At the heart of our modern technological society lies an unacknowledged paradox. Although the United States is increasingly defined by and dependent on technology and is adopting new technologies at a breathtaking pace, its citizens are not equipped to make well-considered decisions or to think critically about technology. As a society, we are not even fully aware of or conversant with the technologies we use every day. In short, we are not “technologically literate.”
Technology has become so user friendly it is largely “invisible.” Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes from. We drive high-tech cars but know little more than how to operate the steering wheel, gas pedal, and brake pedal. We fill shopping carts with highly processed foods but are largely ignorant of their content, or how they are developed, grown, packaged, or delivered. We click on a mouse and transmit data over thousands of miles without understanding how this is possible or who might have access to the information.
Available evidence shows that American adults and children have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and do affect its development. Neither the educational system nor the policy-making apparatus in the United States has recognized the importance of technological literacy.
Thus the paradox: Even as technology has become increasingly important in our lives, it has receded from view. Americans are poorly equipped to recognize, let alone ponder or address, the challenges tech-
nology poses or the problems it could solve. And the mismatch is growing. Although our use of technology is increasing apace, there is no sign of a corresponding improvement in our ability to deal with issues relating to technology.
To take full advantage of the benefits and to recognize, address, or even avoid some of the pitfalls of technology, we must become better stewards of technological change. Unfortunately, we are ill prepared to meet this goal. This report represents a mandate—an urgent call—for technological literacy in the United States.
This report and a companion website (<www.nae.edu/techlit>) are the final products of a two-year study by the Committee on Technological Literacy, a group of experts from diverse fields operating under the auspices of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC) Center for Education. The committee was charged with developing a vision for technological literacy in the United States and recommending ways for achieving that vision. The project was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Battelle Memorial Institute.
The report is directed at groups that are well positioned to influence the development of technological literacy, including schools of education, schools of engineering, K-12 teachers and teacher organizations, developers of curriculum and instructional materials, federal and state policy makers, industry and nonindustry supporters of educational reform, and science and technology centers and museums.
What Is Technology?
In its broadest sense, technology is the process by which humans modify nature to meet their needs and wants. However, most people think of technology only in terms of its artifacts: computers and software, aircraft, pesticides, water-treatment plants, birth-control pills, and microwave ovens, to name a few. But technology is more than its tangible products. An equally important aspect of technology is the knowledge and processes necessary to create and operate those products, such as engineering know-how and design, manufacturing expertise, various technical skills, and so on. Technology also includes all of the infrastructure
Technology comprises the entire system of people and organizations, knowledge, processes, and devices that go into creating and operating technological artifacts, as well as the artifacts themselves.
necessary for the design, manufacture, operation, and repair of technological artifacts, from corporate headquarters and engineering schools to manufacturing plants and maintenance facilities.
What Is Technological Literacy?
Technological literacy encompasses three interdependent dimensions—knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, and capabilities (Box ES-1). Like literacy in reading, mathematics, science, or history, the goal of technological literacy is to provide people with the tools to participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the world around them. The kinds of things a technologically literate person must know can vary from society to society and from era to era.
Benefits of Technological Literacy
Individuals and the country as a whole would benefit greatly from a higher level of technological literacy. For one thing, people at all levels of society would be better prepared to make well-informed decisions on matters that affect, or are affected by, technology. For example, consumers must routinely decide whether or not to use particular products and how to use them. Technologically literate consumers would be able to make more critical assessments of technologies and, therefore, more informed decisions.
As citizens in a democratic society, individuals are also asked to help make technological choices for the country as a whole or for some part of it. Should drilling for oil be allowed in an environmentally sensitive area? Should the local government be allowed to install surveillance cameras in high-crime areas? Technological literacy would not determine an individual’s opinion but would ensure that it would be well informed.
Technological literacy is especially important for leaders in business, government, and the media, who make or influence decisions that
BOX ES-1 Characteristics of a Technologically Literate Citizen
Ways of Thinking and Acting
affect many others, sometimes the entire nation. These leaders would benefit from a comprehensive understanding of the nature of technology—a recognition, for example, that all technology involves trade-offs and can result in unintended consequences.
From a philosophical point of view, democratic principles imply that decisions affecting many people or the entire society should be made with as much public involvement as possible. As people gain confidence in their ability to ask questions and think critically about technological developments, they are likely to participate more in making decisions. Increased citizen participation would add legitimacy to decisions about technology and make it more likely that the public would accept those decisions. Citizen participation would also give policy makers and technical experts a better understanding of citizens’ hopes and fears about technology.
Democratic principles imply that decisions affecting many people or the entire society should be made with as much public involvement as possible.
Because our economy is increasingly being driven by technological innovation and because an increasing percentage of jobs require technological skills, a rise in technological literacy would have economic impacts. For example, a technologically literate public would generate a
more abundant supply of technologically savvy workers who would be more likely to have the knowledge and abilities—and find it easier to learn the skills they need—for jobs in today’s technology-oriented workplaces. To the extent the study of technology encourages students to pursue scientific or technical careers, then improving our technological literacy would also lessen our dependence on foreign workers to fill jobs in many sectors.
Context for Technological Literacy
Most people have very few direct, hands-on connections to technology, except as finished consumer goods. They do not build the devices they use, tinker with them to improve their performance, or repair them when they break. Because of this lack of engagement, people today learn relatively little about technologies through direct experience. Thus they rarely develop the kind of practical, intuitive feel for technology that marked the relationships between earlier generations and their technologies.
The lack of familiarity with technology has given rise to a number of misconceptions. For example, most people think that technology is little more than the application of science to solve practical problems. They are not aware that modern technology is the fruit of a complex interplay between science, engineering, politics, ethics, law, and other factors. People who operate under this misconception have a limited ability to think critically about technology—to guide the development and use of a technology to ensure that it provides the greatest benefit for the greatest number of citizens. Another common misconception is that technology is either all good or all bad rather than what people and society make it. They misunderstand that the purpose for which we use a technology may be good or bad, but not the technology itself. Realistically, every technology will be more advantageous for some people, animals, plants, generations, or purposes than for others.
Because few people today have direct, hands-on experience with technology, technological literacy depends largely on what they learn in the classroom, particularly in elementary and secondary school. Unfortunately, only a small group of technology educators is involved in setting standards and developing curricula to promote technological literacy. In general, with the exception of the use of computers and the Internet,
which has been strongly promoted by federal and state governments, technology is not treated seriously as a subject in grades K-12.
Even in this area, however, the focus has been on using these technologies to improve education rather than on educating students about technology. As a result, many K-12 educators identify technology almost exclusively with computers and related devices and so believe, erroneously, that their institutions already teach about technology.
We have almost no reliable data about the level of technological literacy among American children. Given the relatively poor showing of U.S. students on international tests in science and math, however, and given that many other Western countries teach more about technology than we do, it seems logical to assume that American students are not as technologically literate as their international counterparts. A recent Gallup poll and other data on the adult population reveal that adults are very interested in but relatively poorly informed about technology.
With the exception of the use of computers and the Internet, technology is not treated seriously as a subject in grades K-12.
For the most part, policy makers at the federal and state levels have paid little or no attention to technology education or technological literacy, despite the fact that Congress and state legislatures often find themselves grappling with policy issues that require an understanding of technology. There is no evidence to suggest that legislators or their staffs are any more technologically literate than the general public.
For reasons that are at once historical, institutional, and reflective of the nature of modern technology, Americans appear to be unprepared to engage effectively and responsibly with technological change. In short, as a nation we do not appreciate the value of technological literacy and, hence, have not achieved it.
Foundation for Technological Literacy
A variety of efforts have been undertaken to increase technological literacy in the United States. In general, however, these have been small-scale projects, especially compared with efforts to boost scientific literacy and math skills. Nevertheless, past initiatives represent a resource upon which more ambitious efforts can draw.
The natural place to begin is in grades K-12, when all students could be guaranteed a basic familiarity with technology and could be encouraged to think critically about technological issues. The federal government, mainly the NSF, has funded the development of a variety of
technology-related curricula and instructional materials. Teachers who specialize in technology, still relatively few in number, will be essential to a serious effort to boost technological literacy. Their professional organization, the International Technology Education Association, recently published Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology, a comprehensive statement of what students must learn in order to be technologically literate.
Courses spanning K-12 and two-year community colleges intended to prepare students for technical careers can also help develop technological literacy. Although technical competency is not the same as technological literacy, the development of skills in technology can lead to a better understanding of the underlying technology and could be used as the basis for teaching about the nature, history, and role of technology in our lives. Recently, the federal government has paid more attention to technician-preparation and school-to-career programs, as well as traditional vocational education.
College and universities offer a number of options for more advanced study of technology. There are about 100 science, technology, and society programs on U.S. campuses that offer both undergraduate and graduate courses, and a number of universities have programs in the history, philosophy, or sociology of technology. Many engineering schools require that students take at least one course in the social impacts of technology.
For the adult population already out of school, the informal education system offers opportunities for learning about and becoming engaged in a variety of issues related to technology.
For the adult population already out of school, the informal education system—museums and science centers, as well as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and other media—offers opportunities for learning about and becoming engaged in a variety of issues related to technology. Some federal agencies require public input into the planning of certain types of projects, and participation in decision making can also boost technological literacy. In addition, independent organizations called community-based research groups initiate various research projects, many involving technological issues.
A sampling of print and online resources related to technological literacy appears in the appendix to the full report. This “toolkit” will be useful not only to educators and policy makers but also members of the public who wish to learn more about the subject.
The Committee on Technological Literacy reviewed direct and indirect evidence and drew on the experience and expert opinion of committee members to develop its recommendations. The committee considered the role of technology in society and our relationship to it, the ways current social, political, and educational environments affect technological literacy, and the benefits—to individuals and society at large—of greater technological literacy. The committee also reviewed initiatives— past and present—that might be a basis for a serious, sustained campaign for technological literacy. The recommendations address four areas: (1) formal and informal education; (2) research; (3) decision making; and (4) teaching excellence and educational innovation. A rationale for the recommendations and an explanation of how each could be carried out can be found in the full report.
The categories are listed in order of importance, but the recommendations relate to and support one another and should be considered as an integrated whole. For instance, the availability of better data about technological literacy and how people learn about technology will inform activities in the education sector. Initiatives to improve technological decision making are also likely to increase public sensitivity to the value of informed debate about technology. This, in turn, should boost support for research and educational reforms related to technological literacy.
Strengthening the Presence of Technology in Formal and Informal Education
Recommendation 1 Federal and state agencies that help set education policy should encourage the integration of technology content into K-12 standards, curricula, instructional materials, and student assessments in nontechnology subject areas.
Recommendation 2 The states should better align their K-12 standards, curriculum frameworks, and student assessment in the sciences, mathematics, history, social studies, civics, the arts, and language arts with national educational standards that stress the connections between these subjects and technology. National Science Foundation (NSF)- and Department of Education (DoEd)-
funded instructional materials and informal-education initiatives should also stress these connections.
Recommendation 3 NSF, DoEd, state boards of education, and others involved in K-12 science education should introduce, where appropriate, the word “technology” into the titles and contents of science standards, curricula, and instructional materials.
Recommendation 4 NSF, DoEd, and teacher education accrediting bodies should provide incentives for institutions of higher education to transform the preparation of all teachers to better equip them to teach about technology throughout the curriculum.
Developing the Research Base
Recommendation 5 The National Science Foundation should support the development of one or more assessment tools for monitoring the state of technological literacy among students and the public in the United States.
Recommendation 6 The National Science Foundation and the Department of Education should fund research on how people learn about technology, and the results should be applied in formal and informal education settings.
Enhancing Informed Decision Making
Recommendation 7 Industry, federal agencies responsible for carrying out infrastructure projects, and science and technology museums should provide more opportunities for the nontechnical public to become involved in discussions about technological developments.
Recommendation 8 Federal and state government agencies with a role in guiding or supporting the nation’s scientific and technological enterprise, and private foundations concerned about good governance, should support executive education programs intended to increase the technological literacy of government and industry leaders.
Recommendation 9 U.S. engineering societies should underwrite the costs of establishing government- and media-fellow programs with the goal of creating a cadre of policy experts and journalists with a background in engineering.
Rewarding Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation
Recommendation 10 The National Science Foundation, in collaboration with industry partners, should provide funding for awards for innovative, effective approaches to improving the technological literacy of students or the public at large.
Recommendation 11 The White House should add a Presidential Award for Excellence in Technology Teaching to those that it currently offers for mathematics and science teaching.
A Final Word
Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology should help inform the public—especially the portion of the public that can affect policy—of the urgent need for technological literacy. But this report and its recommendations are only a starting point. The case for technological literacy must be made consistently and on an ongoing basis. As citizens gradually become more sophisticated about technological issues, they will be more willing to support measures in the schools and in the informal education arena to raise the technological literacy level of the next generation. In time, leaders in government, academia, and business will become cognizant of the importance of technological literacy to their own well-being and the welfare of the nation. Achieving this goal promises to be a slow and challenging journey but one unquestionably worth embarking on.