In today's world, which is becoming known as the "Information Age," the invasion of computers in all aspects of life increases every year. Over the past twenty years since the personal desktop computer market became a billion-dollar industry (Perrolle, 1987), businesses, schools, institutions, and individuals have increasingly adopted computer technology. In the business world, computers are literally everywhere, and the Internet as well is becoming a standard resource in the workplace (Granger & Lippert, 1998). The ability to use a computer is likely to become as much an expectation of adult society as the ability to read and write (Weizenbaum, as cited in Perrolle, 1987). In this vein, Bolter (as cited in Sims, 1996) goes even so far as to say that computers will replace books.
It is important, then, for people of today to gain the necessary knowledge which will allow them to use a computer with some proficiency. This is increasingly becoming a concern at all levels of education, each of which are trying to fill this need in their own ways. Many children are introduced to computers in secondary school, and in high school, students utilize them more widely to complete their assignments. In college, with campus computer labs, residential networks, and access to the Internet, the utilization and reliance on computers are a given. Within the professional world, companies are finding it necessary to train and re-train their employees to establish or increase their knowledge of computers. Colleges are frequently now adding some sort of computer training as a requirement for graduation. It is critical, then, that colleges should teach about computers so that their students can find these machines useful in many tasks, and can adapt to different, advanced, or newer computer experiences.
This sort of computer knowledge is commonly known as "computer literacy." However, this widely used term does not have a consistent definition. So many groups are involved in computer training, from the elementary all the way to the professional level, that it seems that no agreement can be reached on an exact meaning. Researchers like Duckett (1992) have been trying to either find or create a formal definition. Regardless, there is a general idea of what computer literacy means: in the simplest terms, it means the ability to use a computer. Computer literacy education is designed to give students that ability.
It is not enough to define computer literacy as "being literate in computers." The Webopaedia (1996), an online dictionary, defines computer literacy as "the level of expertise and familiarity someone has with computers generally the ability to use applications rather than to program." As we will see, most curricula for computer literacy training will be largely if not entirely focused on particular software programs. But this is still a vague description of computer literacy. Moursund (as cited in Duckett, 1992) gives computer literacy four parts, three or which are: "1. Knowledge and skill in operating a computer using a library of programs. 2. Knowledge of various ethical and social issues relating to computer use . 4. A functional level of knowledge for the use of computers as an aid to problem solving." Another significant part, which has appeared in the past two years with the Internet, is added by Sims (1996): "the ability to communicate or gain access to information by using the computer as a tool." Normally, computer literacy education also covers hardware issues, ranging from turning on a computer and using a mouse, to knowledge of disk drives, expansion cards, memory, etc. Moursund's third element of computer literacy, is "3. Knowledge and skills in computer programming using a high level language." Duckett found this not to be widely accepted, and most introductory computer literacy training courses nowadays do not include programming.
A survey of computer literacy courses at various colleges gives an idea of what the accepted norms are for defining computer literacy. This assessment comes from curricula from Montana State University (Ellestad, Thompson, & Lloyd, 1998), California State University (Holiwell, 1998), and Northeastern University (Smith, 1997). There are three main areas of coverage. The first covers the concepts of operating systems. Operating systems are what a user first deals with in using a computer. The system is used to control the running of software, as well as the operation of devices on the system (disk drives, modems, etc). Everything the computer does relies on the operating system. Furthermore, operating systems come with certain conventions and habits which, as a rule, are exhibited in any program running on that system (for example, the box that appears when you want to save a file in a program). Knowledge of certain basics of the system is essential to starting the course, and knowledge of some of its conventions that will reappear in the curriculum is best covered early.
The second area of coverage is the use of particular software. The decisions on which software to use should be the most varied, but lately they have seemingly become very much aligned, unintentionally, among colleges. The standard is to train students on the Microsoft Office suite of programs. Office includes such popular programs as Word, a word processor, Excel, a spreadsheet or table-making program, and PowerPoint, a presentation manager or slide show program. These three are standard in computer literacy curricula. Others software that may be covered includes Access, a database program, Schedule+, a personal planner program, and Publisher, a desktop publishing program.
The third area, which is a recent development and is increasingly becoming important, is the use of the Internet. Much of this is similar to software coverage, in the sense of training students to use Internet software. However, certain modern technology concepts are specific to the Internet, such as the ability to get results from a Web search engine, the ability to send mail to Internet addresses, etc. This area usually covers just the Web and email, which are the two most common uses of the Internet today, though not representative of full the range of available uses.
At Northeastern, the trademark computer literacy course is COM1105, entitled "Computer Science and its Applications." It is widely know simply by its course number. The course is provided by the College of Computer Science under the supervision of Prof. Raoul Smith. The course curriculum is designed by Smith with the involvement of the Dean and Associate Dean of Computer Science. It has existed at the University for 6 years (Smith, personal communication, 1998). In a given quarter, there are nearly as many sections of COM1105 offered as there are offered sections of all the other computer science courses (Northeastern University, 1998). However, due to the low introductory nature of the course, it is not available to computer science students, and is not mentioned anywhere in the computer science curriculum (Rasala [Ed.], 1997).
Prof. Smith describes the goal of this course as to " get [students] to a point where they can read the computer ad[vertisement]s, and know what the computer ads are talking about" (personal communication, 1998). His desired result is a student with the knowledge of "a mid-level manager" in the business or professional world. The original emphasis, he said, was on basics of hardware and software. A new format, introduced this year, tries to relate the concepts being taught in the course to the real-life applications of computers in the fields of the students. A large portion of the students who take COM1105 come from the pharmacy, nursing, criminal science, and physical therapy colleges; the course is a requirement in these colleges.
The course takes place mostly in a computer lab. The instructor demonstrates various functions involved in an assignment on a computer connected to an overhead projector. The students, often working two to a computer, should watch as the instructor demos and explains the action, and then do it on their own machine. In the original format, the students spend three hours a week in the lab, practicing these operations. When possible, Smith tries to gear the assignments towards the majority of the majors represented in the class; this is easier in those sections that are restricted to one major.
Smith describes the old method of teaching COM1105 as "describe, demo, and do." The process involves describing a computer function, showing how it is done in front of the students, and asking the students to replicate the activity. Smith considers this a model for teaching a beginners' course, where the student has no prior computer knowledge, but such students are "fewer and fewer these days" (Smith, 1998). Because of this, Smith and the deans developed a new method. The new method includes one-hour lectures given once a week to supplement lab activity in the other two hours per week. These lectures focus on certain non-essential computer basics, such as fonts, as well as cross-discipline input on the use of software, such as "psychological issues of color" in graphic design.
Essentially, the COM1105 curriculum does not seem to have undergone a major change in material with this new method. The same software titles and computer environments are covered as are listed in the dated syllabus from years past. With a small shift in method, Smith intends to be able to go into more detail on certain obscure functions. The weekly lectures are intended to expand the horizon on the issues involved in these functions. Compared with the syllabi from Montana State (Ellestad et al., 1998) and California State (Holiwell, 1998), COM1105 will be considered a standard computer literacy course for most intents and purposes. Some of its problems will be discussed to gain an insight into computer literacy education in general.
COM1105 has integral problems due to its format. Even with the revision made this year, COM1105 is still largely made up of work done in a computer lab. This invites a range of problems that are common to laboratory courses. Prior to interviewing Prof. Smith, I observed one laboratory session of COM1105 taught by him, and afterwards asked him about some of the difficulties I noticed.
Smith sees a few difficulties with teaching the COM1105 course. One complaint is that due to high demand for the course, students in the class are forced to share computers. Most students are paired up with a "lab partner." Though this is suggested to help the education process, what tends to happen is that one member, likely to be the one with more preexisting computer knowledge, dominates the work being done in the lab. The lab's usefulness to the other student lab experience may be negatively affected. Furthermore, if one student becomes dependent on his/her partner for understanding the lab, that student will encounter problems if the other student misses class.
Another problem is the difficulty in attracting or maintaining the students' attention in such a class. Due to the congestion, and the need or sense for collaboration, there is much talking in the class. Generally, Smith feels fine about this, and his ground rules simply request that students do not interrupt him unnecessarily. The issue of talking in a lab class, to Smith, is unavoidable. But much of the discussion is idle and unrelated to the class; and in the corners of the room, the sound builds up and makes Smith difficult to hear. Meanwhile, those students talking amongst themselves miss important points.
At the same time, limitations of the computers themselves cause problems. Smith spends much of the class time troubleshooting students' problems with their computers. One student is plagued by countless errors and problems with her machine. She becomes so frustrated that she gives up entirely in the last fifteen minutes of class and goes to use the Web to pass the time. On average, Smith spent four minutes fixing computer problems or user errors for every minute spent discussing and demonstrating a software function involved in the assignment. By the end of class, he only covered half of the material he had planned. This is very common, he says.
Smith has other problems with time. He feels the academic period is too short to cover the material he wants to cover. Part of this stems from the change in format to include a one-hour lecture a week. "I think it's taken more time to cover these lectures than I thought," he says. The lectures eliminate one hour of laboratory time, and Smith has to find ways to speed up the process. Unfortunately his students do not always come prepared. This will likely either cause him to cut some of the material, or move over it faster. Finding more efficient ways to cover the desired laboratory, assignment, and lecture material may help the time situation, but Smith is in a rare situation, being at a quarterly as opposed to semester-based school.
Smith (1998) is also worried about the size of his classes. "Each student should have his or her own computer," he says. Gunter and Gunter (1994) agree that students in larger classes have lower opinions about the usefulness of computers. The smaller the class, they observed, the more the students' attitudes on the usefulness of computers improved. Presumably, positive attitudes towards computers (or any subject) will result in increased proficiency, as well as increased ability to use computers creatively to solve problems.
What are the common problems plaguing computer literacy courses in general? Wolfe (1996) suggests that a lack of computer-savvy faculty is an issue. In an intricate plan to solve the problem she sees in computer literacy education, she criticizes schools where computer literacy programs are developed by non-technically inclined educators. "Students today cannot [become] computer literate with computer 'illiterate' faculty" (p. 29), she points out. Her evaluation of academic resources and her suggested plan of action deals heavily with making sure you have a trained faculty before you try to achieve a trained student body. In her example, the teachers have to be taught by other teachers before they can be expected to train for and/or develop computer literacy programs. She establishes a scale against which each faculty member's computer knowledge can be measured.
Duckett (1992) discusses similar problems in his papers on developing collegiate and secondary computer literacy curricula. After establishing a definition of "computer literacy," Duckett then examines the need to define the level of said literacy that educators are expected to have. Dealing mainly with education students, he advocates the establishment of computer competency standards for future teachers-in-training. His plan is an attempt to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of which comes first: the computer literate student or the computer literate teacher. The answer is that the computer literate student teacher must come first. Like Wolfe, Duckett creates a scale for educators, or in this case education students, against which their computer literacy can be judged. He also establishes expectations on this scale for the education student for each of his/her academic years. Wallet (with Duckett, 1992), as a teacher (and living half a world away from Duckett) concurs with a need for some computer literacy education for teachers.
These suggestions may apply to secondary schools, business schools and other specialized colleges, but do not apply to universities, where computer literacy education is expected of the school's computer science department, if one exists. Such is the case at Northeastern, where Smith is a computer science professor and his instructors are graduate computer science students.
Other educators feel the only problem with their computer literacy programs as a simple financial issue. They appeal to their institutions for more funding for computer literacy programs without discussion on how the added funds will improve the program. In Wolfe's (1996) cure-all for computer literacy, she demands the availability of "large amounts of computer equipment and software" (p.30). Some institutions have been undervaluing the subject of computer literacy, but more are being forced to face the fact that the professional world is becoming more technologically dependent. More effective pressure is being placed on such schools, especially business schools, by the companies that hire their students (Granger & Lippert, 1998).
All of these concerns are closely related. They are calls by educators in the field for an increase in resources. Whether it be financial, equipment, or educational resources, they focus only on concrete needs. There are, however, researchers who identify a different source of the problem: the methods used in developing and teaching computer literacy.
Granger and Lippert (1998), citing pressures from the business community, discover a gap in traditional computer literacy training. Along with other forms of pre-professional training, they conclude that for college technology training to meet its intended goals, there needs to be not just knowledge of course material, but a focus on "additional career enhancing abilities that will enable them to effectively demonstrate that knowledge" (p. 27). Their approach combines a number of skills aside from computer literacy that are of interest to business education. However, they make a useful observation about this problem in the standard approach to teaching computer concepts:
Understanding of software is just the beginning of a lifelong learning process [Students] need to master more than just the 'keystrokes' of the [software] package; they need to view the software as a tool that enables them to produce useful products in their future [careers]. (Granger & Lippert, 1998, p. 28)
The inference made in Granger and Lippert's comments is that standard computer literacy training is too rote to be of any use; the student becomes focused on repeating simple tasks (particular keystrokes) until a particular result is reached. In order to truly be able to use a computer towards efficiency and productivity, students need a good knowledge of how and when to apply the features they are activating with their actions.
Goldweber, Barr, and Leska (1993), professors of computer science at Ithaca College, have even less kind words to say about standard computer literacy training. They believe that, in general, computer literacy courses do not meet the goal of preparing the student to use computers as practical tools in their field of major. As far as software-focused computer training is concerned, they write,
A course of this kind typically exposes the student to a small [number of software] packages (e.g. word processing, electronic spreadsheet, and database management) running on a specific operating platform (e.g. DOS or Macintosh System 7). Unfortunately the primary focus in a class of this genre is often on instructing students which keystrokes to enter in order to accomplish a specific task from within a given [program] (i.e. obtain a printout of a pie chart). Not only is this approach lacking in intellectual content but experience has shown that this form of training has poorly prepared students for future computer usage that falls outside the scope of the specific environments/packages they were exposed to. Finally the utility of this approach for the student interested in a different application package mix than offered is severely limited. (Goldweber et al., 1993)
This theory requires the removal of "application literacy" from the focus of computer literacy training. In other words, a distinction is made between teaching someone to use a computer in general, and just teaching someone to use a bunch of computer programs. Focusing on particular software in teaching computer literacy therefore limits the student's comprehension of computer functions. This "lacking" method of monkey see, monkey do in computer literacy, or Smith's somewhat abandoned "describe, demo, do" method, forces the student simply to repeat tasks without creating a context within which the student can fully understand what is going on.
In particular, as the majority of computer literacy courses today are likely to use Microsoft programs, the stratified appearance, or "consistency" across these programs are actually detrimental to the user's ability to understand what is happening. Although this product line stratification is designed to make the programs easier to use in theory, at least one study has shown that it causes the user to become confused as to what is really going on, because behavior understood in one program (such as a word processor) is not necessarily the same behavior in another (such as a spreadsheet) in similar user experiences. A basic computer literacy course that sets aside teaching just software, in favor of teaching computer concepts which can be applied to any computing experience, would be one way to combat this effect.
The question then, is whether there is a problem. Smith (1998) and others say that the primary method of computer literacy training is not as limited as it seems. Smith expects that his students "would do fine" if presented with an application package (such as Corel WordPerfect) similar to but different from that used in computer literacy training. He also points out that it is important to impart computer skills to those who are fresh beginners, who may not have any prior computer experience, in which case a simple method (especially like the discarded "describe, demo, do" approach) may be best.
Also, COM1105 and courses like it at other colleges are loosely defined in order to cover a diverse range of skills. When Smith and two deans of the College of Computer Science (CCS) develop the curricula for COM1105, they receive some sense of requirements from a selection of professors from different areas, whose input is "rather vague not very specific" (Smith, 1998). In order to fulfill as many of their different needs as possible, it may be in the course developers' best interest to resort to the lowest common denominator when it comes to method of instruction. Most of the instructors for COM1105 (other than Smith) are teaching assistants (TAs), who tend to have little or no teaching experience, as well as communication problems with new students due to their inability to understand foreign accents. These problems are evident "all over the country," says Smith (1998).
Smith worries that a computer literacy course is asking for trouble because of the differences in prior knowledge among the students in a class. Originally, the course was aimed at students with no prior computing background. However, many students are now entering college with some sort of previous computer experience. Smith worries, as do other educators, that gearing his teaching towards a certain level of experience may cause those with less experience to become lost, and/or those with more experience to become bored. Smith (1998) and USM (1997) both advocate a two-course method where one course is geared towards inexperienced students and another for more advanced students. However, this may pave the way for three or more different classes as the expanding levels of students are confused or bored by approaches geared toward other levels.
Also, the students come from different majors with slightly different needs for computer skills. Though there are exclusive sections of COM1105 for many of the fields in which the class is required, not all the students enrolled are within those majors nor are all the students in those majors enrolled in the exclusive sections. This makes it hard to show the students how the programs used in the class can be used in their future collegiate and professional work. "If I've got three [Criminal Justice] majors and twenty pharmacy majors, I'm giving pharmacy examples. The CJ students may not have the motivation because they can't see that it can be applied in such and such a way. (1998)" This is a difficult problem for Smith to overcome, and too much to expect of his TAs with limited teaching experience.
But some educators are seeing more fundamental problems with traditional computer literacy education. The Ithaca professors (Goldweber et al., 1993) suggest that "the frequency of change and experimentation occurring at many institutions" indicates that even colleges confident in their programs are finding "difficulty in designing a satisfactory computer literacy course." As the harshest critics of the general method, they complain that "most of the current instantiations of [computer literacy] do not meet [their] goals." Their goal for computer literacy is that "Any student successfully completing the course should be capable of using a computer system for solving the types of problems that are germane to their field." Additional problems are the "lack of intellectual content" and "limited utility for certain students" mentioned above.
Education researchers refer to two general types of students' absorption of material and their skill at its application. Transfer, first of all, refers to the process by which students take in information, and their ability to exhibit their knowledge. Near transfer is the ability to repeat what they have learned in ways that mirror their instruction, or as Olsen (1993) describes it, practice leading to "automaticity" (p. 3). Far transfer, on the other hand, is the ability to evaluate or understand the material in such a way that it can be applied to a new situation which is not similar to the situations presented in the class. Generally, collegiate level coursework demands strength in far transfer, or problem solving skills, but Goldweber et al. and Granger and Lippert suggest that contemporary computer literacy courses do not.
Olsen (1993) says that "the need to teach for transferability of skills is greater than ever" (p. 3). Students need to know how to use software on their own for their own purposes, not just their operation (Lambrecht, as cited in Olsen, 1993). Therefore a greater emphasis on achieving far transfer, or problem-solving computer skills, among students is important. Learning more about transfer of skills is crucial" for the students' successful futures (Olsen, 1993, p. 3), and is important to the professional field (PCBEE, as cited in Olsen, 1993). Soloway (as cited in Granger and Lippert, 1998) finds that "students need mentorship in order to use the tools of their trade effectively" (p. 28), not just how to perform basic tasks. Gunter and Gunter (1994) suggest that students will not take computer skills seriously if they are not shown specifically how it can be useful to them.
This is not just over-reaction by discouraged educators. Lynch and Black (1996) show, based on a survey of managers and workers, that educational training is "not sufficient to meet the current needs of employers" (p. 1). Employers are disregarding collegiate training experience because it does not prepare their employees for professional work. Workers also need to "learn how to learn" (p. 1) in order to be able to benefit from further, more specialized education they may receive through future employment, or as drastic changes in technology require it. U.S. companies spend an estimated $148 billion a year on formal employee training.
Both these internal and external forces acting on colleges demand more computer problem-solving skills: the ability to use computers to solve unique tasks, and the ability to adapt to new computing environments. The desire for the ability to benefit from more advanced professional training also involves learning basic computer skills and knowledge which can be used to better understand future training. A University of Southern Maine (USM) survey reported that employers desire the ability to use the computer as a tool, as well as "high level thinking skills" (Flagg, 1997).
If efficiency for it's own sake is not sufficient impetus for a revisitation of college computer curricula, the fact that training is a "multi-billion dollar industry (Smith, 1998)" should be encouraging. With that in mind, Simon (1995) estimates that "only 10 percent of the dollars spent on [employee] training results in actual [productivity] change in the trainee's jobs." Already, some colleges have eliminated their computer literacy training courses due to their frustration over the futility of their programs in meeting professional needs (Goldweber et al., 1993).
There has been much research in recent years investigating methods which can increase far transfer in education (Cole and Wilson, 1993; Lin, 1994; Shih, 1997; Simon, 1995; Olsen, 1993). Not all of these are directly related to computer literacy education, but almost all of them use computers or multimedia aids in teaching students. These experiments have shown a number of teaching methods to be especially useful in increasing far transfer or problem solving skills. They are partly based on the classical instruction method discussed above, but include philosophies which are designed to encourage the student to reflect creatively upon what he/she is doing.
Simon (1995) emphasizes personal, concrete experience and constructive feedback processes. He involves hands-on training, testing, and communication of the material, backed up by research and experimentation. This feedback allows the student to evaluate the results of what he/she has done, and is believed to increase efficiency in learning. His group used behavior modeling, a combination of classical instruction and individual experimentation. This group excelled in near transfer, far transfer, and overall comprehension.
Olsen (1993) wanted her students to "decontextualize" the concepts they were learning in order to reuse them in other situations. She desired to train her students computer skills in the context of one computer program (WordPerfect) so that they could effectively use a similar program (Microsoft Word) that operates in different ways. Similar to Simon's groups, her group was taught using conceptual abstraction, in which the students were asked to think about what they were doing after performing some function. This group was taught software functions in general terms, dealing with the computing concepts involved (such as document format, columns, fonts, etc.), and the students were invited to make analogies of what they were doing. "The conceptual abstracting method should help students think about what they are doing, rather than just performing a sequence of commands" (p. 5). Olsen's research also shows that older research on enhancing far transfer can be applied to computer literacy education and achieve positive results.
Cole and Wilson (1993), Lin (1994), and Shih (1997) all have similar results as the above with methods that encourage the students to reflect or think constructively about their assignments. Analogical thinking (Cole and Wilson), self-reflection (Shih), and planning and evaluation (Lin) are all shown to be elements of the teaching/learning process which improves the ability of the student to apply the course material creatively. However, these methods may take more time. Wiedenbeck and Zila (1997) compared independent exploration with classical instruction and found the exploration method to fall short. Although their combination instruction-and-exploration group scored highest, the majority of their exploration group (which was given goals but not given any suggestion on reaching them) as not able to cover the same amount of knowledge as the other groups.
All this research supports the idea that self-reflection by students on individual tasks increases their ability to understand what they are doing at each step, and perhaps to understand the results of particular functions. In the general instruction method, students are shown what to do, what the results will be, and instructed to repeat it. However, there is little room for self-reflection, especially within the confines of the class time.
A computer literacy course needs to reach all of its students, especially where it is a required course. Class sizes should be minimized, and equipment should be sufficient for all students to use. Students need to be focused either on the instructor or on their assignment. Time spent with the instructor troubleshooting user problems often leaves other students without anything to do, and the class stability will soon fall apart.
Encourage creative reflection on what the student is doing. Invite students to discuss among themselves the functions and concepts being introduced. In this way, perhaps more advanced students can offer insights on class concepts to less experienced students. It may help the student to create analogies between the computer concept or function and another concept they are already familiar with. Give not just the assignment a practical usage, but also each individual piece.
Focus on creating a fundamental computer knowledge before diving into the usage of particular software. Concepts of the operating system, including understanding error messages, as well as understanding certain hardware functions, such as memory storage and writing to disk, should be understood first. If this knowledge is well established, the student's ability to understand using software should become much easier.
Encourage a certain amount of exploration and creativity in the student's lessons and assignments. Perhaps give hints to other functions not covered specifically in the material. Show students that they should not be afraid of "breaking" anything by experimenting, and guide them towards logical methods of discovering new functions, as well as how to find or apply known functions and concepts to different computing environments.
Computers are constantly being applied to new professions and used in new fields all the time. The ability not only to use computers, but to adapt to advances and other changes in computing technology is important to any professional-minded individual. This ability to apply old knowledge to new environments not only allows for the use of computers but can increase productivity and even satisfaction in one's work.
There are calls in some areas of industry, as well as educational research, that the scope and results of college computer literacy training be expanded; not in amount of material covered, but in tangible ability of the student (and future employee) to adapt and expand upon their computer knowledge. A new emphasis needs to be placed on far transfer i.e. problem-solving abilities, which can be achieved primarily through giving students the chance to think reflectively and critically about the tasks they are performing, as one would expect from any other college level course.
If computer literacy educators encourage their students to reflect
on what they do, make connections between computer concepts and
real-world concepts, and explore computing possibilities, they
can only find news ways to use the software and applications they
are familiar with, but also can adapt to new or different computing
environments. With the computer industry legendarily making significant
changes every eighteen months, the need is great for colleges
to take these steps to truly prepare their students for a computer