The Information Technology Literacy Test

John Makulowich

By John Makulowich

Earlier this year, the Computer Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council convened a workshop on information technology literacy (

A review of the 15 papers prepared for that meeting, held Jan. 14 and 15, offers a look at the stage of information technology for the end user, and the skills federal office workers and telecommuters of tomorrow likely will need to remain competitive professionally.

Among the organizations presenting papers were RAND Corp., ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology, University of California at Los Angeles, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swarthmore College, University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Southern California and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

One of the better statements of what's ahead came from the RAND paper, "Focus on Generic Skills for Information Technology Literacy," prepared by Robert Anderson and Tora Bikson. The authors noted: "It is clear that initiatives such as the National Information Infrastructure, digital government and digital libraries imply most Americans will have to become Internet literate in the near future just to carry out the day-to-day activities of citizens in a developed society, quite independently of the computer skill demands made on them by their workplace."

ÊÊArguing that generic rather than application-specific skills should be the focus of computer literacy, Anderson and Bikson categorized six components of their notion of generic knowledge: connectivity, logic, structuring of data and information, generic tools, media and interfaces.

ÊÊInterestingly, alongside the generic computer literacy skills, Anderson and Bikson placed social values, which they consider equally important. The two general categories they outlined were ethics and etiquette, and rights and responsibilities of citizens in cyberspace.

ÊÊIn another paper on development of computer literacy in educational institutions, Michael Eisenberg and Doug Johnson from ERIC Clearinghouse noted: "There seems to be clear and widespread agreement among the public and educators that students need to be proficient computer users ? students need to be 'computer literate.' However, while districts are spending a great deal of money on technology, there seems to be only a vague notion of what computer literacy really means.

ÊÊ"In too many schools, most teachers and students still use computers only as the equivalent of expensive flash cards or electronic work sheets," they noted. "The productivity side of computer use in the general content area curriculum is neglected or grossly underdeveloped."

ÊÊAnecdotally, in my own son's high school, which boasts of new computer equipment available to the students, teachers rarely have asked students to use the Internet or the World Wide Web for research or homework. Judging from the observations of Eisenberg and Johnson, I suspect this is typical.

ÊÊOne way to correct this situation is by reviewing the paper, "Information Technology Literacy," by MIT's Stephen Gilbert. He offers the reader a curriculum for "introduction to the Net" workshops that he has conducted for students from middle school children to adults.

You can send John e-mail at; his Web address is

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