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What Should One Know to be Truly Computer Literate? 629

rbannon asks: "Computer literacy is becoming an increasingly used term in education, and more and more schools are being asked to set computer literacy goals for their students. Unfortunately for too many, it means being able to use Microsoft products, and that's all. However, I see it much differently, and I cannot help but think that computer literacy is all about using computers to be able to communicate more effectively. With that in mind does anyone have any recommendations for computer literacy goals, and how to measure them?"
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What Should One Know to be Truly Computer Literate?

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  • by datafr0g ( 831498 ) * <(datafrog) (at) (> on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @09:56PM (#15391087) Homepage
    You can't measure computer literacy without a context because "computer" is such a vague term these days and "computers" are used by many people for many different things.

    FOr the average office worker it's knowing how to use MS Office. For the Hardware Engineer it means something completely different and for the software developer it's different again.

    You can only be "truly computer literate" in the context of a particular field.

    It's like asking for a "skilled driver" - skilled to what level? Skilled enough to navigate through suburban traffic or to compete in a Gran Prix?
    • context: education (Score:4, Interesting)

      by cbr2702 ( 750255 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:27PM (#15391205) Homepage
      Someone says "our schools should make sure all their graduates are computer literate". People agree. What does this sort of literacy entail?
      • What does this sort of literacy entail?

        I guess it means we need [Computer] Shop Class? Or do we need [Computer] Driver's Ed? Or we could just stick with the wonderful car analogy (don't you just loooooove car analogies?) and have both!

        Surprisingly, that may actually make sense.
        • by klik ( 93694 )

          European Computer Driving License. ECDL. I know quite a number of students at the 17-18 age group have gone for these in the UK, and a number of companies are supporting staff getting them - it at least signifies that someone has proved themselves capable of understanding the use of a computer to a basic extent.

      • by mysticgoat ( 582871 ) * on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @02:40AM (#15392147) Homepage Journal

        I work for the department of a community college that teaches computer skills to adults who are seeking entry level jobs. Our clientelle are generally funded by one of half a dozen different State grants. We've got a proven track record of taking persons off State assistance programs and turning them into taxpayers.

        In this milieu, I think "computer literacy" can be regarded as a continuum with definite upper and lower boundaries:

        • The low boundary is being able to perform common office tasks like email, word processing, and internet searches, and being able to understand and follow general instructions with regard to executing these tasks, and being able to describe specific tasks in these categories in an understandable way. A person who can do these things is going to be an asset to any company who hires them and we teach to this level of performance.
        • The lower middle part concerns being able to do all of the common office tasks with one brand of software, and being able to confidently learn how to do these tasks on unfamiliar software, and demonstrating a history of on-going acquisition of computer skills. I try to influence our courses so they foster the attitudes, curiosity, and ambition that would cause our students to seek this level of proficiency after they are employed.
        • The upper middle part concerns being able to contribute meaningfully to risk/benefit discussions about changing office software, policies, or procedures. This kind of work is to common office work as writing novels or poetry is to writing one's diary: it involves much more than technical proficiency with the software tools; it requires a degree of insight into the social and political aspects of software usage.
        • And the high boundary of computer literacy in this milieu is being able to develop and implement office policies and procedures that effectively exploit available software and computer resources. Certainly there are many technical skills like programming or database construction that might feed into this, but those skills are also clearly separate from shaping software tasks and job descriptions in useful ways. (This may sound like systems analyst work-- but in practice it is more like a merger of choreography and marriage counseling).

        Note that it is entirely possible for someone with extensive programming or sysadmin skills to score pretty low on this continuum. I have met such people. It almost seems as though some people can learn to shoe a horse without ever learning the basics about how to ride one.

        • Troll? Why?

          What you claim to be "lower middle" is what I think kids should end up with by the end of high school, at the very least.
        • The low boundary is being able to perform common office tasks like email, word processing, and internet searches, and being able to understand and follow general instructions with regard to executing these tasks, and being able to describe specific tasks in these categories in an understandable way. A person who can do these things is going to be an asset to any company who hires them and we teach to this level of performance.

          My son at age 2 was able to type in his name and a short password, navigate to the

          • by jp10558 ( 748604 )
            I disagree - the high middle to high spectrum listed is really getting into analysis/integration and policy skills - not something directly needed to use a computer effectively. It's like expecting car users to be able to make a business case for a certain model of car to assisting with a new car model design. I dare say most people manage to buy and operate cars for their entire life without even being able to pick out a car on more than the look of the car and possibly claimed gas milage.

            High School level
      • by cp.tar ( 871488 ) <> on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @03:07AM (#15392233) Journal

        One of my... well, in the USA I guess would be called majors in college... is Information Science, which we students describe as a kind of Computer Science Lite. Nothing like the hard work people in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science put in, anyway. However, people here are being taught about several kinds of computer literacy:

        • Using Windows XP and MS Office, i.e. Word, Excel, PowerPoint. And Internet Explorer, gods help us, although our college oficially endorses Firefox.
        • Basic programming. In Pascal.
        • Basic HTML. Only HTML. Done in Notepad. including the <FONT> tag and all its options.
          At least there's Notepad++ for us who know that it's there.
        • Basic active webpage design. In ASP.NET. In that crappy MS Visual Web Developer Thingy 2005, using VB.NET, if I understood correctly. Anyway, crappy program, crappy language, crappily taught.
        • Some advanced text processing, which is, as far as I can tell, some advanced functions of MS Word (I'm a freshman, and this is a sophomore course, so I only know what they tell me).
        • Some database work in junior and senior years.
        • I haven't heard mention of any kind of specialised library, museum or any related software, although there should be.

        Anyway, that's why we're starting a club which may well, depending on the interest, develop into an informal parallel study. There are enough of us who know enough about many different areas and who are willing to learn more. So we plan to:

        • give courses on several programming languages:
          • Scheme or Lisp and Prolog (very handy for NLP)
          • PHP and Python
          • supplemental courses in Pascal and Basic.
        • organise a Build Your Own Computer workshop, for we find the fact that some of our fellow students have to pay someone to upgrade their RAM scandalous.
        • teach proper (LaTeX) typesetting (that's if I find enough time to learn it myself - any good on-line manuals you can reccomend?)
        • get people to know different operating systems - at least Windows and Linux, Mac OS X if we can get our hands on it, Solaris if we have time; make them aware of multiplatform software and open formats.
        • teach proper webpage design - (X)HTML + CSS and then move up.

        We're sure we'll get more ideas in time... but I meant this to show at least some of the differences in our views on computer literacy as compared to most of our teachers'. On the other hand, we can expect some of the other kind of teachers to join our courses, so not everything is lost in advance.

      • by mikael ( 484 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @08:05AM (#15392999)
        The basic computer skills include:

        Basic computer hardware knowledge

        Knowing how to fix basic problems with a computer. In some computer labs, the students would "reserve" desktop systems for themselves by turning the brightness all the way down or by loosening the video cable. Other students would just assume the machine was broken and send a fault notice to the helpdesk.

        Basic filesystem knowledge - how to create/delete directories, move and copy files. Being able to use CD-ROM/DVD burners, USB keys

        Basic keyboarding skills - being able to write punctuated text in a notepad style
        text editor.

        Basic computer communication skills - knowing how to receive, send, forward and edit E-mail. Understanding of mailing list etiquette. For large corporations, people would blindly use reply-to-all when they have received an E-mail from a mailing list that they were added to by default and tried to unsubscribe.

        Basic workdprocessing/spreadsheet skills - being able to load, edit, print and save files, and export these in a variety of file formats.

        Basic webpage authoring - how to create webpages with images, hyperlinks and text.

      • by guitaristx ( 791223 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @09:57AM (#15393649) Journal
        • Here's a start.
        • Basic vocabulary
          • Operating system
          • Hard drive
          • Memory [RAM] (and its difference between the hard drive)
          • CPU
          • Monitor
          • Keyboard
          • Network interface
          • Removable storage
          • CD-ROM device (it's not a cupholder!)
        • Understanding what the filesystem is, and how it works:
          • Files are not stored in applications, they are stored in files ("I forgot where on the filesystem I saved my file," instead of "I saved a file in Word, and now it's not in Word anymore.")
          • Understanding copying, moving, and deleting files.
          • Understanding that opening an existing file, changing it, and using "Save As..." doesn't modify the original file.
        • Computers are not magic:
          • Configuration can't always be automatic; sometimes you have to configure things yourself.
          • If your computer behaves differently than before, it probably means that something has changed.
          • Your computer is doing more than what the visible windows show (e.g. background processes).
        • Error messages and confirmation dialogs have important text in them, and shouldn't always be dismissed:
          • If a website unexpectedly asks you to install a program, don't install it!
          • Sometimes, error messages give you the information you need to fix a problem (e.g. insert a floppy disk).
        • You are capable of solving many of your own problems:
          • Google is your friend.
          • The man pages (or help files) are your friend.
          • The program's output (dialog boxes, status bar, e.g.) is your friend.
    • Kinda have to disagree, computer literacy is the same as regular literacy. The more literate you are the easier it is to switch context and still gain useful knowledge.

      The average office worker is not as computer literate as a software developer because generally, all they can do, is use their word processor, email and spreadsheets. While a software developer would be able use an IDE,compilers, debuggers and also be able to use a word processor to write a report and figure out their budgets on a spreads

      • by datafr0g ( 831498 ) * <(datafrog) (at) (> on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @12:05AM (#15391601) Homepage
        The average office worker is not as computer literate as a software developer because generally, all they can do, is use their word processor, email and spreadsheets. While a software developer would be able use an IDE,compilers, debuggers and also be able to use a word processor to write a report and figure out their budgets on a spreadsheet.

        Agreed, but I was coming from the point of view that the term "computer literate" is used so broadly that it requires a context to make any sense of what it actually refers to. There is no one single objective definition of computer literacy that everyone will agree on.

        For example:
        Computer literate to me means that one has knowledge of computer system architecture at the hardware level (where the actual "computer" computes) and that they can easily adapt their knowledge from one system to another.

        But that's not the same as when a job vacancy is posted for a Receptionist to be "computer literate" yet because of the context of the job description, we all know that it really means that they're after a person who can use MS Office (or equivilant).
    • by WhyCause ( 179039 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @11:55PM (#15391558)
      You can define computer literacy without context. In fact, I have taught literacy as such. My definition of literate would be:

      1. Don't be afraid. If you don't know how to do something, poke around. You probably won't break anything.
      2. Learn the rules. Save and Open are almost always under the File menu. If you want to change the font style, look under Format. Most common software sticks to an ad hoc Interface Guideline, and if you see the patterns, you can get almost anything done.
      3. Know your history. In the beginning, there was the commandline. It worked differently than the windowing system you use now. Try typing 'help' or '?'. If you got there by accident, try typing 'exit' or 'quit'. Older windowing systems had the close button and/or menu in a different place. Look around the window and screen, then see Rule 1.
      4. Figure out how to save. Data are no good if you can't look at them again. This should be the first progam specific thing you learn how to do.
      5. Don't hesitate to ask for help. Find the help menu, read a manual, or ask someone for a pointer (not a held hand for the rest of your life).

      Certainly, there are quirky programs and systems that require more investigation than the others (blender, I'm looking at you), but if you really and truly grok these points, you are computer-literate.

      Your car analogy works against you here. When I climb into the van we have at work, I drive more slowly and cautiously because it doesn't work quite like I'm used to. The fact that I know how to look for the controls to start, steer, and stop means I am 'driving-literate' even if I have to hunt for the seat-adjustment lever every time I drive that monster. Just because I know nothing about lisp, and am thus unable to use emacs to it's full potential, does not mean I am computer illiterate; it means I am unfamiliar with this particular windshield-wiper control. I'll figure out how to use emacs eventually though, because I am literate enough to do so.
      • by cgenman ( 325138 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @12:49AM (#15391757) Homepage
        I'd add in a few basic skills to consider someone computer literate.

        Program agnosticism: They should know roughly how chat programs work. This doesn't mean AIM, this means that they know enough that they can walk up to any chat system and make it do useful things. Same thing for e-mail clients. Same thing for Browsers. You should be able to give them a laptop loaded up with Windows or Knoppix or SkyOS, and they should be able to quickly muddle their way over to

        Hardware knowledge: This is your power supply. When it breaks, things tend to smoke. This is a hard drive. When it breaks, it makes a "click click click Screeeeech!" noise. This is your graphics card. Also known as the hole you'll be pouring your money into for the rest of your life. I'm not saying everyone should have memorised the jumper settings on their motherboard. But they shouldn't be afraid to open the thing up and look or make changes.

        Some Scripting: I don't care what scripting language. I don't care if you're talking Perl, Word macros, applescript, AutoHotKey, a command line script, an e-mail filter, or Java. If they can write things in a scripting language, even a completely visual handholding one, they're good. You don't need to fully program or compile. You don't even need to be that great at it. You just need to be able to think about the problem in terms of "how do I tell this computer how to do something."

        • by Kluenitou ( 961769 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @07:23AM (#15392865) Homepage
          From Merriam Webster's Dictionary:
          literate - 1 a : EDUCATED, CULTURED b : able to read and write 2 a : versed in literature or creative writing : LITERARY b : LUCID, POLISHED c : having knowledge or competence

          While I agree the skills you list are really good ones to have and that everyone should possess them, I think it is far beyond what should be required of literacy. As defined, literacy is simply the ability to read and write. This implies at the most basic level. It doesn't include understanding metaphors and hyperboles, it doesn't include many things that we seem to think the average person in this world should understand in order to be able to survive, it is the bare minimum they need to know to get by. If you were to come upon someone who was considered only literate in the English language, they would probably be able to read and write at the level of a fifth grader. Clearly not the most ideal for the world, but they would likely be able to read a shopping list or basic forms required for living. Likewise, computer literacy should simply include the basics. While I applaud your desire for everyone to know scripting, the fact of the matter is that very few computer users percentage wise know/understand how to do it and I think it is above and beyond what should be required to consider someone computer literate. My mother for example. She is able to send/receive email, type at a reasonable pace, browse the web and purchase things online, etc. and I would consider her computer literate--she is able to get by in her daily routine with the use of the computer and not call me every 2 seconds confused about everything. She could never in a million years start to get her head around writing a script in Perl. For God's sake it's kind of a bitch for me to get something like REGEXs right the first time and I'm a pretty seasoned programmer. I can't even imagine trying to explain those bad boys to my Mom or any "average" computer user for that matter.

          I think computer literacy is much simpler and basic than you are making it out to be.
          • I dunno. I like to highlight definition 2:

            From Merriam Webster's Dictionary:

                    literate - 1 a : EDUCATED, CULTURED b : able to read and write 2 a : versed in literature or creative writing : LITERARY b : LUCID, POLISHED c : having knowledge or competence

            See, that's the definition of literacy that the parent is using. You're just setting the bar lower. ;)
    • by mrchaotica ( 681592 ) * on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @11:57PM (#15391568)
      I don't know about that; I think there's a certain level of knowledge -- more than just knowing how to use MS Office -- that's required before you can call yourself "computer literate" in any field. To me, "computer literate" means that you not only know how to use the system, but you also know how to support yourself and fix problems. It doesn't necessarily mean being an expert, but it does require knowing the basic theory of how stuff is put together, as well as having the problem-solving skills to figure out the solution (through research) when you don't know it already.

      Interesting anecdote: on my first day in my Statics class at Tech (a Civil Engineering class), the professor asked everyone if they were computer literate or not. Now, keep in mind that everyone including engineering students is required to own their own computer and take an introductory computing class (nowadays based on Matlab (for engineers), but a few years ago when I was a freshman it was Scheme).

      I was the only person that raised his hand. When the professor asked why, I answered "because I know how to program the computer, and how it works internally." (It was apparently a good answer, because he found me a programming job for the summer, but I digress...) : )

      Anyway, the point is, I could call myself "computer literate" while all the other engineering students couldn't because I was the only one who was also a CS major. In my opinion, it's having those kinds of skills -- or at least the ability to think in a CS sort of way -- that makes a person computer literate, even if they're an engineer (or manager, or whatever).
      • by Paco103 ( 758133 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @01:32AM (#15391913)
        A bit overkill for most people, don't you think? Should people not be considered capable of driving a car if they can't build one from the ground up? Ninety percent of the world wouldn't be able to drive, and a cab would cost so much we'd all still be riding horses. This is basically the same thing.

        My mom works on a computer all day. She can figure out how to use the new programs when the company switches. She knows how to protect herself from viruses, not to open random suspicious attachments, and can fix most simple issues (such as fixing formatting issues in her word programs). She can find her way around well enough to use when she learned on MSOffice. She could not program a "Hello World" application in anything though. She could probably make it show up on a web page (she used to code her website by hand after I tought her the basics, but that was years ago).

        I, as well as most IT people I have worked with, would consider her computer literate. She knows enough to know WHAT questions to ask when she calls for help, and how to do what she is told by the IT guys when they respond without having to say "third button from the right, down 2". I can tell her to look for something along the lines of ___________. Such as, if I tell her to look for an address book, she won't completely overlook it because it's called contact list in her program. At most she'd ask "might this be it?"

        People do not need to know how to program, or all the inner workings to be literate. You can get a drivers license without being a mechanic. A drivers license states (theoretically anyway) that you are car/traffic rule literate enough to operate a car safely and effectively. Although this isn't on the test, chances are you know to look for a gas station when the guage points to E, and how to figure out where to put gas in any car you drive, even if the door is not in the same place it is on your car.

        I have to go along with this post for my opinion. =15391558 []
  • The following.... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ellem ( 147712 ) *
    File Edit Blah Blah Blah Help

    CTRL X
    CTRL C
    CTRL V

    CTRL S

    ALT F4 (for Windows)

    Lef & Right click

    Basic computer safety... stop clicking on everything, don't open attachments from people you don't know... no one in Nigera is sending you any money

    The difference between Reboot and Logoff

    Save often

    Backup often

    Then general idea of networking... not arcane TCP/IP, DHCP, DNS stuff... just the idea that other computers can be accessed by your computer and vice versa

    TAB vs SPACE
    • by An Onerous Coward ( 222037 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:31PM (#15391232) Homepage
      I started on your tutorial, but two steps in Emacs closed on me.
    • Re:The following.... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by MBCook ( 132727 ) <> on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:45PM (#15391290) Homepage
      An excellent list. I can only add a few small things to it.

      First is the Ctrl-X/V/C. Make sure they understand copy/paste/cut. It is terribly useful and something that a surprisingly small number of computer users seem to know how to use.

      READ DIALOG BOXES. This goes with the "no one from Nigeria" stuff. I can't tell you how many people I've helped with computers or errors or questions where the process of helping them consisted of "Did you read the dialog box?" "What does the dialog box say?" "So what should you do?" and that helped them.

      Last, and most important UNDERSTAND THE FILESYSTEM. I've gotten my parents quite good at day-to-day use of the computer. It has taken YEARS. That said, I wouldn't consider them computer literate. This is one of the reasons.

      So you want to find a file my parents saved. Where is it? That's right... My Documents. Not a sub-folder, just My Documents. That's where there are a few thousand files. Why? Because that is the default save location. Unless it's not. Some programs (AOL, etc) like to save somewhere else. So files saved from those programs are in those folders. Good luck finding anything, especially with the cruddy Windows search function. Spotlight would work well, but then again I gave them Google Desktop and they don't use it (it's easier to just scroll through the list of 3,000 files).

      Introducing them to a few basic file types (TXT, JPG, HTML, DOC, XLS, ZIP, etc.) would also be a good step. So would the idea that you can delete a zip file after you unzip it. A decent chunk of the stuff in my parents My Documents folder? Zip files and their contents that Windows or AOL unzipped for them. But since that process is hidden, they don't know to delete the ZIP files or what they are.

      In fact, they don't understand files and e-mail either. When you get an attachment in e-mail (say a picture) and you choose to view it and it gets saved to the hard drive... what do you do the next time you want to view that picture? That's right, you go to the e-mail and RE-SAVE the file with the default filename (helpfully with a "(1)" or some such at the end to ensure you have tons of spare copies) and let the right program open up automatically again. E-mail is a foreign land from the file system for all they know. AOL and it's tendencies to keep it's own weird folders and such have NOT helped at all in this regard.

      In fact, warn them against AOL in the first place. I can not tell you how many things I've given up teaching because of AOL.

      I'll post more if I can think of it. But basic use of the filesystem (especially creating folder and how you can nest folders and use that for organization) is critical.

      • by MBCook ( 132727 ) <> on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @11:05PM (#15391370) Homepage
        I just thought of another one. Make sure to teach them about URLs when you do the web. Someone else touched on teaching them this, but let me give some specific things.

        How do you go to a website? Do you know what the #1 search on Yahoo is? It's "Google". My parent's computers are set up with Google as the home page. Do you know how they get just about anywhere? Searching google. Want to go to ""? Well you type "" in the Google search field and hit Search then click on the right one that comes up. They also use bookmarks. That one took a LONG TIME to break. I can not tell you how many people I've seen with that one.

        Also, what is a home page in your web browser? That's the company that sells you your internet service! We subscribe to Google. We never get a bill from them. We do get bills from Comcast for Internet. But that little logical inconsistency doesn't seem to occur to them. I think I've got this one through to my parents too, but I'm not sure. I know it is (at least in part) related to AOL. The fact that you can change this to whatever you want is important and should be mentioned.

        The last one for now is a personal pet-peeve of mine. I run into this in the otherwise very smart and computer savvy people in my high level CS classes.

        This - / - is a FOREWORD-slash

        This - \ - is a BACK-slash

        One leans forward, the other leans backward. The terms are NOT INTERCHANGEABLE. The mean DIFFERENT things.

        Of course this wouldn't be a problem is MS stuck with / as a path separator for DOS just like UNIX used, but that's another argument.

        • This - / - is a FOREWORD-slash

          This - \ - is a BACK-slash

          Having such long names for such common things (in computing) is madness.

          What's wrong with slash and slosh respectively. That's what I've called them for as long as I remember, though I admit back when I was teaching C++ the confused looks before I explained my jargon on the faces of the second year students indicates it's far from universal... Do you say "exclamation mark" instead of "bang" too?

          • Well, I tend to shorten them to "slash" and "backslash".

            As for the exclamation point, that's what I tend to call it. I would have to think for a while if you called it a "bang" to me. But if I'm describing a statement to someone that needs it in programming (such a "if (!condition || func(x))" then I just say "not". The person knows what I'm talking about.

        • Re:The following.... (Score:3, Informative)

          by Osty ( 16825 )

          They also use bookmarks. That one took a LONG TIME to break. I can not tell you how many people I've seen with that one.

          What's wrong with using bookmarks? Perhaps you should say overuse of bookmarks without any sort of organization is bad, but bookmarks by themselves are not. I'd say the real problem here is the browser (any browser). When I'm reading a book, a bookmark is temporary to keep my place when I come back to the book. Once I've come back, the bookmark is gone. Perhaps browsers need a sin

      • by weierstrass ( 669421 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @12:06AM (#15391610) Homepage Journal
        >Last, and most important UNDERSTAND THE FILESYSTEM. I've gotten my parents quite good at day-to-day use of the computer. It has taken YEARS.

        The fact that noones parents understand the filesystem is an indicator of exactly one thing
        Yes, the whole idea of 'files' is only a metaphor. Even in Unix. A very useful metaphor, sure. But it's not necessary or helpful anymore for the average user.

        It's great that files exist, and in *nix-likes are the basis for everything, sure. But the user doesn't need to see these pesky files anymore, they are just confusing him. He should know be one level of abstraction up - working with something we could call a 'document', for want of a better term. He doesn't need to know if his webpage consists of multiple files. It's just a document. If he has the same piece of content in multiple formats, he doesn't need to know that either. It's just a document. He should be able to preserve multiple versions restore points of his document, w/o worrying about having different files with different names. It's just a document.

        Fact: most techies understand treelike structures well, and did even before hierarchical filesystems became common currency. For obvious reasons.

        Fact: most people's mom encountered her first treelike structure the first day she typed a document in Word, and wanted to save it.

        MS realized as far back as W95 that the filesystem hierarchy wasn't particularly intuitive to the average member of the W95 target market. Rather than do something revolutionary and innovative which would have made everyone's lives easier the last 10 years, they mucked around with it a little bit, made some cosmetic changes, tried to please both the new people and the experienced people, and ended up fixing not much, and breaking things which were at least consistent in DOS.

        My dad figured out that since he had 2 versions of the folder 'My Documents', one contained in My Computer, and one not (on the desktop), one was storing his files locally, and the other was storing them somewhere else, not on his computer. He even renamed the folder in the C: drive "My documents here" so he could tell them apart. (on winME btw)

        This isn't an obligatory MS-bash. IMHO, it's a lot more shocking that no linux distro/desktop manager, has tried to sort this out. They are the ones that have the opportunity to make fairly sweeping changes. Linux users would catch on fast, appreciate an elegant solution, and still be competent to see 'behind the scenes' to the actual filesystem if desired. The same goes for Apple to some extent, and for some slightly different reasons. MS themselves have their hands much more tied as to what they could change, now that everyone has 10 yrs experience of Windows doing it the dumb way.

        In a previous slashdot story about similar stuff, someone said that their mom used a single word document to type everything, and printed out the relevant pages each time.

        Older people are not stupid, but they are being made to feel stupid by stupid designers, programmers and documenters, and as technology becomes more important this is more and more damaging to their lives.

        * to all the older slashdot users, computer able seniors, and slashdotters with techie parents, sorry to make generalizations but they are broadly true..
        • by telbij ( 465356 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @12:37AM (#15391717)
          The fact that noones parents understand the filesystem is an indicator of exactly one thing
          Yes, the whole idea of 'files' is only a metaphor. Even in Unix. A very useful metaphor, sure. But it's not necessary or helpful anymore for the average user.

          I'm gonna have to disagree with you on this one. People have been using hierarchical paper files for hundreds if not thousands of years. It's a basic organizational system, and is a minimum for working sanely with large numbers of files. The confusing thing is that the user's files are saved in the same filesystem as all the system and application stuff, so the hierarchy itself is overwhelming. I can understand the need to separate those.

          Older people are not stupid, but they are being made to feel stupid by stupid designers, programmers and documenters, and as technology becomes more important this is more and more damaging to their lives.

          This is a common argument, but I think you underestimate how hard it is to make things usable. The trick is to make things as simple as you can but still have the necessary features. I think Apple has been hitting a sweet spot here for a while with iLife.

          The problem is essentially that many many people do not have the patience to figure out a complex system. They approach a program with the desire to do one thing, and the only way they could be satisfied is if there is a big button on the screen that says "Do the Thing". However, that same user may potentially want to do 100 different things at different times, and they certainly won't be satisfied by a screen filled with one hundred buttons. Hence the purpose of menus, wizards, hierarchies, preferences and all the other complications us geeks know and love.

          There are a large number of people who do not want to think about how to do something or where one might logically find some aspect of a computer program. These people get anxious just looking at a dialog box. They do not enjoy figuring things out.

          I'm sorry, but you are not going to design an interface that meets the lowest common denominator and is still useful. It just ain't gonna happen. To get to that point what we need is full-blown artificial intelligence. In other words, a replacement for the techie that they call on the phone to tell them how to do something. It's so easy to blame the designer, and I agree a lot of interfaces are horrendous, but the reality is that there is a certain amount of irreducible complexity inherent any moderately useful general purpose computer system. People who want to do one thing and have no patience for learning any context should be given appliances that do the one thing they want. That's the only way to make things usable for them.
  • by one-eye-johnson ( 911152 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:03PM (#15391107)
  • Simple (Score:5, Funny)

    by Jimhotep ( 29230 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:05PM (#15391115)
    Know more than the other people you work with.

    Just stay one step ahead.

  • by WatchTheTramCarPleas ( 970756 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:06PM (#15391120) Homepage
    I think everyone should be able to put together a system from hardware and install an operating system. We all know it isn't particularly hard to do (I'm talking about a self installing os like windows or suse, not one of those uber hardcore linux distros), but you gain an entirely different perspective on computing when you understand the basic concepts required to do so. It will at least demystify the basic idea of computing for the vast majority of americans. I am thoughly dissapointed in the concept of computer literacy. Using ms word and pressing the start button does not qualify as being computer literate. You wouldn't exactly call a first grader who reads word by word one word a second literate and ready for the world would you?
    • But at the same time i can teach a monkey to fit the different shaped components together and put a disc in the drive. Seriously, i know people who've built computers that have no idea what the difference between PCI/AGP/PCI-X is and they'll blindly open attachments and download programs that offer great "weather forecasts". putting tab A into slot b is no big difference from double clicking an icon on the desktop. Explain it to them once or and most people can do it over and over without having any understanding. And installing an OS like XP does nothing to educate them. Once again its a simple matter of put disc in drive, press power, select yes a lot (Put in key, that part gets tricky) and then they have a full working machine. Unfortunately with the ease of new systems its hard to find a reason to learn the basics, like when i started with with my old Apple IIe and then later DOS machines. but then again most people dont need to know this anymore, as everything is so automated nowadays. Basic skills such as what is a program, what is an OS, etc would be the most important things i would teach a complete newbie. That and common file extensions and turn off "hide file extensions" seriously that has to be one of the biggest security issues in XP in my mind. paris hilton nude.jpg.exe is probably one of the more sucessful viruses out there
    • by slasher999 ( 513533 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:25PM (#15391195)
      There was a time when I would have agreed completely. That time was probably around '95 or so. However, I've modified that idea somewhat over the past decade. Today I think everyone who wants to consider themselves "computer literate" should be able to identify the components of a typical computer - that is a PC or Mac, laptop or desktop (the parts aren't that different after all). Can they tell the difference between a hard drive and a video card? Can they explain the basic purpose of each?

      Onto the operating system. A person who considers themselves "computer literate" should be able to describe the basic purpose of an operating system and use the OS they are most familiar with in an efficient manner. The person should also be able to maintain the system - install and update AV or Malware protection and describe the purpose of each, apply service packs to the OS and installed applications and describe their purpose, upgrade shrinkwrapped applications (or applications that are comparable to that now antiquated term, I'm simply not including the ability to download source and config/make/make install here).

      I believe those are the basic qualifications for today's computer literate person.
    • by DavidinAla ( 639952 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @11:02PM (#15391361)
      That's like saying you should be able to assemble a car before you can drive. Or put a stove together before you can cook. The fact that you even think this is another indication that many of the people who work in IT (or have serious interest in it) don't understand what the end user really needs. A normal, everyday user should be able to get real work done easily without having to understand all of the jargon that you and I understand. It's absurd to expect him to do so.

      • Not really... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by John Whorfin ( 19968 )
        Not assemble the car, but have a basic understanding of how it works. Engine, air filter, oil goes in there... water in there.... Do you know how to change a tire?

        Yes, I also believe a "normal everyday user" should understand what a "hard drive" is and by pulling it out and looking at one it might help them visualize just what goes on in that big scary box on their desk.

      • That's like saying you should be able to assemble a car before you can drive.

        It's more like requiring someone to know how to change a tire, check their fluids, change their oil, and do a basic safety inspection.

        He's not saying everyone should be able to design a Pentium.

        At some level he's right too. Too many people on the road have no idea how a car works or what to do when the unexpected happens. Not knowing that the light on your dash that says "Brake" indicates the presence of a dangerous situa
      • That's like saying you should be able to assemble a car before you can drive...

        There is a big difference here. The average motorist can get by without ever having to know the internal workings of the car. Cars come with warranties -- if anything goes wrong internally, someone comes out and tows the car, and fixes the problem while you drive a loaner if the problem was not your fault.

        If you (for example) put Diesel fuel in a gasoline car, I doubt your warranty would cover it. If you failed to shift properly
    • by An Onerous Coward ( 222037 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @11:13PM (#15391399) Homepage
      Back up a bit. I don't think putting together a computer is either strictly necessary or strictly helpful. Once the person has put it together, and installed the OS, they've got this screen staring at them, asking them what they want to do. And they'll have no idea.

      I can suggest several branches of computer literacy:

      1): the ability to interact with common GUIs. Know what a mouse is, be able to click it and make things happen. As a bonus, add right-click (or whatever the hell you Mac people do). Learn to read dialog boxes and respond to them.

      2): Learn to open common applications, and interact with common applications such as a web browser and a word processor. Know what a file is and how to save one. Know what the directory structure is and at least one way to navigate it.

      3): Absolute basic hardware! Be able to take your computer apart, move it to a different room, stick all the things in the back in, and have it work as it did before. Knowing the various jacks by sight might get bonus points, but isn't strictly necessary.

      4): Regular maintenance. Know what a virus is, and why you have to keep your virus definitions up to date. Know what a patch is, and why you're supposed to install one.

      5): More theory. Learn basic technical concepts, like what an operating system is, what an application is, the difference between memory, hard drive, processor, networking.

      6): Internet basics. Understand that when your computer loads up a web page, it's actually talking to another computer. Understand the concept of "bandwidth" (using a hose analogy if needed). Understand the difference between the Web and the Internet. Know that computers identify each other by numbers known as "addresses", and that the domain names are simply a way of mapping from memorable names to those numbers.

      7): Security. Know what a firewall is and what it does. Understand why you don't run attachments sent by random people. Have some idea of what constitutes a good password.

      I think if you know all this, it would be a rather stingy society that wouldn't call you "computer literate". Your approach would probably go a long way towards getting some of the concepts down, but it's only a starting point.
    • Why stop there? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by grahamsz ( 150076 )
      In theory I can build a transistor from silicon, a logic gate from those transistors, a cpu from those gates, and from there build an OS and software to run on it.

      In practise it would take me a lot more studying to actually pull it all together, as I do Java programming in my professional life. But I find that knowing the levels below where I work give me a definite advantage.

  • by Bogtha ( 906264 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:07PM (#15391123)
    • Basic interaction with a computer - to the point where they know the difference between backspace and delete and the difference between left-click and right-click, not to the point where they know particular key combos.
    • Basic peripheral use - so that they know what printers and scanners are, that they need to switch the monitor on separately, etc.
    • Basic interaction with a GUI - so that they know what windows are, what minimisation/maximisation does, what programs are, how to navigate between common window types.
    • Basic file management - what loading and saving means, how to organise files into directories, the difference between CDs and the hard drive, etc.
    • Surfing and email - these are the two killer apps for most people, and they aren't very intuitive if all you know about the Internet is how to spell it. Furthermore, teaching somebody to use the web enables them to do quite a bit, as many applications are simply being created as web applications these days.

    The basic rule of thumb I would use is that if you've taught them with one operating system, and they don't have any difficulty accomplishing the same tasks with another operating system of the same basic design, then they've learnt the basic concepts well enough as opposed to learning by rote what to click.

    • Surfing and email

      I'll agree with that, but I think you need to explicity mention surfing. Knowing how to use a search engine is one of the most powerful Internet skills you can have. I know I would have a much more difficult time doing my job without it.
    • Pretty much "ditto that" in my opinion.

      Rather than teaching particular program details, just teach what the different types of programs do; how they all basically operate the same within type if well-designed.

      A person cannot be considered "computer literate" unless they can sit down in front of just about anything they might reasonably encounter and be able to get at least rudimentary stuff done. Learning just how to drill down a specific system's menus (or across "ribbons" if they ever appear) to the excl
      • A person cannot be considered "computer literate" unless they can sit down in front of just about anything they might reasonably encounter and be able to get at least rudimentary stuff done. Learning just how to drill down a specific system's menus (or across "ribbons" if they ever appear) to the exclusion of alternate methods is almost worse than no education at all.

        Hear hear!

        I recently had to reinstall my in-law's PC due to it being crufted to the eyeballs and basically running like a dog. I took the oppo
  • by Chowderbags ( 847952 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:09PM (#15391131)
    It shouldn't be about being able to use certain products or being able to do a specific task, the real goal should be teaching the kids to find out how to do things for themselves.

    Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to learn things for himself, and he'll be a hell of a lot more than a fisherman.
    • Although you could also say: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you lose your monopoly. Maybe its for the better for us techies if the masses aren't "Computer Literate"?

      I don't really think that. Having people know at least the 'basics' would make life a whole lot easier for a whole lot of people, but it would also put a few computer security personell out of jobs.
    • ...set him on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life. :)

      Honestly, I'd be happy if people just knew the difference between memory and hard drive space. It doesn't help nowadays that small USB drives and the like are called "memory sticks".

      Back in the days of DOS, I had a friend who couldn't run a game because he didn't have enough free memory. So he went and deleted a lot of stuff off his hard drive, and managed to delete something that loaded at boot. Lo and behold, his game worked after that,
    • Teach a man to be curious, and you'll be learning from him one day.

      It's sad that we're often satisfied with step #2 and steps 3 and 4 are viewed in disdain.
  • by celest ( 100606 ) <> on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:09PM (#15391132) Homepage
    With the ever-changing technologies, the key skill no longer becomes knowing how to use any particular tool, piece of hardware or software, but rather becomes the ability to adapt and effectively learn how to use any tool or environment.

    Not to sound too cliché, but Google and the Internet are at the center of this. Much like books eliminated the need for memorization and transmission by oral tradition, Google and the Internet revolutionize how one learns and adapts. Teach your students how to learn and adapt. Teach them skills on ways to search for information, ways to evaluate what information is good, and what is trash, and teach them how to contribute back information for others to learn from their experiences, good or bad.

    To evaluate them, give them novel, creative problems and the tools to learn how to adapt to the environment, and search for solutions. Evaluate their ability to use the resources at their disposal to come up with their own solutions to the problems. This is infinitely better than training them to rote memorize solutions to static problems.

    I'd like to see a day where a skill that is searched for on a resumé is no longer a specific ability with a specific tool, but simply the line "Fast and adaptive learner" or "Excel at creative solution design in novel environments." That's what I'd be looking for in an employee, and for future generations of technology users.
    • Try stuff! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by kherr ( 602366 ) <kevin@pu p p e t> on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:42PM (#15391270) Homepage
      The biggest problem with learning how to use computers I've seen from neophytes is the fear of trying stuff. Everything I know about computers comes from wanting to find out how stuff works. I tinker and mess around and do stupid things and eventually figure out what things are and how they work.

      Too many people are afraid they'll break the computer and resort to memorizing what they are shown. Since they only do the one thing they are trained to they are unable to grasp the underlying components and what it all means.

      To be literate you have to tinker. Try stuff. Break things, get someone to fix them. Then try some different stuff.
      • I learned the same way- by doing. I have probably ruined installs of most every OS from DOS 4.00 on a 286 on up to 2.6-kernel Linux distribution this way, but since I knew how to back up data, I learned from every mistake and was able to recover quickly.

        There are only a few rules to using a computer:
        1. Back up anything and everything that want to keep if anything happened.
        2. Make sure you have copies of your OS and also programs and their reg keys (if you use proprietary apps) on hand.
        3. Don't click on popu
      • Re:Try stuff! (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ottffssent ( 18387 )

        Since "computer literate" is just a nicer way of saying "speaks computer", it seems reasonable that we approach the problem the same way we approach literacy in natural languages. Children learn to speak by watching, emulating, screwing up, and getting corrected. Eventually they pick up patterns and learn to apply them in novel situations. This is the way most /. readers became computer geeks. We watched (or perhaps read in a manual), emulated, screwed up, and got spanked by the computer dutifully
    • IMHO true computer literacy is knowing your current limitations, and knowing that you can't pretend they don't exist. Add the knowledge of how to research what you need or teach yourself and the world should be your oyster. Many moons ago I got a job after an interview which included a question like "Do you know HTML?" The answer was of course, yes. Then I went home, found suitable references, read the book, and practiced it. By the time I started working for them I knew more about the standard then th
  • Best practices! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by zanglang ( 917799 )
    Other than the normal Microsoft programs, a list of best practices would almost certainly be useful, i.e:

    How to work on the system safely (think before opening email attachments)

    How to browse safely (know how to spot phishing sites, avoid providing sensitive data, install a proper browser like Firefox)

    How to take care of your operating system (defrag regularly, delete unwanted files), and

    Basic security (be careful with passwords, instead of sticking them on the monitor)

  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:11PM (#15391143) Homepage Journal
    A literate person is one who can learn anything given time and opportunity, not someone who's read everything.

    A computer literate person should be one who grasps a foundation of knowledge that prevents dead ends and allows learning whatever the current task requires.

    The key concept would have to be that a computer is a playback device for software, that whoever controls the software owns the computer (yes, owns. Which gives you more control, being handed car keys, or being handed a root password?), and that some software is much better than other software. Teach that and you've cured all the people who think Internet Explorer is "the internet".

    If you want to teach people to use a computer to commmunicate better, then teach them to communicate better. Outlining is a skill that is even more useful for web pages than it was for text. Good composition skills are indispensable. Old-fashioned "rhetoric" classes have a lot to offer about conveying and supporting ideas. Where text is considered obsolete, teach the "grammar" and "vocabulary" that filmmakers have worked out for multimedia works.
  • The one true test (Score:2, Insightful)

    by inu_maru ( 843192 )
    Is to know at least one way to make clippy go. OS wipe out is my favorite.
  • by martonlorand ( 938109 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:14PM (#15391152) Homepage

    Know what is acomputer, how it works on a basic level, CPU, Memory, Harddrive, Video/Monitor. A computer literate person should know how theese work together under the command of an OS, have a basic idea about what an operating system is and what is the different betwean an OS and an Application

    IMHO if one knows these will be able to use basic applications (including MS Office if that is what he/she desires) and call him/herself computer literate.

    Understanding that a car has engine, wheel, steering wheel, transmission is necessary to drive a car. Knowing the same basic things about a computer is the same.

    Than if they are programmers, network admins, webmasters - they are not computer literate's any more. They are specialized pretty much like car mechanics...

    An executive, administrative person etc. is computer literate if he/she knows this - otherwise they are trained monkeys^H^H^H^H^H^H^H users, and are afraid to do anything that wasn't in the training - in consequence they will be unable to use other programs that they are trained in.

  • by astrashe ( 7452 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:21PM (#15391179) Journal
    No one agrees with me on this, but I think that you have to know a computer language to understand computers. It can even be something like LOGO, for kids. I'm not suggesting that someone has to know a set of GUI widgets for a modern desktop or anything.

    If you know a language, you know what an algorithm is, even if you don't know the word. And if you know what an algorithm is, you pretty much know what a computer is.

    I'm a giant fan of that MIT vision -- LOGO for kids, extensible and scriptable apps for adults, cheap laptops for people in parts of the world where money is scarce, open information on the web, etc.

    I don't have kids, though, and I've never convinced anyone that their kids would be better of learning LOGO than powerpoint. Everyone says the same thing -- you don't have to be an engineer to drive a car.

    I was lucky -- I got to learn about computers with a KIM-1 single board machine, and timesharing on a PDP-10, reading books about games written by hippies. If I wanted to play a game, I'd usually have to port it from one dialect of BASIC to another. It wasn't really hard, and it's not really fair to call them ports. But you had to understand the code at least a little bit.

    I think it would be a lot harder to learn from iTunes.
    • I pretty much agree with this post.

      I'd rather someone learn the history of computing - from counting knots on ropes to the history of geometry and basic measuring devices, through to the modern era and techniques.

      Learn math properly, with history, and you can develop a great sense of how things can and should work - this can be a great foundation.

      Beyond this, I don't think that learning any one technology or processor - based system is vital. What is key is being given an environment - an assembly languag

    • by MrNougat ( 927651 ) <ckratsch@gmail . c om> on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @11:01PM (#15391353)
      ... I think that you have to know a computer language to understand computers.

      Hurrah. I learned BASIC when I was 13, and got pretty good at it. Sadly, my family didn't have the money at the time to be able to afford anything computerwise after the Timex/Sinclairs and C64s all went by the wayside. At the same time, I was playing video games at the arcade. Because I knew a programming language, I understood that the computer in the video game was following a set of commands, and could imagine all the lines of BASIC that would accomplish the same thing. ... you don't have to be an engineer to drive a car.

      You don't have to be an engineer, but it doesn't hurt knowing how the thing works. I've always insisted that the best way to teach someone how to drive a manual transmission is to start by describing how a clutch works. That clutch pedal - it's connected to something, you know? And when you press it down, something happens. And when you let it up, something else happens.

      When you press buttons on your computer keyboard, those inputs are read by programming - and something happens. It's not just magic. Too many people, having absolutely no clue how anything works, just think everything runs on magic.
      • But it IS magic! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @04:25AM (#15392443)
        When you press buttons on your computer keyboard, those inputs are read by programming - and something happens. It's not just magic. Too many people, having absolutely no clue how anything works, just think everything runs on magic.

        What is magic? Words and symbols of power that shape the world according to the will of the magician. The magician speaks the right magic words, and draws the right sigils, and obtains the desired effect.

        Meanwhile, the INT 8 half-orc barbarian doesn't have the faintest idea what all the runes carved on his battleaxe actually do. He doesn't care. He knows the end result is a +1 to hit and that suits him just fine. Neither is the ranger concerned about exactly how these enchanted bracers improve his aim with a longbow; they just do. Only the wizard needs to worry about the details.

        And what is programming? Words and symbols of power that shape the computer according to the will of the programmer. Type the right instructions, give the right command arguments, and obtain the desired effect.

        Ever created an infinite loop? Had a recursive process go berserk on you? Made a small mistake while invoking rm -rf? Yeah. Pure 'Sorcerer's Apprentice'.

        We are the nearest thing to magicians that has ever existed in reality. Our spells work and are truly powerful, our mistakes cause incomprehensible chaos, and when one of us turns bad then sometimes the whole world can suffer the consequences. No wonder the muggles treat our creations like they're the mysterious products of a magical power beyond their understanding: that's what they are.

    • Why not teach em FORTRAN too?

      Have a . Teach em something that is actually useful. []

  • Some posts have suggested Unix and assembly (as a joke?), which is like suggesting you can't read unless you can read hyroglyphics. Not that it's not important or that Unix is bad, it just is irrelevant to "basic literacy" IMHO. So, here is my list:

    1. How to set up and troubleshoot basic Windows XP issues
    2. How to add or remove components (AGP card, PCI cards, etc.)
    3. What ethernet is, what USB is, what bluetooth is, etc.
    4. The basics of Microsoft Word + Excel (create new document, save, print, etc.)
    5. Inte
  • Basic vs Advanced. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Necoras ( 918009 )
    Basic knowledge would probably be the ability to surf the internet w/o difficulty, use a basic editor/wordprocessor, read and send e-mail, and possibly run a few choice applications. Advanced users should have an understanding of how to install/uninstall software and operating systems, navigate a command prompt/shell, and know the basics of how an operating system works. Ideally they should be able to write scripts and probably some code. They should be able to learn new operating systems and applications
  • Interesting. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <> on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:29PM (#15391222) Journal
    Computer literacy is one of those things that covers a lot of ground. In my mind, this includes a basic familarity with hardware. A savvy individual should be able to plug in a new network card, or a new hard drive. These are not advanced hardware tasks. I also think a certain amount of hardware troubleshooting is needed; a user should be able to tell if they have a dead network conntection, or a dead monitor, or a dead computer (or a dead mouse...yes, I've talked to people who can't tell. One lady even triumphantly told me that not only had she replaced the mouse (four times, according to her), she had also replaced the mouse pad. Her problem was a mouse problem, and it was fixed by replacing the mouse).

    As far as software, I think computer literacy means needing to be able to figure out a piece of out-of-the-box software. Not the ability to use word or office, or whatever, but the ability to sit down in front of an unfamiliar piece of software, and fiddle with it in an intelligent way. The ability to look up a manual and read it.

    It's not about being a power user. Not everyone is a power user. Most people aren't, really. It's really, in my mind, just about not being helpless when confronted with something new.
  • I think the ability to research and find information is one of, if not the most important thing in becoming not just computer literate, but literate. Knowing where to go to search for topics online, knowing where to go to search for help for your word processor, etc are all very important. I spend a good portion of my time at work looking through help files and web sites trying to figure out how to do new things. I also spend a good portion of time researching things on my personal time through Wikipedia. A
  • MS-DOS (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Unless you can get the mouse driver and the Novell redirector running with 630K free, you don't know shit.
  • The ability to perform the tasks they want or need to do. Although this does not take into account the ability to perform maintenance and/or repairs when the system deviates from ideal function. I can drive a car, change a tyre and check the oil. I don't know how to swap out an engine, but I could take some car maintenance courses and learn. This makes me 'car literate' for 99% of daily tasks, even though I couldn't hold down a career as a garage mechanic based on what I currently know.
  • by yancey ( 136972 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @10:51PM (#15391313)
    Whenever I have a question like this, I try to devise a similar question from a non-computer perspective (a different context) to help me wrap my brain around the idea. This also happens to work especially well when trying to explain computer issues to those who are not computer literate.

    For example, "What does vehicle literate mean?" A car, like a computer, is a single complex machine that the average person above a certain age is expected to know how to operate. So how does one become "car literate"? Because you know how to drive one vehicle does not mean you can operate a boat or airplane or the space shuttle. So "computer literate" probably does not mean that you can operate any computer, just the most common variety (e.g. Windows and Office). Even then, you might know how to drive an automatic and not a standard (Windows vs Linux).

    Analogy is a great tool to not only improve others understanding of a given concept but also your own.

    Just for fun consider this: Computer support technicians and doctors are similar in many ways. They are both supposed to be highly paid, highly trained, highly skilled, and highly knowledgeable about an extremely complex machine that they did not design or create and of which cannot possibly know everything about. Often, they rely on their limited experience to make a best guess about the root cause of the machine's particular problem and then follow up with lots of testing to see if they are correct or not. As you probably know, some computer support people, trained and certified or not, seem to have an innate gift for solving computer problems while others should never be allowed to touch a computer. Makes you think about your doctor, eh?
  • The first unit of information technology is the pen and paper. The computer implements the ideas of the programmer about how the user thinks. The computer represents the elements of the problem in an easily manipulated way.

    After 25 years we can say these things about interacting well with a computer. Programs manipulate data. Data represents information. Information and data have no meaning even though rules can manipulate data in seemingly meaningful ways. Users define meaning nothing else does that.
  • Because, you know, literacy usually means knowing things that suck, like Keats, Wilde and Bobby Burns.

    The closest thing to that in computing terms is knowing PowerPoint.

  • If you know nothing but Windows, you're not computer-literate.
    • by klang ( 27062 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @01:35AM (#15391924)
      Level zero is realizing that

      The Computer is not the big box on the table
      The Harddisk is not the big box under the table
      The Color of the box does not matter
      It's not "how many RAM's" but "how much RAM"

      Level one is realizing that

      Text editing is not Word
      Spreadsheet is not Excel
      Presentation is not Powerpoint
      Communication is not Outlook
      News is not Explorer
      The Internet is not WWW

      i.e. realizing what you don't need a specific program to fullfill a specific task.
  • An old saying. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by niteice ( 793961 )
    It's been said that one understands something best when they can teach it to someone else. Teaching may not necessarily be required in this case, but I'd say that if you can fix a typical fucked up computer (IE, no firewall, but no pr0n sites) non-destructively, then you have a pretty good handle on things. And I mean really fixing it, not just reinstalling Windows into a new folder.
  • by ConceptJunkie ( 24823 ) on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @11:44PM (#15391505) Homepage Journal
    ... it's about how to think.

    One of the reasons my employer is moving from Tcl to another development platform for Web infrastructure, probably Java, is because they claim they can get more Java programmers than Tcl programmers. While this might be true, I would argue that they will get exactly as many competent, effective Java programmers as they get Tcl programmers, in other words, very few. Any programmer worth the appellation can do his job regardless of the tool.

    Equating "literacy" with the ability to use Microsoft Office (or something similar) is like equating mathematics knowledge by memorizing the times tables up to 100. Useful for a very specific, narrow range of tasks, but completely worthless when presented with a new type of problem.

    Unfortunately, it is far easier to test for memorization than for actual thinking, and this is the route of least resistance our education system likes to take.

  • I have a seven year old daughter who is using MSN Instant Messenger before she can even write complete sentences.

    She knows how to browse the 'net, how to use all manner of games and learning programs, and it doesn't occur to her that other people don't have this level of comfort with computers.

    To her the computer is something that "just works" and she has no knowledge of what goes on under the hood.

    Isn't that ultimately the goal of personal computers? A simple to use tool that doesn't need ubergeek skills t
  • by jmorris42 ( 1458 ) * <> on Tuesday May 23, 2006 @11:58PM (#15391572)
    I define "computer literacy" as I would any other use of the word "literacy". A person who can listen or read a language but can't express an original thought in it isn't considered 'literate'. Yes, I mean programming is required to be considered computer literate. Computers are nothing more than a decoder for instructions, if all you can do is cause it to play back someone else's stored commands you are a passive user in exactly the same way as a child sticking Barney videos into the VCR in their bedroom.

    Yes, many people (especially in the uneducated nations of today's modern Western world) might be able to live a productive life only knowing how to operate a web browser but 'computer literate' they ain't. You can make exactly the same observation about someone who can't write a coherent paragraph, they too can often live a productive life in the lower classes of society, but illiteracy kills off most chances to better oneself.

    And I can already hear some witless wonder getting ready to analogize about people not needing to be mechanics to use a car, blah blah. No everyone doesn't need to be able to strip an engine down but they should know where all the major parts are, the basic theory of operation, common failure modes, make a few emergency fixes, etc. You might not be able to write an office suite from scratch but you should be able to write a spreadsheet macro, a simple shell script or be able to at least have a shot at fixing a bug in a larger program that is really annoying you.
  • It's simple (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Khashishi ( 775369 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @12:21AM (#15391657) Journal
    A person needs to know enough to RTFM.
  • by Schraegstrichpunkt ( 931443 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @12:48AM (#15391755) Homepage
    To be computer literate, one must know how to read computers.
  • by Bent Mind ( 853241 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @01:19AM (#15391867)
    Strangely enough, at least for myself, I'd have to say it's easier to define computer illiteracy. You know, when you think to yourself "I wish they taught basic computer literacy in schools".

    Honestly, the basics haven't changed since the GUI became commonplace. Here are a couple of things that are good to know:

    • The monitor is part of the computer, not the computer. It took my Mother ages to understand that turning the monitor off didn't turn the computer off.
    • Icons initiate actions. I have a user at work who thought all those little pictures were just to make the screen look interesting.
    • Automate repetition. Same user as above, he still doesn't understand cut and paste.
    • Remember where you saved that file. "I can't find my file" still seems to be the most common complaint.

    From there you can break it down into more specific areas. For example, Internet, Office, Technical, etc. I know a lot of people consider Internet to be part of the basics. However, it is possible to be computer literate without knowing anything about the Internet. A friend of mine is a retired programmer. He definitely knows his way around his system. He has also taught me a thing or two when it comes to writing a script. However, he is not interested in the Internet. I'd hardly call him illiterate. I've also known a few of engineers that could do some truly amazing things in CAD. However, they don't have a clue when it comes to word processing.

    Just a final thought, stay away from anything vendor specific. I took computer information systems in high school and college. Back then the basics were WordPerfect, dBase, and Lotus. After receiving my Associate, I realized that it was all a waste. Everyone wanted Microsoft. I wonder what they will want when my daughter graduates.
  • by Flambergius ( 55153 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @09:39AM (#15393514)
    Computer literate person:

    * does not fear or mystify the computer or computer specialists.

    * knows the basic operation of a personal computer, starting from how turn computer on and off and ending around knowing when and which expert to call about problems.

    * knows, in practice, the paradigms of human-computer interaction, most often meaning a functional ability to use most modern GUIs.

    * knows the rules of thumb of computer security and privacy.

    * can search for and understand manuals and other information sources about new areas of computer use.

    * can make educated guesses about relevant search terms.

    * has a firm grip of the theoretical limits of what can be done with a computer.

    * can issue commands to a computer in a way that makes sense in the relevant problem domain.

    Being able to program is obviously one generic ability that would fulfill the last criteria. However, programming is too often understood to mean an ability to design and implement systems or applications. That is not required for computer literacy. Programming-related things that computer literacy would include are: expressing information in a computer understandable way, information manipulation, information querying and some ability to use interfaces like APIs.

    I feel strongly about the basic ability to command a computer. In the digital age everyone should have that ability. I may be, however, defining the substance of commanding too close to programming. It may be that less is needed or that more emphasis should be in understanding processes or epistemology or something.


  • Computer Literacy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by g0bshiTe ( 596213 ) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @02:59PM (#15396380)
    I would say that just bieng able to use MS products does not make one computer literate. Could said person navigate Windows using a Command Prompt? I think computer literacy should be judged not by what is known by the person, but rather how quickly they could adapt to a new peice of software, or a different OS.

    When I first began using Linux, I was dumbfounded and felt like I was just getting into computers, turned out after a week of using it I could navigate well using a term window, and even learned how to find what I was looking for.

"There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress." -- Mark Twain