SPECIAL REPORT: Learning in a Digital Age: Insights into the Issues, The Skills Students Need for Te


Editor's Note: ThisExecutive Summary is reprinted with permission of the Milken FamilyFoundation, the copyright owner. To read the full report, log ontowww.milkenexchange.org.

The computer is no longer" the new kid in school." Since the early 1980s, when computers werefirst used in schools, more than $3 billion has been spent onhardware, software, teacher training, and connections. But are ourstudents technologically literate or, as many have begun to demand,technologically fluent? These are important questions for America'ssuccess -- and that of its children -- in the information age, but weneed a consensus on what it means for students to be facile withtechnology. Is there a set of "necessary skills" that definetechnological fluency? Can this set be expanded to include thebroader communication and information skills students will need inthe global economy of the twenty-first century?

In considering this issue,we must recognize that the effective use of technology to developlearning, communication, and information skills is the result of manyfactors, chief of which are the teacher, her competence and abilityto shape technology-based learning activities to meet students'learning needs. Other factors -- software, access, school support inallowing time and experimentation to try new things -- all have aplace in the impact technology can have on students and theirachievement, as has been noted in many past analyses.[1] Butthere is another key element, one that may seem obvious, but which infact has been overlooked in many past studies of computer-basedlearning in the classroom. One recent study put it succinctly: "Theeffect of computer-based learning technologies in facilitatingstudent learning and performance is seen only when participants havethe knowledge and skill to use the technology." [2] Whilethis may seem self-evident, the authors report that it was perhapsbecause of the "assumed power of the technology" -- that pastresearchers have not evaluated the knowledge and skill base necessaryfor students to use technology most effectively.

What do students need toknow and do with technology? Unlike the more stable content and goalswe have for other areas of school study, technology continues tochange and evolve; with these changes come ever-new goals for howtechnology should serve learning, and what students should know abouttechnology. A review of the "prevailing wisdom" about appropriatetechnology use since the early 1980s takes one down an ever-turningroad that includes programming in BASIC, then with LOGO; and on todrill and practice applications on integrated systems;word-processing and curriculum-specific tools like history databases,simulations, and microcomputer-based labs; then multimedia; theInternet; and now Web page design. While there may be some logic tothis progression, the reality is that, just as educators get theirarms around one approach, with the attendant investments in software,training and possible curricular readjustments, the messages aboutappropriate technology use change


Assessmentsof Computer Competence

These changingexpectations have been reflected in past large-scale assessments of"computer competence," such as the 1985-86 National Assessment ofEducational Progress (NAEP) national assessment of computercompetence. This national sampling of third-, seventh- andeleventh-grade students assessed their knowledge and skills in usinga computer, using questions dealing with recognition or recall ofspecific facts, and procedures related to computer use.

Measures of computerliteracy, not unlike those in the first NAEP study, were targeted inthe Computers in Education Study undertaken by the InternationalAssociation for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement(IEA).[3] The 1992 study tested and analyzed basic computerknowledge and skills in 12 countries, with test items developed andreviewed by an international team, and translated into severallanguages. The curriculum analyses made from a 1989 study revealedlittle consensus, either within countries or across countries,regarding computer goals, making it a challenge to design anassessment instrument. The instrument that was developed, called theFunctional Information Technology Test, tested what students neededto function effectively with information-related tasks, with testitems built around concepts, computer handling, andapplications.

FactorsInfluencing the Definition of Skills

While past national andinternational assessments are important in helping to understand howfar we have come as a nation in student technological understandingsand skills, it is useful to bring our focus to the present, andconsider the factors that influence today's definitions of necessaryskills for technological fluency. These include the demands driven byexpanding information and communication resources, businessinfluences, national leadership, and the curriculum standardsmovement. Taken together, they suggest today's definition oftechnological literacy as a combination of what separately have beencalled information skills and literacy, communications skills andliteracy, and technology skills necessary to function in atechnological environment. Today's definitions of technologicalfluency evolve from the intersection created by the technology pull-- that is, advances in what the technology can do, and how it isused in the world beyond the classroom -- as well as the pedagogicalpush -- changing views of learning reflected in the educationalstandards and assessments that drive instruction.


Information Literacy inthe Age of the Internet. Concern about information literacypredates the computer age. In language arts, there has long been anemphasis on teaching students to develop skills they need in order toanalyze the written word and the messages found therein. With thegrowing influence of television in our daily lives, many have calledfor media literacy that gives students tools to interpret, critique,and evaluate what they see on television and in movies and videos.However, today's rapid growth of the Internet and the access itprovides to large amounts of information has ignited a firestorm ofconcern regarding the need for increased attention to informationliteracy. Unlike the information students receive from earlier formsof media -- textbooks, television, documentaries, library materials-- all of which have been carefully researched, documented, andselected for publication and presentation, especially when used ineducational settings -- what comes across on the Internet is"undigested" information, provided by expert and novice alike,scholars and shysters, pedagogues and pedophiles. The days whenteachers and parents were able to control and orchestrate all theinformation presented to students are past. The technology pull ofthe Internet will force the issue of developing broader informationliteracy skills for all students if we expect them to sort the wheatfrom the chaff, the true from the untrue, the rumor from the real. Inorder to work, learn, and flourish in what has been called the"Infosphere," [4] students will need to become skilledin:

  • Finding information from a variety of sources;
  • Evaluating information;
  • Making critical judgments about its value, reliability, and validity; and
  • Creating and distributing information and knowledge via the many communication forms -- text, video, graphics, conversation -- that come together in today's technology-mediated communications formats.

Business Demands.The business community has been an important voice calling forstudents to develop technological literacy.[5] As earlyas 1991, in the Department of Labor report What Work Requires ofStudents,[6] the Secretary's Commission onAchieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) identified skills and attributesnecessary for employment in the workplace:

  • Resource allocation skills -- handling time, money, materials, space, and staff;
  • Interpersonal skills -- working on teams, teaching others, serving customers, leading, negotiating, and working well with people from culturally diverse backgrounds;
  • Information skills -- acquiring and evaluating data, organizing and maintaining files, interpreting and communicating, and using computers to process information;
  • Systems skills -- understanding social, organizational, and technological systems, monitoring and correcting performance, and designing or improving systems; and
  • Technology skills -- selecting equipment and tools, applying technology to specific tasks, and maintaining and troubleshooting technologies.

These skills are requiredin the expanding global economy in which American business mustoperate. Success in this global economy requires high performanceindustries -- those that can create new products or services that areof high quality or those that add value to existing goods andservices. In turn, these high-performance industries will be builtaround a workforce composed of individuals who are flexible learners,able to change, adapt, and move with the opportunities technology andinnovation offer. Management at all levels will require a cadre of"symbolic analysts," individuals who are competent in working withabstractions, facile with systems thinking, comfortable withexperimentation, and can work collaboratively to solveproblems.

New Views ofLearning. The factory-like organization of schools of theindustrial age were structured to support a transmission model ofeducation in which teaching was telling, and learning was memorizing.New views of cognition support[7] a constructivist viewthat suggests "advanced skills of comprehension, reasoning,composition, and experimentation are acquired not through thetransmission of facts but through the learner's interaction withcontent." [8] This approach takes advantage of astudent's natural ability to learn through experience and to "createmental structure ... organize and synthesize the information andexperiences which the individual encounters in the world." [9]Information and communication technologies like the Internet supportthis approach to teaching and learning, which encourages learning inauthentic contexts, collaboration and external supports, and use ofmultiple primary source materials and resources, as well astextbooks.

Federal Leadership andNational Standards. Federal leadership, from the identificationof computer literacy as a fourth basic skill in A Nation atRisk in 1983, to the current emphasis on educational technologyin the Clinton Administration, has brought important attention andresources to the picture.[10] Because the UnitedStates, unlike many other countries, d'es not have a nationalcurriculum, there is an emerging consensus on what students shouldlearn, building on the national curriculum standards developed overthe last several years by a range of professional associations. Thesestandards have had a major impact on performance standards developedat the state and district level. Curriculum standards and benchmarkshave been developed, or are in the process of being drafted, in theareas of mathematics, science, history, language arts, geography, thearts, civics, economics, foreign languages, health, physicaleducation, and social studies.[11] They have providedsignposts that direct today's state and local standardsmovement.

State andDistrict Technology Standards

Nevertheless, policymakersat the state and district levels continue to struggle with a centraldilemma. Should they define and measure learning goals fortechnology, or what can be called first-level technology skills(e.g., learning about technology), or should they instead define andmeasure the second-level goals for learning through technology (e.g.," thinking with computers" )? A survey of state technology directorsby the Milken Family Foundation in September, 1997, found that, ofthe 47 respondents, 13 reported technology skills embedded incurricular standards, three had discrete technology standards, and 17reported both embedded and discrete standards.

North Carolina provides aninteresting example of curriculum standards that separate technologyskills as discrete skills to be tested. Illinois provides acontrasting model, where standards for technology are embedded in thebenchmarks for the curriculum standards rather than as a separate setof competencies. Neither technology-specific nor grade-level-specificbenchmarks, they are built around what is called "six essentiallearnings in a technological society." [12] Theindicators call for assuring that all students are:

  • Information seekers, navigators, and evaluators;
  • Critical thinkers, analyzers, and selectors of information and technologies appropriate to the task;
  • Creators of knowledge using information resources and technology;
  • Effective communicators using a variety of appropriate technologies/media;
  • Technical users; and
  • Responsible citizens in a technological age.

School districts, likestates, vary in the approaches they take to technology skillsstandards and assessment. Two contrasting approaches are JeffersonCounty, Kentucky's delineation of technology-specific skills, and thetechnology-embedded curriculum adopted by the Cupertino Union SchoolDistrict in California. What d'es it look like when students usetechnology in real contexts? In collaborativetelecommunications-based science projects such as GLOBE(http://www.globe.gov/),Kids as Global Scientists (www-kgs.colorado.edu),or Global Lab (http://globallab.terc.edu),students conduct research in their home community and share the datawith colleagues around the world. Thus, they develop competence withtechnological tools at the same time they develop research skills,content knowledge, and the ability to collaborate with peers andadults, both in the classroom and at a distance.

In New Jersey' -- sPrinceton High School, world history students created a virtualmuseum in which they selected, studied, and built Web pages for"clickable masterpieces" that support their studies (http://www.prs.k12.nj.us/Schools/PHS/History/World_History/).Their analyses integrate various topics (e.g., history, mythology,geography, religion, and cultural information) in the context ofartistic approaches taken by the artists and the messages found intheir works. As they isolate small portions of the paintings forfurther discussion, the students research deeper into the variouslayers of meaning they find in the art works. When asked the value ofsupplementing their world history studies with this time-consumingtechnology activity, students report that, because they arepresenting their work on the Internet, where it can be viewed byanyone around the world, they have to be clear, accurate, andthoughtful in their analyses and presentations. As one student putit, "Because I'm teaching it to someone else, I really have tounderstand it myself." [13]

In the Virtual Canyonproject -- supported by a two-year National Science FoundationNetworking in Education grant -- students in elementary, middle, andhigh schools in the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District arecollaborating with scientists from local universities and theMonterey Bay Aquarium and Research Institute (MBARI) to design andcreate field guides on the World Wide Web, based on underseaexplorations deep into the wonders of the huge canyon beneath theMonterey Bay. Using dynamic video collected by MBARI's remotelycontrolled vehicle, the teams of students, teachers, and scientistsare developing a learning system wherein content, technology,expertise, and knowledge meet in an ever-growing, user-orientedon-line environment. As the students conduct their research usingthese resources, and publish reports on the Web, they build expertiseabout the creatures and conditions they are studying, the scientificprocess itself, and how to use technology as a tool for communicationand research.[14]

Implicationsfor Policy

Several key policy issuesneed to be addressed if we are to move beyond isolated promisingprojects and into a broader landscape of curriculum and teaching thatsupports technological fluency for all students.

Teacher Issues. Ifstudents are expected to develop technological fluency, theirteachers must also possess this fluency. While most teachers areeager to use technology, most were not taught to teach with computersand other technological tools.[15] States are beginningto address this issue by developing standards for teachers'technological competency at the same time they develop them forstudents. In an informal survey conducted by the U.S. Department ofEducation, 20 states reported having in place, or under development,technology standards for teachers, and three more said they are underconsideration. Thirty-five states require courses or proficiencies ineducational technology for those seeking a teaching license, and fourstates require this for recertification.

Standards and assessmentsevaluating the technological skills of entry-level teachers areeasier to implement than those for teachers already in the classroom.It is a delicate issue, but some school systems realize they may beputting the cart before the horse in testing students without findingout how much their teachers know in the area; and others believe thatstandards are necessary to assure that teachers get the training andsupport they need.

Some places have taken thehard line, issuing a wake-up call for those in leadership positions.Jefferson County has used technology testing as a means of signalingthe view that facility with technology is a "necessary skill" forthose seeking administrative positions. All those seeking to enterpositions at the principal, assistant principal, or otheradministrative levels, must take a technology test, which isadministered electronically. Those who are uncomfortable with thisrequirement have two options -- to take the free training offered bythe district that will give them the necessary skills to pass thetest, or to forgo the opportunity to move into a leadership positionwith the county schools.

Testing Issues. Howmuch testing is necessary to ascertain student (or teacher)technological fluency? The costs of developing, administering, andreporting test results are considerable. Furthermore, once thecommitment has been made to test students, educators must agree onhow this testing should be conducted. The debates that rage aroundthe issue of performance assessment confirm that there are no simplesolutions. If schools seek to develop teaching and learning skillsbuilt on a more constructivist approach, with students creatingproducts that call for them to apply existing skills and use these tosolve what one educator called "fat problems" -- those rich increative and analytical possibilities -- can we continue to buildassessments around more limited multiple choice tests of factualrecall?

These concerns also plaguethe question of testing technology skills. As Jefferson Countyschools found, even the most traditional testing of computer skillsis complicated by needing a working computer to authentically measurethat learning. Even greater expense is involved when that testingbecomes more problem-based or "authentic,"as in Jefferson County'sDemonstrations of Quality Work items being tested this year. Thechallenge lies in designing assessments that measure second-levelskills of technological fluency -- facility in using technology aswell as understanding its specialized rules and metaphors. Thefinancial risks involved are considerable, especially forlarge-scale, high-stakes tests.

Issues of Equity.If next-generation technology-based testing becomes the norm, willstudents be at a disadvantage if they come from schools wheretechnology is not widely used? If some teachers choose not to usetechnology in their teaching, will they be placing their students atrisk? These questions suggest that all educators must agree on themost appropriate ways to assess both students' knowledge andinformation-age skills, and on policies to assure students areequally prepared to meet those assessments. For high-stakes testing-- with results having the same kind of impact on students as do theSAT or GRE, or on schools and their staff as do some state testingprograms like Maryland's MSPAP -- then the tests must be fair andappropriate measures of necessary skills. This is as true fortechnology skills as for other academic skills.

Another equity issue israised when some educators focus resources on teaching students onlyfirst-level technology skills, that is, how to work the technology,and neglect to teach the second-level skills of symbolicrepresentation and knowledge integration in which technology is avehicle for deeper understanding and alternative ways of representinginformation. Will this mean that some students graduate only withtechnical skills, while others are equipped to become symbolicanalysts and knowledge workers functioning at higher levels insociety?

Surveys, Tests, andResource Allocations. What gives districts and states the bestinformation they need to make decisions on which to frame policy? Cansurveys about technology use give us equally valuable information forpolicymaking, at less cost and burden to students and teachers thantests? In one model, used by the Bellingham Public Schools(http://www.bham.wednet.edu/elmankat.htm),students self-report what they can do with computers and multimedia,file management, presentation resources, information searching, andother technology-supported activities. The results are used to deriveelementary, middle, and high school technology outcomes.

Research. Muchneeds to be done to better understand how technology skills are bestdeveloped, assessed, and supported. There is little agreement oncommon data elements that could be collected across projects to givea clearer picture of outcomes. Schools and school systems are hungryfor assistance in this area -- data they should collect, activitiesthey should observe and record, indexes that go beyond test scores,criteria that suggest when to make mid-course adjustments, bestpractices they can adopt, and models they can emulate. With thesubstantial investments in technology at all levels, greater fundingand dissemination of research will assist educators and policymakersat all levels in implementing technology goals andapplications.


If teaching withever-changing technologies is like building an airplane while it isin flight, then defining and assessing what skills are needed to workand learn with technology is akin to developing a flight plan enroute. Nonetheless, the reality of today's technological environmentmeans that educators must address the issue of technological fluencyfor all students. Perhaps what is most exciting and promising is thatthe demands of technology are forcing educators to have conversationsabout broad goals for teaching and learning in the twenty-firstcentury. Through these conversations and the policies that evolvefrom them, America's children may indeed develop the skills andwisdom they will need to meet their dreams.

Dr. Kathleen Fulton isAssociate Director of the Center for Learning and EducationalTechnology at the University of Maryland in College Park.

1. An excellent summary of this research can be found in " TheEffectiveness of Using Technology in K-12 Education: A PreliminaryFramework and Review," a report prepared for the U.S. Department ofEducation by Beatrice F. Birman, Rita J. Kirshstein, Douglas A.Levin, Nancy Matheson, and Maria Stephens, Washington, D.C.: AmericanInstates for Research, January 1997.
2. Reginald Gregoier, R. Bracewell, and T. Laferriere, "TheContribution of New Technologies to Learning and Teaching inElementary and Secondary Schools," a collaboration of LavalUniversity and McGill University, August 1, 1986 (http://www.fse.ulaval.ca/fact/tact/fr/html/impactnt.html).
3. " Synopsis, Computers in American Schools, 1992: AnOverview,"report of the IEA Computers in Education Study, Universityof Minnesota, February 1, 1994.
4. B. Berenfeld, "Linking Students to the Infosphere," T.H.E.Journal, April, 1996, pp. 76-82.
5. This section draws heavily on conversations with Henry Becker,University of California at Irvine, and his paper "Business Supportfor American Education: What National Interest Demands,Telecommunications Makes Possible" (http://www.gse.uci.edu/VKiosk/Faculty/hank/ReichSCANSColeman.html).
6. Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, What WorkRequires of Schools, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor,1991.
7. Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, Learning TechnologyCenter, Peabody College, "Looking at Technology in Context: AFramework for Understanding Technology and Education Research," inD.C. Beringer and K.C. Calfee, eds. Handbook of EducationalPsychology, New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996.
8. Barbara Means et. al., Using Technology to Support EducationReform, SRI International for U.S. Department of Education,Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993, p. 2.
9. James Bosco, "Schooling and Learning in an Information Society,"OTA contractor report, November, 1994, NTIS No. 95-172227.
10. National Commission on Excellence in Education, op. cit. fn.4.
11. MCREL, the Midcontinent Regional Education Laboratory, hasassembled these content standards and produced a number of documentsuseful to educators. See http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/.
12. Ibid.
13. Discovery Communications, "Computers: Hype or Hope?" Part of theSchool Stories Series, Discovery Channel (http://school.discovery.com).
14. For more information, see
15. U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Teachers andTechnology: Making the Connection, op. cit., fn 3.

Copyright 1997 by the Milken Family Foundation. No part ofthis work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by anymeans, electronic or mechanical, without the prior written permissionof the Milken Family Foundation, unless such copying is expresslypermitted by federal copyright law.

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This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.