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February 2003 Issue

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Learning Technology

By Tracey A. Stuckey-Mickell, College Reading & Learning Program, Northern Illinois University 

Email: tstuckey@niu.edu

College Level Literacy and Technology in the 21st Century

A growing number of college instructors are requiring students to engage in learning activities that involve advanced thinking skills and use of computer technology. Most new college students are somewhat computer literate and have a moderate amount of experience with most computer applications (e.g., MS Word, Internet Explorer, etc.), but when it comes to actively using email properly, searching the web efficiently and using reasonably advanced features of word-processing programs, spreadsheet programs and presentation programs; many students find themselves at a loss. These students are essentially unprepared for this type of activity and they struggle to keep up.

Few students come to college without having completed a research project or paper, but most have only used the library sparingly and have little experience with locating, reading, and evaluating electronic and web-based materials. Nor have they much practice using online catalogues or scholarly journal search engines. They are usually confused about what does and does not constitute plagiarism when synthesizing information from sources and writing up their research. In essence, most freshmen students are considerably academically illiterate. Olson (1994) defined literacy as “the competence to exploit a particular set of cultural resources… " (p. 43). The traditional view of literacy seems to include only reading and writing as resources, but in today’s high tech world, it takes much more than reading and writing to be “literate” for the average citizen. For our college students, this narrow definition is even less relevant.
By making these observations, I am asserting that if literacy is defined as simply the ability to encode and decode written language, most incoming freshmen students are functionally literate, but when we view literacy as the ability to locate, critically analyze, evaluate, and utilize multiple texts in multiple formats to create knowledge, students are falling short of “functional” literacy. Especially when it comes to the complex texts found at the college level. When we throw in the ability to efficiently utilize computers and electronic resources to aid in knowledge production, they fall even shorter.

In our society’s current state of overwhelming technological growth and exchange of information, students must deal with increasing intellectual requirements. Educators are beginning to see the need for broader definitions of literacy that reflect the influence of new technologies (Reinking, 1998). Concepts such as “multiliteracies” have found their way into the literature. As a teacher for the past four years, I recognize the need for this shift in our concept of literacy to guide our classroom and learning assistance practices. Definitions of literacy should reflect the increased use of multimedia, graphics, digitized texts, and the use of computers and the Internet to access and utilize, critically analyze and evaluate sources. The widespread use and unregulated nature of the World Wide Web also requires students to sift through vast quantities of information and evaluate resources for credibility and usefulness. In my opinion, our definition of literacy should include these functions as well as the traditional functions of reading and writing printed text.
We can continue to help our students by integrating these new technologies into our courses and learning assistance activities to widen the literacy spectrum of our students. By doing so, we better prepare them to succeed academically while in college and function in their environment after college. We do our students a great disservice by remaining attached to a narrow definition of the concept of literacy. Twenty-first century technology has resulted in a need for twenty-first century literacy education.


bulletOlson, D. (1994). Aboriginal literacy: Critical notice. Interchange, 25(4), 389-94.
bulletReinking, D. (1998). Handbook of literacy and technology: Transformations in a post-typographic
world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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