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14 June 2005

The rise of true IT literacy

By Andrew Clifford

Our current idea of IT literacy amounts to little more than being able to use office applications. True IT literacy involves understanding what IT is and how it adds value, and getting computers to work on your behalf.

Over the past few weeks I've "gone back to school" to learn more about adult education and training. My fellow students are not IT specialists, and discussing our subjects has given me a great insight into how IT is perceived by the average man and woman in the street.

To be honest, I've had some difficulty explaining what sort of training I'm involved in. Most people only see IT as using a PC to replace a typewriter, calculator, fax machine, drawing board or CD player. IT is no more and no less than being an expert in Microsoft Windows, Office, Outlook, Internet Explorer and Media Player. This is the core of nearly all IT training for adults and children alike.

This is reasonable to an extent. Most people have no idea of a large scale computer system. I try to explain by saying "the sort of IT system a bank would use", but most people have no notion of what this is. And why should they.

But on another level, this ignorance is a travesty. The perceived need to master one set of PC applications has diverted an entire society from thinking about IT. Worse than that, it has convinced an entire society that IT is rather difficult, and is something to do with being able to get big bold letters on a word processor.

The key points of true IT literacy are:

  • A computer is just a machine that remembers, calculates and communicates.
  • Computers help because they can be faster, cheaper or more accurate than people. Sometimes computers can do things that just aren't feasible with people.
  • Only use a computer when you know what you want to do, and you know that you need some of the remembering, calculating or communicating done faster, cheaper or more accurately than you can do it.

IT literacy also involves being able to get computers to do your bidding. This isn't about being excellent at using office applications on your PC. It's about being able to understand your own situation, work out if and how IT would be useful, and then instructing the computer to remember, calculate and communicate on your behalf.

This last aspect of IT literacy is hard. Current methods of building IT systems require specialist knowledge and a good deal of experience. They introduce spadeloads of technology and design concepts that are unrelated to the problem in hand.

This last aspect of IT literacy is so hard, it almost excuses ignorance of the whole. But I believe that this could be tackled by another future trend: the second PC revolution.

In the newsletter next week we will examine this revolution and see how the truly IT literate can unleash the power of IT for themselves.

Next: The second PC revolution

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