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Technological Literacy | Viewpoint

Rethinking Technological Literacy

Reflections on a conversation with Sherry Turkle

As more and more digital technology finds its way into academic, business, and social domains on higher education campuses, and as the world into which students are received when they graduate demands greater technological competency, the pleas for “digital literacy” heard at colleges and universities make sense [see Campus Technology’s January 2011 Trendspotter featuring Susan Metros’s comments on digital literacy and what it means to be literate in the 21st century]. Sherry Turkle [photo, above right] also argues that institutions should foster a deeper understanding of how new digital tools affect students’ work and lives, though she proposes a somewhat different focus--she suggests “rethinking technological literacy.”

In her keynote at Campus Technology 2010 in Boston, Turkle introduced attendees to her concept of “technology as the architect of self”--that even as we shape our technologies, they shape us. It’s a two-way street that is producing a complex set of problems and conditions surrounding the relationship between people and technology. And the problems Turkle investigates are especially compelling on college campuses.

A professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, and the founder and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, Turkle has invested years thinking about and publishing her work on these problems. And work over her 30-year career has included many studies of younger people (K-12 through college entrance). She has also made extensive observations of the generation of students appearing on college and university campuses now. Broadly, she concludes that these students really do not posses the technological literacy they need to understand the technology environments they are engaging with--and she is concerned.

Even asking Turkle about just one aspect of this complex picture is telling. How much do students really need to know about technology that is central to their academic careers? “Students only work with opaque technology--most have no idea of its underlying meaning,” says Turkle. “That wouldn’t be so disturbing if it were a technology to boil pasta, but the point [of using academic technologies] is having you think better. There is a cost in losing the expectation that [students] understand how computers work, or how networks work in any sense… We didn’t start out that way. We started out teaching students to learn programming. They learned Basic, Logo… they learned something. And even if they learned the tiniest little bit, they had a model of what a program was. That has been lost.” One example to ponder in academic technology is simulation--students may quickly learn the rules for interacting with and manipulating the simulation, but do they understand the parameters of how the simulation program was constructed, and its limitations?

As we all move deeper into our technology-enabled environments, Turkle worries that we are expecting “more from technology and less from each other”--an odd kind of retreat. Her latest book, Alone Together, Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (, which was published in January 2011, examines just that, in depth. For those concerned with students and technology on campus, the book provides a broader context to consider.

Turkle notes that mature technologies--especially the tools we interact with daily for work and social communications--have become deceptively simple to their end users. And the technologies that surround us today are not simple pieces but whole environments that we integrate into the ways we function at work, at school, and in our social and personal lives. Just by using them, we strike bargains with these technologies about our practices, habits, and behaviors. In short, there’s a lot at stake. Wonderful potential is there, if you really understand the technological world you have entered. If not...

[Editor’s note: Sherry Turkle’s recorded keynote, “Technology as the Architect of Self: Implications for Higher Education,” is featured in Campus Technology’s Virtual 2011 event beginning on May 12 and will be accessible through the event’s Web site.]

[Photo by Mary Grush]

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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