Defining Technological Literacy
To develop tools for assessing technological literacy, one must first have a clear idea of what technological literacy is. Research has shown that most people have a limited conception of “technology.” In a 2004 Gallup poll, 800 adults in the United States were asked to name the first thing that came to mind when they heard the word technology. Sixty-eight percent answered computers. Only 5 percent gave the next most frequent answer, electronics (ITEA, 2004).
But technology is far more than computers and electronics. It is airplanes and automobiles, medicines and MRIs, paper and plastics. It is home building, road construction, and the manufacture of everything from turbines to toothbrushes. It is agriculture and electricity. It is books, clothing, furniture, telephones and television, fast food and home-cooked meals, kids’ toys, the Space Shuttle, roller coasters, and swimming pools. In short, technology is everything that humans do or make to change the natural environment to suit their own purposes. Or, in the words of Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology, technology is “the innovation, change, or modification of the natural environment in order to satisfy perceived human wants and needs” (ITEA, 2000, p. 242).
This broad concept of technology is widely accepted by experts who think and write about technology, science, and engineering. For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Benchmarks for Science Literacy, provided a sweeping definition: “In the broadest sense, technology extends our abilities to change the world: to cut, shape, or put together materials; to move things from one place
to another; to reach farther with our hands, voices, and senses” (AAAS, 1993). The definition in National Science Education Standards, published three years later, was similar: “The goal of technology is to make modifications in the world to meet human needs” (NRC, 1996). And in 2002, in Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology, technology is defined as “the process by which humans modify nature to meet their needs and wants” (NAE and NRC, 2002).
The Designed World
One way to conceptualize technology is to think of human beings as living in three interconnected worlds—the natural world, the social world, and the designed world. The natural world consists of plants and animals, rocks and minerals, rivers, streams, lakes, oceans, the soil beneath our feet, and the air we breathe—in short, everything that exists without human intervention or invention. The social world includes customs, cultures, political systems, legal systems, economies, religions, and the mores humans devise to govern their interactions and relationships. The designed world, or the world of technology, includes all of the modifications humans make to the natural world to satisfy their needs and wants.
A river is part of the natural world. The boats that travel up and down the river, the channel that has been dredged down the middle of the river, and the buoys that mark the edges of the channel are all part of the designed world. And the rules of the road that instruct a captain traveling downstream to keep the red buoys to her left and the green ones to her right are part of the social world.
The designed world, as its name implies, consists of elements that are the products of conscious design. Everything from the grocery bag to the microchip is made for a purpose, and the goal of its design is to ensure that it fulfills its purpose. As we shall see in more detail in the next chapter, design is the process by which an idea for a product is turned into a physical reality. To put it in a slightly different way, the design process turns resources—materials, tools and machines, ideas and information, energy, capital, and time—into products and systems (Box 2-1).
The most comprehensive conception of technology includes not only the designed world, but also the aspects of the social world that underlie the designed world, such as corporations that design, build, sell, operate, service, and repair technologies; government policies and regulations that apply to technologies; engineering knowledge, operating
A Taxonomy for the Designed World
To study technology, it is useful to have a taxonomy, or classification system, that divides the products and systems of technology into pieces that can be explored individually. The taxonomy must be flexible, so as technology changes over time, the taxonomy can change with it. A thousand years ago, for instance, a taxonomy of technology would not have included information and communication technologies, and a thousand years from now—or perhaps only a hundred years from now—the taxonomy may include a major new category that we cannot yet imagine. In addition, the categories in the taxonomy are not mutually exclusive—there is a natural overlap among them. Nevertheless, dividing technology up in this way makes it easier to study.
Many different taxonomies are possible to describe the designed world. One useful taxonomy (to which the committee refers in other sections of this report) is provided in Standards for Technological Literacy:
Source: Adapted from ITEA, 2000.
know-how, and other expertise necessary to make technologies work; and so on. Thus, technology can be thought of as a general process by which humans modify the natural world to suit their needs, and the designed world consists of the artifacts created through this process. The word technology in this report is meant to express this expansive, all-inclusive concept (except in specified cases when it is necessary to distinguish between processes and artifacts).
We sometimes fail to appreciate that humans the world over depend on technology for comfort as well as survival. In countries like the United States, technology is central to the way people go about their daily lives, to the health of the economy, and to national security. The dramatic destruction of much of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina is an example of this dependence (Box 2-2).
Technology through the Lens of Katrina
Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on New Orleans in 2005 provides dramatic evidence of our dependence on technology. Satellite and imaging technologies provided several days’ warning that Katrina was headed toward the city, allowing most residents—but not some of the most vulnerable—to flee before the storm made landfall.
New Orleans as we know it could not exist without the dams and levees that held the surrounding waters at bay. And these structural barriers can work effectively only with the mechanical pumps that remove water that seeps into this below-sea-level city. The pumps are operated by electricity produced in power-generating facilities and distributed through a network of transmission lines, the “grid.” When Katrina’s hurricane-force winds brought down power lines all over the Gulf Coast, the pumps were no longer available to handle the inflow of water. In addition, cell phones, although they are battery operated, require cell towers to transmit messages, and these towers are also tied into the grid. Once the power was out, cell phone systems did not work, leaving authorities and citizens unable to communicate. In addition, because people could no longer call in from outside the area, individuals trapped by rising waters had little idea of the extent of the flooding or the danger they faced. Other communications technologies, television and radio, alerted the rest of the country to the developing disaster.
Without electricity to power freezers and refrigerators, home food supplies, as well as grocery store stockpiles, were soon spoiled. Katrina’s storm surge disrupted the Port of New Orleans, and floodwaters blocked the main roads and rail lines into the shipyards, effectively closing one of the main export routes for American agricultural products. (Agriculture is also largely dependent on technology, from mechanized farm machinery and global positioning satellites to pesticides and chemical fertilizers.) Oil wells off the Louisiana coast were damaged, as were on-shore refineries, resulting in immediate shortages of gasoline and causing steep increases in gas prices across the entire country.
The rebuilding effort will undoubtedly be technology intensive, as major elements of the city’s infrastructure will have to be redesigned to incorporate the painful lessons of Katrina.
Based on the concept of technology described above, we can now define technological literacy. In the most fundamental sense, technological literacy is a general understanding of technology. This understanding may not be comprehensive, but it must be developed enough so that a person can function effectively in a technology-dependent society where rapid technological change is the norm.
Rather than a fixed quantity, technological literacy occurs along a continuum, with types and levels of literacy varying according to the age and needs of the particular population. Consider reading literacy. If a first-grade student reads at the level of a first grader, she is considered literate. All other things being equal, a literate fifth grader is expected to have a higher level of reading capability than a first grader but a lower level than a literate high school graduate, who, in turn, will be a less skilled reader and less well-read than a literate college graduate. But all of them are considered literate.
Technological literacy is similar to the more familiar concepts of scientific literacy, mathematical literacy (sometimes called numeracy), and historical literacy, as well as the more recently described information technology “fluency” (NRC, 1999). In all of these cases, people are not expected to be experts but are expected to be comfortable enough to, say, read and understand a newspaper article that includes information about that field or to apply that knowledge in some aspect of daily life—for example, knowing that a car requires regular maintenance. Like literacy in other fields, the goal of technological literacy is to provide people with the tools they need to participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the world around them.
For the purposes of this report, we use the definition of technological literacy in Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology (NAE and NRC, 2002), with one important modification. In that report, technological literacy was described as having three interrelated dimensions—knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, and capabilities. The committee renamed the ways of thinking and acting dimension as “critical thinking and decision making,” which more clearly describes this important aspect of technological literacy. The change also eliminates the possible suggestion that people must have specific positions on complex or controversial issues, which was clearly not the intent of the authors of Technically Speaking.
The committee also made three changes in the description of the characteristics of a technologically literate person (Table 2-1). First, an element was added to the dimension of critical thinking and decision making to suggest that people must be able to systematically weigh data necessary to understanding a technological issue. Second, greater emphasis was put on design by an addition to the capability dimension that conveys the idea that people should be able to use a design-thinking1 process to identify and solve problems important in their own lives. Finally, the characteristic related to seeking information about new technologies was moved from the critical-thinking and decision-making dimension to the capability dimension, where it fits more naturally.
TABLE 2-1 Characteristics of a Technologically Literate Person
Critical Thinking and Decision Making
Source: Adapted from NAE and NRC, 2002.
According to this description, the knowledge dimension of technological literacy includes both factual knowledge and conceptual understanding. A technologically literate person must understand the basic nature of technology, such as that technology shapes, but is also shaped by society, and should understand fundamental concepts, such as trade-offs and the balance between costs and benefits. It is also useful for people to have knowledge about specific technologies, such as medical imaging or solar power. The type and depth of knowledge varies according to the individual’s circumstances.
The critical-thinking and decision-making dimension relates to the way a person approaches technological issues. A person with highly developed abilities in this area, for example, is likely to ask questions about risks and benefits when confronted with a new technology— genetically modified crops, say, or a new type of nuclear power plant. In addition, this person can participate in discussions and debates about the uses of that technology. In this sense, critical thinking and decision
making is compatible with “habits of mind” described in Science for All Americans (AAAS, 1990).
The capabilities dimension is closely related to the use component of ITEA’s definition in Technology for All Americans (ITEA, 1996). A technologically literate person, for example, is able to use computers and other common machines found in the home or office and to do basic troubleshooting when a machine is not working properly—determining why a computer printer will not produce a desired document, say, or checking the possible causes, such as a tripped circuit breaker, when a toaster isn’t working. A key aspect of capability is being able to carry out at least a simple version of a design process to solve a problem relevant to one’s life. The capabilities dimension is a determinant of how well a person can take advantage of technology in his or her personal life and of how effective that person can be in the workplace. Capabilities are related to, but distinct from, technical competence (Box 2-3).
A key aspect of capability is being able to carry out at least a simple version of a design process.
In one area of technology—computers—an effort has been made to describe multidimensional literacy similar to technological literacy as defined in this report. In Being Fluent with Information Technology, three components are identified for fluency in information technology—contemporary skills, foundational concepts, and intellectual capabilities (NRC, 1999)—that correlate loosely with the three dimensions of technological literacy. Contemporary skills, comparable to technological capabilities, suggest what an individual can do with computer technology; foundational concepts, parallel to technological knowledge, suggest basic ideas about computers and their development; and intellectual capabilities, akin to critical thinking and decision making, suggest the application of information technology in complex situations and the ability to handle unintended and unexpected problems when they arise.
Distinguishing Technological Literacy from Technical Competence
Technological literacy is not the same as technical competence. Some individuals (e.g., plumbers, automobile mechanics, computer programmers, intensive care nurses, airplane pilots, CNC [computer numerically controlled] mill operators) may be very competent in the use of one or more specific technologies but may not be technologically literate in the larger sense. Most engineers, by virtue of their training and experience, also have considerable technical competence, but not necessarily technological literacy. Although technological literacy includes some hands-on ability, this may not be a high level of practical, or technical, skill.
Technical competency does not guarantee a general understanding of technology as a process that contributes to the designed world and that affects and is affected by society. Thus, technically trained individuals, even engineers, may not have the characteristics we associate with technological literacy.
The authoring committee of Being Fluent explains its choice of “fluency” (as opposed to “literacy”) in the following way:
Th[e] requirement of a deeper understanding than is implied by the rudimentary term “computer literacy” motivated the committee to adopt “fluency” as a term connoting a higher level of competency. People fluent with information technology … are able to express themselves creatively, to reformulate knowledge, and to synthesize new information. Fluency with information technology … entails a process of lifelong learning in which individuals continually apply what they know to adapt to change and acquire more knowledge to be more effective at applying information technology to their work and personal lives. (p. 2)
Assessment designers need a much more detailed description of technological literacy than is provided in Technically Speaking. The International Technology Education Association’s Standards for Technological Literacy offers specific suggestions of what K–12 students should know and what they should be able to do with respect to technology. In addition, two sets of national science education standards (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996) explore the relationships among science, technology, and society. Excerpts from all three publications can be found in Appendix B.
Attitudes Toward Technology
Although the committee does not consider attitudes to be a cognitive dimension (the way knowledge, capability, and critical thinking and decision making are), attitudes toward technology can provide a context for interpreting the results of an assessment. In other words, what a person knows—or does not know—about a subject can sometimes be correlated with his or her attitude toward that subject. Individuals who do not understand the nature of technological design, for example, may not
Attitudes and the Assessment of Technological Literacy
There is no “right” or “best” attitude toward technology. An individual’s attitudes are affected by many factors, including age, life experience, values, culture, education, employment, personal interests, economic status, and abilities/disabilities. An attitude can be thought of as having three components: (1) a cognitive element, or mental state involving beliefs (e.g., kids today spend too much time using cell phones); (2) an affective component, or feelings (e.g., confidence in one’s ability to fix a flat tire); and (3) an action-tendency component, or a disposition to act in a certain way (e.g., the inclination to buy a hybrid car to help the environment).
“trust” technology as much as individuals who understand the design process. However, it is just as likely that individuals who are more knowledgeable may be less trustful. That is because many factors in addition to knowledge, such as personal values, culture, and religion, can affect attitudes.
Attitudes may also reveal motivations. For example, middle school girls may not believe that careers in the sciences or technology are possible, or even desirable, for them. Thus, attitudes can have cognitive, affective, and action-tendency components (Box 2-4).
Visualizing Technological Literacy
Visualizing the three dimensions of technological literacy can be very helpful to efforts to understand and discuss the concept. In a graph developed in Technically Speaking, each of the dimensions of technological literacy is represented as a separate axis (Figure 2-1). In addition, because the level of literacy occurs along a continuum and is different for every individual, the axes also indicate changing levels of literacy along each dimension.
In the real world, however, the three dimensions of technological literacy are interdependent and inseparable. A person cannot have technological capabilities without some knowledge, and thoughtful decision making cannot occur without an understanding of some basic features of technology. The capability dimension, too, must be informed at
some level by knowledge. Conversely, the doing component of technological literacy invariably leads to a new understanding of certain aspects of the technological world. This complex, but more accurate, idea can be represented in a number of ways. For example, the three dimensions of technological literacy can be represented as interlocking circular strands (Figure 2-2).
Assessing Technological Literacy
Once a definition of technological literacy has been developed, the next challenge, and the subject of the remainder of this report, is how to assess it. The assessment technique depends largely on the definition, and, conversely, the specifics of the definition depend on the type of assessment. An NRC report published in 2001, Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment, contains a wealth of information about assessment practices generally as well as a discussion of the current status of educational assessments. The authors note, for instance, that assessments are used for three different purposes, “to assist learning, to measure individual achievement, and to evaluate programs” (NRC, 2001). The purpose of an assessment determines how the assessment is designed. As the authors point out, an assessment can be designed for more than one purpose—to measure the progress of individual students and the effectiveness of a program, for instance—but satisfying both goals inevitably requires compromises and trade-offs.
The present report is concerned with assessments of three populations: students in grades K–12, their teachers, and the general public. The committee offers different recommendations for each group. Students, for example, can be tested in schools as part of the normal assessment routine, but members of the general public must be reached in other ways—through telephone polls, perhaps, or during visits to science museums. Recommendations also vary depending on the purpose of the assessment. A museum might want to assess what the general public knows and doesn’t know about technology in order to improve the design of its exhibits. A state department of education might want to assess the effectiveness of its K–12 technology program. A university school of education might want to assess whether its graduates are comfortable enough with technology to teach about it effectively.
Recommendations for approaches to assessments also take into account the three dimensions in the definition of technological literacy. Assessing technological knowledge requires different methods than assessing technological capabilities, which, in turn, is likely to require different approaches from those used to assess ways of critical thinking and decision making.
Assessing technological knowledge requires different methods than assessing technological capabilities.
Finally, we must take into account that technological literacy does not mean the same thing to all groups. Assessments for students, for instance, who are in the process of learning about technology, must be designed to determine if they are on track to learn everything they will need to know. By contrast, assessments of out-of-school adults must measure their current level of technological literacy, which may have been acquired from life experiences, work, and other sources, and must identify strengths and weaknesses. In other words, assessments for different populations and/or purposes necessarily emphasize different aspects of technological literacy.
AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). 1990. Science for All Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.
AAAS. 1993. Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dewey, J. 1910. How We Think. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath.
Dewey, J. 1916. Essays in Experimental Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago.
ITEA (International Technology Education Association). 1996. Technology for All Americans: A Rationale and Structure for the Study of Technology. Reston, Va.: ITEA.
ITEA. 2000. Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology. Reston, Va.: ITEA.
ITEA. 2004. The Second Installment of the ITEA/Gallup Poll and What It Reveals as to How Americans Think About Technology. A report of the second survey conducted by the Gallup Organization for the International Technology Education Association. Available online at: http://www.iteaconnect.org/TAA/PDFs/GallupPoll2004.pdf (October 5, 2005).
NAE and NRC (National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council). 2002. Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
NRC (National Research Council). 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
NRC. 1999. Being Fluent with Information Technology. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
NRC. 2001. Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.