Remember learning how to read and write? How about cursive or that dreaded year when you were forced to pick up Catcher in the Rye? If you’re reading this (and thank you in advance if you are), it is probably safe to say you’ve attained some mastery of the English language. Mission accomplished, right? Well, it would be but you’re probably reading this on a computer rather than a piece of paper. Technology has changed quite a bit since J.D. Salinger’s day, affecting every element of our lives from how we get our news in the morning right up to the integrity of our elections. The internet has changed the game, and while this does not require everyone to become a computer scientist or data analyst, 21st century literacy requires some understanding of the tools we all rely on every day.
Just what is technological literacy? Well, the Montgomery Country School District calls it “ability of an individual, working independently and with others, to responsibly, appropriately and effectively use technology tools to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, create and communicate information.” The International Technology & Engineering Educator Association (ITEEA) has a more succinct definition, describing technological literacy as “one’s ability to use, manage, evaluate, and understand technology [emphasis ours].” Of course, by “understand” one does not mean the ability to code, but rather a basic knowledge of 1) What the technology is; and 2) What it actually does.
Consider the humble email. Most of us basically understand how to send and receive emails, the types of emails that matter (the airline sending your tickets to Maui), the ones that don’t (some online retailer sending you some unneeded coupons) and the potentially dangerous ones (your “long lost” royal Nigerian cousin). Simple enough, right? Let’s take it a step further, though. Let’s say you click out of your email and scour the web for your daily news. You run across an article with the headline “ANTIFA Activists Attack Schoolchildren.” Understandably alarmed, you click on the link and read all sorts of lurid accounts of the attack, the police response and even glance at accompanying pictures. You may even be so startled that you share this account on your Facebook page or email the article to your relative, who happens to live in the same city as the incident.
Unfortunately, there was no attack, no schoolchildren, and no overly aggressive left wing members. Your well-intentioned decision to spread information has just lead to the spread of misinformation. Bad as this sounds, the advent of bots means that malevolent actors no longer need people to spread “fake news.” This is in addition to traditional threats such as phishing, DDoS attacks, and various forms of malware, just to name a few.
Digital literacy isn’t just increasingly necessary to be a good citizen, all levels of employment, from entry-level to executive are increasingly demanding some level of technological competence. Fortunately, with the rise of technology also come more resources to develop and hone one’s skills. The government is even getting in on the act with digitalliteracy.gov, a resource where one can find opportunities to discover literacy tools, learn the basics of computing, even find local classes for a hands-on experience.
Mark Twain once quipped, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” In the 21st century, the same could be said about literacy of a more digital nature. Failure to be able to understand and harness the technological tools of our time not only places you at a social or professional disadvantage, but places the illiterate at the mercy of the literate. From the personal to the professional to the national levels, the stakes are too high. At the risk of offending the author’s 5th grade teacher, it may be even more rewarding than an afternoon with Holden Caulfield.