By: Robert Walsh
I graduated high school in 1988, and personal computers were only just beginning to invade the home. Phones still had cords that tethered them to the wall, and many had rotary dials instead of push buttons. A digital watch was the height of mobile technology, particularly if it had alarms, could keep time in multiple time zones, or sported a mini calculator. My generation was on the leading edge of the transition from a world where computers were used only for specialized purposes to one where they have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life. As such, it was important that people in that time learned how to use computers to help with routine tasks. It was less important that they knew much about how they worked. Knowing how to use a word processor or a spreadsheet provided an advantage over others who did not have those skills.
It is no longer 1988, however, and computers are everywhere. More than 50% of children in the United States have their own smartphones by the time they are 11 years old, and over 80% of teenagers have them1. They know how to use them, too. I’ve seen kids record a video, edit it, and publish it to YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or some other social media platform using only their cell phones. In this age, typewriters and calculators have been rendered almost obsolete, and being able to use a word processor or a spreadsheet is a life skill, not a competitive advantage.
Marina Bers describes this as the difference between being computer literate and technologically fluent2. She explains that computer literacy is the ability to use a computer and the programs running on it to accomplish specific tasks. Technological fluency, though, is the ability to use a computer “in a creative and personally meaningful way” (p. 14) in the same way that someone fluent in a foreign language can communicate “effortlessly and smoothly” (p. 14).
As we work to provide STEM education opportunities, we must strive to create technological fluency, not simply computer literacy. Students need to understand how technology works, not just how to use it. One who knows only how to use computers to do things others have made possible will always be dependent, while those who grasp the inner workings will be able to extend that which exists and innovate to create that which will be needed.
1Kamenz, A. (2019, October 31). It’s a smartphone life: More than half of U.S. children now have one. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/31/774838891/its-a-smartphone-life-more-than-half-of-u-s-children-now-have-one
2Bers M. U. (2010). Beyond computer literacy: supporting youth’s positive development through technology. New directions for youth development, 2010(128), 13–23. https://doi.org/10.1002/yd.371