Improving Technological Literacy

The first step is understanding what is meant by “technology.” Then we must try to reach the broadest possible audience.

At the heart of the technological society that characterizes the United States lies an unacknowledged paradox. Although the nation increasingly depends on technology and is adopting new technologies at a breathtaking pace, its citizens are not equipped to make well-considered decisions or to think critically about technology. Adults and children alike have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and do affect its development. Many people are not even fully aware of the technologies they use every day. In short, as a society we are not technologically literate.

Technology has become so user friendly that it is largely invisible. Many people use technology with minimal comprehension of how it works, the implications of its use, or even where it comes from. We drive high-tech cars but know little more than how to operate the steering wheel, gas pedal, and brakes. We fill shopping carts with highly processed foods but are largely ignorant of the composition of those products or how they are developed, produced, packaged, and delivered. We click on a mouse and transmit data over thousands of miles without understanding how this is possible or who might have access to the information. Thus, even as technology has become increasingly important in our lives, it has receded from our view.

To take full advantage of the benefits of technology, as well as to recognize, address, or even avoid some of its pitfalls, we must become better stewards of technological change. Unfortunately, society is ill prepared to meet this goal. And the mismatch is growing. Although our use of technology is increasing apace, there is no sign of a corresponding improvement in our ability to deal with issues relating to technology. Neither the nation’s educational system nor its policymaking apparatus has recognized the importance of technological literacy.

Because few people today have hands-on experience with technology, except as finished consumer goods, technological literacy depends largely on what they learn in the classroom, particularly in elementary and secondary school. However, relatively few educators are involved in setting standards and developing curricula to promote technological literacy. In general, technology is not treated seriously as a subject in any grade, kindergarten through 12th. An exception is the use of computers and the Internet, an area that has been strongly promoted by federal and state governments. But even here, efforts have focused on using these technologies to improve education rather than to teach students about technology. As a result, many K-12 educators identify technology almost exclusively with computers and related devices and so believe, erroneously, that their institutions already teach about technology.

Most policymakers at the federal and state levels also have paid little or no attention to technology education or technological literacy. Excluding legislation focused on the use of computers as educational tools, only a handful of bills introduced in Congress during the past 15 years refer to technology education or technological literacy. Virtually none of these bills have become law, except for measures related to vocational education. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that legislators or their staffs are any more technologically literate than the general public, despite the fact that Congress and state legislatures often find themselves grappling with policy issues that require an understanding of technology.

It is imperative that this paradox, this disconnect between technological reality and public understanding, be set right. Doing so will require the cooperation of schools of education, schools of engineering, K-12 teachers and teacher organizations, developers of curriculum and instructional materials, federal and state policymakers, industry and nonindustry supporters of educational reform, and science and technology centers and museums.

What is technology?

In the broadest sense, technology is the process by which humans modify nature to meet their needs and wants. However, most people think of technology only in terms of its tangible products: computers and software, aircraft, pesticides, water-treatment plants, birth-control pills, and microwave ovens, to name a few. But the knowledge and processes used to create and operate these products–engineering know-how, manufacturing expertise, various technical skills, and so on–are equally important. An especially critical area of knowledge is the engineering design process, of starting with a set of criteria and constraints and working toward a solution–a device, say, or a process–that meets those conditions. Technology also includes the infrastructure necessary for the design, manufacture, operation, and repair of technological artifacts. This infrastructure includes corporate headquarters, manufacturing plants, maintenance facilities, and engineering schools, among many other elements.

Technology is a product of engineering and science. Science has two parts: a body of knowledge about the natural world and a process of enquiry that generates such knowledge. Engineering, too, consists of a body of knowledge (in this case, knowledge of the design and creation of human-made products) and a process for solving problems. Science and technology are tightly coupled. A scientific understanding of the natural world is the basis for much of technological development today. The design of computer chips, for instance, depends on a detailed understanding of the electrical properties of silicon and other materials. The design of a drug to fight a specific disease is made possible by knowledge of how proteins and other biological molecules are structured and interact.

Conversely, technology is the basis for a good part of scientific research. Indeed, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to separate the achievements of technology from those of science. When the Apollo 11 spacecraft put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, many people called it a victory of science. Similarly, the development of new types of materials or the genetic engineering of crops to resist insects are usually attributed wholly to science. Although science is integral to such advances, however, they also are examples of technology–the application of unique skills, knowledge, and techniques, which is quite different from science.

Technology also is closely associated with innovation, the transformation of ideas into new and useful products or processes. Innovation requires not only creative people and organizations but also the availability of technology and science and engineering talent. Technology and innovation are synergistic. The development of gene-sequencing machines, for example, made the decoding of the human genome possible, and that knowledge is fueling a revolution in diagnostic, therapeutic, and other biomedical innovations.

Hallmarks of technological literacy

As with literacy in reading, mathematics, science, or history, the goal of technological literacy is to provide people with the tools to participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the world around them. The kinds of things a technologically literate person must know can vary from society to society and from era to era. In general, technological literacy encompasses three interdependent dimensions: knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, and capabilities. Although there is no archetype of a technologically literate person, such a person will possess a number of general characteristics. Among such traits, technologically literate people in today’s U.S. society should:

Recognize technology in its many forms, and understand that the line between science and technology is often blurred. This will quickly lead to the realization that technology permeates modern society, from little things that everyone takes for granted, such as pencils and paper, to major projects, such as rocket launches and the construction of dams.

Understand basic concepts and terms, such as systems, constraints, and tradeoffs that are important to technology. When engineers speak of a system, for instance, they mean components that work together to provide a desired function. Systems appear everywhere in technology, from the simple, such as the half-dozen components in a click-and-write ballpoint pen, to the complex, such as the millions of components, assembled in hundreds of subsystems, in a commercial jetliner. Systems also can be scattered geographically, such as the roads, bridges, tunnels, signage, fueling stations, automobiles, and equipment that comprise, support, use, and maintain the nation’s network of highways.

Technological literacy is more a capacity to understand the broader technological world than it is the ability to work with specific pieces of it.

Know something about the nature and limitations of the engineering design process. The goal of technological design is to meet certain criteria within various constraints, such as time deadlines, financial limits, or the need to minimize damage to the environment. Technologically literate people recognize that there is no such thing as a perfect design and that all final designs involve tradeoffs. Even if a design meets its stated criteria, there is no guarantee that the resulting technology will actually achieve the desired outcome, because unexpected and often undesirable consequences sometimes occur alongside intended ones.

Recognize that technology influences changes in society and has done so throughout history. In fact, many historical ages are identified by their dominant technology: the Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age, Industrial Age, and Information Age. Technology-derived changes have been particularly evident in the past century. Automobiles have created a more mobile, spread-out society; aircraft and advanced communications have led to a “smaller” world and, eventually, globalization; contraception has revolutionized sexual mores; and improved sanitation, agriculture, and medicine have extended life expectancy. Technologically literate people recognize the role of technology in these changes and accept the reality that the future will be different from the present largely because of technologies now coming into existence, from Internet-based activities to genetic engineering and cloning.

Recognize that society shapes technology as much as technology shapes society. There is nothing inevitable about the changes influenced by technology; they are the result of human decisions and not of impersonal historical forces. The key people in successful technological innovation are not only engineers and scientists but also designers and marketing specialists. New technologies simply meet the requirements of consumers, business people, bankers, judges, environmentalists, politicians, and government bureaucrats. An electric car that no one buys might just as well never have been developed, and a genetically engineered crop that is banned by the government is of little more use than the weeds in the fields. The values and culture of society sometimes affect technology in ways that are not immediately obvious, and technological development sometimes favors the values of certain groups more than others. It has been argued, for example, that such development traditionally has favored the values of males more than those of females and that this factor might explain why the initial designs of automobile airbags were not appropriate to the smaller stature of most women.

Understand that all technologies entail risk. Some risks are obvious and well documented, such as the tens of thousands of deaths each year in the United States from automobile crashes. Others are more insidious and difficult to predict, such as the growth of algae in rivers caused by the runoff of fertilizer from farms.

Appreciate that the development and use of technology involve tradeoffs and a balance of costs and benefits. For example, preservatives may extend the shelf life and improve the safety of our food but also cause allergic reactions in a small percentage of individuals. In some cases, not using a technology creates added risks. Thus, technologically literate people will ask pertinent questions, of themselves and others, regarding the benefits and risks of technologies.

Be able to apply basic quantitative reasoning skills to make informed judgments about technological risks and benefits. Especially important are mathematical skills related to probability, scale, and estimation. With such skills, for example, individuals can make reasonable judgments about whether it is riskier to travel from St. Louis to New York on a commercial airliner or by car, based on the known number of fatalities per mile traveled for each mode of transportation.

Possess a range of hands-on skills in using everyday technologies. At home and in the workplace, there are real benefits of knowing how to diagnose and even fix certain types of problems, such as resetting a tripped circuit breaker, replacing the battery in a smoke detector, or unjamming a food-disposal unit. These tasks are not particularly difficult, but they require some basic knowledge and, in some cases, familiarity with simple hand tools. The same can be said for knowing how to remove and change a flat tire or hook up a new computer or telephone. In addition, a level of comfort with personal computers and the software they use, and being able to surf the Internet, are essential to technological literacy.

Seek information about particular new technologies that may affect their lives. Equipped with a basic understanding of technology, technologically literate people will know how to extract the most important points from a newspaper story, television interview, or discussion; ask relevant questions; and make sense of the answers.

Participate responsibly in debates or discussions about technological matters. Technologically literate people will be prepared to take part in public forums, communicate with city council members or members of Congress, or in other ways make their opinions heard on issues involving technology. Literate citizens will be able to envision how technology (in conjunction with, for example, the law or the marketplace) might help solve a problem. Of course, technological literacy does not determine a person’s opinion. Even the best-informed citizens can and do hold quite different opinions depending on the question at hand and their own values and judgments.

A technologically literate person will not necessarily require extensive technical skills. Such literacy is more a capacity to understand the broader technological world than it is the ability to work with specific pieces of it. Some familiarity with at least a few technologies will be useful, however, as a concrete basis for thinking about technology. Someone who is knowledgeable about the history of technology and about basic technological principles but who has no hands-on capabilities with even the most common technologies cannot be as technologically literate as someone who has those capabilities.

But specialized technical skills do not guarantee technological literacy. Workers who know every operational detail of an air conditioner or who can troubleshoot a software glitch in a personal computer may not have a sense of the risks, benefits, and tradeoffs associated with technological developments generally and may be poorly prepared to make choices about other technologies that affect their lives. Even engineers, who have traditionally been considered experts in technology, may not have the training or experience necessary to think about the social, political, and ethical implications of their work and so may not be technologically literate. The broad perspective on technology implied by technological literacy would be as valuable to engineers and other technical specialists as to people with no direct involvement in the development or production of technology.

Laying the foundation

In order to improve technological literacy, the most natural and important place to begin is in schools, by providing all students with early and regular contact with technology. Exposing students to technological concepts and hands-on, design-related activities is the most likely way to help them acquire the kinds of knowledge, ways of thinking and acting, and capabilities consistent with technological literacy. However, only 14 states now require some form of technology education for K-12 students, and this instruction usually is affiliated with technician-preparation or school-to-work programs. In 2000, the Massachusetts Board of Education added a combined engineering/technology component to its K-12 curriculum, becoming the first state to explicitly include engineering content. Elsewhere, a few schools offer stand-alone courses at all grade levels, but most school districts pay little or no attention to technology. This is in stark contrast to the situation in some other countries, such as the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, where technology education courses are required in middle school or high school.

State boards of education can provide incentives for publishers to modify next-generation science, history, social studies, civics, and language arts textbooks to include technology content.

One limiting factor is the small number of teachers trained to teach about technology. There are roughly 40,000 technology education teachers nationwide, mostly at the middle-school or high-school level. By comparison, there are some 1.7 million teachers in grades K-12 who are responsible for teaching science. Another factor is inadequate preparation of other teachers to teach about technology. Schools of education spend virtually no time developing technological literacy in students who will eventually stand in front of the classroom. The integration of technology content into other subject areas, such as science, mathematics, history, social studies, the arts, and language arts, could greatly boost technological literacy. Without teachers trained to carry out this integration, however, technology is likely to remain an afterthought in U.S. education.

Beyond grades K-12, there are additional opportunities for strengthening technological literacy. At two-year community colleges, many courses are intended to prepare students for technical careers. As they learn new skills, these students, with proper instruction, also can develop a better understanding of the underlying technology that could be used as the basis for teaching about the nature, history, and role of technology in our lives. Colleges and universities offer a variety of options for more advanced study of technology. There are about 100 science, technology, and society programs on U.S. campuses that offer both undergraduate and graduate courses; and a number of universities have programs in the history, philosophy, or sociology of technology. Many engineering schools require that students take at least one course in the social impacts of technology. For the adult population already out of school, informal education settings, such as museums and science centers, as well as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and other media, offer avenues for learning about and becoming engaged in a variety of issues related to technology.

A number of specific steps can help strengthen the presence of technology in both formal and informal education. For example, federal and state agencies that help set education policy should encourage the integration of technology content into K-12 standards, curricula, instructional materials, and student assessments (such as end-of-grade tests) in nontechnology subject areas.

At the federal level, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education can do this in a number of ways, including making integration a requirement when providing funding for the development of curriculum and instructional materials. Technically oriented agencies, such the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health, can support integration by developing accurate and interesting background materials for use by teachers of nontechnical subjects.

At the state level, science and technology advisers and advisory councils, of which there are a growing number, can use their influence with governors, state legislatures, and industry to encourage the inclusion of technology content not only in the general K-12 curriculum but also in school-to-work and technician-preparation programs. State boards of education can provide incentives for publishers to modify next-generation science, history, social studies, civics, and language arts textbooks to include technology content. Such incentives might come from incorporating technological themes into state educational standards or by modifying the criteria for acceptable textbooks.

States also should better align their K-12 standards, curriculum frameworks, and student assessments in the sciences, mathematics, history, social studies, civics, the arts, and language arts with national educational standards that stress the connections between these subjects and technology. Among such guidelines, the International Technology Education Association, a professional organization of technology educators, recently published Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology, a comprehensive statement of what students must learn in order to be technologically literate.

Another crucial need is to improve teacher education. Indeed, the success of changes in curricula, instructional materials, and student assessments will depend largely on the ability of teachers to implement those changes. Lasting improvements will require both the creation of new teaching and assessment tools and the appropriate preparation of teachers to use those tools effectively. Teachers at all levels should be able to conduct design projects and use design-oriented teaching strategies to encourage learning about technology. This means that NSF, the Education Department, and professional organizations that accredit teachers should provide incentives for colleges and universities to transform the preparation of all teachers to better equip them to teach about technology throughout the curriculum. In preparing elementary school teachers, for example, universities should require courses or make other provisions to ensure that would-be teachers are, at the very least, scientifically and technologically literate. Science for All Americans, an educational guidebook produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, might well serve as a minimum standard of such literacy.

The research base related to technological literacy also must be strengthened. There is a lack of reliable information about what people know and believe about technology, as well as about the cognitive steps that people use in constructing new knowledge about technology. These gaps have made it difficult for curriculum developers to design teaching strategies and for policymakers to enact programs to foster technological literacy. Building this scientific base will require creating cadres of competent researchers, developing and periodically revising a research agenda, and allocating adequate funding for research projects. NSF should support the development of assessment tools that can be used to monitor the state of technological literacy among students and the public, and NSF and the Education Department should fund research on how people learn about technology. The findings must be incorporated into teaching materials and techniques and into formal and informal education settings.

It will be important, as well, to enhance the process by which people make decisions involving technology. One of the best ways for members of the public to become educated about technology is to engage in discussions of the pros and cons, the risks and benefits, and the knowns and unknowns of a particular technology or technological choice. Engagement in decisionmaking is likely to have a direct positive effect on the nonexpert participants, and involving the public in deliberations about technological developments as they are taking shape, rather than after the fact, may actually shorten the time and reduce the resources required to bring new technologies into service. Equally important, public participation may result in design changes that better reflect the needs and desires of society.

Industry, federal agencies responsible for carrying out infrastructure projects, and science and technology museums should provide more opportunities for the nontechnical public to become involved in discussions about technological developments. The technical community, especially engineers and scientists, is largely responsible for the amount and quality of communication and outreach to the public on technological issues. Industry should err on the side of encouraging greater public engagement, even if it may not always be clear what types of technological development merit public input. In the federal arena, some agencies already require recipients of funding to engage communities likely to be affected by planned infrastructure projects. These efforts should be expanded. The informal education sector, especially museums and science and technology centers, is well positioned to prepare members of the public to grapple with the complexities of decisionmaking in the technological realm. These institutions and the government agencies, companies, and foundations that support them could do much more to encourage public discussion and debate about the direction and nature of technological development at both the local and national level.

If informed decisionmaking is important for all citizens, then it is vital for leaders in government and industry whose decisions influence the health and welfare of the nation. With both sectors facing a daunting array of issues with substantial technological components, there is a great unmet need for accurate and timely technical information and education. Thus, federal and state agencies with a role in guiding or supporting the nation’s scientific and technological enterprise, along with private foundations concerned about good governance, should support education programs intended to increase the technological literacy of government officials (including key staff members) and industry leaders. Executive education programs could be offered in many locations, including major research universities, community colleges, law schools, business schools, schools of management, and colleges of engineering. The engineering community, which is directly involved in the creation of technology, is ideally suited to promote such programs. An engineering-led effort to increase technological literacy could have significant long-term payoffs, not only for decisionmakers but also for the public at large.

These steps are only a starting point. Numerous other actions, both large and small, also will be needed across society. The case for technological literacy must be made consistently and on an ongoing basis. As citizens gradually become more sophisticated about technological issues, they will be more willing to support measures in the schools and in the informal education arena to raise the technological literacy level of the next generation. In time, leaders in government, academia, and business will recognize the importance of technological literacy to their own well-being and the welfare of the nation. Achieving this goal promises to be a slow and challenging journey, but one that is unquestionably worth embarking on.

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Cite this Article

Young, A. Thomas, Jonathan R. Cole, and Denice Denton. “Improving Technological Literacy.” Issues in Science and Technology 18, no. 4 (Summer 2002).

Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Summer 2002