The Tim Newfields Homepage Tim Newfields: A Digital Resume
from CALL - Basics & Beyond: The Proceedings of the 2nd Annual JALT CALL SIG Conference.
Oct. 1997. Chubu University, Japan. (p. 63 - 68).

Computer Literacy:
Issues and Approaches

by Tim Newfields

To English, Japanese, German, and Spanish Summaries

How is learning to use a computer similar to learning other natural languages? To what degree are the experiences of foreign language learners akin to those developing computer skills? This paper considers the similarities between computer and foreign language learning and suggests ways computer skills can be taught to foreign language students.

A Spectrum of Literacies

Computer literacy has been defined in a myriad of ways (Anderson, 1982; Lockheed, 1983; Barger, 1984). A simple, yet elegant, way to regard it is the ability to achieve desired outcomes via a computer. The tasks comprising computer literacy vary from environment to environment. Engineering students, for example, may need to learn to produce statistical analyses and work with spread sheets. Foreign language majors are more likely to need to learn how to use multilingual text editors, spelling checkers, and online concordances. For general users, computer literacy can be said to have three components:

  1. understanding basic computing principles,
  2. knowing how to use at least one computer operating system, and
  3. proficiency with one or more software programs.
More importantly, however, computer literacy is related to a broader concept of information literacy (Blake & Tjoumas, 1990; Larsen, 1997) – which can be described as understanding how to assess, interpret, and generate meaningful responses to volumes of data.

Language literacy is an important component of both computer and information literacy. Despite advances in voice recognition technology, the ability to handle alphanumeric data – a large portion of which is likely to be in English – remains paramount in developing computer skills. For some foreign language students, language literacy is perhaps the major hurdle to computer literacy. To some extent this hurdle can be bypassed by translation language software. Nova's Net Surfer/ej or Fujitsu's ATLAS are two programs designed to make foreign language environments more native for Japanese. In my classes, I prefer an approach in which all key software is in English, but the OS in Japanese. Foreign language teachers should carefully consider how "foreign" or "native" their computer classes are to be.

Computer Literacy: Key Concepts

To use a computer effectively, a number of terms and concepts must be understood. One central concept involves computer memory. The distinction between random access, virtual, and hard disk memory represents a new concept for most students. Creative use of metaphor and direct demonstration are two ways of teaching unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary. Table 1 lists some basic metaphors for teaching computing concepts.

Table 1. Metaphors for teaching computing concepts to foreign language students.
RAM Virtual Memory HD Memory Cache Internet Cookie
Imagine you are sitting at a desk. The size of your desktop determines how many projects you can handle. RAM is somewhat like the "desktop" size of you have available. This is sort of like a drawer under your desktop which can expand your working area. This makes your RAM seem bigger. It resembles a filing cabinet where you can store documents and bring them to your desktop when needed. Items kept in RAM. Imagine them as files kept directly on your desktop which you can access them quickly. (1) Somewhat like an octopus that feeds on data with over fifty million tentacles stretching across the planet - yet with no head. (2) In some ways like a busy "information highway" that takes you to any virtual location. Like a digital footprint that some Web sites use to know where you are now and what places on the Web you have visited recently.

Stefik's Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors (1997) considers additional Internet metaphors, some of which have pedagogical merit.

Some computer literacy programs regard the computer as a "black box" and focus entirely on specific applications; others provide a detailed theoretical and technological background. For EFL students who are not computing or information science majors, I prefer to offer a brief background of key computer points, then concentrate on practical tasks. In a social context, it is important to not o nly achieve tasks via a computer, but also be able to describe what you have achieved. For that reason, becoming familiar with basic computer terminology and concepts is important.

Existing Computer Literacy Programs

Computer literacy programs have been offered since the 1950s. Trauth (1997) points out that until recently most computer literacy programs were geared for computer majors. Today many courses for general users are also offered. In fact, institutions such as Utah State University (1996) and Brooklyn College City University (1991) have established computer literacy graduation requisites for all majors.

Descriptions of college based computer literacy courses are abundant. One account by Lasarenko (1996) narrates her experience with an online collaborative literature and composition course. She cautions against developing rigid syllabi and being aware of how unforeseen variables can affect classroom outcomes. A description of her program is available at

Another account by Ryburn (1997) outlines a computer literacy course geared for novices. Though his program isn't intended for EFL students, many EFL students will find his materials of value.

An example of a traditional, lecture-oriented program is Kannan's Computer Literacy (MNSC 150 001-002). This is a good illustration of what happens when teachers expect a portion of their students to misbehave. Kannan's focus appears to be on class rules and course requirements. Those confronting "difficult" students may find some of his guidelines helpful.

Japanese-based computer skill EFL courses are offered by Muehleisen (1997) and Trokeloshvili and Jost (1997). Muehleisen describes how email, discussion lists, Websurfing, and MOOing can benefit EFL learners. Her proposal to create a classroom Web site is a good instance of collaborative learning. Trokeloshvili and Jost focus on online writing activities. After mentioning email and Web page writing projects, they note problems of course evaluation and acquiring typing skills. More articles about Web-based writing projects are available from Kairos, an online writing journal.

A Pilot Program

In 1996 I taught a semester computer literacy skills to eight undergraduates at Tokai University's Shimizu campus. This program was a content-based intermediate level English seminar.

Rather than tell students what computer skills they should learn, at first I asked them if they were interested in learning English with computers. . . . Though I am excited about the possibilities of computers in education, I can't assume all other students are. Currently I'm required to teach English, but grateful to be in a position of teaching computer literacy as an option rather than a requirement. That makes a big difference in student attitudes.

In the first lesson I offer students two course options: (1) a topic-based conversation program without computers, or (2) a content-based English computer literacy course. Both options fulfill the course title. Students in Japan are not used to having teachers ask them what they wish to study. Simmons and Wheeler (1995), however, suggest using process syllabi in which course material is negotiated enhances classroom participation.

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