Five items of technological literacy that aren’t stressed enough

The following came to mind as I am getting documents prepared and posted to my courses’ web sites for tomorrow, the first day of classes — and I am thinking about how my students will handle all this documentation and info. Invariably I have students who have never heard of any such thing as a PDF file, or try to open a PDF in MS Word (because EVERYTHING is a Word document, right?), or don’t have Java or Flash installed in their browsers that they need for a class example, etc.  There’s a lot more to computer literacy than knowing how to make your font bold or put together a rudimentary PowerPoint presentation. These are things that fall under the heading of "computer literacy" which I have never seen included in the standard discussions of the topic and which badly need to be brought up and discussed:

  1. The existence and attributes of operating systems other than Windows XP. The massive marketshare of Windows makes it easy for the everyday Windows user to be unaware that there are other OS’s out there in use — I’m thinking of Mac OS X here, since I’m one of those types, but there’s also UNIX, Linux, and older versions of Windows still in play. Ideally, a person ought to be able to switch back and forth between different operating systems more or less seamlessly — for example, they should be able to have a class in a Macintosh lab one hour, then another class in a Windows lab the next, without having a mental breakdown. Personally, I’d settle for a simple acknowledgement that non-Windows operating systems exist.
  2. The concept of the file format. As they say in UNIX, everything that exists in a computer is either a file or a process. Files are the meat-and-potatoes of computing, but most people don’t seem to understand that there are different ways to format the same document, each having its own plusses and minuses. Specifically, users need to strive for the most general file format possible. More to the point, if I get one more email attachment in Microsoft Publisher format, I’m going to open up a big can of whoop-***. And they need to realize that some file formats are better than others — e.g. if you don’t want somebody to edit your document, don’t send it out in MS Word format.
  3. The concept that some technological tools are better than others for different tasks. Spreadsheets are good for doing numerical manipulations; Word documents aren’t. Word processors are good for basic document preparation; desktop publishing systems using exotic file formats aren’t. Simple text documents are best for, well, simple text; word processor documents aren’t. And so on. Learn this mantra: NOT EVERYTHING IS A WORD DOCUMENT.
  4. Knowing the proper role of email attachments.There is a psychology to email attachments. When I get an email with an attachment, I am trained to think: This is a document that is important to the email and which contains formatting that requires separate preparation. But most of the time, the attachment ends up being something that could have just as well been typed into the email itself without fancy formatting; or worse, it has nothing to do with the email at all. There are several folks at my campus who have JPG image backgrounds to their email and they ALWAYS show up as attachments. Folks: Email is for information flow, not art.
  5. The philosophy of keeping things simple and "future-proof". If you want to make a document that will be readable by a wide audience and will remain editable for long periods of time, don’t use a format or software that has little chance of being around later. Learn the zen and appreciate the simplicity of the humble text editor.

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Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia, Technology

5 responses to “Five items of technological literacy that aren’t stressed enough

  1. Jami

    I’d like to add one to the list…

    Understand the basic principles of how a computer works. (i.e. what happens when you save a file, the differences between the C and the D drives and network drives, etc.)
    Maybe this is a generational thing, but I have the hardest time getting people in my office to listen to me when I try to explain things like this. They think things are saved in Word, they think that things are saved in programs. But no matter how many times I explain that no, things are saved on your computer, they still revert back to old thinking and freak out when the little shortcut doesnt show up on the side of Word. It is impossible for these types of people to do any type of searching for files on their computer. They start having 4 and 5 copies of one thing in 4 or 5 different places. With the popularity of the portable USB drives, we run into more problems. I try to compare it to a floppy disk, but still people think it is some sort of magical transportation device.

    I really think that 50% of people who use computers (especially in an office setting) have no idea what is going on inside that big “box”. They tend to think that it is some sort of super intelligent robot that will solve all problems without any contribution on their part. They think the computer will organize itself and then when it breaks they think the computer has done something awful, when it is most likely a user error. I just want people to understand that a computer is not rocket science or quantum physics. You dont have to hear the word computer and cringe. Learn something yourself instead of always relying on “the geeks”. And to “the geeks” out there (and I mean the really big geeks who think they are better than everyone else)… You may know all the details, but just a little simple explanation every time you fix something would make a world of difference. Dont scare people into thinking you are a computer god.

  2. Jami – Not knowing how a computer actually works, despite the amount of time I spend using one, was what drove me to install and learn Linux on my old desktop machine.

    I think one of the real problems is that people think that knowing stuff about how computers actually work is knowledge that is simply to advanced to be attainable to them — or that the only people who know stuff like that are “geeks” and they don’t want the stigma of being a geek. I think sooner or later people will realize that technical knowledge of how computers work is not optional — much like if you own your own home, you really need to learn how a furnace works, how concrete and drywall work, etc. (That is, sure, you can PAY somebody to know this stuff for you, but doesn’t it make more sense to know it yourself?)

  3. Argh, make that “too advanced to be attainable”, not “to advanced”.

  4. Liz

    Save early and often.

    Back up your files to another type of media.

    Print out paper copies of anything that is important (“show your work”) and keep that copy someplace different than where your computer is.

  5. Amen! Thanks for writing this.