New Frontiers on the Battle Against Illiteracy

Opinion by Philip Curley

Over a decade into the 21st century, the promises of a fascinating technological future have been fulfilled. In 2000 we were reading books and listening to compact discs. Now we can do those same things on our iPads. Furthermore, you never need to leave your comfortable bed to acquire both music and text. Computers and connectivity have changed our lives and we embrace it.

Though computers have made some people more efficient, the problem with this fact is that it has truly benefited some people, not all. Ironically this tool which has increased accessibility of information across the globe is also exclusive to people who never use this.

This problem is computer illiteracy.

Consider this: 10 to 20 years ago, the largest collections of information in the world were located in public libraries across the U.S. Now that information and even more have been consolidated into digital archives which are accessible anywhere in the world. Newspapers and other traditional means of communication are being replaced by a cheaper and more instantaneous web presence. Individuals who can’t use a computer are excluded from our new world.

At my service site, we face this realization every day. It’s nearly impossible to find employment without the aid of a computer and Internet. I assume that every one of my fellow corps members used AmeriCorps.gov to apply for this service opportunity!

It makes sense that employers post jobs online. It’s cheaper than buying traditional ad space and it’s easier to sell your positions to a wide audience. Making connections from companies to potential employees is fast and efficient.

In addition, more jobs now require skills associated with computers. Everyone is their own secretary and they are responsible to do everything from communicating via email to researching prices on rivals websites  and to creating presentations. Computers have worked their way into business life just as much as our personal lives.

Fighting computer literacy is the new frontier of modern education. What is unique is that this problem isn’t more prevalent in particular class, race, or gender group. It is almost always an issue of age that affects middle-aged to older people. It makes sense– most of the younger generation has had some form of computer training in our early education. We’ve grown up to adapt to these changes. But long-time workers who have recently been laid off never needed to adjust to the new realities of job-seeking and are therefore less likely to have adapted to use technology.

It isn’t a lack of computers. Go to any Carnegie Public Library and you’ll find plenty of computer terminals. There are also countless computer training courses offered all over this city ranging from basic users to Microsoft Office and Internet skills. Goodwill of Southwest Pennsylvania  even has a technology program to put computer in the hands of users at a low cost.

It isn’t a lack of ability. We tell our students that computers were made by and for people. There is nothing foreign about their use and they are made accessible for all individuals. Plus, every smart phone on the planet is essentially a hand held computer. Yet we all have no trouble navigating the newest Android phone because we use our phones every day and the computing power is a very accessible extension of its use.

Computer use has to be incorporated into how we educate basic learners. It can be a next step after an important goal. We are all tackling important literacy issues in Pittsburgh, but once your student passes the GRE test or obtains an advanced understanding of conversational English, their education doesn’t stop. Encourage those who are newly empowered to tackle modern technology. It can also be incorporated into basic literacy lessons. Use the Internet to build their reading skills. Practice writing on the computer and it is also an opportunity to type.

This type of illiteracy doesn’t have to be a problem, but it’s going to take awareness by educators and job seekers to nip this in the bud.

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