedia world. Perhaps there is a way to train the vast numbers of illiterate adults so that they can enter this world directly and be one step ahead of the rest of us. That's a goal worth shooting for.