Technical Literacy ­ Where Are We?


Over the past few years a number of white papers have been written defining technical literacy. A particularly good one, ";Technical Literacy for the Nation and its Citizens,"; was published in June 1994. In defining technical literacy the authors (Dr. LaJeane C. Thomas, formerly with ISTE and Dr. Donald C. Knezek, formerly with the Education Service Center, San Antonio, Texas) state ";Technology literacy is more than the understanding of current uses of technology, and it is more than the ability to use common technology-based tools according to a given prescription for achieving some specific outcomes."; According to the paper, technical literacy involves:

  • Demystifying technology through conceptual understandings of the underlying science and mathematics principals
  • Operational competence with modern technology systems
  • The ability to evaluate and use a variety of common technology applications
  • The ability to innovate and invent ways of applying technology in challenging new situations
  • Awareness of technology-related careers and of factors critical to success in those careers
  • Understanding and sensitivity to societal issues related to technology

The following year, March 1995, Dr. Gerhard L. Salinger, National Service Foundations, stated in a report that ";Technology education has three overlapping roles, the first is to provide technological literacy for all students to intelligently make choices, the second role is to provide a background for students to intelligently make choices in the school-to-work transition, the third role is to provide pre-engineering education for those interested in advanced education."; In the November 1994 Atlantic Monthly, Peter Drucker makes a strong case for technology education and technological literacy. He predicts an economic order in which knowledge, not labor or capital, is the key resource technically literate individuals will require.

A number of years have passed since the last quotes. I have asked our T.H.E. Journal Editorial Board Members to give some thought to the question and give their short description of technical literacy.


Dr. Alfred Bork
University of California at Irvine

Literacy refers to a basic competency in a given area; the primary example is reading literacy, the ability to read at a functional level. We also talk of visual literacy, mathematics literacy, science literacy, and other similar concepts.

Technical literacy refers to basic competency with computers. In the past, it has included programming (rare today), use of tools such as word processors and spreadsheets, use of Web browsers and Web search engines, and construction of Web sites. But unlike most forms of literacy, this one is changing rapidly; many of these capabilities, in their current form, will soon be of little use. For example, typing, still part of most uses of word processing and other computer applications, will probably soon be replaced by voice input. So learning for technical literacy presents special problems; we often train for outmoded approaches.


Dr. Robert K. Branson
Florida State University

[Technical literacy is] the ability to operate computers and other devices including printers, VCRs, telephones, fax machines, copiers, and other communications devices effectively. At the lowest level, technical literacy involves knowing how to turn on a computer or other devices, to start and stop application programs, communicate with networks, obtain intended information from the Internet and use e-mail. It includes the ability to save, print, file and transfer files electronically.

At higher levels, computer literacy becomes more detailed, involving the ability of power users to manipulate complex applications, install and remove software, organize and maintain file systems, keep up with technical bulletins, and to fully exploit the multimedia capabilities of computers and software, including installing simple add-ons such as memory, modems and storage drives.


Dr. Harvey Long
Technology in Education Consultant (retired)

Being technologically literate compares to being an artist who chooses from an ever-increasing selection of colors to convey his or her perception of what information is most demanding.

To be technology literate is to be encumbered by the knowledge of obsolescence, overwhelmed by the dynamics of the present, but yet infatuated by the potential of the technology of the future. Being technology literate is to be on a slippery slope.

To be technology literate is to be able to communicate to all in a language whose vocabulary appears to the infrequent user to have no basis in history and whose grammar defies explanation.

I thought to be able to draw some comparisons, but these definitions are very different. However, it should be obvious to all that foundations for technological literacy must be laid within the mathematics and science curriculum so that problem-solving, technology literacy, science literacy and mathematics literacy improve.

Also, with this issue, T.H.E. Journal announces two new departments, Broadband and EduNet. Superseding the Telecommunications department, these additions will better focus on both the hardware and educational content necessary to take schools into the next millennium. We are sure you shall enjoy both the new information on telecommunications and the additional educational resources and content contained therein.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.