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What Should One Know to be Truly Computer Literate?

Cliff posted more than 7 years ago | from the where's-the-on-switch dept.

629

rbannon asks: "Computer literacy is becoming an increasingly used term in education, and more and more schools are being asked to set computer literacy goals for their students. Unfortunately for too many, it means being able to use Microsoft products, and that's all. However, I see it much differently, and I cannot help but think that computer literacy is all about using computers to be able to communicate more effectively. With that in mind does anyone have any recommendations for computer literacy goals, and how to measure them?"

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629 comments

It's all about context (4, Insightful)

datafr0g (831498) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391087)

You can't measure computer literacy without a context because "computer" is such a vague term these days and "computers" are used by many people for many different things.

FOr the average office worker it's knowing how to use MS Office. For the Hardware Engineer it means something completely different and for the software developer it's different again.

You can only be "truly computer literate" in the context of a particular field.

It's like asking for a "skilled driver" - skilled to what level? Skilled enough to navigate through suburban traffic or to compete in a Gran Prix?

context: education (3, Interesting)

cbr2702 (750255) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391205)

Someone says "our schools should make sure all their graduates are computer literate". People agree. What does this sort of literacy entail?

Re:context: education (3, Funny)

AKAImBatman (238306) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391319)

What does this sort of literacy entail?

I guess it means we need [Computer] Shop Class? Or do we need [Computer] Driver's Ed? Or we could just stick with the wonderful car analogy (don't you just loooooove car analogies?) and have both!

Surprisingly, that may actually make sense.

Re:It's all about context (1)

Dadoo (899435) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391207)

I'm not sure I agree that "computer literate" is that vague, but I do understand what you're saying about it meaning different things to different people.

I've been doing computers for more than 25 years, now. I can write software in a bunch of different languages and I can build computers and networks from scratch. After all that time, I'm only average with a word processor and I've never used a spreadsheet or a presentation tool - not even once. I wouldn't even know where to begin.

I'd like to get around to that stuff at some point, but I can't, right now: my company needs me to build a pair of 16-port fax servers with failover capability. :-)

Re:It's all about context (1)

smvp6459 (896580) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391465)

I think there's a difference between defining proficiency and literacy. It seems like literacy, in the category of reading, isn't hotly debated. It's a question of the most basic level of reading skills required to be considered "literate?" So what's the most basic level of computer skills required to be considered "computer literate?" If you go for the most basic skills necessary to interact with a computer and have it be meaningful: on/off, open and close programs, read and reply to email, save files, return to saved files, and go to a website and navigate through the site. Will these skills fulfill the needs of an office with advanced technology: probably not. Will bare minimum reading skills fulfill the needs of an office with advanced technology: probably not.

Another question might be: do we want our children to only be computer literate?

Re:It's all about context (3, Interesting)

warewolfe (877477) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391468)

Kinda have to disagree, computer literacy is the same as regular literacy. The more literate you are the easier it is to switch context and still gain useful knowledge.

The average office worker is not as computer literate as a software developer because generally, all they can do, is use their word processor, email and spreadsheets. While a software developer would be able use an IDE,compilers, debuggers and also be able to use a word processor to write a report and figure out their budgets on a spreadsheet.

Likewise a person who has worked in different enviroments (MS, Mac,*nix) using different tools, (text editors, spread sheets, media players,compilers) is more computer literate than a person who has only ever used their win-box to email. They may know every hot-key short cut and trick that Outlook can handle but they're not really computer literate if they can't send an email on a mac or linux box if they have to.

The more contexts/environments a person can work in, and the shorter time it takes to gain fluency in a new context, the more computer literate that person is.

The following.... (2, Insightful)

ellem (147712) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391104)

File Edit Blah Blah Blah Help

CTRL X
CTRL C
CTRL V

CTRL S

ALT F4 (for Windows)

Lef & Right click

Basic computer safety... stop clicking on everything, don't open attachments from people you don't know... no one in Nigera is sending you any money

The difference between Reboot and Logoff

Save often

Backup often

Then general idea of networking... not arcane TCP/IP, DHCP, DNS stuff... just the idea that other computers can be accessed by your computer and vice versa

TAB vs SPACE

Re:The following.... (1)

hahafaha (844574) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391221)

Not really...

Computer literacy isapplicable in a particular field. For business, it is how to work your way around Windows, for a developer or sysadmin, around UNIX, BSD, or GNU/Linux, etc.

What you mentioned is more for the average user, and I would add some more stuff to it (word processing, web browsing, email, etc.)

Re:The following.... (5, Funny)

An Onerous Coward (222037) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391232)

I started on your tutorial, but two steps in Emacs closed on me.

Re:The following.... (0)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391312)

Emacs? I can only assume you meant CTRL-X/V/C/S, because that's the only emacs-like thing out there...And it's not emacs. It's pretty much standard across all GUI word processors. Cut/Paste/Copy/Save

In Emacs that's CTRL-W/CTRL-Y/META-W/CTRL-X-CTRL-S

Re:The following.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391402)

*woosh*. /. subscribers are always terrible.

Re:The following.... (1)

level_headed_midwest (888889) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391506)

Emacs? Come on- everybody who's computer-literate uses vi.

Oh, somebody had to say it. I actually use GNU Nano as my console-based text editor.

Re:The following.... (1)

NoTailNoGoodnik (882750) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391412)

I found that just too funny!

I just hate it when, after using EMACS for a while, I go to a Word document, want to move to the next line, and end up opening a new file! Egad! I want EMACS key bindings for Office!

Re:The following.... (5, Interesting)

MBCook (132727) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391290)

An excellent list. I can only add a few small things to it.

First is the Ctrl-X/V/C. Make sure they understand copy/paste/cut. It is terribly useful and something that a surprisingly small number of computer users seem to know how to use.

READ DIALOG BOXES. This goes with the "no one from Nigeria" stuff. I can't tell you how many people I've helped with computers or errors or questions where the process of helping them consisted of "Did you read the dialog box?" "What does the dialog box say?" "So what should you do?" and that helped them.

Last, and most important UNDERSTAND THE FILESYSTEM. I've gotten my parents quite good at day-to-day use of the computer. It has taken YEARS. That said, I wouldn't consider them computer literate. This is one of the reasons.

So you want to find a file my parents saved. Where is it? That's right... My Documents. Not a sub-folder, just My Documents. That's where there are a few thousand files. Why? Because that is the default save location. Unless it's not. Some programs (AOL, etc) like to save somewhere else. So files saved from those programs are in those folders. Good luck finding anything, especially with the cruddy Windows search function. Spotlight would work well, but then again I gave them Google Desktop and they don't use it (it's easier to just scroll through the list of 3,000 files).

Introducing them to a few basic file types (TXT, JPG, HTML, DOC, XLS, ZIP, etc.) would also be a good step. So would the idea that you can delete a zip file after you unzip it. A decent chunk of the stuff in my parents My Documents folder? Zip files and their contents that Windows or AOL unzipped for them. But since that process is hidden, they don't know to delete the ZIP files or what they are.

In fact, they don't understand files and e-mail either. When you get an attachment in e-mail (say a picture) and you choose to view it and it gets saved to the hard drive... what do you do the next time you want to view that picture? That's right, you go to the e-mail and RE-SAVE the file with the default filename (helpfully with a "(1)" or some such at the end to ensure you have tons of spare copies) and let the right program open up automatically again. E-mail is a foreign land from the file system for all they know. AOL and it's tendencies to keep it's own weird folders and such have NOT helped at all in this regard.

In fact, warn them against AOL in the first place. I can not tell you how many things I've given up teaching because of AOL.

I'll post more if I can think of it. But basic use of the filesystem (especially creating folder and how you can nest folders and use that for organization) is critical.

Re:The following.... (4, Insightful)

MBCook (132727) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391370)

I just thought of another one. Make sure to teach them about URLs when you do the web. Someone else touched on teaching them this, but let me give some specific things.

How do you go to a website? Do you know what the #1 search on Yahoo is? It's "Google". My parent's computers are set up with Google as the home page. Do you know how they get just about anywhere? Searching google. Want to go to "favoritestore.com"? Well you type "favoritestore.com" in the Google search field and hit Search then click on the right one that comes up. They also use bookmarks. That one took a LONG TIME to break. I can not tell you how many people I've seen with that one.

Also, what is a home page in your web browser? That's the company that sells you your internet service! We subscribe to Google. We never get a bill from them. We do get bills from Comcast for Internet. But that little logical inconsistency doesn't seem to occur to them. I think I've got this one through to my parents too, but I'm not sure. I know it is (at least in part) related to AOL. The fact that you can change this to whatever you want is important and should be mentioned.

The last one for now is a personal pet-peeve of mine. I run into this in the otherwise very smart and computer savvy people in my high level CS classes.

This - / - is a FOREWORD-slash

This - \ - is a BACK-slash

One leans forward, the other leans backward. The terms are NOT INTERCHANGEABLE. The mean DIFFERENT things.

Of course this wouldn't be a problem is MS stuck with / as a path separator for DOS just like UNIX used, but that's another argument.

Re:The following.... (1)

sholden (12227) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391456)


This - / - is a FOREWORD-slash

This - \ - is a BACK-slash

Having such long names for such common things (in computing) is madness.

What's wrong with slash and slosh respectively. That's what I've called them for as long as I remember, though I admit back when I was teaching C++ the confused looks before I explained my jargon on the faces of the second year students indicates it's far from universal... Do you say "exclamation mark" instead of "bang" too?

Re:The following.... (1)

vitamine73 (818599) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391410)

You make a very good point, I have encoutered the same problems trying to teach my mom. Of particular interest is this:

READ DIALOG BOXES. This goes with the "no one from Nigeria" stuff. I can't tell you how many people I've helped with computers or errors or questions where the process of helping them consisted of "Did you read the dialog box?" "What does the dialog box say?" "So what should you do?" and that helped them.

What is interesting here is that this applies pretty much to any teaching situation. I teach stastistics, ecology and evolution to undergrad biology students, mostly in problem solving situations. Most of the times one asks me a question, I manage to have them find the answer just by asking the right questions in return. Sometimes it's a simple case of "Did you re-read the problem" which is analogous to "Did you read the dialog box?", but you can also effectively apply this method with 'real' problem solving.

and Ctrl-F (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391467)

I used Ctrl-F in front of my parents the other day while they were trying to find somebody's name in a long document, and they acted like I knew some sort of gypsy magic.

obviously... (5, Funny)

one-eye-johnson (911152) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391107)

Assembly.

Re:obviously... (1)

dinojemr (261460) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391208)

If you just know assembly, you are not computer literate. You must be able to understand binary machine language to really understand what your computer is doing.

Re:obviously... (4, Funny)

Who235 (959706) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391348)


01011001 01100101 01110000 00101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100111
01110011 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01101111 01101110 01101100 01111001
00100000 01100110 01110101 01100011 01101011 01101001 01101110 01100111 00100000 01110111
01100001 01111001 00101110 00100000 00101110 00100000 00101110

Simple (5, Funny)

Jimhotep (29230) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391115)

Know more than the other people you work with.

Just stay one step ahead.

Re:Simple (4, Interesting)

AuMatar (183847) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391212)

Scarily enough, thats all too true. My mom, who can barely use email, is the hosptial's "computer person". She's the only one willing to pull the plug and reboot it when it freezes up.

Power button (1)

Rendo (918276) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391119)

I don't know, turning on the computer may seem difficult at first, but I'll be damned if any one I know can't do it!

I know I am a bit hardcore with this, but (4, Interesting)

WatchTheTramCarPleas (970756) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391120)

I think everyone should be able to put together a system from hardware and install an operating system. We all know it isn't particularly hard to do (I'm talking about a self installing os like windows or suse, not one of those uber hardcore linux distros), but you gain an entirely different perspective on computing when you understand the basic concepts required to do so. It will at least demystify the basic idea of computing for the vast majority of americans. I am thoughly dissapointed in the concept of computer literacy. Using ms word and pressing the start button does not qualify as being computer literate. You wouldn't exactly call a first grader who reads word by word one word a second literate and ready for the world would you?

Re:I know I am a bit hardcore with this, but (4, Insightful)

detritus` (32392) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391159)

But at the same time i can teach a monkey to fit the different shaped components together and put a disc in the drive. Seriously, i know people who've built computers that have no idea what the difference between PCI/AGP/PCI-X is and they'll blindly open attachments and download programs that offer great "weather forecasts". putting tab A into slot b is no big difference from double clicking an icon on the desktop. Explain it to them once or and most people can do it over and over without having any understanding. And installing an OS like XP does nothing to educate them. Once again its a simple matter of put disc in drive, press power, select yes a lot (Put in key, that part gets tricky) and then they have a full working machine. Unfortunately with the ease of new systems its hard to find a reason to learn the basics, like when i started with with my old Apple IIe and then later DOS machines. but then again most people dont need to know this anymore, as everything is so automated nowadays. Basic skills such as what is a program, what is an OS, etc would be the most important things i would teach a complete newbie. That and common file extensions and turn off "hide file extensions" seriously that has to be one of the biggest security issues in XP in my mind. paris hilton nude.jpg.exe is probably one of the more sucessful viruses out there

Re:I know I am a bit hardcore with this, but (4, Interesting)

slasher999 (513533) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391195)

There was a time when I would have agreed completely. That time was probably around '95 or so. However, I've modified that idea somewhat over the past decade. Today I think everyone who wants to consider themselves "computer literate" should be able to identify the components of a typical computer - that is a PC or Mac, laptop or desktop (the parts aren't that different after all). Can they tell the difference between a hard drive and a video card? Can they explain the basic purpose of each?

Onto the operating system. A person who considers themselves "computer literate" should be able to describe the basic purpose of an operating system and use the OS they are most familiar with in an efficient manner. The person should also be able to maintain the system - install and update AV or Malware protection and describe the purpose of each, apply service packs to the OS and installed applications and describe their purpose, upgrade shrinkwrapped applications (or applications that are comparable to that now antiquated term, I'm simply not including the ability to download source and config/make/make install here).

I believe those are the basic qualifications for today's computer literate person.

That's unreasonable (4, Insightful)

DavidinAla (639952) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391361)

That's like saying you should be able to assemble a car before you can drive. Or put a stove together before you can cook. The fact that you even think this is another indication that many of the people who work in IT (or have serious interest in it) don't understand what the end user really needs. A normal, everyday user should be able to get real work done easily without having to understand all of the jargon that you and I understand. It's absurd to expect him to do so.

David

Re:That's unreasonable (1)

Oink (33510) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391479)

Thank you for saying so! This seems to constantly escape many a slashdotter =)

Re:I know I am a bit hardcore with this, but (4, Insightful)

An Onerous Coward (222037) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391399)

Back up a bit. I don't think putting together a computer is either strictly necessary or strictly helpful. Once the person has put it together, and installed the OS, they've got this screen staring at them, asking them what they want to do. And they'll have no idea.

I can suggest several branches of computer literacy:

1): the ability to interact with common GUIs. Know what a mouse is, be able to click it and make things happen. As a bonus, add right-click (or whatever the hell you Mac people do). Learn to read dialog boxes and respond to them.

2): Learn to open common applications, and interact with common applications such as a web browser and a word processor. Know what a file is and how to save one. Know what the directory structure is and at least one way to navigate it.

3): Absolute basic hardware! Be able to take your computer apart, move it to a different room, stick all the things in the back in, and have it work as it did before. Knowing the various jacks by sight might get bonus points, but isn't strictly necessary.

4): Regular maintenance. Know what a virus is, and why you have to keep your virus definitions up to date. Know what a patch is, and why you're supposed to install one.

5): More theory. Learn basic technical concepts, like what an operating system is, what an application is, the difference between memory, hard drive, processor, networking.

6): Internet basics. Understand that when your computer loads up a web page, it's actually talking to another computer. Understand the concept of "bandwidth" (using a hose analogy if needed). Understand the difference between the Web and the Internet. Know that computers identify each other by numbers known as "addresses", and that the domain names are simply a way of mapping from memorable names to those numbers.

7): Security. Know what a firewall is and what it does. Understand why you don't run attachments sent by random people. Have some idea of what constitutes a good password.

I think if you know all this, it would be a rather stingy society that wouldn't call you "computer literate". Your approach would probably go a long way towards getting some of the concepts down, but it's only a starting point.

Re:I know I am a bit hardcore with this, but (1)

Kbo1982 (976759) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391491)

I have been teaching P.C. Literacy for a year now, and I'd be the first to admit that there are a lot of things that need to be changed (#1 being that P.C.!=Microsoft, therefore P.C. Literacy!=Microsoft Literacy)

The thing about P.C. Literacy classes is that they should be useful. While you might find your ability to put together a system to be useful, the average student (and maybe this is colored in my mind by the fact I teach at a community college) would not take the time and energy to build one even if they new how. If they are going to get a job that needs that skill, they will take an entire class on it.

I don't on the other hand think that 1 class dedicated to software installation would be a bad idea. It's not supposed to be an official part of the semester where I teach (to maintain transferability to the university, we have to follow a schedule set out for us without much freedom) but I usually end up having to go through how to install the testing software we use.

Basically, there are tons of things that we would love to teach everyone, but we have 4 1/2 months, meeting 2 days a we. When we start out with students who don't know how to double click, it is sometimes all we can do to get through cut and paste and how to save a file where you will actually be able to find it next time you need it. Sad but true.

Computer Literate (1)

L33THa0R69 (610556) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391121)

The early 90's called, they want their term back.

Re:Computer Literate (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391182)

The early 90's called, they want their term back.

Hey, the early 90's called, they want their form-letter joke back.

  Oh GOD! The joke's FOLDING IN UPON ITSELF! RUN WHILE YOU STILL CAN!

Retraction (1)

L33THa0R69 (610556) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391228)

Oh come to think of it that joke is almost as old as that term.

There I bet you all to it.

The joke is still more relevant than the term. I think employers who may have in the past looked for computer literate on a CV take it for granted. The fact that if you wrote the CV you are literate, if you sent your CV in Word format though email then you are computer literate.

There are so many things you can do on a computer that if you need someone with certain skills you have to be more specific than "computer literate".

ctrl+alt+delete (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391122)

see subject line

Interaction, information organisation, networking (4, Insightful)

Bogtha (906264) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391123)

  • Basic interaction with a computer - to the point where they know the difference between backspace and delete and the difference between left-click and right-click, not to the point where they know particular key combos.
  • Basic peripheral use - so that they know what printers and scanners are, that they need to switch the monitor on separately, etc.
  • Basic interaction with a GUI - so that they know what windows are, what minimisation/maximisation does, what programs are, how to navigate between common window types.
  • Basic file management - what loading and saving means, how to organise files into directories, the difference between CDs and the hard drive, etc.
  • Surfing and email - these are the two killer apps for most people, and they aren't very intuitive if all you know about the Internet is how to spell it. Furthermore, teaching somebody to use the web enables them to do quite a bit, as many applications are simply being created as web applications these days.

The basic rule of thumb I would use is that if you've taught them with one operating system, and they don't have any difficulty accomplishing the same tasks with another operating system of the same basic design, then they've learnt the basic concepts well enough as opposed to learning by rote what to click.

Re:Interaction, information organisation, networki (2)

Dadoo (899435) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391250)

Surfing and email

I'll agree with that, but I think you need to explicity mention surfing. Knowing how to use a search engine is one of the most powerful Internet skills you can have. I know I would have a much more difficult time doing my job without it.

Re:Interaction, information organisation, networki (2, Informative)

glens (6413) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391392)

Pretty much "ditto that" in my opinion.

Rather than teaching particular program details, just teach what the different types of programs do; how they all basically operate the same within type if well-designed.

A person cannot be considered "computer literate" unless they can sit down in front of just about anything they might reasonably encounter and be able to get at least rudimentary stuff done. Learning just how to drill down a specific system's menus (or across "ribbons" if they ever appear) to the exclusion of alternate methods is almost worse than no education at all.

Not much, only... (0, Redundant)

lavaamp (972229) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391128)

Assembly

Re:Not much, only... (1)

Stevyn (691306) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391265)

I honestly agree. I found it pretty cool when I learned all a computer can really do is perform some simple arithmatic and logical operations on numbers and make conditional branches. Everything else is hardware abstraction or insanely complex software systems when compared to these simple operations.

The whole computer literacy is really about understanding how to interact with what someone else designed. Even programming takes this course when you use text editors, libraries, and compilers. So computer literacy can be as simple as using windows and word. It can expand almost infinitely into designing operating systems and hardware. The only thing that I hate is when people get the idea that's it's somehow magic or not based on logic.

Re:Not much, only... (2, Funny)

wiz31337 (154231) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391303)

If you can successfully find your way to porn while at work behind a content filter, then you're probably computer literate. If not it is a really good skill to have.

They're missing the point. (5, Insightful)

Chowderbags (847952) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391131)

It shouldn't be about being able to use certain products or being able to do a specific task, the real goal should be teaching the kids to find out how to do things for themselves.

Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to learn things for himself, and he'll be a hell of a lot more than a fisherman.

Re:They're missing the point. (1)

Zardus (464755) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391430)

Although you could also say: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you lose your monopoly. Maybe its for the better for us techies if the masses aren't "Computer Literate"?

I don't really think that. Having people know at least the 'basics' would make life a whole lot easier for a whole lot of people, but it would also put a few computer security personell out of jobs.

Re:They're missing the point. (1)

Lendrick (314723) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391439)

...set him on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life. :)

Honestly, I'd be happy if people just knew the difference between memory and hard drive space. It doesn't help nowadays that small USB drives and the like are called "memory sticks".

Back in the days of DOS, I had a friend who couldn't run a game because he didn't have enough free memory. So he went and deleted a lot of stuff off his hard drive, and managed to delete something that loaded at boot. Lo and behold, his game worked after that, thereby reinforcing his idea that memory and hard drive space are the same thing. I never could convince him otherwise after that. :)

The Key Skill Is Ability to Learn (5, Interesting)

celest (100606) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391132)

With the ever-changing technologies, the key skill no longer becomes knowing how to use any particular tool, piece of hardware or software, but rather becomes the ability to adapt and effectively learn how to use any tool or environment.

Not to sound too cliché, but Google and the Internet are at the center of this. Much like books eliminated the need for memorization and transmission by oral tradition, Google and the Internet revolutionize how one learns and adapts. Teach your students how to learn and adapt. Teach them skills on ways to search for information, ways to evaluate what information is good, and what is trash, and teach them how to contribute back information for others to learn from their experiences, good or bad.

To evaluate them, give them novel, creative problems and the tools to learn how to adapt to the environment, and search for solutions. Evaluate their ability to use the resources at their disposal to come up with their own solutions to the problems. This is infinitely better than training them to rote memorize solutions to static problems.

I'd like to see a day where a skill that is searched for on a resumé is no longer a specific ability with a specific tool, but simply the line "Fast and adaptive learner" or "Excel at creative solution design in novel environments." That's what I'd be looking for in an employee, and for future generations of technology users.

Re:The Key Skill Is Ability to Learn (1)

flandery (717054) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391223)

I'd like to see a day where a skill that is searched for on a resumé is no longer a specific ability with a specific tool, but simply the line "Fast and adaptive learner" or "Excel at creative solution design in novel environments." That's what I'd be looking for in an employee, and for future generations of technology users.

Unfortunately that isn't what an employer will see when they see "Fast and adaptive learner". Instead, they'll adopt the more typical manager-think "He doesn't know tool XYZ! That will only increase his cost of training."

I do long for the same day as you, but for that to happen mindsets must be changed.

Re:The Key Skill Is Ability to Learn (1)

Netochka (874088) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391241)

I definitely agree with the parent poster. In this vein, and since generally kids are becoming more and more computer literate I'd say that a better way to teach would be to actually make them use software that they're not used to. i.e. Put them on a nice linux distribution with OpenOffice or something like that, as too often people are just put off because of the fact that something is different than they're used to. In addition, this would put all the kids on a bit more of an equal playing field, and then as for the actual learning part the parent poster had it right, that they should actually have to figure out stuff for themselves, and learn how to find the information that they need.

About the last point though:
I'd like to see a day where a skill that is searched for on a resumé is no longer a specific ability with a specific tool, but simply the line "Fast and adaptive learner" or "Excel at creative solution design in novel environments." That's what I'd be looking for in an employee, and for future generations of technology users.

I'm pretty sure everyone does that already. The problem is that anyone can write it, and it's not exactly something you can test very well in a 30 minute interview.

Try stuff! (4, Insightful)

kherr (602366) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391270)

The biggest problem with learning how to use computers I've seen from neophytes is the fear of trying stuff. Everything I know about computers comes from wanting to find out how stuff works. I tinker and mess around and do stupid things and eventually figure out what things are and how they work.

Too many people are afraid they'll break the computer and resort to memorizing what they are shown. Since they only do the one thing they are trained to they are unable to grasp the underlying components and what it all means.

To be literate you have to tinker. Try stuff. Break things, get someone to fix them. Then try some different stuff.

Re:Try stuff! (1)

scott_evil (266713) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391444)

Yeah... try it on your own stuff and fix it yourself. If I see my staff trying something they're not allowed to do I come down on them like a ton of bricks. IT staff should not be required to fix problems caused by a breach of policy. (Yes, I used to work in IT).

Re:The Key Skill Is Ability to Learn (1)

gbobeck (926553) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391376)

With the ever-changing technologies, the key skill no longer becomes knowing how to use any particular tool, piece of hardware or software, but rather becomes the ability to adapt and effectively learn how to use any tool or environment... ...To evaluate them, give them novel, creative problems and the tools to learn how to adapt to the environment, and search for solutions. Evaluate their ability to use the resources at their disposal to come up with their own solutions to the problems.


I agree.

Of course, once any user knows how to search and learn as they go, the next most important skill that must be sharpened is the ability to filter fact from crap.

Right on the money. (1)

Meetch (756616) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391378)

IMHO true computer literacy is knowing your current limitations, and knowing that you can't pretend they don't exist. Add the knowledge of how to research what you need or teach yourself and the world should be your oyster. Many moons ago I got a job after an interview which included a question like "Do you know HTML?" The answer was of course, yes. Then I went home, found suitable references, read the book, and practiced it. By the time I started working for them I knew more about the standard then than I do now.

That's when you should be able to sit through an interview and easily convince a potential employer that even if you don't know the semantics of language X, you'll know the basics in 24 hours and by the time you start work the following Monday you're basically fluent in it. Better still, when you apply for the job, learn at least the basics of the language before the interview. Just remember that a) your style of approach to a solution is often just as important as your general knowledge of the technology and b) all bullshit will get you in a smart workplace is unemployed again 2 weeks later.

Generally (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391138)

Computer Literate in my mind is: 1. Basic knowledge of the operating system your using: How to change your desktop background, how to shut down the machine properly, how to install programs, how to force quit something. 2. Being able to access the internet from your machine and find a web address. 3. Being able to use an email program or web based email. 4. Being able to use Word.

Best practices! (2, Insightful)

zanglang (917799) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391141)

Other than the normal Microsoft programs, a list of best practices would almost certainly be useful, i.e:

How to work on the system safely (think before opening email attachments)

How to browse safely (know how to spot phishing sites, avoid providing sensitive data, install a proper browser like Firefox)

How to take care of your operating system (defrag regularly, delete unwanted files), and

Basic security (be careful with passwords, instead of sticking them on the monitor)

Re:Best practices! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391211)

Use a decent filesystem so they don't need to defrag, etc.

As an educational goal (5, Insightful)

Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391143)

A literate person is one who can learn anything given time and opportunity, not someone who's read everything.

A computer literate person should be one who grasps a foundation of knowledge that prevents dead ends and allows learning whatever the current task requires.

The key concept would have to be that a computer is a playback device for software, that whoever controls the software owns the computer (yes, owns. Which gives you more control, being handed car keys, or being handed a root password?), and that some software is much better than other software. Teach that and you've cured all the people who think Internet Explorer is "the internet".

If you want to teach people to use a computer to commmunicate better, then teach them to communicate better. Outlining is a skill that is even more useful for web pages than it was for text. Good composition skills are indispensable. Old-fashioned "rhetoric" classes have a lot to offer about conveying and supporting ideas. Where text is considered obsolete, teach the "grammar" and "vocabulary" that filmmakers have worked out for multimedia works.

Have a basic knowledge (3, Insightful)

martonlorand (938109) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391152)

Know what is acomputer, how it works on a basic level, CPU, Memory, Harddrive, Video/Monitor. A computer literate person should know how theese work together under the command of an OS, have a basic idea about what an operating system is and what is the different betwean an OS and an Application

IMHO if one knows these will be able to use basic applications (including MS Office if that is what he/she desires) and call him/herself computer literate.

Understanding that a car has engine, wheel, steering wheel, transmission is necessary to drive a car. Knowing the same basic things about a computer is the same.

Than if they are programmers, network admins, webmasters - they are not computer literate's any more. They are specialized pretty much like car mechanics...

An executive, administrative person etc. is computer literate if he/she knows this - otherwise they are trained monkeys^H^H^H^H^H^H^H users, and are afraid to do anything that wasn't in the training - in consequence they will be unable to use other programs that they are trained in.

Installing. (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391156)

How to install an operating system, so that when they get sick of non-free rubbish they can switch to a free software system.... Or reinstall Windows themselves.

The Terms (1)

DivineOmega (975982) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391157)

Computer literacy as a term in itself is ridiculous. Your washing machine has a computer in it. Does that mean if you can set a spin cycle correctly you are somewhat 'computer literate'?

Re:The Terms (1)

Virak (897071) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391310)

In general, if people talk about 'computers', without content they mean PCs. And I'd hope your washing machine doesn't run any Microsoft products.

Re:The Terms (1)

DivineOmega (975982) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391345)

You mean you haven't heard of Microsoft Cleaner?

It's currently only compatible Microsoft Windows Washing Edition.

Re:The Terms (1)

Ian Action (836876) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391480)

If you refer to your washing machine as a computer, yes, feel free to call yourself computer literate.

a programming language (5, Insightful)

astrashe (7452) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391179)

No one agrees with me on this, but I think that you have to know a computer language to understand computers. It can even be something like LOGO, for kids. I'm not suggesting that someone has to know a set of GUI widgets for a modern desktop or anything.

If you know a language, you know what an algorithm is, even if you don't know the word. And if you know what an algorithm is, you pretty much know what a computer is.

I'm a giant fan of that MIT vision -- LOGO for kids, extensible and scriptable apps for adults, cheap laptops for people in parts of the world where money is scarce, open information on the web, etc.

I don't have kids, though, and I've never convinced anyone that their kids would be better of learning LOGO than powerpoint. Everyone says the same thing -- you don't have to be an engineer to drive a car.

I was lucky -- I got to learn about computers with a KIM-1 single board machine, and timesharing on a PDP-10, reading books about games written by hippies. If I wanted to play a game, I'd usually have to port it from one dialect of BASIC to another. It wasn't really hard, and it's not really fair to call them ports. But you had to understand the code at least a little bit.

I think it would be a lot harder to learn from iTunes.

Re:a programming language (1)

Sam Nitzberg (242911) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391247)

I pretty much agree with this post.


I'd rather someone learn the history of computing - from counting knots on ropes to the history of geometry and basic measuring devices, through to the modern era and techniques.


Learn math properly, with history, and you can develop a great sense of how things can and should work - this can be a great foundation.


Beyond this, I don't think that learning any one technology or processor - based system is vital. What is key is being given an environment - an assembly language, a LOGO, BASIC, C, JAVA, etc..., and being able to play and experiment.

Re:a programming language (1)

bloosh (649755) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391291)

I currently teach Logo to 80 something 7th graders a week using UCBLogo on Linux (LTSP).

I start them off with basic turtle graphics and gradually introduce concepts such as variables, loops, etc. There are five or six kids in each class that ask me how to do the same stuff at home.

Re:a programming language (3, Insightful)

MrNougat (927651) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391353)

... I think that you have to know a computer language to understand computers.

Hurrah. I learned BASIC when I was 13, and got pretty good at it. Sadly, my family didn't have the money at the time to be able to afford anything computerwise after the Timex/Sinclairs and C64s all went by the wayside. At the same time, I was playing video games at the arcade. Because I knew a programming language, I understood that the computer in the video game was following a set of commands, and could imagine all the lines of BASIC that would accomplish the same thing. ... you don't have to be an engineer to drive a car.

You don't have to be an engineer, but it doesn't hurt knowing how the thing works. I've always insisted that the best way to teach someone how to drive a manual transmission is to start by describing how a clutch works. That clutch pedal - it's connected to something, you know? And when you press it down, something happens. And when you let it up, something else happens.

When you press buttons on your computer keyboard, those inputs are read by programming - and something happens. It's not just magic. Too many people, having absolutely no clue how anything works, just think everything runs on magic.

Qualifies as "Literacy" IMHO... (1)

abscissa (136568) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391189)

Some posts have suggested Unix and assembly (as a joke?), which is like suggesting you can't read unless you can read hyroglyphics. Not that it's not important or that Unix is bad, it just is irrelevant to "basic literacy" IMHO. So, here is my list:

1. How to set up and troubleshoot basic Windows XP issues
2. How to add or remove components (AGP card, PCI cards, etc.)
3. What ethernet is, what USB is, what bluetooth is, etc.
4. The basics of Microsoft Word + Excel (create new document, save, print, etc.)
5. Internet searching
6. How to manipulate files (move between folders, delete, etc.)

That's right -- I didn't mention OS X or any other operating system. Even though I use a Macbook Pro myself I would still say that Windows is more important to "literacy". Also, I would venture to say that most people who are adept at Windows could learn OS X extremely quickly. (Except my grandfather, who decries the fact there is no "maximise" button for the web browser to make his stock charts big.)

Re:Qualifies as "Literacy" IMHO... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391281)

Apparently I am computer illiterate. Despite a Master's degree in CS and a software engineering job, I can't even name any basic Windows XP issues, much less set up or troubleshoot them. Sometimes I can muddle through, but I make it a point to avoid Windows as much as possible and I frequently just give up on the rare occasion that somebody corners me and forces me to try to fix their computer.

Re:Qualifies as "Literacy" IMHO... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391368)

That's true. You probably aren't qualified for an entry level computing job, such as helpdesk or phone support.

Re:Qualifies as "Literacy" IMHO... (1)

vitamine73 (818599) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391462)

I think you forgot some basics. To take up a car analogy popular in this thread, most people know the basic parts that make a car a car: an engine, a steering wheel, tires, brakes. I think computer literacy should start there also, what are the different (basic) parts that make up a computer, what do they do: CPU, RAM, ROM, storage, input devices...

Re:Qualifies as "Literacy" IMHO... (1)

a gash (891166) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391472)

If you don't call them 'powerbooks' you're part of the problem! ;)

Basic vs Advanced. (2, Interesting)

Necoras (918009) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391203)

Basic knowledge would probably be the ability to surf the internet w/o difficulty, use a basic editor/wordprocessor, read and send e-mail, and possibly run a few choice applications. Advanced users should have an understanding of how to install/uninstall software and operating systems, navigate a command prompt/shell, and know the basics of how an operating system works. Ideally they should be able to write scripts and probably some code. They should be able to learn new operating systems and applications quickly. The biggest factor in literacy is comfort. If you can read/write/speak a language without difficulty then you're literate. If you can get things done on a computer easily then you're computer literate.

For starters... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391214)

..computer literacy does NOT mean knowing how to do shit in Windows, it means knowledge of basic concepts.

Interesting. (3, Insightful)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391222)

Computer literacy is one of those things that covers a lot of ground. In my mind, this includes a basic familarity with hardware. A savvy individual should be able to plug in a new network card, or a new hard drive. These are not advanced hardware tasks. I also think a certain amount of hardware troubleshooting is needed; a user should be able to tell if they have a dead network conntection, or a dead monitor, or a dead computer (or a dead mouse...yes, I've talked to people who can't tell. One lady even triumphantly told me that not only had she replaced the mouse (four times, according to her), she had also replaced the mouse pad. Her problem was a mouse problem, and it was fixed by replacing the mouse).

As far as software, I think computer literacy means needing to be able to figure out a piece of out-of-the-box software. Not the ability to use word or office, or whatever, but the ability to sit down in front of an unfamiliar piece of software, and fiddle with it in an intelligent way. The ability to look up a manual and read it.

It's not about being a power user. Not everyone is a power user. Most people aren't, really. It's really, in my mind, just about not being helpless when confronted with something new.

searching and researching (1)

nEoN nOoDlE (27594) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391231)

I think the ability to research and find information is one of, if not the most important thing in becoming not just computer literate, but literate. Knowing where to go to search for topics online, knowing where to go to search for help for your word processor, etc are all very important. I spend a good portion of my time at work looking through help files and web sites trying to figure out how to do new things. I also spend a good portion of time researching things on my personal time through Wikipedia. As Einstein said, "Never memorize something that you can look up."

I think a lot of computer illiterate users are that way because they never bother (or don't know how) to find the answers to the simplest questions on their own. As an aside, though, while the knowledge of proper searching can be taught, most people would rather have the answer handed to them, so even if they know how to find the solution themselves, they'll still bug the tech guy. You can lead a horse to water...

just the basics (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391234)

L33T Spek n aim tlk k thx bye!

Comment on the comments (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391237)

All Mac and Windows users should be ignored.

MS-DOS (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391239)

Unless you can get the mouse driver and the Novell redirector running with 630K free, you don't know shit.

One possible definition (2, Interesting)

Geminii (954348) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391264)

The ability to perform the tasks they want or need to do. Although this does not take into account the ability to perform maintenance and/or repairs when the system deviates from ideal function. I can drive a car, change a tyre and check the oil. I don't know how to swap out an engine, but I could take some car maintenance courses and learn. This makes me 'car literate' for 99% of daily tasks, even though I couldn't hold down a career as a garage mechanic based on what I currently know.

Try a Context Switch (4, Insightful)

yancey (136972) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391313)

Whenever I have a question like this, I try to devise a similar question from a non-computer perspective (a different context) to help me wrap my brain around the idea. This also happens to work especially well when trying to explain computer issues to those who are not computer literate.

For example, "What does vehicle literate mean?" A car, like a computer, is a single complex machine that the average person above a certain age is expected to know how to operate. So how does one become "car literate"? Because you know how to drive one vehicle does not mean you can operate a boat or airplane or the space shuttle. So "computer literate" probably does not mean that you can operate any computer, just the most common variety (e.g. Windows and Office). Even then, you might know how to drive an automatic and not a standard (Windows vs Linux).

Analogy is a great tool to not only improve others understanding of a given concept but also your own.

Just for fun consider this: Computer support technicians and doctors are similar in many ways. They are both supposed to be highly paid, highly trained, highly skilled, and highly knowledgeable about an extremely complex machine that they did not design or create and of which cannot possibly know everything about. Often, they rely on their limited experience to make a best guess about the root cause of the machine's particular problem and then follow up with lots of testing to see if they are correct or not. As you probably know, some computer support people, trained and certified or not, seem to have an innate gift for solving computer problems while others should never be allowed to touch a computer. Makes you think about your doctor, eh?

No one real concrete cirriculum..... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391322)

just stay open-minded and read lots

For Windows? (1)

ninja_sqrl (829421) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391329)

If someone is going to be using any flavour of Windows, the absolute least they need to know how to do is run Antivirus and spyware scanning software, and probably a software firewall too. And by running I mean updating, regular scans, recognizing threats, etc. Once a person is to that point, I feel safe in letting them learn on their own, as they should be at least fairly well protected from anything they try to do to themselves. I keep a 2 page manual on how to run common av/spyware software handy for any service calls I do, just so the user can be informed for the future.

How to use Help (1)

karearea (234997) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391346)

Knowing how to use the whatever help function on the system. And how to find deeper more comprehensive information on the 'net.

It's like that whole knowledge is power thing ... it isn't the knowledge that is the power it is the knowing how to use the knowledge that is the power.

People knowing how to find the information out themselves is the first step towards becoming a computer literate person.

How to create/read a well-formed XML document (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391358)

From configuration files, to the web, to office documents XML seems to be everywhere these days and some basic knowledge on what it is, how it works, and why it's useful is important.

The origin of Information Technology (1)

Zarf (5735) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391377)

The first unit of information technology is the pen and paper. The computer implements the ideas of the programmer about how the user thinks. The computer represents the elements of the problem in an easily manipulated way.

After 25 years we can say these things about interacting well with a computer. Programs manipulate data. Data represents information. Information and data have no meaning even though rules can manipulate data in seemingly meaningful ways. Users define meaning nothing else does that.

Users should understand the basic ideas behind data format and program navigation. They should know that format A is nearly universal or how to ask a program what it can read. They should be able to wrap their minds around the concept that transforming data from format A to format B alters only the model with which it is stored. Then they should know that different programs know how to use different models.

In my dream future an introduction course might start like this: There are three components to a well built program: The view, the model, and the controller. The model represents the data we are interested in logically, the view shows it to us graphically or in an otherwise comprehensible form... it allows us to communicate with a controller which follows rules established to manipulate the model in a way that is consistent with our understanding of the problem we are trying to solve or the parameters of the task we are attempting to accomplish.

Maybe in a hundred years we'll get all this down to a concise understandable form. By then we'll break this down as well as we do books.

When my son learned "how to read" at school I learned that now-a-days we teach kids books have basic components, a spine, a cover, liner pages, a publish block, an ISBN number, a Title, a sub title, a set of contents, and pages. All this even though I had taught him to read at the age of four. I used the method described in "To kill a Mocking Bird" and to my surprize it worked. Apparently, however, this didn't mean he was literate.

So then kids: This is a browser, it has a back button and a forward button this moves us through history. It has a URL bar that tells us what its looking at right now. The big box in the center is the content. There are many kinds of browsers each works a little differently but nearly all of them have these same elements. Now let's cover the word processor and the spreadsheet...

POWERPOINT!!!! (1)

SlappyBastard (961143) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391388)

Because, you know, literacy usually means knowing things that suck, like Keats, Wilde and Bobby Burns.

The closest thing to that in computing terms is knowing PowerPoint.

An old saying. (2, Insightful)

niteice (793961) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391432)

It's been said that one understands something best when they can teach it to someone else. Teaching may not necessarily be required in this case, but I'd say that if you can fix a typical fucked up computer (IE, no firewall, but no pr0n sites) non-destructively, then you have a pretty good handle on things. And I mean really fixing it, not just reinstalling Windows into a new folder.

Computer Literacy Levels (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#15391488)

I don't think you should think of just Computer Literate or not, You should think what level of Computer Literacy. In my last job, we divide people into different groups of computer literacy.

Newbie: Very little knowledge "Where is the on button?"
User: Basic Knoeledge "Microsoft Office"
Power User: Lots of Knowledge "Can change features, "
Expert: More Knowledge "Only source of info, Can install SW"
Guru: Most Knowledgeable "OS support"

I'm sure that you and/or slashdot can come up with more and better groups.

Literacy, like education, isn't about facts... (2, Interesting)

ConceptJunkie (24823) | more than 7 years ago | (#15391505)

... it's about how to think.

One of the reasons my employer is moving from Tcl to another development platform for Web infrastructure, probably Java, is because they claim they can get more Java programmers than Tcl programmers. While this might be true, I would argue that they will get exactly as many competent, effective Java programmers as they get Tcl programmers, in other words, very few. Any programmer worth the appellation can do his job regardless of the tool.

Equating "literacy" with the ability to use Microsoft Office (or something similar) is like equating mathematics knowledge by memorizing the times tables up to 100. Useful for a very specific, narrow range of tasks, but completely worthless when presented with a new type of problem.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to test for memorization than for actual thinking, and this is the route of least resistance our education system likes to take.

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