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A case for tech literacy

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Many of us assume students know certain things about American culture that they really don’t know — it used to surprise me, but as an educator I don’t make these types of assumptions anymore. If you ask a teenager to tell you the years World War I, II or the Civil War, or the date the Declaration of Independence was signed, or to name even three Amendments to the Constitution, you'll see what I'm talking about. E.D. Hirsch, in his book Cultural Literacy, makes the case that today’s students are not prepared to carry American Society forward because they lack the information and knowledge needed perpetuate it.

We think of cultural literacy as the ability to coexist with a shared set of values that enable us to communicate and understand each other, and unite our common tastes, histories and customs. It's a shared system of information and associations. Certain names such as Thomas Jefferson or images such as the Liberty Bell should conjure a network of contextual information in the mind of students, consisting of commonly-known facts and values. Without a basic understanding of our overarching culture, some think our society will become fractured and lose relevancy. We are experiencing this now as a result of our lack of a common perception of America. And the divide is widening.

Technology literacy has become a subset of cultural literacy. The ability to not just use technology, but also to understand it is fundamental to establishing a healthy culture and an informed society. And the need for a national tech literacy standard in schools is paramount. Given the importance of technology in our lives, it's hard to disagree that our shared technical knowledge couldn't be improved.

With greater knowledge, economic, social and political issues — all of which have strong connections to technology — can be healthily debated, and understood by more people. Ethical and moral decisions can be weighed more analytically; consumers can have more control of their personal data and become less vulnerable to security breaches; smarter networks can link care facilities together for better service. The list goes on.

A basic understanding of technology can turn the bombardment of the technical jargon we hear every day into a language that we can comprehend and appreciate.

Most technology users fall into the "consumer" spectrum as opposed to the "creators." In spite of the underlying complexity, most people think technology is easy, taking all the work that goes into those free apps and programs for granted. The complexities of computers are so far out-of-sight that its removing the consumer's ability to even think like a creator. It's easier to imagine disassembling a car and creating something new with the parts, but what about picking through and modifying the complex Uber application algorithm?

That gap in technological literacy is evident in the highest levels of society, too. For example, the director of the Center for 21st Century Security did not know what an ISP (Internet Service Provider) was, even though he's the one negotiating with China on cybersecurity issues such as China's supposed attacks on US power stations, hospitals and intellectual property theft. And if you ask someone on either side of the aisle what exactly Hillary Clinton did wrong in relation to her private email server, you'll likely get an answer no more coherent than a 5th grader’s. The generations in power now did not grow up with computers, but it would be wise for some to take some remedial courses.

If we are to be engaged in and making lasting decisions on the societal issues are ahead of us, we have to need a new focus on technology literacy. I'm not saying we should be having intelligent conversations about the finer parts of the combustion engine or rocketry — those technologies, though very important, are not as ubiquitous or embedded in our lives as computers.

What is needed is a new way to teach computer technology to our future leaders, including from a historical viewpoint, starting with how it came to be and forever changed our society, how it takes a page from Darwinism and continues to evolve. There needs to be an understanding of the political, social and psychological ramifications for a rounded view of our technological advancements. The solution starts from the ground up.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at thruss09@gmail.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.

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