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Defining Technological Literacy

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Defining Technological Literacy

Given the current state of technology, a researcher should have little difficulty in finding relevant definitions that embody a spirited understanding of underlying technical and societal interactions that craft a view of the technically literate person. As an exercise, extracting the common elements from various experts' definitions of technological literacy should result in a generalized perspective that would provide a foundation supporting further literacy definitions for aspects of technology such as computers or genetics. However, this is easier than it sounds. As Gagel (1997) confirms, "defining technological literacy has proven to be an unexpectedly complex and difficult task".

The difficulty in defining technological literacy is exposed by a number of factors. One factor relates to understanding perspective and determining whether the term is best defined by putting the emphasis on "technology" or "literacy" or whether the subject is best approached laterally. Indeed, Gagel describes the technological literacy from a technology perspective as opposed to defining literacy and then establishing parameters supporting technological literacy. Perhaps this approach contributed to the author's difficulty in defining the term. As technology is so diverse and crosses many boundaries, perhaps the definition of technological literacy should do likewise, and not be restricted to either a "technology" or "literacy" perspective.

Another factor contributing to the difficulty in defining technological literacy involves the improperly weighting of computer influence on the term's definition. In a speech given by former President, Bill Clinton, this misunderstanding is propagated further. He states, "Today, technological literacy - computer skills and the ability to use computers and other technology to improve learning, productivity and performance - is a new basic that our students must master. " (Clinton, n.d.) Clearly, this mindset is remiss and precludes the contribution of myriad other technologies affecting our daily lives. According to Harrison, "Computer literacy is but a subset of technological literacy, but if this mindset is not encouraged, then the richness of technological literacy will not be passed on to next generations. As technologists, we have the daunting task of reversing this rapidly flowing river." (Harrison, 2000)

So, the question is how to define "technological literacy" without being trapped in too narrow a perspective and without utilizing a specific technology to add meaning to the term. It is important that society controls technology for it to serve us purposefully in our daily lives and lifestyle in general. For us to control technology, an understanding and knowledge is required to allow us to make informative decisions on how it will affect our lives. To develop this understanding and knowledge requires a societal decision to enable and support "technological literacy" within the culture and, at a personal level, a daily commitment to understand technology relevant to the individual's life.

The International Technology Education Association asserts, "A person that understands - with increasing sophistication - what technology is, how it is created, how it shapes society, and in turn is shaped by society is technologically literate. (ITEA, 2000) The implication here is that the informed individual defines technological literacy within a personal context and understands the societal interactions. Technological literacy consists of the knowledge, understanding and ability to interact with technology independently and to make informed decisions regarding technological relevance.

Characteristics of a Technologically Literate Person

If a survey were taken asking for characteristics of the technologically literate person, agreement for certain qualities would emerge. Some of these qualities would include: "problem solvers", "understand technical interactions", "seekers of knowledge", and "able to identify solutions." At the basic level, the technologically literate person understands and appreciates the interrelationships between technology and themselves, society, and the environment.

Technically Speaking (2001) has compiled a comprehensive listing of qualities exhibited by the technically literate person. The qualities and characteristics are categorized based on knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, and capabilities. These qualities include:


* Recognizes the pervasiveness of technology in everyday life.

* Understands basic engineering concepts and terms, such as systems, constraints, and trade-offs.

* Is familiar with the nature and limitations of the engineering design process.

* Knows some of the ways technology shapes human history and people shape technology.

* Knows that all technologies entail risk, some that can be anticipated and some that cannot.

* Appreciates that the development and use of technology involve trade-offs and a balance of costs and benefits.

* Understands that technology reflects the values and culture of society.

Ways of Thinking and Acting

* Asks pertinent questions, of self and others, regarding the benefits and risks of technologies.

* Seeks information about new technologies.

* Participates, when appropriate, in decisions about the development and use of technology.


* Has a range of hands-on skills, such as using a computer for word processing and surfing the Internet and operating a variety of home and office appliances.

* Can identify and fix simple mechanical or technological problems at home or work.

* Can apply basic mathematical concepts related to probability, scale, and estimation to make informed judgments about technological risks and benefits.

What I find most appealing about Technically Speaking's contribution are the application of the three categories and the applicability of the criteria to a variety of technologies. Specifically, by focusing on the acquisition of knowledge, integrating that knowledge into productive technological thought processes,



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