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Literacy, or Just the Basics?

Whether an Extensive--and Universal--Computer Education Is Essential Is Open to Debate


The Clinton administration just announced an ambitious plan to meet the growing demand for high-tech workers, an effort that would include millions of dollars for recruitment and training.

At the same time, Gov. Pete Wilson's plan for California Virtual University has received a financial endorsement from five major high-tech firms. But the number of computer science majors in American universities is dropping, raising fears that the technology engine driving our economy may run out of fuel.

All of this raises questions about how computer-literate our work force needs to be and just who is responsible for teaching technological literacy. Clifford Stoll and Jacqui Celsi debate some of these issues here.

Stoll, author of "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts About the Information Highway," is an astrophysicist who used his technological skills to hunt down German spies who hacked their way into sensitive computer systems. He has two toddlers and has purged his Oakland home of both television and computers.

Celsi, a teacher by trade, has spent 10 years at Apple Computer, first helping the company figure out if and how technology should be in the schools. Now she manages an effort of her own creation that teaches teachers to be computer-literate. Her 2-year-old daughter glommed onto the family computer over the holidays and now clicks merrily away.

Must everyone who wants gainful employment as the next century looms be computer-literate?

Stoll: No, of course not. Around here in the Bay Area, computer programmers and computer jocks get paid $50 to $60 an hour. Good job, isn't it? A plumber costs $125 an hour. How come? It's because every school all around the bay teaches computing. There is not one that teaches plumbing. If you perceive California in the year 2050 as being a state of computer jocks and no pipes, then make everyone computer-literate.

Celsi: It depends, and it depends on the individual. I don't think an individual would be completely disadvantaged if they weren't computer-literate. There's not much in our lives that doesn't have something to do with understanding how technology works, like ATMs. You go to Safeway and they give you a card and keep tabs of your purchases. I believe that you don't need to understand technology beyond how to use it to get your job done.

Just what is computer literacy?

Stoll: I think that any high school graduate who intends to go on to college ought to have this much computer literacy: They ought to be able to do enough word processing to write a paper or a resume. They ought to have come in contact with and know what a spreadsheet does. A computer-literate person ought to know what a database is--not program one. A computer-literate person ought to have used the Internet, know how e-mail works and use the Web. That is not tough stuff. Basic computer literacy can be taught in a week.

Celsi: I think you're computer-literate if you're able to articulate how the technology as a tool can assist you in the work you do. It's different for every person. As a teacher, I have to be able to articulate how that tool will enhance computer learning. If I'm teaching about missions, as they do in fourth grade in California, I need to know how to use the computer to give them a more enriching learning opportunity.

When should people be taught to use computers? Is it ever too early--or too late?

Stoll: It is about as unimportant to be taught computer literacy as it is to be taught television literacy. Should we teach our kids to use VCRs? Television is far more central in the life of our society than computers, and yet 98% of our population cannot program a VCR. Does that mean that 98% of our population is losing out? Hell, no. It's trivial stuff. And it denigrates the value of an education to teach such transient trivia as programming a VCR or how to use a word processor.

Celsi: Children should be introduced to computers whenever they have an interest. From preschool all the way through,computers should be available. But I think that technology does not need to be taught. I think technological tools need to be made available to every child in the U.S. The younger you start, the shorter the learning curve will be.

The sooner you can introduce the computer as a tool in their lives, the more computer-literate they can become. The later you introduce it, the more intimidation there is.

Isn't this a class issue--yuppie children whose parents teach them Barbie software versus children in homes and schools without computers?

Stoll: In the 1950s, people could have as easily said, "Access to TV, only the rich have it. We will have a better society when everyone has access to TV." I live right next to Berkeley, a few blocks from Telegraph Avenue. I have been up and down Telegraph Avenue, up and down Golden Gate Park and not once have have I seen a panhandler saying, "Help, help, I need more information!" We go around saying, "If we can get information to the poor people, they'll be rich." It's a lie.

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