Testing tech literacy

A federal test of technology literacy is being developed for the National Assessment Governing Board, which runs the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). From Business Week:

NAGB officials and others hope the test will help reverse the slide in U.S. test scores and enrollment in such subjects as science, math, and engineering, and ultimately address the more generally waning competitiveness of the U.S. in technology . . .

Enrollment in graduate-level computer science and engineering is dropping, says the National Science Foundation. The number of full-time graduate enrollments in computer science and engineering courses decreased 11%, to 29,800, in 2004, the last year for which data is available, since peaking in 2002, according to the foundation. The number of foreigners with bachelor’s degrees holding jobs in U.S. science and engineering almost doubled, to 19%, from 1990 to 2005.

Test developers will consult with teachers and with representatives from Intel, Google and other companies to write a test for use by 2012.

If you test it, will they learn?

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  1. I don’t think most kids are going to learn anything in depth about computer science, just like most kids don’t learn anything in depth about auto mechanics. While we depend on both heavily in our daily lives, most people who drive cars don’t know even the basics of an internal combustion engine, even though the probably should.

    The same thing is happening with technology. Now that it’s possible to use tech in an entirely point-and-click way, most people don’t care to learn more because it’s not efficient for them to do so. Their brains aren’t wired to understand the high-complexity of the systems that drive the point-and-click technology, and instead of struggling to learn it, they better spend their time on other things.

    Those who are interested in learning the complexities of the technology will do so. There are plenty of opportunities already for those interested to learn about this, and I believe the best thing public schools can do for tech education is to effectively teach math, science, and logic, as these subjects are necessary underpinnings to understand the technology we use every day.

  2. Has anyone thought that technology competency of students was a problem? The article dances around the elephant in the room: “Too few people are armed with the “technological literacy” that a growing number of everyday tasks demand, such as evaluating medical treatments or buying a car with new features, Crovo says.”
    How is either of those even remotely a technology literacy problem? The problem here seems closer to laziness. Rather than put effort into evaluating medical treatments or car features, people just make blind decisions. Ironically, no one seems to have put serious effort into naming this problem, so the article ends up saying the problem is “technology literacy.”
    Also ironically, Google focuses more on information organization and best-possible solutions in all areas than on technology specifically, so the Google reps might actually steer the test developers back on track.

  3. Rather than put effort into evaluating medical treatments or car features, people just make blind decisions.

    Not to get to econo-wonky in this discussion, but people often make decisions that make sense *for them* because of their peculiar wants and needs that defy reason to most who observe them.

    For example, a person with terminal cancer might choose a treatment with a 40% fatality rate but a 10% success rate in curing the cancer. To an ordinary person, a 40% fatality rate to a 10% success rate would be a deal-breaker. To someone who had three months to live and had kids who he wanted to see grow up, it would be a 10% larger chance than he had to live.

    As another example, again with medical treatment, it’s not in most people’s best interest to learn all the ins-and-outs of treatments available to them. They don’t have the background knowledge to place this in context in the same way a doctor does, and they will likely make a worse decision if they try to weigh all evidence themselves. Same thing goes with computers, cars, and any other complex systems we deal with in life.

    People rely on distilled opinions from experts every day because if they sought to be experts on every field that impacted their lives, they would have no lives. That’s not laziness, that’s just dealing with a highly complex, interconnected society. People also make decisions that defy reason until you learn the details of their lives. That is part of living in a truly diverse society. To call both of these phenomena “blind decisions” due to “laziness” is insulting to a lot of people.

    That’s not to say that schools should not teach the fundamental skills needed to navigate the world, like reading, math, science, logic, and the arts, but to say people must become experts on all areas that affect their lives is pure silliness.

  4. If their “education” in “tech literacy” is going to be writing raw-HTML web pages, as in the example, they might as well just stop before they start.

    Not only are such technologies basically ephemeral (HTML at some level will be around for a while yet, but…), but if the “tests” aren’t changed every year along with the curriculum to match real technology trends, they’re going to be an active disservice rather than merely fluff.

    (I believe the term that preceding commenters might be looking for is “rational ignorance”.)

  5. Sigivald – Yup, that’s the term I couldn’t dredge out of my brain this morning. Thanks!


    When it comes to technology, most people will be able to use it for their own purposes but remain ignorant of how and why it works. This is *not* a bad thing. Technology should be an enabler of other things, like learning, organization, or creation of information, not an end in itself.

    Schools that teach the basics poorly have no business presuming to teach “information literacy”. If a student does not have the mental discipline or underlying content knowledge to do something without technology, he doesn’t have the background to do it *with* technology either.

    For example, I worked tutoring music theory in college. One of the big scourges of this line of work were the music notation programs, Finale and Sibelius. These programs both feature synthesizers which allow users to play back what they’ve entered. In the hands of one who knows the craft of composition or orchestration, this is an incredibly powerful tool to double-check one’s ideas and work. In the hands of a student without this knowledge, it creates serious problems, because they will try to make it sound good without thinking about what they are doing.

    As another example, how many times have you heard English teachers complain that students rely too heavily on their word processors to check spelling and grammar for them? Instead of proofreading and practicing the use of the English language, students who lack the knowledge to do so assume the program will do it for them, even going so far as allowing MSWord to introduce further grammatical errors if it fails to parse a sentence correctly and introduces a bad change.

    Don’t get me started on people not knowing the right math to use to get an answer out of MSExcel.

    My point? Without knowing what the end product of an endeavor with technology should be, its use provides no advantage. One cannot be “informationally literate” without being literate, numerate, and logical, or without having enough knowledge stored in their head to know provide a counterbalance to the flood of information that computers can bring. Even with faster computers and more intelligent software, you still get garbage out when you put garbage in.

  6. What is needed is not “technological literacy”, it is just plain literacy.

    If one has good basic skills in reading, writing, science, physics, math and logic, one can fairly easily develop the “tech literacy” in those areas where one needs it. And the nice thing about this kind of literacy is that it is not as ephemeral “tech literacy”, because technology changes so quickly.

    Quincy – I liked your example of the music notation programs. A similar thing happened 20+ years ago with CAD/CAM programs, some folks (and managers) thought putting a CAD/CAM program on someone’s computer suddenly made them a draftsman. The results were not pretty, in both the real and metaphorical sense.

  7. The decrease in graduate-level computer science and engineering is entirely logical, given the bursting of the tech bubble.

    What should schools drop from the college prep curriculum, in order to make way for technological literacy? A concept which is pushed, not by teachers, but by industry, which needs an increased supply of tech workers in order to keep wages low? Math, English, physics, chemistry, biology, history, foreign languages?

    Also, who will teach these courses? Math and science teachers are in short supply, and should be teaching the more academic and necessary math and science courses, especially to those kids who have a shot at attending college. I suspect the instructors will be phys ed teachers who’ve attended a seminar or two.

    I’m very glad my kids will not be in the public system when this plan becomes reality. I admit, at first it’d be only the NAEP, but the trend has been one of ever increasing testing in the public schools. Once a test has been instituted, curriculum changes follow.