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

Communities are great, some give answers that aren’t quite right but there a lot of very helpful people around. Lists of useful resources like the one here are always useful.

They have their problems though. Some people have only the vaguest idea of what they are trying to do. In my own writing I sometimes have a problem at who to aim at. If I’m writing about a batch file or PowerShell script, do I really have to explain how to open the editors and how to save them? Hopefully not, but you never know for sure.

That’s a great link. Almost all of it is relevant outside the domain of computers, too. I’ve shared it on my blog!

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This has been a great discussion, I had drafted up a reply a few days ago but I just got around to finishing it, so I may be repeating some of the points that have been made since.

I think overall tech literacy is about the same, and I agree with what many have already pointed out that most people have never been computer literate. I would categorize computer literacy into 4 broad groups:

  1. illiterate - the basics of managing files, installing software, or changing settings are completely lost on these people. Error messages invoke fear.
  2. basic literacy - these people can reasonably navigate using a computer for their needs at work or at home but get lost when an error message appears.
  3. power users - these people are really good at navigating the tools they use daily and utilize lesser-known features and customizations to be more efficient at what they do. If they encounter an error message, they can probably search around to find a solution, but won’t be able to diagnose more complex issues. They might be able to navigate a CLI on a basic level and use some shell scripts, though probably not write their own.
  4. experts - these are the programmers, sysadmins, hobbyists, etc. They know how a computer works and can customize it to do whatever they need. Navigating a CLI is easy, they can write shell scripts, they can diagnose error messages. There are varying degrees of expert of course, not everyone in this category can do all of these things, but relative to the rest of computer users, simply being able to navigate vim or clis or being able to write basic shell scripts would put one into this category.

What I think is being observed today with regards to computer literacy is that the amount of people in the illiterate category is larger than it has ever been and has become the largest group of the four, overtaking basic users, which historically was the largest group. This is not surprising, given that the overall amount of computer users have increased drastically in the past decade. Before the Internet became a completely necessary and integrated part of life around 2010 or so, most people who would otherwise fall into the illiterate category just opted to not use computers because the world did not require it.

I also think the path to becoming tech literate is much harder than it was in the past. We no longer use desktop applications, they have been replaced by web apps, all of which have varying user interfaces. Skills and muscle memory developed with one is unlikely to help a user navigate a new web app, unlike desktop applications, which had consistent user interfaces by the nature of using the OS’s underlying GUI libraries. In addition to that, tech companies benefit from people being tech illiterate, such that they become both dependent on and at the mercy of big tech. For example, Microsoft can show ads on your desktop because switching to macOS is prohibitively expensive and switching to Linux requires some technical know-how.

I wish we had empirical data on this topic, because I find it incredibly interesting and it would make it easier to come up with actionable steps to increasing literacy.

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What kinds of emprical data are you looking for? There are statistics on “digital literacy”, but they seem to vary in what exactly they assess.

Generally, we all seem to have slightly differing definitions of what would constitute “basic tech literacy”, so I like how you’ve broken it down into levels based on component skills. The teaching approach that I described to @solaria could help one move through those levels. Maybe we could address that need by finding ways to breakdown the skills into a series of easy to follow steps and/or provide resources to master each of them?

Much like the document on AP Computer Science Principles that @arevakhach shared, the BC government has a document that covers specific skills by grade level. There are also more general frameworks, like the EU’s Digital Competence (or DigComp). An organization called the Digital Intelligence (or DQ) Institute also synthesizes a bunch of frameworks together. Some of the categories are very broad and may not be relevant, but it is interesting to think of what skills would be contained within each one. It could help stitch everything together into a coherent whole, like a course in “basic tech literacy for the web revival”. :smile:

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True. In my opinion, that is probably a bigger issue than “lack of time”. Motivating through the use of extrinsic rewards is detrimental to cultivating the desire to learn, much like the use of punishment or competition. [The work of Alfie Kohn seems to cover this topic in-depth, particularly the books Punished by Rewards and No Contest. I haven’t read them yet though.]

In general, people often try to motivate children through extrinsic rewards, punishment, and competition instead of carefully explaining the “whys” of things and showing them the consequences of their own decisions. Society has not yet escaped the idea of “operant conditioning”…

In the case of school, I think a large portion of that problem is often due to how the environment is structured (e.g.: rigidly hierarchical, rule-bound, etc.). Emphasis on rote memorization and standardized testing over genuine understanding and practical application are taken as a given rather than challenged. It is often assumed that it “must be done” like that. However, we can have an approach that is still well-organized, but empathetic to everyone’s needs. The article that @eladnarra shared gives some lovely examples of meeting people where they are at in order to teach them how to use a computer.

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What about tech clubs? Girls Who Code clubs are run in schools and libraries across the world on a more-or-less volunteer basis, to encourage girls & young women to explore information technology and consider studying tech. Informal clubs might be more suitable for building tech literacy than the classroom.

Speaking personally, I think the biggest boost to my tech literacy came just from ongoing exposure to laptops and desktops. There is a world of difference between the freedom of a laptop or desktop user and a smartphone user.

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I’ve never been much of a fan of these sorts of initiatives. The subtle implication of their existence is that coding is a primarily male profession(which it is, but it focuses on it, like it’s a limiting belief). On the opposite side, you have the female dominated professions like psychology, therapy, medical care, teaching(which itself is Men being brought up primarily by Women which causes developmental issues if they have no good male role models in their life, but only illusionary digital male role models) etc, which don’t see equivalent treatment. This is genuinely unusual, since governments are focusing on women in STEM, but not men in these other domains(and then you’d also expect efforts into other male dominated domains like with Oil or Garbage disposal etc).

The very existence of these initiatives implies that there should be more women in tech, without evaluating why there’s less, and why fewer work in it, following further gender equality. This also discredits how programming and software is arguably one of the most egalitarian professions, especially where quality of work is done. When you make a pull request to FOSS repos, nobody asks or cares if you’re a man or woman.

The other thing, is they’re often done with a very clearly labelled social ideal, and this social ideal instead becomes the focus, and not the subject itself which can be self-sabotaging(and the name of the clubs creates and internalises a self-sabotaging belief that coding is just for men).

That said, it’s better to be exposed to something, so it at least bridges people from it being an unknown unknown to it being a known unknown.

Agreed. There’s 2 other sides to this. Firstly financial. I got my first PC out of a desire to play games that weren’t available on Consoles. Money kept my family away from getting a gaming PC for a long time, so that limited me a lot. Secondly is quality. People talk about small improvements in hardware like the Apple M1 chips and the like, but they’re already blindsided by how powerful CPUs and GPUs are nowadays… and when they get into it, they’re really surprised. This decay in software quality over the last 2 decades has rendered computers inaccessible just down to how plain slow and sluggish they are. While I was in the Philippines, I saw firsthand just how bad and devastating this is, and I understand now. why software development, despite being remote work and something that’d lift them out of terrible employment options at home, it’s inaccessible because the upfront cost for good hardware and electricity for it all is too much.

It’s hard to gain literacy in an environment that frustrates and pisses you off- and (most) computers are exactly that nowadays. This same issue is the frustration that affects most second language learners

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I think things like Girls Who Code have a lot of value to be honest. Ignoring discrimination in the field, one reason why many women don’t learn this stuff is that for a while, it was kinda like a male-coded activity, seen the same way as tinkering with a car. Obviously both of these ideas of an activity being inherently masculine are false, but the idea is still there in many people’s brains.

The friend I mentioned before who took css/html/js classes after she got her desktop, she actually went to a secondary school which pushed women away from higher-tier STEM classes and into foundation courses at best, assuming they weren’t pushed to go into non-STEM courses entirely, like my friend was (and she was a A* student who would have been encouraged to go into STEM if she were male). It sounds crazy to me that this still happened to women in my own generation, but it’s true.

Anyway, if not for courses like Girls Who Code I doubt she’d have bothered at all; she’d already been pushed away from discrete maths and IT classes at secondary school, felt behind on tech literacy in general, and she happened to know about 20 male CS students and hadn’t actually met a women in CS yet. It’s not a particularly alluring situation, compared to being born male and practically having CS pushed at you the moment you show interest in videogames or computers.

So these classes are just to help speed up the process of ‘forgetting’ this cultural ideal, and combating not just misogyny, but internalized misogyny so that the next generation of women can see other women coding and think ‘that might be a bit of me’ and feel invited to take part. It’s true that other male-dominated fields aren’t all seeing the same push to include women, but those fields are all quite a lot older than CS (and so more difficult to enact change within) and usually less desirable fields to begin with, nobody is pushing for change there.

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I mentioned Girls Who Code because they’re an example of a free club programme aimed at increasing tech literacy. The gendered aspect of the programme is largely irrelevant in this context.

The real reason that women are boycotting STEM must unfortunately remain confidential for now. The women’s revolutionary programme is nearing its final stages, and to publicly reveal any information at this sensitive juncture would be extremely foolish of me. Suffice to say that all will become clear following the overthrow of the patriarchy.

I agree that the financial barriers to tech access and tech literacy should not be overlooked.

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Seems an interesting sidetrack has been discovered, yes? Women & Tech is probably a worthwhile discussion in its own right. Someone should make the thread :+1:

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since this thread is about how to improve tech literacy, i’m going to have to step in here and note that a lot of what you’re saying here (emphasis mine) is super debatable (yet being presented as fact) with deeply passionate arguments and personally-lived experiences; ultimately, going into topics that are off-topic to the thread. you can decide whether or not you want to remove what i’ve highlighted as to not censor your opinion because i am assuming the best intentions possible: to signal that this is a multi-faceted issue with many moving parts and areas of society that could be discussed in tandem. i just don’t want the thread derailed because of a spicy take you might have.

i can personally attest to this being an ideal version of how the tech industry actually works, when corporate/startup software dev is so wrapped up in office politics, meetings, and opportunities that can absolutely create hostile work environments for women in teams more frequently dominated by men. maybe on volunteer FOSS projects, but a culture that has historically undermined and discredited women (and especially marginalized women) in tech does absolutely exist in paid, sought-after tech jobs (even today).

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I have created a new thread for this tangent. I have generalised the topic a little bit to be about any social ideal, not just promoting women in tech.

I wish in-person coding and tech clubs for adults (especially beginners and intermediate learners) were more widespread.

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I really do think there is a gap in the “intermediate learner” space that I feel this place fills pretty well, for me at least!! I do wish there were more places like this irl though. It can be frustrating to feel my only options when seeking coding buddies irl is “complete beginner I will learn how to use a div” and “fully automated SEO-enhanced webapp”

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I’ve noticed that when I do hear about IRL coding events for adults, they tend to be formal and career-focused. But there isn’t as much for those of us who just want to have fun and get creative with tech.

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Unfortunately, adulting is “serious business” and a lot of these learning events for adults are run by people so bereft of imagination that it never occurs to them that people might want to learn to code without wanting to do it for a living.

Imagine a colorful IRL clubhouse where we all play with code and gadgets and learn from each other. (And also it’s a café.) That would be so fun.

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I think we used to call those LAN parties, but more gaming than coding tended to happen at them. :smiley_cat:

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It is usually “Coding Bootcamps” that are entirely career-focused. Many “Hackerspaces” / “Makerspaces” / “Fab Labs” are pretty open when it comes to sharing hardware and software projects. One can also start their own if there isn’t anything local.

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And Blue Dwarf discussion (where I found the link).

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