How 'literate' are you with a computer?

Computer literacy will be as essential in the 1980s and '90s as the three R's were 100 years ago, say educators and specialists in the field. Carol Hargan, senior scientist at the Human Resources Research Organization, in Alexandria, Va., defines computer literacy as "whatever a person needs to know and do with computers in order to function competently in our society."

As this definition suggests, different people will need different computer skills. But most people will need some combination of these elements:

* Problem-solving skills used in writing algorithms [calculations] or computer programs.

* Knowledge of how computers can be used in business, medicine, government, science, and other fields.

* Some familiarity with the parts of a computer -- hardware, software, and systems.

* Awareness of career opportunities involving computers.

* Awareness of the effect of the computer on society: the issues of privacy, computer crime, automation and the loss of jobs, and the like.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) insists: "A computer literacy course, familiarizing the student with the role and impact of the computer, should be a part of the general education of every student."

The council also recommends that pupils at both the secondary and elementary level have access to computers -- and that school districts provide the appropriate budget for maintenance and replacement of computers.

It is estimated that about half of all high schools have computer terminals accessible to at least some of the students. And, according to the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium, there are at least 2,668 computer literacy courses around the country. The consortium located and surveyed these courses as part of a research project on their effectiveness.

Despite the number of computer literacy courses, however, Ms. Hargan notes that the computer literacy movement -- as distinct from computerized education -- may be "just a flash in the pan."

After the current infatuation with new technology wears off, she suggests, people will just use computers without understanding them. "After all," she adds, "we aren't TV-literate, we aren't car-literate; we just use these machines all the time."

Meanwhile, one of the vanguards in the move for computer literacy is educating teachers to be computer literate themselves. Coming at a time of fiscal conservativism and federal hesitancy to get involved in curriculum, the need for funding expensive new computer science programs may well have to be met by local school districts.

Just as the "new math" of the '60s spawned a variety of retraining programs for teachers, new technology in the classroom is certain to create a need for special courses to make teachers computer literate.

But with Congress in a budget-trimming mood, computer-literacy courses for teachers, along with other developments in computer education, probably will be privately funded, says Steve Hallmark, who represents NCTM and other educators on Capitol Hill.

And, because the prospects for massive public funding for new technology seem so dim, he predicts that computerization of education ultimately will lead to a dual system: underfunded public schools, lacking up-to-date machines, will exist for the poor, while a "spectacular" privately funded system will be accessible to the rich.

"The biggest issue in computer literacy is social equity," he says.

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