Is Technological Proficiency a Skill, or Something Bigger?

This summer I’ve been involved in our school’s efforts to revise our general education requirements. In the course of our discussions we raised the question of what constitutes technological proficiency appropriate to a liberal education in the early 21st century. The discussion seemed to focus on the idea of a list of skills (more on this later).

But the question that occurs to me is this: Is technological proficiency merely a set of skills or something bigger, a mode of creativity or a medium of thought or analysis? If you think this is a stretch, replace the term ‘technological proficiency’ with the term ‘writing’. We now think of writing as not merely a tool for presenting one’s thinking, but also and perhaps even more importantly as a tool for generating that thinking. Writing is not just product, but process as well.

Some years ago UMW developed a standard for technological proficiency based on a list of a half dozen specific skills: basic facility with email, word processing software, a spreadsheet, etc. This standard became problematic because the specific items on the list seemed to become quickly obsolete in the sense that increasingly all or virtually all incoming students had these skills already. These skills seem problematic to me for another reason. The items were chosen in part, I suspect, because they were easily measurable, like touch-typing as a skill or writing in complete, grammatically correct sentences. This is a very low, almost trivial standard, which then serves to marginalize technological proficiency as a serious goal of higher education.

The Gen Ed Task Group this summer ended up recommending a two-tiered approach: creating a Technology Proficiency center to help students who lack the basic skills described above, and then mandating that departments teach whatever specialized tools are relevant in their disciplines. By going beyond the basics this approach is a step in the right direction, but I think it begs the question rather than answering it.

Instead I wonder if, as I suggested above, technological proficiency should be viewed as a tool of analysis or thought as well as a means of expression, just like writing. How do we insure students become proficient in writing, from the perspective of our general education curriculum? By requiring them to take four courses, each of which includes some formal writing instruction as well as X pages of written work. But writing proficiency is, of course, bigger than that. We certainly teach that larger dimension in some courses, but we don’t ‘count it’ as part of general education because it’s difficult to define, much less measure.

There are other analogs besides writing, such as language proficiency, quantitative literacy and critical thinking. True literacy in a foreign language means more than the ability to read and write a foreign language. It means the ability to think and create in it as well. Similarly, quantitative literacy means the ability to work with quantitative or abstract tools to solve problems, not merely given math problems, but unstructured real world problems. We also claim to teach critical thinking but we don’t have a curriculum requirement in it per se.

If I am correct in this argument, then technology proficiency is a true across-the-curriculum competency like writing, speaking and quantitative reasoning. Why should we treat it as a step-child?

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3 Responses to Is Technological Proficiency a Skill, or Something Bigger?

  1. Jeff says:

    “Why should we treat it as a step-child?” — We shouldn’t, but there was immense resistance from some people when this year’s TLTR Ex-Com discussed some of the things you’re proposing here. [I wrote about this some last fall (http://tinyurl.com/2fp5f8http://tinyurl.com/2fp5f8 and http://tinyurl.com/2g84y7).] The sense I got was that many faculty members didn’t feel confident in teaching technology proficiency because they were not technological proficient themselves. It seems to me that that’s where the analogy to writing and speaking intensive falters. Most professors feel that they can teach a class involving writing or speaking (at least in their discipline). [Here I think the resistance from some people to the _need_ for foreign language literacy or quantitative literacy makes them more apt comparisons.]

    I’m glad to hear that at least this much was moving forward. I agree that it’s not enough, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. Get a good technology center in place and you begin to lay the groundwork for training faculty as well as students in tech proficiency…. Faculty Academy and summer workshops, student tutors, key faculty support. We’ll get there.

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