It is very alarming to hear that one in five Americans is illiterate. It is even more alarming when I hear that statistic mostly in commercials where someone is trying to sell something.

Obviously, anything that will improve reading is a good thing, but I think we all have an obligation to ensure that everyone can read and write. I can’t remember the exact figure, but one of TV personality Bill O’Reilly’s favorite facts is that 70 percent of poor fourth-graders are unable to read. Seventy percent? I hope I don’t have to say that’s unacceptable.

If 70 percent of poor fourth graders cannot read, how many do you think can’t use a computer? You certainly can’t use a computer if you can’t read, and forget ever using the internet.

If you agree with me that the prevalence of illiteracy in this country is alarming, then, like me, you probably feel the number of people (particularly kids) who cannot use a computer is even more so. Indeed, I think technological illiteracy is an epidemic, and if we do not do something about it very quickly, then the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is going to widen even further.

Technology already affects us nearly every minute of the day, and as we progress as a society, the necessity for well-educated, well-trained people who are technologically literate will only grow. As more manual tasks can be done by automated machines, we’ll need more people who can control them, repair them, and build them.

Janitors will have more advance cleaning systems to use and supply management will be more automated, so a higher level of education and training will be necessary even for these employees. As businesses upgrade their systems, workers will have to learn to use them, even minimum-wage earners at fast-food restaurants. I could probably list hundreds of jobs that one day will require more technological skills than are necessary today.

Even jobs that don’t require reading and writing skills today will (or do) require some technical acumen.

Companies are more aware of this growing problem because they can see it affecting their bottom line, and many are taking great steps to help close the technological divide. However, I don’t think these corporate initiatives will be enough.

Our government has to get more involved, and the switch in the Senate does look somewhat promising (see our Page One story). But the government itself has a long way to go to integrate technology, centralize systems, and improve productivity.

Despite all of the positive talk and encouraging posturing, far more needs to be done. Personally, I think that in order for true progress to be made, we need a leader to bring technological illiteracy to the forefront of our nation’s consciousness. We need someone to unite local, state, and federal governments with businesses, communities, and schools to ensure that our children get the knowledge and training they need to survive in the new digital world.

But until that person comes along, it will be up to each and every one of us, together and individually, to stress the importance of learning to use technology. I will be doing this in my column, on the eSchool News web site, and every other place that will let me. What will you do?

Links:

Beyond Edutainment and Technotainment
http://www.eschoolnews.com/showstory.cfm? ArticleID=169

New ITEA Tech-ed Standards Target Tech Illiteracy
http://www.eschoolnews.com/showstory.cfm? ArticleID=183