Saturday, April 23, 2005

Commentary: Sotir: Comments on Technological Literacy

Educational theorist E.D. Hirsch, Jr. noted that 'literate people in every society and every culture share a body of knowledge that enables them to communicate with each other and make sense of the world around them. The kinds of things a literate person knows will vary from society to society and from era to era; so there is no absolute definition of literacy.'

Today's society and culture demands that technological literacy be a necessary component of literacy in general. So much of our life is defined by the development and usage of technology. There is no greater indicator of the impact of technology on our society than the Y2K terror at the beginning of this millennium. People were frozen in fear that they would awake on January 1 without computers. Many were nearly paralyzed as a craze worthy of 'War of the Worlds' hit business and individuals alike. Of course, January 1 dawned with none of the fears realized, and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. However, it illustrates how deeply technology has impacted society in about 30 years. Although computers have been around for much longer, it was the advent of the personal computer that redesigned the world as we know it. Since the first Apple computer was created and housed in a handcrafted koa wood case, personal computers have become integral to business, science, research and education.

In 1943, Thomas Watson of IBM said 'I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.' To be fair to the less than visionary Mr. Watson, even as late as the 1960's a Univac computer cost about $1.6 million and covered an area nearly as large as a ball field. Even less visionary was Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp. who in 1977 declared 'There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home'. Mr. Watson was 34 years away from the vision of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1975. Mr Olsen should have known better.

However, since the first Apple in 1975 and the first meeting of IBM and Bill Gates in 1981, computers have become ubiquitous to our society. While Jobs and Wozniak hired out a cabinet maker to make the original housing, by 1982 Gates and IBM were selling their PC's at Sears. Even national elections have been defined by the original punch cards invented in 1801 (remember hanging and pregnant chads?). But while we are still utilizing old technologies for voting, society is overwhelmed by the lightening speed that new technologies are developed. Punch cards went to 8" floppies. We then moved quickly through 5.25" floppies, 3.5" not so floppies, to CDs in '85, DVD's in '96 and keydrives in '00. A single CD can contain over 1000 average novels. Bluetooth standard allows any sort of electronic equipment...from computers and cell phones to keyboards and make its own connections without wires, cables or any direct action by the user. Information is just there, in the air around us.

What does this imply for education? The need for more and more dollars to support the technology habit that we as a society employ. Children, who have never known a world without computers, are born cable ready. Just point them in a direction of a computer and let them go. A two year old who watches PBS can tell you that the web address is ' . Perhaps they are not clear on the concept of a web address, but they know it is necessary to reach the home of Teletubbies, Boobah and Barney. They just KNOW.

Our job as educators must move at the same rapid rate. In a relatively short time, the digital immigrants born before 1975 will be outpaced by the digital natives born after that date. We need to keep up with, and more importantly, accept the changes that come into our lives daily. Some changes are easier than others. Most people can accept the idea of cell phones, even though there is a question of whether they make our lives easier or bring the potential for even more stress. Emily Post never dealt with the etiquette of proper use of a phone in a public setting, and yet we have all had the frustration of someone's phone ringing in church or in a concert or theater. But change, in this technological society, is inevitable. After all, YOU are reading a BLOG.