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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.