Computer literacy's high stakes

The one constant we can see when we look at jobs in the 1980s and 1990s is change. Change brought on by advancing technology. Three years ago the microcomputer software industry barely existed. By 1986, every American above the age of five will have access to some form of computer. In 50 years it is estimated that 8 out of 10 workers will be employed making computers or providing information and services. Some forecasters say business and industry alone will need 3.5 million designers, writers, and editors in the next 20 years for courseware and software.

Therefore, what we learn as students is no longer enough to carry us through a lifetime of work. Personal skills and knowledge have become perishable commodities. Unless they're constantly upgraded to keep pace with changing technologies and the changing demands of the workplace, they'll go stale.

The one great technology of our lifetimes, of course, is the computer. Within 10 years, a person without some fundamental understanding of computers will be as limited as the person today who can't read or write.

In evaluating the vital importance of computer literacy, our firm determined that a basic underlying social need was the availability of more affordable quality education at every level. We addressed this need through our own technology-based courseware and software products, in particular, via PLATO, the computer-based educational system developed by Control Data Corporation in cooperation with the University of Illinois.

The system offers more than 12,000 hours of courseware. This educational library, which is now rapidly becoming available for use on microcomputers - such as the Apple II Plus, Atari 800, and TI 99/4A - not only includes computer literacy courses but lessons, developed by experts in their respective fields, in math, science, and foreign languages.

As we move to address the need for an advanced understanding of the computer as a tool, we must also ask: What about the college student who's not in engineering, or the businessperson who's not a programmer?

Our firm set a task for itself. We developed an extensive menu of courses rather than a set curriculum. In writing courseware, we made certain that it was deliverable on microcomputers. Additionally, with the advance of dozens of different micros into the home and the classroom, it had to be available on more than one brand of computers.

It has been said that computers will cause an impact in education second only to the invention of the printing press. The future will belong to the technology-literate. Those people who fail to master a basic understanding of the new technologies will be forever handicapped - in pursuing a career and in taking full advantage of life's opportunities.

That's part of the challenge we all face. Behind all the theory and all the research, the personal stakes are very high. For the promise of technology and computers to come true, it has to come true for everyone.

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