Computer Literacy

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Computer literacy can be defined from two vantage points, each of which is informed by a dynamic mixture of skills that are needed to access and manipulate digitally encoded information. For an individual, it simply means being able to use the computer as a means to an end. A person who uses a vehicle to get from point a to point b must know how to drive, have a basic understanding of the need for automobile maintenance (such as having the oil changed), and demonstrate knowledge of the rules of the road. That person does not need any in-depth knowledge of how a car functions. In a similar fashion, attaining competence in using computers to perform personal or vocational tasks is the most rudimentary form of computer literacy. It is not essential that computer users know how the machine does what it does, although such knowledge might provide motivation for more sophisticated or increasingly efficient use or serve as a foundation for understanding how computers function in the social order. Hence, computer literacy can also be defined as one element of information literacy and as a collective concept that includes a grasp of the economic, social, and political consequences of widespread computer use.

Computers receive information as input by human beings. They then store, process, retrieve, and provide results in the form of displayed or printed output. All computer operations transpire in accordance with instructions that are written by human beings. At the most basic level, computer literacy means having the aptitude to manipulate these sets of instructions—rendered as programs or applications—to tell computers to process digital data in ways that serve human ends. Mastery of a word-processing program affords one the ability to create, edit, format, display, or print a document in record time. Computer literacy enables a person to exploit the computer's capacity for calculation and representation through use of spreadsheet and database applications. Computer literacy is critical for easy and immediate sorting, management, and association of a mixture of information that can be used for financial or inventory purposes. In their role as communication tools, computers serve to transfer information through programs that shift information from computer to computer, allowing it to be displayed as text or in graphic form. The concept can also include knowing how to connect to storehouses of information to satisfy curiosity or be entertained.

A person who is computer literate should be able to use computers to perform a few tasks such as writing letters or reports, calculating and comparing numbers or objects, or communicating via connections that support e-mail or (perhaps) a web-page, as personal, business, or educational circumstances require. A modest definition of individual computer literacy turns, therefore, on knowing how to use computers to personal advantage. It means using computers to do what they do best—storing, accessing, and repetitively and rapidly processing massive quantities of data for human interpretation, which adds value that turns data into information. The definition might include knowing how to connect to storehouses of information to satisfy curiosity or be entertained.

Computer literacy is not corroborated through a tidy checklist that enumerates how many and which functions an individual can complete using the tool. It occurs in the intersection of knowing how to do or find what one needs or wants in a particular place, at a particular time, for particular reasons. Similar to the driver's understanding of the need for basic car maintenance, a rudimentary definition of computer literacy would also include awareness of the basic elements of, and forces associated with, this machine. The coincidence of computer use and connectivity have brought about a changed atmosphere wherein users, regardless of their level of know-how, are aware that terms such as "hardware," "byte," "monitor," "modem," "bandwidth," "virus," and "protocol" have distinct meanings. Even if a user does not fully understand all of the vocabulary that comes with computer use, these words permeate public consciousness and emphasize a presumed need for computer literacy. Fundamental understanding of computer capabilities and configuration in networks suggests an expanded definition of computer literacy that recognizes the effect that computers have had on society. The notion of computer literacy thus grows to include access to means of improving one's computer skills through education or additional experience.

Within the United States, widespread computer use and networked exchange of information prompted the realization that most citizens should know how to work with applications that are used for writing, calculating, displaying, finding, and communicating information in digital form. A brief overview of the way in which computers became so pervasive in this, the information age, sets the stage for understanding collective computer literacy. By the mid-1970s, microcomputers were powerful enough and low enough in cost to be introduced into a variety of work settings. By the early 1980s, IBM had produced a personal computer that found its way into industry, schools, and homes. Other manufacturers modeled IBM, and micro (personal) computer use grew as prices decreased within an ever-expanding market. Computers became smaller and more powerful, replacing typewriters, cash registers, and (sometimes) human beings. Apple's Macintosh entered the market in 1984 with an easier-touse, graphically based operating system that freed users from the need to input complex lines of instructions in order to tell the computer what to do. As a result, computer use continued to soar.

By the 1990s, the full force of networking— computers linked to one another so users could easily send and receive messages—could be felt throughout the world. In the United States, faster and cheaper networked computing moved out from under the umbrella of government and scholarship. More computers permeated the workplace, and more people had computers at home. Computers were linked in local-area networks in offices and factories and by wires and telephone lines from residence to residence. Worldwide connections ultimately flowed throughout the world to form the Internet—one massive network of computers that permits global exchange of information. With the conception of hypertext (providing fast links from one information source to another), graphical World Wide Web browsing capability (popularized in 1994 with the transcendence of Netscape), and the web's delivery of hypermedia, computer use and connectivity fused and heralded the need for computer literacy as a new competency to be addressed by educational and employment policies. These circumstances combined to spawn growing concern about how new generations could become conversant with the new information technology.

Concern for collective computer literacy is evident in America in the form of a succession of federal statutory and executive initiatives. As early as 1983, the need to ensure competence in computer use was set forth in A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. This was an extended report on the quality of education, and it was prepared by the National Commission on Excellence in Education for the U.S. Department of Education. The report recognized the growth of technologically driven industry and the need to emphasize technological literacy among the mix of subjects to be taught in school. Among its recommendations for basic education, the report included the teaching of high school "computer science" so that students could (1) understand the computer as an information, computation, and communication device, (2) be able to use computers to study other fundamental subjects, (3) be able to achieve personal and work-related objectives, and (4) understand the effect of computers and attendant technologies on society.

The High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 declared that "advances in computer science and technology are vital to the Nation's prosperity, national and economic security, industrial production, engineering, and scientific advancement" and established the federally funded National Research and Education Network (NREN). Through NREN, researchers, educators, and students were afforded support for computer and scientific information resources and education. Although the act was not meant to advance computer use by the general public, it explicitly linked computer proficiency to economic progress and provided for coordination of federal agency activities and funding to support NREN. By 1993, the Clinton administration's National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action called for the establishment of "a seamless web of communications networks, computers, databases, and consumer electronics." This effort resulted in the alignment of government, industry, and general public interest in developing a National Information Infrastructure (NII), which came to be known as the "information highway" in popular culture.

The NII process activated a convergence of interests that can be interpreted as defining computer literacy characterized by both ability and access. Government, industry, and public-interest groups all became involved in an effort to create an enlarged concept of collective computer literacy at the end of the twentieth century. In 1995, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued the results of the first in a series of investigations into the phenomenon of limited Internet and computer access among certain segments of the population. This issue has come to be called the "digital divide." The Telecommunications Act of 1996 produced the first major overhaul of telecommunications law since 1934 and authorized Federal Communications Commission oversight of a program whereby service providers would give reduced rates (or e-rates) for Internet service to schools, libraries, and health-care providers. Various federal agencies, including the NTIA and its Technology Opportunities Program (TOP, formerly TIIAP), initiated programs to support both computer connectivity and distribution of equipment and training. Interest groups and nonprofit organizations, such as Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the Benton Foundation, became active in the study and advocacy of ways and means of equitable and improved access to information technology.

In 1998, the Next Generation Internet Research Act amended the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 and authorized federal interagency cooperation and funding for development and implementation of new and progressive networking capabilities. While this effort is again concentrated on a certain strata of scholarly and government users, the potential spin-off effects of all such legislation prompt continued discussion of what computer literacy means as a requirement for economic progress and participation. Computer literacy is an evolving concept that has rippled throughout society, reshaping thoughts on education, employment, intellectual freedom, privacy, and equality.

See also:Communications Act of 1934; Community Networks; Computer Software; Computer Software, Educational; Computing; Federal Communications Commission; Internet and the World Wide Web; Literacy; Technology, Adoption and Diffusion of; Telecommunications Act of 1996.


Beekman, George. (1999). Computer Confluence: Exploring Tomorrow's Technology. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Benton Foundation. (1998). Losing Ground Bit by Bit: Low-Income Communities in the Information Age. Washington, DC: Benton Foundation.

Coyle, Karen. (1997). Coyle's Information Highway Handbook: A Practical File on the New Information Order. Chicago: American Library Association.

National Commission on Excellence in Education.(1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration. (1999). Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.

Tonyia J. Tidline

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Computer Literacy

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