JITE v38n2 - At Issue - Should Technological Literacy Be a Mandate for Technology Education Programs?

Volume 38, Number 2
Winter 2001

Should Technological Literacy be a Mandate for Technology Education Programs?

Teresa J.K. Hall
University of Northern Iowa

As we begin this new century, the variety of issues that compel consideration could be cause for anticipation and/or trepidation. On the small scale, we look forward to the opportunities and challenges we encounter in our personal and professional lives. However, the larger picture forces us to acknowledge growing concern for global environmental issues, the need for resources to support the economic engine of international commerce, and the yin and yang of political and social forces that shape our increasingly technical world.

These contrasting issues have an intrinsic commonality in the tools we use to shape the future: specifically, education and technology. Education is the thread that binds us through time to what we have learned and what we have achieved, and provides a system for future learning and development. Literate, educated people are the core of a civilized society. However, as education provides a societal foundation, technology should be described as the engine of social change. Technological advances that have been developed, applied, and accepted by modern society have transformed the way we communicate, travel, learn, socialize, and interact within our natural and manmade environments. The technologies we have available for use, our perception of those technologies, and how we choose to utilize them are determinants of the shape our world takes. Informed decisions about technology, therefore, are of paramount interest to technologists, technology educators, and other users of technology.

An Elusive Target

Rapid advances in technology require us to understand, evaluate, and select the appropriate tool (i.e. technology) to meet our evolving needs. But this process is often confounded by lack of information, incorrect information, skewed perceptions, or faulty reasoning processes. Most technology choices can be second-guessed by another individual with a different view of the situation; for example, the debate over which CAD software to use, or which automobile, computer, or television is best.

This begs the question: would a technologically literate person make better, wiser, or more valuable choices? It is hard to say, since our ability to define, measure, and validate technological literacy seems to be lost in a cacophony of voices from a variety of disciplines trying to put their spin on this elusive topic. If we don't agree on what it is, don't know when we have it, and are not able to measure its magnitude, can we even attempt to champion its cause? We seem to be throwing buckets of money and reams of paper at this issue, trying to put a fence around technological literacy, but do we truly know what it is when we have it?

A Statement of Meaning

Definitions of technological literacy abound. Some are better than others, but it seems that all are influenced by the perceptions the writer brings to the table. There have been conferences, books, and articles devoted to the issue. However, when it comes time to describe technological literacy to non-practitioners, the definition falls short of the mark or obfuscates the issue. For example, the U.S. Department of Education ( 1996 ) has defined technological literacy as "computer skills and the ability to use computers and other technology to improve learning, productivity, and performance" ( p. 5 ). This shortsighted definition implies that computers are key to achieving this type of literacy, and the reference to other technologies was added as mere afterthought. Other definitions are typically vague and generic, leaving much room for interpretation, but little opportunity for validation. On the other hand, there are some definitions of technological literacy that are more useful and warrant discussion here.

If technology can be defined as human innovation in action, then technologically literate persons should be able to use, manage, and understand technology as justified by their situation ( Radabaugh, 1997 ). The dynamic nature of technology requires that we can be adaptive and creative when addressing technological issues. Thus, using a technology appropriately, managing technology effectively, and being cognizant of the impact of technology could be evidence of a technologically literate person. "Technological literacy must be the ability to understand and use the code of those means by which humans utilize natural and manmade resources to attain a goal" ( White, 1987, p. 114-115 ). This concurs with Dyrenfurth and Kozak's view of technological literacy by acknowledging its multidimensional aspects: using technology, understanding its impact, and appreciating the benefits of technology ( 1991 ).

Foster and McAlister propose that the term "literate" is not practical for determining technological achievement and suggest that technological awareness is more feasible to operationalize ( 1989 ). They do have a valid point in that literacy is a rather subtle term to measure, especially when we consider the number and variety of technological disciplines that demand research. Indeed, others have questioned our ability to measure technological literacy ( White, 1987 ; Waetjen, 1993 ; DeVore, 1998 ) and this does present a problem for researchers. This author believes that technological literacy could be defined as an overreaching concept and then broken down into measurable elements. Admittedly, there is no overabundance of published empirical research on the topic of technological literacy and it may be due, in part, to the fact that technology practitioners have not adequately defined the constructs that precede measurement in research.

Finding an interpretation that serves technologists adequately, yet allows us to link our unique sub-specialties, may be the solution. For these reasons, the description by Hunter ( 1992 ) may serve as a solid foundation when depicting technological literacy as:

…an appreciation of the scientific method as a powerful way of knowing; the ability to distinguish technology from science but also to see the connections; and an understanding that the world we live in is increasingly technological, not only in regard to products, but in the whole organization of modern life. ( p. 26 )

This definition acknowledges that technological evolution is interesting and pervasive inasmuch as James Burke's Connections series illustrated how the juncture between technology, science, creativity, and chance can redefine our world. This definition also recognizes that we cannot segregate technological discovery from the scientific method; thus, the resultant impact of technology is best viewed holistically and researched in a more traditional manner. There is still room for those whose preference lies with problem solving methodology, one of the basic tenets of technology as a discipline. Nonetheless, technologists have and should continue to distinguish technology from science because of our fundamental differences in goals and application.

If Hunter's description of technological literacy would serve as a benchmark for meaning, what then are we to measure, how will it be done, and who is best qualified to perform this task? Most importantly, why does it matter? The answer appears to lie in the growing realization that society is advancing faster than its understanding of the technologies that have allowed it to achieve these new heights. If you are using a technology, shouldn't you have a rudimentary knowledge of its function and potential for impact on other systems? Perhaps a response to these queries resides with technology education.

Technology and Change

Because of the "nature of the beast" -- that is, continuous advancements in technology -- we have an obligation to provide all students with a fundamental understanding of what technology is, how it is used, and how it may affect their future. The incorporation of technology in the classroom requires more than using computer-assisted instruction ( Center for the Enhancement of Teaching, 1998 ). It also requires that the student develop an appreciation for technological concepts and an understanding of what technology is as a discipline ( Lewis, 1991 ).

Defining what it means to be technologically literate, making the need for technological literacy an educational and competitive issue, and determining a structure to develop this literacy in our education system are the major components of the International Technology Education Association's Technology for All Americans project ( International Technology Education Association, 1996 ). This group recently published content standards for elementary and secondary technology education ( ITEA, 2000 ). Thus, acknowledging connections between technologies we use while linking understanding and appreciation of technology to requisite skills in the arts, literature, the sciences, and mathematics may be a way to affirm technology education's equal place at the table. We are already seeing some of this interplay between disciplines within the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) movement. Perhaps it is time for more technology educators to join forces with like-minded peers in the sciences to promote our discipline as a strategy for achieving common goals.

However, technological literacy development should not be considered complete at high school graduation. Incorporating technological literacy in post-secondary education not only continues the theme, but also meshes well with the goals of higher education. Examining the historical, philosophical, ethical, and social aspects of technology within the context of the higher education general education curriculum is desirable and serves as an opportunity to promote logical and critical thinking, problem solving, and a more holistic view of how the world works ( Lewis & Gagel, 1992 ). Thus, the need for educators who appreciate technology, have knowledge of technology, and are skilled in the art and practice of technology are required in all levels of the education process if we are to adequately address the issue of technological literacy.

Foundations of Technology Education

Technology education is to business and industry as physics is to aeronautics. One must first experience and understand the previous before successful outcomes can be achieved in the latter. For the nascent technology teacher or practitioner (or for those of us who could use a refresher), a brief recitation of some of the history of the technology education discipline may be beneficial. This may help to underscore the value of the rich traditions and foundations of our discipline.

Manual arts, manual training, industrial arts, vocational education, and industrial education are all related directly or indirectly to what we now call technology education. The roots of modern technology education reach back to the 18th century and the work of Johann Pestalozzi. He is often referred to as the "father of manual arts" from his philosophy of promoting learning by doing ( Bennett, 1926 ). In the 1870s, Calvin Woodward, a professor of mathematics and applied mechanics, broke new ground in manual arts by using shop exercises to reinforce applied mechanics lessons. Woodward promoted teaching of the mechanical arts using the same pedagogical principles as were used for science, mathematics, and language ( Bawden, 1950 ).

The work of Pestalozzi, Rousseau, and Froebel influenced the progressive education movement in America during the 19th and early 20th century. This movement embraced industrial training, agricultural and social education, and new instruction techniques as a way to reconstruct life experiences in the classroom ( Berube, 1994 ). The influence of John Dewey on industrial arts in the 20th century via the progressive education movement was also important. Dewey promoted a more "cultural" education that incorporated theory and practice to produce a well-informed citizen ( Chafy, 1997 ). By using experiences as a way to integrate learning with activity, school became more than a place for rote memorization-type lessons ( Bennett, 1937 ).

Today, technology education has moved beyond teaching manual skills. The traditional industrial arts/vocational education curriculum was a response to a need for workers at the turn of the century. Western education systems continue to be focused on producing highly skilled graduates to satisfy the needs of our technological society. It seems, however, that there still is a stigma attached to technology education and it is manifested in those persons who continue to perceive the discipline as "shop class." Nothing could be further from the truth. Technology education has also evolved with the times, and as we begin the new century we have an obligation to provide this education to the next generation. This mandate carries the burden of heightened expectations for technology educator performance. We take for granted that teachers will address fundamental skill development in the laboratory, but technology educators must also integrate these practical skills with evaluation, analysis, and problem solving to develop thinking skills that complement other elements of the curriculum ( Wicklein, 1997 ; Knoll, 1997 ).

Perhaps this is what technological literacy is all about. Our goal in technology education is to produce a product (technologically educated persons) that can function effectively and contribute successfully to our society. These goals seem to mesh well with the goals of the higher education curriculum in preparing students for the future. In this light, the need for technological literacy as a necessary component of the post-secondary educational process becomes apparent.

What Should We Do?

Technicians, managers and faculty in technological fields all possess the ability to have an impact on their respective situations. However, it is also likely many of us have experienced the frustration of trying to incorporate new technologies into the workplace, only to be thwarted by incompetence and/or inefficiency. Is it any wonder why Scott Adams' Dilbert has become a cult hero among working professionals? We relate to the situations he illustrates and realize we are not unique in observing that there are a lot of technologically challenged people out there. But before we get too smug in our assessment of the rest of the world, remember that we frequently encounter awkward or inept practitioners in our own discipline. Although we may believe we are the last lines of defense in the war against technophobia, we must also continue to sharpen our skills to remain effective. Supporting technological literacy through student and faculty technology education across a lifetime of learning experiences will promulgate our cause.

Research in the areas of measuring technological knowledge and the appropriate application of technology is especially needed if we are to be taken seriously. Pedagogical and androgogical issues within the discipline need research efforts to determine what methods best serve teaching about and with technology. Managers of industrial organizations who employ our graduates can communicate their expectations and employee knowledge/skill needs to the academic community to facilitate and guide curricular structure and outcomes. Perhaps these charges to the technology education constituency are obvious and have been stated by others in more eloquent ways, but they bear repeating.

In conclusion, technological literacy is a challenging concept that has been bantered about by educators and technologists for some time. The challenge to teachers of technology is to decide if we find the issue valid and worthy of our attention, or if we will leave it up to others to determine its eventual outcome. This author believes technological literacy is our responsibility and is tied to our history. It can and should be a defining issue in our future.


Hall is an Associate Professor in the Department of Industrial Technology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.


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