Monday, September 25, 2006

Should all teachers be computer literate?

I'm not sure what "computer literate" really means, I guess it could be anything from being able to use Windows, compose email, build spreadsheets to being able to understand basic programming. However I do know that many people out there (including teachers) don't make it to the first rung of the ladder when it comes to using and deriving value from the 20th centuries most prolific invention. Clearly people can be good teachers and not know a thing about computers, but it got me thinking; should all teachers be required to learn how to operate and interact with computers or, if their primary subject/specialization is not technology, then is it OK not to bother?

Whether you are "into" technology (like me) or not, its fairly obvious that in this country (i.e. UK/Europe) its almost inconceivable that someone would live their lives without interacting with a computer at some point (probably every day!); therefore, love them or loath them they have become an integral component of everyday life as much as cars, trains, books, houses, food, TV, working or football etc. It would be inconceivable to me that the topics in this list would not be discussed at school, how then can a teacher discuss/teach computers and their use if he or she is not at least computer literate to some basic level?

I know several people who are computer illiterate, there’s nothing wrong with them, they are intelligent people but I often wonder why? Is it that they don't care, don't understand, or don’t want to learn? Maybe the information technology revolution has happened so quickly that some people simply can't adapt that fast, or perhaps that some people are simply so disinterested in technology generally that the idea there is something of value there doesn't even cross their minds? I find these explanations a little hard to swallow, I just need to look at mobile phone adoption; in the space of 5 years practically everyone from 6 to 60 now has one and from a cursory glance around any public place it would seem that these complex little devices (i.e. computers) are now as essential as shoes, what's the difference?

So, why are PCs so difficult for some people to get to grips with; on reflection I think it's a problem of abstraction. Of all the people I know that do or don't work or play with technology those that seem to have the biggest problem are those that find it most difficult to work with metaphors, i.e. not "actual" things but representations of actual things; a fundamental element of "understanding" computers (or the software that people interact with) is to realize that they offer up a "dumb" virtual representation of the real world and not the real world itself - armed with this insight it is a short hop to understanding that the metaphors used are themselves limited or constrained by the creator of the software, i.e. they don't work 100% the same way as the real world. People who have trouble with metaphors generally seem to "expect" the computer to obey all the rules of the real world, i.e. "understand" and are a lost when this does not happen. Also, in my limited experience, I often find that the lack of ability to grasp abstraction often goes with a lack of attention span “I’m far too busy to fiddle around with computers”. Clearly, to understand the constraints of the metaphors used by a particular piece of software (i.e. Windows, Excel, Linux or whatever), a certain amount of engagement and learning investment is necessary, a lot of people aren't prepared to make that investment and just pick up their mobile phone and ask someone instead. I guess that's the thing with phones - no metaphor to learn (apart from the menu system maybe!), just dial and speak; instant gratification.

Now, getting back to teachers, I would assume that one of the key abilities that teachers *should* be giving to kids is the ability to think in the abstract (surely that's the basis of maths and English?), couple this with an ability to work with metaphors and you should IMO have a strong basis for using computers successfully - are teachers that claim *not* to be computer literate simply running away from their lack of ability to deal with abstraction?. Interestingly most kids I know don't have a problem with this stuff anyway, I think it’s because their understanding of the "real world" and its rules is limited by their experience to the extent that they don't have a problem with metaphors and simply "accept" new rules of interaction willingly without question. Anyway, my conclusion is that I still think any teacher should be able to address this basic need.

I wonder if some people had the same problems as this when writing was first invented or the internal combustion engine or even indoor toilets; were some teachers then still relieving themselves in the woods whilst the children learnt to flush?

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