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Are Computers a Self-Selecting Skill?

I am seriously dating myself when I note that this past weekend I attended a comedy performance by Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. The former comic duo of The Carol Burnett Show performed with lively impressionist Louise DuArt in routines that were probably slightly dated but energetic and certainly remembered fondly by me and just about everyone else in the audience. If you're into 1970s-era humor, and in particular the unique deadpan style of Tim Conway, you would enjoy the show.

In pursuit of a midlife career change, my wife is undertaking a degree program in a health care field at a nearby state university. Recently she offered to assist a student in the computer lab at the university library learning center, and for her trouble, obtained a job doing just that for student computer users on a more regular basis.

The amusements that come from that labor are in many ways similar to—and even exceed—those chronicled from Computerworld's Shark Tank on a daily basis. My wife now keeps a pair of pliers handy to extract floppy disks from Zip drives and CD slots. Stacks of spare keyboards are available for those who spill coffee or soft drinks, and missing system and student files abound on a daily basis. The level of questions and actions bespeaks more than simply carelessness and vandalism; instead, they are harbingers of a complete cluelessness of how to conduct interactions between person and computer.

This puzzles me. As I understand it, virtually all public schools, especially those in the urbanized east, have at least some measure of computer lab. In some schools, anything less than a one-to-one ratio between student and computer is considered inadequate (the last I heard, the nationwide average was more like three-to-one). And unlike gym class, there is no chance of being able to fake your way through it.

Sure, there are students for whom education of any type doesn't take. And if I want to draw analogies to other types of machinery such as cars or DVD players, there are certainly people who are poor drivers, and those who don't make good use of features of their consumer electronics devices.

But these are university students, whose aspirations—if not intelligence—are high. One would expect at least tolerance of computers, if not adequacy. There are enough counterexamples to demonstrate this theory incorrect.

This makes me wonder if the barrier toward universal computer use is a less permeable one than the barrier to other forms of learning. Let's take a look at the larger statistics. At last measure, almost 80 percent of American adults are "computer literate." This is up from about 46 percent 12 years ago when I was first researching productivity improvements brought about by automation.

Let's put that in perspective. According to the World Almanac, theUnited States claims 100 percent literacy in terms of the ability to read and write. That leaves room for some improvement in computer literacy, and it does appear as though the number is trending toward full literacy.

The question I'm getting to is whether full computer literacy is possible. I would like to think that it is, if only to be egalitarian, but have yet to be convinced of that fact. Actually, it is more than egalitarianism; we need full computer literacy of the adult population to get the computer field and application development growing again.

I wonder if our apparent inability to reach full computer literacy is due to the fact that a computer isn't designed to do a specific task or set of tasks. Other types of electronics are designed to play music or videos, for example, and other machines in our lives are also for clearly defined purposes. Computers, on the other hand, are largely a blank slate. It is only by the addition of software and the occasional hardware peripheral do they do anything specific.

The blank slate can leave perfectly functional adults helpless to determine how to start. And because they might lack a mental model of computer operation and instead learn tasks by rote, does the lack of a defined beginning mean that they simply can't begin? My days as a learning theorist are well behind me, but perhaps some of you might have some thoughts on this question. Can we achieve full computer literacy, or does the very nature of the computer make that impossible?

Posted by Peter Varhol on 10/11/2004

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