Do you understand all that your handphone can do?

THE Oxford English Dictionary defines literacy in its extended use as the ability to “read” a specified subject or medium.

Normally we think of a literate community as in a state of being able to read and write with language, and has the ability to communicate. The first writing systems dated back to 3200 BC in ancient Mesopotamia, and with 21st century advancements, what is considered the norm of literacy has changed.

Today, we need to consider technological literacy as part of the fundamentals of survival in this new world. The Colorado Department of Education defines technological literacy as the ability to appropriately select and responsibly use technology. Students, who have attained technological literacy, are able to problem-solve, communicate, locate, use and synthesise information found using technology, and develop skills necessary to function in the 21st century.

The Department of Statistics Malaysia stated that in 2015, the percentage of individuals in the country aged 15 years old and above who used the Internet was at 71 per cent after a 14.1 per cent increase compared to 2013. Following that trend, as of 2015, 97.5 per cent of individuals in the nation are reported to have access to mobile phones. The digital age we are now a part of means that most Malaysians have a computer in our pockets most of the time. But do we understand the technology we use daily?

Let us assume you’re trying to buy a laptop for a college student. Go to a computer store and look at the specifications for laptops. You see terms such as DDR3 RAM, SSD versus HDD and Gigahertz clocking speeds, and a plethora of brand names. If you do not understand these terms and how each affects the build of a computer then it is time to look them up.

I do not mean that we need detailed understanding of technology on par with a computer scientist. But we must have enough knowledge regarding the technology we use daily to make informed decisions when faced with its use.

In every college classroom, most students have a laptop to type in notes and the working environment they’ll be entering soon is very reliant on the use of technology. We are getting increasingly dependent on technology but we cannot go back to the literacy of reading and writing as our standard. There is much more to it than typing words with a keyboard and reading from a screen. Issues arise such as online security, getting overcharged by stores because one does not understand the goods on sale, not knowing the data still stored in phones when reselling them and the ability to spot spam.

One of the key points to keep in mind when discussing the issue of literacy regarding technology is to realise that it is not a singular-based issue. At a TedTalk in 2012, Dr Doug Belshaw, a researcher and analyst at JISC Advance, clarified that we should be thinking in the plural, as in “digital literacies”, because the issue is context-dependent. We cannot simplify it by creating a generalised framework for educating people on the use of technology; technology is far too nuanced for that. We must think of technology as having multiple facets and tackle it in such a way.

From the Colorado Department of Education definition of technological literacy, it is evident that it relies heavily on separate aspects of technological literacies. To solve a problem using technology, the first thing is to look it up online in a search engine. Where does one find the related error messages or the possible hardware and software functions that relate to the problem?

On the matter of communication, being literate in the Internet’s own highly context-based use of images can come into play. It may seem trite but memes have become an important part of the online diction; being able to read between the lines of this vernacular can be daunting to those unfamiliar with it, and can create misunderstanding between an older family member and a younger one on social media platforms.

Functioning in the 21st century with the use of technology (a matter I deem the most important aspect of technological literacies) requires a broad overarching understanding regarding technology. Technology plays a part as a medium in everything from voter information, identification numbers and shopping to informing your boss that you may not be able to come in to work.

To draw all this closer to the daily lives of a tertiary student, let’s take another look at the fact that most college students are reliant on a laptop in class. Almost every class has the basic requirement of an essay or research paper as part of its syllabus. Formatting digital-based papers using MLA or APA styles can be confusing to the uninitiated and formatting itself takes a hefty chunk within grading rubrics. Missing out on a good grade just because one does not know how to format a paper due to lack of technological literacy should not be a problem in this day and age.

While technological literacies are an issue that can be overcome with education, we need to emphasise the need for proper teachers. A paper published by the College of Information Technology at the University of Dubai in 2007 stated: “Instructors are feeling increasing pressure to use IT, but they commonly face several obstacles when attempting to use technological teaching techniques. Institutions of higher education must strategically develop IT integration plans that help overcome these obstacles, addressing the needs of diverse pedagogical agendas and multiple levels of comfort with technology. Barriers can make technology use frustrating for the technologically perceptive, let alone the many teachers who may be somewhat techno-phobic.”

Educational institutions must ensure their educators are adequately equipped mentally in addition to having the right equipment for creating a conducive environment for learning to use technology properly.

There are far too many aspects of technological literacies to cover here and every country including Malaysia must take measures to prepare future generations for the inevitable when technology will be so integral to society that everything may be handled in some way using digital technology.

If we do not put a foot in the door now, we may find ourselves completely segregated from humanity itself in terms of progress. It is not just the responsibility of educators but us, as learners, to make sure we are well-equipped in this matter.

In an article published by Brigham Young University on educational technology integration, it states: “Learners must become aware of the available technology and its basic purpose, then implement and practise it in authentic situations if they are to reach the higher levels of technology literacy.”

Look at your phone, do you understand what it can do? Do you understand what personal information on your phone can be provided to corporations and governments? I implore you to think, and learn. The digital clock is ticking fast, and it’s time to study.

Emillio Daniel is an adventurous English and Creative Writing student at The University of Iowa in the United States. Email him at education@nst.com.my

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