What is computer literacy?

As more and more students across the country sit down in front of terminals in pursuit of computer literacy, educators are having to decide exactly what it is those students are pursuing.

''People are acknowledging that a knowledge of computers is going to be a survival skill,'' says Arthur Luehrmann of Computer Literacy, a Berkeley, Calif. , firm. ''If schools want to do something, they have to define it.''

There is no standard definition or test for computer literacy. The National Center for Educational Statistics has just started developing a test to determine levels of computer ability among students and educators nationwide. But that test will be used only to find out what is going on, not to qualify individuals as computer illiterate or literate.

In some schools, computer literacy may mean little more than learning to turn on a machine and doing what it says to do. In others, it may mean learning the vocabulary and history of computers. But more and more educators are saying this is not enough.

The schools that are doing the best job of turning out students who are computer literate are those that teach programming and integrate computers into all subjects so students will learn how to apply the skills they learn in ''computer class,'' says Adeline Neiman of the Human Resources Media Publishing Company, who is doing research at the Technical Education Research Center in Cambridge, Mass.

''It is not enough that they be able to hold a conversation about computers, '' Mr. Luehrmann says. ''That is being computer glib, not computer literate.''

What makes a student computer literate is what that student can do with a computer, not what the student knows about computers, says Martha Ramirez, who is also with Computer Literacy.

''They should own the skills,'' Mr. Luehrmann says. ''They should be there when they need them.''

What are those skills?

First of all, students should know the mechanics of using a computer, according to Linda G. Roberts of the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. They should be as comfortable handling a computer keyboard as they are using pencil and paper.

Students should be able to identify parts of a computer so they can figure out how to use a variety of machines, because not all computers will work exactly like the ones on which they are trained.

They also need to know how to do some programming. Exactly how much programming ability is needed to qualify as a computer-literate person is hard to determine. Just as a person who is literate in the English language should not have to hire a writer to compose a memo, a person who is computer literate should not have to turn to an expert for simple jobs, Mr. Luehrmann says.

According to Mr. Luehrmann, a computer-literate person should know BASIC, the most widely used computer language. The other languages most often recommended are LOGO and PASCAL. LOGO was specifically developed to teach programming to young children.

Students should be in control of the computer, rather than be controlled by it, says Beverly Hunter of Human Resources Research Organization in Virginia, project director of the National Center for Educational Statistics.

A computer-literate person has a sense of confidence when using a computer, she says, and is not afraid of the technology. In addition, he or she has an understanding of the social and ethical issues involved in using a computer.

''It is so dynamic,'' she says, ''and so much more of a feeling than a list of facts that you know. It has so much to do with attitude and with direct personal experience and being able to make a computer do what you want it to do.''

There is a danger in defining computer literacy too strictly, in part because the technology changes so quickly, she says.

''There is this inevitable tendency to fossilize when you try to define something,'' she cautions.''

If you want to know the level of computer literacy you possess, sit down at a terminal and ask yourself these questions:

Can I turn on and operate this machine?

Can I load and run a prewritten program?

Do I know how to use this computer to solve problems?

Can I write a simple program on my own?

''If you can tell the computer to do the things you want it to do,'' Mr. Luehrmann says, ''you are computer literate.''

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