Probing Question: What does computer literacy mean these days?

Remember when watches had springs you would wind? When mail meant letters delivered by a mailman, and the only kind of files came in manila folders? If so, you’re a dying breed. By the mid-1980s, American life had been radically transformed by the computer chip. These days, digital technology governs everything from our alarm clocks and coffeemakers to our cars, books, and newspapers—not to mention the way we work and play on personal computers of all shapes and sizes. Given how thoroughly we’re steeped in today’s wireless web-connected world, how has the meaning of computer literacy changed?

“The term began largely as a way to signify operating a computer, as in how to use it in a functional way,” said Stuart Selber, a Penn State associate professor of English, and Science, Technology and Society. “If you could print or save or back up work, comprehend terms like megabyte or megahertz, and navigate a file structure, then you were considered to be computer literate.”

Today that outdated definition “only gets us so far,” said Selber. “Simply understanding how computers work in functional terms will not lead to the type of informed practice educators are interested in and democracies need.”

Librarians were among the first to expand the term in important ways and change it to “information literacy,” he added. “There’s so much coming at us all the time and librarians rightly worry about the ability of students, teachers and researchers to evaluate all of the information that's out there, especially when it’s distributed through nontraditional channels like blogs and wikis.”

One of the main challenges for academia, Selber said, is shifting the locus of computer education. “I would argue that all fields need to take responsibility for computer literacy. It's not just a technical subject: it permeates all disciplines and tasks in significant ways and is necessarily an interdisciplinary endeavor.”

English departments have a special vantage point on computer literacy, he said.

“We think a lot about how texts work, and the challenges of meaning-making and interpretation. So when we see a computer in front of us, we think of it as a literacy device rather than a computation machine or research tool. That is an important metaphor for the 21st century.”

How can colleges best prepare students for digital careers and lifestyles?

“I’ve been imagining a three-part role for computer literacy,” Selber said, “with students acknowledged as users of technology, questioners of technology and producers of technology. Students are all of these things and need to be able to shift back and forth between the different roles. Ideally, a new approach to computer literacy would draw on the humanities as well as technical fields and would recognize that computers are social all the way down, from their designs to the ways they structure work and activity. Such a robust approach would serve students well as both citizens and workers.”

But if you think becoming computer literate is a fast-track to economic security, think again, said Selber.

“Despite our hopes and dreams, computers do not level the socioeconomic playing field or solve educational problems all on their own. In fact, illiteracy rates don’t look all that different than they did before computers. In certain areas, computers aid productivity and enable new forms of work and play, but they can also create new problems and exacerbate old ones.”

For instance, computers can “de-skill” workers, said Selber. “Cashiers working on computerized cash registers don’t need to know how to count change.”

One wonders what our watch-winding, letter-writing, phone-dialing forebears would make of that.

Stuart Selber, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and an affiliate associate professor of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) at Penn State. He directs the Composition Program and works as a Faculty Fellow in Education Technology Services. He can be reached at sas37@psu.edu.

Last Updated July 12, 2011