The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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What Is Computer Literacy? (definition of computer literacy, computer programming)
by David Moursund

graphic of page

WHAT IS COMPUTER LITERACY? by David Moursund University of Oregon

The Concept of "computer literacy" is receiving much mention today. Over a
period of time, we have developed a

Computer literacy refers to a knowledge of the non-technical and low-technical
aspects of the capabilities and limitations of computers, and of the social,
vocational, and educational implications of computers.

While such a definition can provide a focus for thought and discussion, it still
does not pinpoint what is meant by computer literacy. Among other things it does
not provide a measure of computer literacy nor a method for improving a person's
level of computer literacy.

Most of you are familiar with the question "What is IQ?" and the answer "IQ is
what is measured by an IQ test." It seems to me that we are at a similar stage
of development for CL (computer literacy). Lately, many
course outlines for computer concepts or computer literacy courses at the
college level have been developed at Oregon and elsewhere. These courses are
designed to raise a person's level of CL, and a knowledge of the content of such
courses constitutes a certain level of computer literacy.

The University of Oregon's computer concepts course is a no-prerequisite, low
level, introductory computer science course. Its major goal is to raise a
student's level of computer literacy. Over a period of six years the course has
evolved to the current point, where its content is approximately 1/3 computer
programming and 2/3 non-programming materials. A Venn diagram of the course
content is given below.

[image]Computer capabilities and applications  
computer limitations
Social vocational & educational implications
Computer programming, computer usage, & related hands-on experience

ln the diagram the computer programming, computer usage, and hands-on experience
provides a foundation upon
which the non-programming aspects of the course are built. Each of these four
areas strongly overlaps the other three, and each supports the other three. A
well balanced course needs aspects of each of these four areas.

It seems difficult to develop a course that is coherent and well integrated, and
still preserves a reasonable balance among the four major areas. Probably the
computer programming and related computer usage and hands-on
experience is the major source of trouble. Most computer programming texts are
designed to teach computer programming. That is, their major goal is to move a
student rapidly along the computer programmer path. Most such books contain
little information on the capabilities, limitations, or implications of
computers. The material is not organized in a manner to make it fit in well with
non-programming, computer literacy materials.

To overcome this difficulty in the UO's course, l have written a 150 page book,
BAS/C Programming for Computer Literacy. This book is currently being used in
the course, and seems to be a satisfactory text. It is available for $4.00
(which includes postage and handling) from the Computer Science Department,
University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403.

The non-programming content of a CL course can range over a wide variety of
topics, and will depend to a certain extent upon the interests and knowledge of
the instructor. One cannot tell if a person is computer literate on the basis of
a single true-false or multiple choice question. That is, CL refers to a broad,
integrated knowledge of low level computer science. Such knowledge must include
many facts and how these facts interrelate. But it is difficult to isolate a
single fact that is indispensable, or fundamental.

On the non-programming content of the course, I use an objective-type final
exam. ln fall 1974 this exam consisted of 150 questions. An item analysis was
run on these questions to determine which were the more difficult and which best
differentiated the students who scored high on the test from those who scored
lower on the test. Thirty of the better questions (harder, and good
differentiators) have been selected and appear at the end of this article. A
student making an A or high B on the exam probably answered at least 3/4 of
these questions correctly.

The answers in most cases are not obvious. The 30 question test was administered
to students on the first day
of the winter term 1975 course. The class average was 14.75. Random guessing by
all students would have
produced a class average of about 12.

Taken individually, the merits of any single question are certainly subject to
debate. One can easily argue that the question is not relevant to his concept of
what constitutes computer literacy. Taken as a whole, however, such a group of
questions provides a reasonably broad measure of many parts of the
non-programming content of a computer literacy course. Try the test yourself.
Try it on your students. Individual questions can provide a good basis for class
discussion or individual student reading/study projects.

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