Liberal Education

The Promise of Computer Literacy

Some might find it surprising to see an issue of Liberal Education devoted to technology. Although computers and the Internet are playing roles in virtually every aspect of the work done at our member colleges and universities, discussions regarding how our students use information technology and how that usage shapes their educational experience do not often occur in the context of liberal education. Nonetheless, computer literacy is an empowering and liberating skill for undergraduates, useful in virtually every discipline and profession. Computers and the Internet in higher education are not always used wisely, do not always enhance learning, and indeed do not always work reliably. At their best, though, they hold the promise of positive and transformative change for learning and teaching, change that can give our students richer experiences, broader perspectives, and wider audiences for their work.

Information technology has had a profound impact upon the scholarly work of faculty, providing new ways to search for, retrieve, archive, share, convey, and disseminate information, ideas, and creative work. Similarly, computer technology has fundamentally changed the way our students approach their assignments, interact with others, and view the world. It is only natural that the same technologies would facilitate new ways for faculty and students to engage in the work of undergraduate education. Some of these effects are so pervasive as to be easily overlooked, such as the way in which e-mail has changed how, when, and to what extent faculty and students communicate with each other, or how the Web has provided rich new ways for students to organize and communicate what they know and create.

Going beyond those familiar examples of how computers and the Internet are changing higher education, Martha Nell Smith's article in this issue explains how a hypermedia archive of Emily Dickinson's work is allowing scholars and students to work with something much closer to the original manuscript than would be possible with linear, unadorned text. Given how central publishing is to academia, the fact that technology allows publishing to take on new forms and meanings is exciting and important. Similarly, multimedia capabilities for combining text, sound, and images in creative ways are allowing artistic performance work to take on new forms of expression.

Fundamental changes are also occurring in some of the most traditional forms of teaching and learning. Peshe Kuriloff points out that technology has permanently changed how students write, so "common sense dictates that we need to use technology to teach them to write better." As tools for editing and text management evolve and help students learn to improve their writing mechanics, possibilities for greater focus and engagement around students' ideas and arguments may emerge. New modes of peer writing review and revision are now possible, opening up opportunities for electronic group work and peer learning that can overcome barriers of distance, time, and faculty resources.

One key to enhancing learning, as Steve Ehrmann's article richly illustrates, is for students and faculty to "think with the technology rather than thinking about it." Learning involves a transition from novice to expert, and technology can in some cases "enable relative novices to ask meaningful questions of their own," facilitating more active and inquiry-based learning and allowing students to navigate their way through new spaces and ideas. Web-based logs are emerging as vehicles for student reflection, another key element to meaningful learning.

Just as quantitative literacy is distinct from mathematics, computer literacy is distinct from technology studies. Technology best serves liberal education when it is neither teacher nor subject, but a useful tool for student and faculty work. Faculty, often less comfortable with some aspects of technology than are their students, need both support and creative models for its use, and institutions must determine ways of managing technology so that it is reliable and accessible.

Technology has great capacity for empowering those who have both the access to it and the knowledge of how to use it. Technology literacy increases access to information and opportunities for collaboration, and makes the work of students and faculty more public by broadening and diversifying the audience. As a result, the fundamental goals of liberal learning become all the more important. Students must learn to make sense of information, to communicate and collaborate effectively, and to keep pace with the rapid changes throughout their careers and lives. Perhaps most importantly, however, they must be prepared to understand the broader social and cultural implications of their work and actions, so that the promise of computer literacy leads to a better life for all.

Rick Vaz is serving as senior science fellow at AAC&U while on leave from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), where he is associate dean of interdisciplinary and global studies and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Dr. Vaz served as the liaison to the Greater Expectations Consortium on Quality Education, of which WPI was a selected institutional member.

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