What happens when high-technology collides with low literacy?

By Marcia Kaplan

Published in the Chicago Tribune, 6/2/94

We've been hearing a good deal lately about the information highway and the profound changes it will bring to the lives of Americans. Digital convergence, interactive TV, and video on demand are just a few terms that will soon roll off the tips of our tongues if we believe the boosters of this supposed revolution. Some optimists predict that by the year 2000 our homes will be hooked up to a variety of devices so all-encompassing that we may never have to leave our houses to shop, entertain ourselves or get an education. Is this realistic?

At the same time that entertainment, computer, and telecommunications companies are creating new and exciting ways for us to amuse and educate ourselves, Americans are becoming less capable of assimilating complex technology. Unfortunately there is a large and growing gap between the knowledge required to live in an advanced society and the capacity of Americans to grasp technology and apply it.

Amid the excitement about digital highways and entertainment on demand few people are paying attention to a very troubling fact - a substantial number of Americans are not intellectually capable of using the technologies that our industries currently offer. How can they handle anything more advanced? One in five Americans is functionally illiterate. While functional illiterates can read words, they cannot comprehend their meanings, synthesize information or make decisions based on what they read. Although young Americans have more years of schooling than previous generations, they are certainly not better educated. Each year 700,000 people who graduate from high school can't read their diplomas.

Illiteracy adversely affects both the consumption and production aspects of our economy. As consumers, people will not purchase products and services that they perceive as too complicated. If they do buy them and find they cannot use them, they will return them. Everyone jokes about people who can't program their VCRs but the inability to utilize the products and services that our industries produce is a serious issue. On the production side, businesses are unable to find enough workers who can competently read, write or do math and must fund expensive remedial programs. "Workplace literacy" projects have sprung up all across the United States. Why do businesses have to devote resources duplicating the efforts of our school systems?

Last September the U.S. Department of Education released the results of a study entitled "Adult Literacy in America" that concluded that 44 million Americans function at the most marginal level of literacy. Educators no longer measure literacy by the black and white distinction of whether someone can read and write. Rather, they view literacy as a continuum of skills integral to functioning in society - certainly a more telling and useful assessment. Extrapolating from the survey results, an estimated 50 percent of the 191 million American adults would not be able to read a bus schedule well enough to determine how long they would have to wait for the next bus. Comparing survey results from 1992 and 1985, the Department of Education concluded that literacy among the 21-25 year age group has actually declined. Yet these are the people we expect to take full advantage of future advances in technology.

Some would brush aside the issue of adult literacy saying that we should focus on children who, they believe, are more comfortable with technology because they are growing up with it as part of their lives. The ability to play a game on a computer cannot be equated with the power to reason or synthesize information. Falling standardized test scores belie the view that our schoolchildren are in better shape than their parents. In fact they are woefully behind children in other industrialized nations in science and math.

Marginally literate people rely more on television than print media for information. Ironically, most of the hoopla about interactive television has been in the print media. Perhaps this explains why in some surveys up to 80 percent of those polled were blissfully unaware of the concept of interactive media. Although the information highway can offer powerful learning tools, those people who could benefit most from the educational possibilities of interactivity are the least likely to take advantage of it. Like toll roads, the information highway will cost a good deal to use and, as a group, the functionally illiterate have fewer discretionary dollars to spend.

Americans are very good at creating concepts, products, and services that take advantage of technological breakthroughs. Unfortunately a substantial segment of our population is ill-prepared to use them. Our dilemma is that as our technologies grow more elaborate, our abilities to integrate them into our daily lives are declining. The information highway and interactive media will not be panaceas and they will not revolutionize our lives. In fact they will barely touch the lives of most of Americans. Many who decide to take a test drive on the information highway may find themselves looking for the nearest exit.

1994. All rights reserved.

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