There can be little doubt that the advent of the computer is the most significant and influential technological development since the printing press and movable type. At least so far as education goes, this seems undeniable. With the emergence of printing, not only were books more broadly available than ever before, but for the first time different copies of the same text were consistently identical in pagination and content. This consistency enabled scholars studying the same texts to do so with much greater ease than their predecessors, who were obliged to work with often varying manuscript editions. In a word, printing enabled better shared access to information, and more reliable transmission of that information between its users.
The same situation has occurred in the Internet age. Computers, the Internet and the immediate access they enable, not only to vast amounts of information but also to direct informational and interpersonal connections, have in the same way proved a boon unimaginable to education. However, just as the appearance of the printed book highlighted the extent of illiteracy, so too has the computer brought about its own issues in education.
Computer illiteracy has been an educational concern for a long time, since the early days of computer use in baccalaureate and graduate programs. While today it may seem more or less safe to say most students are familiar and comfortable with using computers, the discussion nevertheless goes on as educators try to set standards for computer literacy. The concern to establish such standards evinces that not every member of Generation Y is naturally computer competent. Moreover, such discussion also reveals that computer literacy is not a single, simple measure, but a complex, multivalent and contextual set of skills not teachable in a single course of lessons.
Thinking back on my own experience learning how to use computers, I recall one breakthrough, critical to my subsequent education, that did happen to occur at school, but not in the classroom. I had grown up playing on hand-me-down computers from my father’s work since age four or five, but by middle school (in the late 90s) I still couldn’t type. I had no trouble at all reading and writing, yet dreaded the occasional writing assignments my teachers required to be typed. I would complete them in handwriting, passing leaves to my mother to type rather than agonize through hours of labored hunting and pecking.
Knowing I would need to overcome my fear of the keyboard, my parents took me to summer typing classes, but to no avail. The rigid discipline of touch typing drills was both unpleasant and ineffective. As soon as the classes ended, I was back to hunt-and-peck, and I began the eighth grade still unable to competently type.
However, that year the school library had installed new computers with Internet access, available for students’ free use. I didn’t even have an e-mail account yet, but a couple friends introduced me to their MUD (multi-user domain), an online, text-based interactive space they used to host a role-playing game. There, learning the commands to navigate and build this textual virtual world, my fingers struggled to keep up with my mind. Willing myself to muck through it, gradually I thought less about the keys and less about which finger to move. There, during recess and lunchtime, I learned to type.
What directed lessons couldn’t accomplish, I did in my own free time, while playing. What I couldn’t learn as a subject unto itself, I mastered without particular effort in the course of doing something else. In the same way children develop superior reading ability by reading for fun on their own time, they can also acquire broader computer literacy. While the questions of defining standards remain, the fundamental competency at issue is that which enables a user to be learning user, able to acquire additional skills in the course of doing what they want to do. Perhaps this user-learning ability is better developed indirectly by play and in using computers for other tasks than by specific computer literacy curriculum.
Lindsey Wright is a former music tutor and computer repair consultant. She is currently a content creator for OnlineSchools.org