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Why We Must Know More About Technology: Provost Jonathan R. Cole Address on National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council Report

In recent years, many individuals and groups have promoted the idea that all Americans should be better prepared to navigate our high-tech world. Even so, the issue of technological literacy is barely on the nation's radar screen. This is quite disturbing, given that technology plays such a dominant role in today's society. For example, citizens must frequently make critical decisions that are technologically based, such as whether to buy genetically engineered foods or transmit personal data over the Internet.

Our (the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council) report aims to put the issue in the spotlight by calling for a broad-based effort to increase technological literacy among everyone in this country.

Generally speaking, technology is the modification of nature to meet human needs. However, most people still think of it only in terms of artifacts: computers and software, aircraft, and microwave ovens, for instance. But technology is much more than tangible products. An equally important aspect comprises the knowledge and processes necessary to create and operate such products. Technology also includes the infrastructure necessary to design, operate, and repair artifacts -- such as corporate headquarters and maintenance facilities.

So, what is "technological literacy?" It involves not only knowing something about the nature and history of technology, but also having certain capabilities and critical-thinking skills regarding its development and use. And we believe that the nation's education and policy-making systems have done far too little to recognize the importance of this broader view. Moreover, the use of technology as a learning tool in the classroom often is confused with the concept of being technologically literate.

Our committee pointed out that boosting technological literacy would have a number of benefits, including helping to ensure that decisions made by citizens, business and government leaders, and others are well-reasoned. In addition, a more technologically savvy population would be better prepared to enter today's high-tech workplace and participate in public debates about technology. More widespread literacy in this area also could help alleviate disparities in Internet access, the so-called "digital divide."

What are the adverse consequences of having a technologically illiterate population in a society that depends increasingly on new technologies to generate economic and social change?

If we cannot think critically about the costs and benefits of technological changes and innovations, about the development of new technology, and if we have only limited knowledge about and limited conceptual skills and capabilities in using technology, we are apt to make uninformed and poor choices. As individuals, parents, citizens, and leaders, we will substitute myth and ideology for facts and rational choice. We will relinquish control and power to make important decisions that affect our health and quality of life to others who may not have our best interests in mind. We will reduce participation in the democratic process of decision-making. And, we will lose the ability to understand the forces of technology that either create or restrict our life chances and opportunities.

Foremost, we recommend that learning about technology begin in kindergarten, and the connection between all subjects and technology should be made clear throughout a student's education. What's more, technological content should be infused into curricula, teaching materials, and student assessments.

At the federal level, the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education should provide incentives for publishers to include technological content in new science, history, social studies, and English/language arts textbooks. Likewise, technologically focused agencies such as NASA and the National Institute of Health should support the development of curricula for teachers of all subjects and grades.

The report also calls for educators to be better prepared to teach about technology. Schools need to move beyond the perception of technology as a separate subject to be taught in "shop class." Science teachers in particular need a solid education in technology and engineering, and even history and social studies teachers should be required to know how technology relates to their subjects.

Because inadequate data exist regarding Americans' understanding of technology, we recommend developing one or more assessment tools to evaluate and monitor technological literacy. Plus, studies should be performed to determine how people best learn about the subject.

Government decision-making also would be enhanced if more opportunities were available for the public to become involved in technological discussions sponsored by researchers, advocates, and others. Museums and science and technology centers can play a role in keeping participants in these discussions better informed. And government and industry leaders should receive regular training about key technological issues through intensive courses. Leaders who make or influence policies that affect the entire nation certainly would benefit from a comprehensive understanding of the nature of technology -- learning to recognize, for instance, that all technology involves trade-offs and may result in unintended consequences.

Our report and its recommendations are only a starting point. For things to significantly change, the case for technological literacy must be made consistently over time. Helping the nation to understand that technology is as important as the three R's is a major challenge, but the goal is clearly worthy.

Published: Mar 06, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002


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