The infusion of technology into an increasingly digital society has created the need for a new form of basic literacy among students, according to leading educators, policy makers, and corporate executives who convened Jan. 24 in Washington, D.C., to discuss the need for 21st-century skills.

Participants agreed that integrating technology into school curricula will play a major role in preparing today’s students for success in tomorrow’s workplace, but they cited two significant barriers to moving from policy to practice: first, stakeholders must arrive at a national consensus about how to teach technology literacy in schools, and second, they must secure adequate funding to provide equal access to technology resources for all students.

“Until we can come together as a community and arrive at a definition [of 21st-century literacy], it is going to be hard to pressure stakeholders into action,” said John Bailey, director of technology for the U.S. Department Education. “The purpose of education is to prepare students for their future, not for our past.”

The 2003 Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Literacy Summit, which took place at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, brought stakeholders from across the nation together in an effort to define what skills students will need to be successful in the 21st century.

“Because technology has become so imbedded in the way the world does business, the difference between a technology company and a non-technology company has virtually disappeared,” said Karen Bruett, summit chair and director of public sector marketing and business development for Dell Computer Corp. “It’s critical to prepare students for this new and rapidly changing economy and for the shift toward a more knowledge-based work force.”

According to a 2002 study called “Digital Transformation: A Framework for ICT Literacy,” ICT literacy is defined as “using digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge society.”

The report—sponsored by Educational Testing Service (ETS) and conducted by the International ICT Literacy Panel, a group of nine representatives from the business and educational fields—outlined five basic skills necessary to achieve ICT literacy:

  • The ability to access information in the digital era;
  • Knowledge of how to manage information effectively;
  • The ability to interpret and integrate the results of research;
  • The ability to evaluate the quality of these results; and
  • The ability to create new information by adapting, applying, designing, inventing, or authoring information.

During the summit, stakeholders from both the private and public sectors identified three basic necessities for an effective ICT literacy campaign in schools: professional development in IT (information technology) for teachers; equal access to technology resources for students; and strategic relationships between educational institutions and corporate partners.

“We need to devote resources that allow students to understand how to better utilize the technology,” said Kurt Landgraf, chief executive officer of ETS. “It’s one thing if you can turn [a computer] on, but can you use it effectively?”

Throughout the discussion, participants communicated a vision of ICT literacy that calls on students not only to use technology in the classroom, but also to understand how technology can influence the way that they live in society.

“Putting computers in the classroom is not the issue, it’s how we use those computers to utilize the information that is out there,” Landgraf said in a mid-morning panel discussion.

Experts agreed that ICT literacy among students is contingent on stakeholders’ ability to identify and close existing gaps in America’s schools—from disparate levels of technology access, to mastery of core subjects and skills.

They also called on leaders from the private sector to define for educators what skills students will need to make it in the rapidly changing landscape of tomorrow’s technology-driven work force.

Teaching students to be ICT-literate is a challenge for educators, many of whom are less familiar with the latest digital innovations than their students. That’s why schools must invest heavily in IT training initiatives that teach educators how to integrate technology literacy components into existing lessons, experts said.

“The biggest challenge right now is how we teach the curriculum,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education. Educators, he said, must understand that teaching technology literacy is a question of integration and should not be viewed as separate from the existing curricula.

One strategy schools are using to integrate technology into the fabric of everyday learning is the implementation of laptop computers.

That approach has worked to great effect for educators in Henrico County, Va. A pioneer of the laptop movement in schools, Henrico over the last two years has supplied wireless laptops to more than 23,000 middle and high school students throughout the district.

According to Superintendent Mark Edwards, it’s an investment that already is paying dividends where ICT literacy is concerned.

Originally, technology education in schools was limited by the amount of class time allotted during a given school day, he said. But thanks to the addition of wireless laptops, students can continue using technology from home, a sporting event, or wherever else life after class leads them.

“The students have an affinity to use these tools,” Edwards said. “You learn by being involved.”

But given that states are mired in the worst economic crisis since World War II, some educators argue that it will be a long time before schools nationwide can commit to the same type of high-dollar technology investments at work in Henrico.

Still, summit panelists said there are smaller, more cost-effective steps that schools can take.

Joe Simpson, deputy for leadership services and professional development at the Council of Chief State School Officers, urged educators to partner with government agencies and institutions of higher learning to create interconnected virtual networks where information, training programs, and educational resources can be shared at little cost to schools.

Corporate partners, too, are providing resources to teach technology skills in schools. Initiatives such as Dell’s TechKnow program—which allows students who complete 40 hours of coursework on how to build computers from the ground up to keep the machines for their homes—provide a unique opportunity for students to learn about technology literacy, while doing their part to bridge the technology access gap in schools.

See these related links:

ICT Literacy Summit
http://www.ictliteracy.info

Dell Computer Corp.
http://www.dell.com

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Educational Testing Service
http://www.ets.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org