Rethinking IT literacy

In London last week, ICAEW President Mark Spofforth hosted a roundtable discussion on technology trends to which I was invited. The ninety-minute meeting covered a broad range of topics; innovation, the role that consumers now have in setting expectations for IT and a variety of technology matters.The topic of IT literacy in particular caught my attention, as earlier in the week I had been pondering the changing definition of IT literacy after observing the way my nine-year old daughter was using technology for a homework assignment the prior weekend.

As I guided her through her assignment she shifted from using an iPad to research a subject, across to our Mac to create and document her findings. There was a stark contrast between the ease with which she literally flew along while using the touch interface of the iPad and the faltering, staccato way she worked while using the Mac.

Like most kids she’s already proficient with Windows and Mac desktops and the curious concepts of window focus, right clicking, keyboard shortcuts and the like. However, as I watched her work it was obvious that there was a visible cognitive overhead required for her to just get stuff done on the desktop, compared with the grace and fluidity she demonstrated when she had been using the touch interface of the iPad.

The term IT literacy has been with us for a while and is a catch-all description for all the cryptic rules you needed to learn in order to become a proficient PC user. And so we’ve all been conditioned to accept that in order to use PC or Mac today you need to understand things like files and directory structures, grasp abstract concepts like multi-tasking and observe the different rules and standards of menu based navigation, the quirks of having multiple documents open in a single app, dragging and dropping, and so on.

And because of all these strange rules and laws, for many people IT literacy has been like a secret club where if you have to ask, you don’t belong. However, during the ICAEW discussion last week I finally resolved in my mind that our understanding of IT literacy has been entirely wrong-headed all this time.

We just didn’t realise that, until now.

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