Why Know About Information Technology?
This report focuses on what an individual must know and understand about information technology in order to use it effectively and productively for his or her own purposes. There are at least four broad categories of rationale motivating an understanding of information technology: personal, workforce, educational, and societal.
1.1 Personal Rationales
America is increasingly an information society. Computers and communications not only perform routine tasks like controlling microwave ovens and connecting cellular phones, but with the Internet they give the computer-capable among us access to much of the world's digital information and the means to process it. From finding a subway map of Prague for vacation planning to locating the best buys for books, mortgages, and cowboy boots, many Americans find that the use of information technology is a valuable enhancement to their way of life. Information technology helps people to keep in contact with family and friends via e-mail, manage their finances with spreadsheets and online banking, track investments through an online broker, pursue hobbies like genealogy or gardening with specialized software packages, help their children with homework and school projects using word processing and graphing tools, find medical information, become informed about political candidates and communicate with their political representatives, and track environmental issues or monitor public policy issues over the World Wide Web.
1.2 A Workforce Rationale
In today's workplace, information technology is increasingly common. If the nation is to obtain the maximum benefit from its investments in information technology, a labor pool capable of using it appropriately is necessary. It is obvious that individuals who work with information and knowledge (so-called "knowledge workers") need to understand the ubiquitous office information technologies, but it is also true that few job classifications require no knowledge of information technology at all. For example, the clerk in a retail establishment at one time had only to know how to use a cash register. Today, the same clerk can come into contact with inventory systems, order tracking, and credit card and other business systems, which are becoming more sophisticated and integrated. In the manufacturing industry, many traditionally "blue-collar" workers must cope with a variety of manufacturing systems for tracking materials, parts inventory and production, process control, and online manuals and procedures.
Though a company must train its employees in the use of its business systems, it is naïve to consider such training as a one-time activity. The systems are upgraded frequently and become more complex. Opportunities to apply information technology to business problems and opportunities to integrate existing information technology solutions continue, implying a continual training mission. Obviously, this training task is greatly simplified if the labor pool is already well educated in information technology, since employees come up to speed faster and require less training overall. Further, they will probably utilize existing systems more fully and adapt to upgrades better. Employee productivity is directly affected by the employees' knowledge of information technology.
From the employee's point of view expertise in information technology is valuable. It not only leads to the simple satisfaction of performing one's job well and nimbly responding to problems; it can also improve job mobility. More facility with a company's information technology infrastructure can be a valuable job asset that may be considered in promotions. Finding a job at another company will entail learning new information systems, but understanding them more abstractly—knowing which features should be common and how they might differ—is also an asset in a labor market where employees no longer enjoy a "job for life."
1.3 An Educational Rationale
Information technology is an enabler for many new types of educational opportunities. One type is based on the access of students to an array of educational resources that were not previously accessible to them.
Consider, for example, the Kids as Global Scientists program, operated by the University of Colorado in conjunction with the University of Michigan's Weather Underground and the Weather Channel. The goal of this program is to help students use the Internet to learn about weather and environmental science issues as they also get to know other students from different regions of the United States and the world. The program and associated curriculum offer student-directed discussions and predictions about the paths and history of this year's tropical storms that can be compared with those of the experts and with the actual event as it occurs; hands-on activities, real-time data collection, and instructions on how to view and interpret a variety of satellite images; guided access to interactive displays of current hurricane data and trajectories; links to newspaper stories and other current reports; student-collected data that is posted to the Internet to share with other classrooms around the world; content expertise from hurricane specialists via online questioning and conferencing; online discussion groups for teachers, students, and experts, providing support on technical, content, and pedagogical issues; and a vehicle for posting information and graphics about a student's school in an online newspaper.1
A second type of educational opportunity is described by MIT computer scientist Seymour Papert. In "Mindstorms," Papert asserts that a deep understanding of programming, in particular the notions of successive decomposition as a mode of analysis and debugging of trial solutions, results in significant educational benefits in many domains of discourse, including those unrelated to computers and information technology per se.2 He further argues that computers can be the means for educators "to support the development of new ways of thinking and learning" (p. xiv). He believes that computers can be a conduit of powerful ideas and "the seeds of cultural change, . . . help[ing] people form new relationships with knowledge that cuts across the traditional lines separating humanities from sciences and knowledge of the self . . ." (p. 4). By transforming abstractions into concrete representations via programming, students "build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from surrounding culture" (pp. 31–32).
Finally, a third type of opportunity is the medium that information technology provides for students to develop and exercise their critical thinking abilities. Information conveyed through advanced information
For more information, see <http://www.onesky.umich.edu/kgs/htdocs/home1.html>.
Seymour A. Papert. 1999. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Second Edition, Basic Books, New York.
technology such as computers and the World Wide Web can appear more convincing than the same information conveyed through a conversation with a stranger or the newspaper, despite the fact that it may have equivalent accuracy and validity. Students must evaluate all information critically. Their ability to present information using information technology can aid in developing an ability to separate form from content in all information, and in assessing its accuracy and validity. The result is a more critical evaluation of all information. Such critical ability helps individuals to evaluate information technology-mediated claims for alternative medicines, advertisements for energy-efficient homes, and homework advice from peers.
1.4 A Societal Rationale
The practice of democracy is based on an informed citizenry. In today's increasingly technological society, many public policy debates are connected to information technology. For example:
- A person with a basic understanding of database technology can better appreciate the risks to privacy entailed in data-mining based on his or her credit-card transactions.
- A jury that understands the basics of computer animation and image manipulation may have a better understanding of what counts as "photographic truth," in the reconstruction of a crime or an accident.
- Understanding choices about representation of information can be key to understanding how copyright laws may apply to information in electronic media.
- A person who understands the structure and operation of the World Wide Web is in a better position to evaluate and appreciate policy issues related to the First Amendment, free expression, and the availability of pornography on the Internet.
While some of these issues were argued and debated before the advent of modern information technology, the pervasiveness of information technology has brought many of them into the public consciousness in a more poignant and vivid manner. Some basic understanding of information technology thus is needed to make informed judgments about these public policy issues, many of which have a direct impact on citizens whether or not they use information technology in their daily lives.
As information technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, citizens need to know how to evaluate the social impact of information technology and when to complain about information technology solutions embedded in their lives. The "Year 2000" problem reminds citizens, tech-
nology experts, government policy makers, and industry leaders that seemingly transparent technological solutions can have substantial weaknesses. Citizens who live in a world where information technology grows, changes, advances, and fails require some level of understanding of information technology if they are to make informed choices.
Finally, entirely apart from public policy concerns per se, the growing use of information technology throughout the world may have profound social effects (Box 1.1).
1.5 Understanding, Knowing, and Using Information Technology
This report asserts that individuals must understand information technology in order to use it effectively. This assertion may seem to be curious advice considering that the foregoing rationales argue substantial benefits already exist from the use of information technology even for individuals who lack an enhanced understanding of the topic. Further, industry is eager to make information technologies as easy to use as possible. Why should there be anything more to learn?
Though both observations have some truth, they overlook several critical points about current and future uses of information technology.
- Almost by definition, new technologies have not yet been deeply explored, and applications or products or services based on new technologies are often fragile, quirky, unintuitive, and flawed. (The same qualities may also beset applications or products or services based on relatively old technologies!) An understanding of the underlying technologies helps the user to cope with the difficulties inevitably encountered in use.
- The information technology needs of an individual may not be met by an off-the-shelf application, implying that it may not be possible to fulfill needs simply by punching a single button (as individuals might in using a specialized information "appliance"). Thus, having some understanding of information technology will help individuals make more effective use of whatever technology is available to them.
- The ability to use a tool in a rudimentary manner for a limited set of purposes is not the same as the ability to use the tool safely, effectively, and flexibly. The former may be sufficient for many individuals, but the more an individual possesses the latter ability, the more useful the tool is to that individual.
- New information technologies and applications of that technology emerge rapidly. In some cases, the power and capabilities of new developments will be well matched to the needs of a particular individual. An
- individual who has a robust understanding of information technology will be able to exploit these developments and to comprehend the capabilities and implications of new technologies more quickly.
- Many people approach computers tentatively and with little confidence, even if they have been using computers for years. This seeming paradox probably derives from the fact that they have little true understanding of the technology. The training for the applications they know has concentrated on using the tools, and has ignored more general description of principles and concepts. When something goes wrong, or a new application is available, people with such backgrounds are at a loss to know what to do and often experience frustration. They must get help, further adding to their feeling of not being in control, and the help they receive usually treats the immediate problem without imparting more basic knowledge, thus perpetuating the problem.
Granting that some knowledge of information technology is necessary for its use, many efforts have focused on what has come to be known as "computer literacy." This term has a long history, and in common parlance it means the ability to use a few computer applications. For example, computer literacy often refers to the ability to use a spreadsheet and a word processor and to search the World Wide Web for information. In an era in which the most useful applications change rapidly, the "skills" approach lacks "staying power." New tools or new versions of tools emerge frequently, requiring new skills. For example, searching the World Wide Web would not have been a skill included in a literacy course five years ago. Skills with specific applications are thus necessary but not sufficient for individuals to prosper in the information age.
The following analogy illustrates one difference between "computer literacy" and the robust understanding of information technology described in Chapter 2. Consider a person who has visited a certain city several times and who has learned a single route from the airport to some final destination. This visitor's understanding of the local geography is limited and fragile, whereas residents have a fuller understanding of arterial streets and landmarks. When a traffic jam occurs, the visitor doubtless chooses to wait it out, while the resident is more able to find an alternate route. Though the resident may not necessarily be familiar with the local streets of the exit, knowing the landmarks and general organization of the arterials will allow a rapid recovery. In the same way, a computer-literate individual knowing only basic information technology skills—word processing, e-mail, simple Web browsing—may appear not to need a deep or robust understanding of information technology, but when faced with an unexpected event or a problem, may well be less able to adapt or to find a work-around.
Box 1.1 Possible Social Effects of Information Technology
Information technology has brought or is bringing more abstract or intangible changes than those enumerated in the text.
1.6 Fluency With Information Technology
This report addresses the question, What must an individual know and understand about information technology in order to use it effectively and productively for his or her own purposes? Because the technology is changing continually (and rapidly), the answer to this question cannot be static. The rapid pace of change in information technology—electronic computers are barely 50 years old, the term "PC" is less than 20 years old, and the World Wide Web has been known to the public for less than 5—implies that neither a fixed repertoire of skills nor a static curriculum taught "once and for all" can possibly suffice.
And, because the technology is powerful, the answer to the question cannot be superficial. If effectively using information technology were as simple as driving a car or using an automatic teller machine, it would be easy to teach what one would need to know about information technology in order to use it. But computers and communication are more versatile and in a deep sense more powerful technologies, making the educational task more challenging. (Chapter 2 grounds this assertion in more precise terms, and explicitly addresses the oft-mentioned analogy between driving and computing.)
While some applications of information technology require relatively
little knowledge to use, other quite useful applications are accessible only to those who have some understanding of the underlying technology. Those who have this understanding, perhaps because they are technically trained, acquired it in connection with their work, or are simply curious, motivated, and persistent enough to have figured it out on their own, have greater facility operating in the digital world and thus greater access to the benefits it offers.
While no term is perfect, the notion of fluency captures best for the committee connotations of the ability to reformulate knowledge, to express oneself creatively and appropriately, and to produce and generate information (rather than simply to comprehend it). For this reason, the committee chose "fluency with information technology," or FITness, as a label for the robust understanding of what is needed to use information technology effectively across a broad range of applications.
FITness involves three distinct but interrelated dimensions—intellectual capabilities, conceptual knowledge, and an appropriate skill set. An individual who develops these capabilities, knowledge, and skills becomes more fluent with information technology (FIT). Functionally, a more FIT individual is better able to use today's information technology effectively in personal and professional life, to adapt information technology to be personally relevant, and to acquire future knowledge as information technology changes than a person who is less FIT. An adequate level of FITness provides an individual with the foundational knowledge and understanding that enable him or her to advance along a continuum, becoming more and more adept at applying information technology for a range of purposes and having a deeper understanding of the technological opportunities for doing so.
In Chapter 2, each of these dimensions of FITness is defined and explained more carefully. Chapter 2 outlines the intellectual core of FITness. Chapter 3 discusses several collateral issues associated with the FITness framework. Chapter 4 addresses "implementational efforts," which are necessarily tied to specific grade levels. In the case of this report, they are tied to college undergraduates.