The Decline of Tech Literacy and What We Can Do About It

I think “gamification” can be a powerful means of quickly gaining comprehension in a Piaget-like sense, alleviating anxiety and encouraging creativity through play. Seymour Papert’s book, Mindstorms, is a particularly good example in regards to computers and tech literacy. I also have an article on video games that covers the topic more generally.

But I do agree that it can be overused, especially when so many things compete for people’s attention and try to turn off their critical thinking using some of the same mechanisms. Instead, we should cultivate the attitude that learning is an enjoyable process. Problems that seem difficult are worth finding constructive solutions to because they make life easier for everyone, for both ourselves and other people.

I don’t think you are crazy for wanting basic tech education to be mandatory. Like @starbreaker, I think there are a lot of life skills that should be taught in school. However, I think many teachers are operating within a system that works against them, whether that be adults who refuse to parent their children or being forced to follow an ineffectual curriculum like the one I described to @RisingThumb. To be honest, while I appreciated many of my teachers, I did not learn much of anything in school and found it to be an oppressive environment. It was only after I left that I felt that I could truly learn.

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I’ve often put forward the idea that there should be more mentoring and apprentices done. Part of what made my secondary education stick was my own direction outside of lessons in programming. If I didn’t have this, I wouldn’t have understood how a lot of what I learnt fits into anything real. The addition of a mentor(or more like 2, because I’ve been very lucky in the people I found online!) is not mutually exclusive,

In University the “Tell, Show, Practice” method is used with labs and the like where Teaching Assistants show by example as well as helping people in their practice. This happened in my University and I can attest to its effectiveness for the short time lockdowns weren’t in effect. Additionally there is some research that shows its effectiveness. See this: https://cdn.aaai.org/Symposia/Spring/2004/SS-04-01/SS04-01-034.pdf

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Reminds me of that famous quote…Thank you for the input. I really dig these kinds of learning strategies.

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I do generally agree with you, but I think we might have different interpretations of ‘tech literacy’, actually. In no world do I expect everyone to learn how to use a cmd interface or any sort of scripting; I’m more baffled by the amount of people in my college classes who don’t know where their files save to, or how to unzip something. Does that make more sense? I do agree that perhaps maybe I’m overestimating where we ‘started’ at, though.

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This is definitely a good point, and I guess this forum wasn’t the best ‘general knowledge’ place to ask bc by virtue of being here we’re all a bit more Into computers than the average person :P

I think maybe the rise in ubiquitous tech like smartphones has also made many people take for granted the way many of us learned these skills. It’s taken as a given that kids now just Know how to work computers, but many high schoolers can’t type very well because (in my area, at least) they just stopped teaching typing a few years back!

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That’s fair, but I have my reasons. I think that if people don’t know how to work a CLI and only know how to use GUIs then their power over computers is limited to what programmers of GUI operating systems and applications choose to give them. They would only see what GUI programmers choose not to hide, and that extends to knowing where your files actually reside or how to unzip them so that they end up where you want them to be.

My idea of ‘tech literacy’ is that everybody should know how to do a little computer programming, so that the computer isn’t programming them. I want everybody to have some power over the machines they depend upon to participate in society nowadays, and to be able to see through techbros’ bullshit.

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I absolutely agree, I think overall this would be better; that being said it is a bit heftier of an ask haha.

I don’t want to get off topic, but YES. I passed two college-level chemistry classes, but learned almost nothing about chemistry. It was all so theoretical, and I had nothing in the real world to tie it to. I just went through the motions without understanding why.

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Honestly as a chem major who did have labs, I feel this is true even in the actual chem major. A lot of what we learned wasn’t very practical, so when it came to labs and actual jobs, I felt like I hardy had any better understanding of what was going on than if someone who didn’t have any chem education was put in the same place. Maybe some of that lies on me, maybe I didn’t study right, maybe my brain isn’t wired for it, but I entered my senior year feeling wholely unprepared for doing my own research project and entering the chem career field. I left the major because of that.

On the topic of high school education, I feel like something more practical to students in chemistry classes would maybe be standard cleaning supplies, why they work on their respective surfaces, what not to mix them with and why, basically stuff they will use regardless of career and keep them safe. Soap making might be an interesting lab project as well.

And now back to technology education. In school I had “technology” classes once a week until highschool, but I remember it mostly being ms word, power point, and educational games. I don’t remember learning about the actual computer itself. I’m honestly not sure how feasible it would be to teach kids all that they should know considering there’s A Lot. And in cases like this I have a feeling many people in this thread (and discourse) being passionate about computer technology are going to be biased towards prioritizing that. Artists are going to be biased towards art, athletes towards sports and gym, etc. So while I think schools could definitely do a better job in teaching students how to navigate their files and all that, it may be unrealistic to expect schools to teach every student programming.

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OP’s question is a great one.

I think as software engineers, one thing we can do is promote simple software that can be modified, so free software. I also think laws like digital markets act, right to repair laws and GDPR allow people to exercise digital agency. First and foremost we need to enable people to be able to modify and understand the software they use, and from there we can work on improving the tech literacy.

I also think we can design software that avoids broken metaphors which actively hinder people’s understanding of how things work. Good example is how we today speak of "AI"s as sentient, and use metaphors that are rooted in how we humans work (like “hallucinate” and “Siri”). I think this causes a lot of confusion. I also think we can provide explanations as to how the software they use work, where data goes, what the user can do with the software, what their rights are.

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That wasn’t around when I first learned Git so that I could put my plaintext writing under version control, but it looks like it would have been handy.

That’s another aspect of tech literacy that bugs me. Back in the 1970s we had secretaries at AT&T Bell Labs using ed and troff on UNIX machines to type up memos and patent applications.

Hell, the OG UNIX hackers (Ken Thompson, Dennis Richie, Brian Kernighan, etc.) justified the purchase of hardware for their project on the grounds that they could make that sort of work easier.

But nowadays people think they need apps like Microsoft Word or Google Docs or Scrivener to write. And maybe they do thanks to years of habit. But they’d probably be fine with Notepad, at least for a rough draft.

Hell, I made do with the MS-DOS editor with my first computer, rather than try to get a bootleg copy of WordPerfect or WordStar. I’m still using vi and Emacs over 20 years after I first got exposed to them in college, and I’m nowhere near a master of either editor.

Maybe it’s because I’m used to it, but it doesn’t seem that hard.

Agreed. I think we need to remind people that none of this is magic. It was made by human beings, and human beings can understand it.

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I think it’s also nice to look at the work of Mozilla. They do a lot of outreach, social media campaigns and reports that I have been sharing to my friends and they explain in such a way that it is interesting for both technical and non-technical people.

For example, I like their article Privacy on Wheels

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I had a few computer classes like this, and it was so frustrating! They were useful skills, but taught with no creativity — just follow the steps in the book. And for students like me who had been messing around in Photoshop and PowerPoint for years at that point, there wasn’t a lot that we couldn’t have figured out ourselves.

Yeah, I agree. It’s a bit like that famous XKCD comic about experts overestimating general knowledge. We think that everyone would benefit from knowing a bit of programming, but really a lot of folks would benefit from learning things we don’t even consider basics (like using a mouse). Programming comes later, if they’re interested.

I think one thing that might be missing these days is a lack of focus on exploration and experimentation. Those computer classes that I hated were all about learning rote steps to do very specific things, rather than teaching kids how to poke around in menus to see what could be done. I spent a bunch of time as a kid messing around in Photoshop, and while some of that involved looking up tutorials to get specific effects, a lot of it was just clicking options in menus to see what changed and liberal use of CTRL-Z.

I might be overgeneralizing, but it feels like a lot of folks introduced to computers are hesitant to do anything because they’re worried about messing it up. And sure, it’s possible to delete a file accidentally. But there’s very little you can’t undo when you’re doing basic tasks. So I wonder if people need to be taught just enough skills to feel more confident (in fixing things or just asking for help) and then encouraged to try things, even if they make mistakes.

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I just started reading the graphic novel Hidden Systems. The first chapter is about the internet, and how many of the metaphors we use to describe it actually make it harder to understand what makes the internet happen.

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I’m sorry you went through that! That is precisely the type of thing that I would like to prevent when it comes to sharing information. Motivation matters and must be acknowledged from the outset. When we know why we are doing what we are doing, then it is easier to learn and apply that knowledge dynamically. Similarly, people stop learning when they are frustrated by explanations that don’t make sense to them or that they find unrelatable.

Yes, this is exactly the type of stuff that I had in mind! Basic procedures with commonly encountered substances (e.g.: recognizing them, understanding how they are derived from the environment, how to safely handle them, the tools and measurements associated with them, etc.). Only then can we start to connect them in a meaningful way to the jargon, scientific principles, equations, and models that are used to describe them. It becomes both familiar and useful because it is grounded within our day-to-day experience. This is the type of knowledge that stays with people throughout their lives and inspires them to do more!

The few classes that I had involving computers were similar. I agree that it may not be feasible to go in-depth on every subject or cater to every student’s individual interests; many teachers are probably already short on time and attention. However, I do think things can be taught in a way that gives a student a better sense of what their tools are capable of. Lessons can iterate on the same topic, approaching it with more depth each time. For example, take a program like Inkscape, which is used for making vector graphics…

  • The first few lessons with the program can demonstrate how to navigate and do basic tasks by clicking with the mouse. It is made clear what the buttons on the toolbar do and how various options can be accessed from the menus. A paint bucket icon fills in an area with color, the copy option makes a duplicate of something, etc.
  • The next few lessons with the program can show how to cut down on mouse usage with keyboard shortcuts. It is made explicit that one can press a key combination instead of clicking on a button or menu to do a particular action. ctrl-C, ctrl-V, etc.
  • The next few lessons can show how to do the exact same tasks as the previous ones, but completely from the command line. It is made explicit that the GUI is just a visual representation of computer processes that can be accessed in other ways, in this case, by typing --action commands within terminal. Why bother? In the same way that keyboard shortcuts sped up what was done with the mouse, a few commands can batch process a ton of files at once.
  • The last few lessons can show how to write a simple script or macro to chain several actions together, showing how a lot of repetitive work can be automated. One doesn’t have to spend hours opening up one file after the other and clicking on all of the options that they need.

…I find this kind of approach useful. Everything is linked together in a way that makes logical sense and which facilitates memorization. Further, since it builds upon itself, each student can choose how deep they want to go. Only want to understand how to use the basics of an application? We got you. Already have an understanding of how to use it and want to leverage that knowledge to learn how to program? We also got you.

Telling someone that their computer isn’t actually sentient, that we are just using statistical analysis to make associations that could be useful, is not mysterious enough to be profitable. We want to evoke a rush of excitement through sci-fi-esque imagery here! :laughing:

…I am kidding of course, but the marketing and software engineering are at cross-purposes when one aim is undermining the other. Those are good points though.

That is a big reason why I liked @brisray 's game idea. It acts like a sandbox, a safe environment in which to learn and tinker around, but it simulates the actual thing well enough so that the skills are transferable.

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It’s diffucult to know what to do because it comes down the same age-old problems. People have got to want to learn and then you have to keep their interest.

Gamification is overused, at work, it’s how our annual “sensitivity” training ended up. But it can be very effective. I used to work at a university and we won a huge grant to help teach financial literacy to K12 schools. We spent a million dollars outfitting something called The Money Bus. It was so unusual, the kids loved it. It was a sad day we were told to decommission it and I had to pull the computers and games out of it.

money_bus_2006_600web

The other thing we did was have a board and online games created for us.

The last of those interest me, kids went around Nickelsburg, doing things like a paper round, or chores to earn money to spend elsewhere in the town. I had a look around at what was available for basic computer skills. I was surprised. A lot of sites that had a lot of blah, blah, blah, you had to pay for, they wanted an email address to get into, and a lot of not very interesting video.

I like the idea of the Wise Online MOOC but feel it can be improved on - more interactive and interesting.

This is extremely hard to do for the normal person especially at primary and secondary school level. This is because the teaching method for teaching is generally pretty bad(Hamburger method. Waffle at the start, then when everyone in the class is asleep, drop the most important information “the burger” and then waffle at the end). Secondly, because they do this sort of autistic detail-oriented(I don’t say this in an offensive way, but usually autistic people tend to build up an understanding from patterns and build upwards to an understanding, while neurotypical people tend to see something that exists, and build downwards from there to the level of detail they need(which often lacks foundational understanding. Consider how many competent mathematicians don’t really have foundational understanding of mathematics, but can apply it well)) thing of going from the bottom-up, rather than doing it in the more accessible form of “I want this conclusion, how do I then get to it?”. The wanting of a particular conclusion is often an intrinsic reward itself, but we give kids extrinsic rewards which corrode this rather exploratory and intrinsic desire into a very tunnel visioned and reward-oriented desire.

This sounds awesome! I bet those kids had a great time :grin: and on this note, a random anecdote. I remember as a kid, sneaking out of lunchtime “yard” playing, and going to computer labs to do programming. I remember making weird Caesar Cipher encryption stuff, and also some games in gamemaker but also some weird game version of those classic “turn to a page” adventure books. Was this the sort of stuff the MONEY BUS was for?

Also a final note, I wanted to ask more generally(because I’m pretty removed from educational institutions nowadays). I know in the 80s and 90s, tech literacy was low because it was a new technology, but also because not every school had a computer lab. There were some with systems like Commodore Vic 20s from what I know. And then in the 2000s-2010s a lot of schools were equipped with Windows XP/7 boxes but the curriculum was how to use word and inane stuff like that. I know there was a STEM push to get people programming, but has this actually resulted in a measurable increase in earlier programming being taught, and also in schools having actual computer labs?

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It might be society as a whole is changing. There seems to be a huge difference between what people’s perceptions are and what is actually happening in education.

I was the college’s web person for want of a better description, but got into all sorts of other projects. I was left mostly alone because not too many other peple knew what I was actually doing. I did come into contact with some students who I thought would be lucky to get through to their finals and others who should do better than I ever did.

I was chatting to one of my friend’s 11 year old the other day. He cannot read cursive writing at all or read an analog clock. I suppose there’s now no real reason to, but I cannot fathom what they are being taught instead. It can’t be kids are more stupid than I was then, but perhaps we had less distractions and not pulled in so many ways.

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Came across this article from 1996 just now: How to help someone use a computer.

It’s interesting! In particular this part stuck out for me:

Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer user who’s part of a community of computer users will have an easier time than one who isn’t.
[…]
Take a long-term view. Who do users in this community get help from? If you focus on building that person’s skills, the skills will diffuse to everyone else.

Not sure how true or applicable this is nearly 30 years later, but… It feels like it could be.

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