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September 29, 1999

Education
By PAMELA MENDELS Bio

Universities Adopt Computer Literacy Requirements

Before she earns her diploma from the University of Texas at Arlington, freshman Jennifer M. Wing will have to take courses in English, mathematics and other subjects considered core to the school curriculum.



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But unlike students in previous generations, Jennifer will have to master a decidedly more contemporary field of knowledge as well. This year, for the first time, the university is requiring students to demonstrate computer literacy as a condition of graduation.

Jennifer, for one, is not complaining. "It's a really good idea," she said, echoing the sentiments expressed in a recent editorial in the school newspaper, The Shorthorn. "It's one of those common sense things. You have to know computer skills."

Apparently, officials at many schools agree. Increasingly, colleges and universities are adopting computer literacy requirements in an effort to better prepare their students for the modern workplace.

"It's part of a recognition that computer competency is becoming as necessary in the modern workforce as writing competency," said Margaret A. Miller, president of the American Association for Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes change in post-secondary education.

Just how many schools have added computer literacy to their list of "musts" for graduates is hard to say. But Miller and others say they have seen increasing numbers of schools embrace the concept in recent years.

At the University of Texas at Arlington, students must master five computer-related skills, according to Dana Dunn, senior vice provost for academic affairs at the school. They are: use of spreadsheet programs; use of word processing programs; ability to use the school's online library research services; ability to use e-mail, and ability to conduct Internet-based research.

Students can fulfill the requirement by taking courses offered through the computer science department, courses offered through other departments that have detailed computer use requirements built into them or by passing a computer proficiency test.

One impetus behind the decision -- at least for some schools -- is somewhat more practical: accreditation.


Dunn says one reason the school introduced the requirement is that the institution attracts a number of older students, and university officials wanted to make sure that even those who did not grow up with the Internet and e-mail would be fully comfortable with computers. "We thought we would be providing a service to employers to certify that our graduates are computer literate," she said.

Meanwhile, last year officials at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. decided to introduce a tougher computer literacy requirement to replace an older policy. There are several ways students may fulfill the requirement, including taking a one semester course designed by the computer science department, but all students are expected to have learned certain fundamentals. Among them are basics of hardware and computer systems, Internet research skills and computer ethics.

JoAnn M. Gora, provost and vice president of academic affairs at the university, described the decision to introduce the new policy as "one of the least controversial" the school has made. "Knowledge of computers is critical to being able to function well in the 21st century," she said. "It's just as important as an understanding of the English language."

So important in the eyes of Old Dominion officials, in fact, that they are now considering whether to require students to pass a computer literacy exit exam, in addition to their exit writing proficiency exam, before getting their sheepskins.

At Florida State University, students have faced a computer competency requirement since last year. They, too, are given a number of ways to fulfill the requirement, such as taking a test that proves they already have the skills or enrolling in computer literacy courses, including one offered online.

While most university officials say they have adopted computer literacy requirements is to prepare students for the digital workplace, one impetus behind the decision -- at least for some schools -- is somewhat more practical: accreditation.

Several years ago, the major regional accrediting association for southern schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, added the words "the basic use of computers" to the list of skills that graduates of its approved institutions must demonstrate.


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The regional accrediting group for California, Hawaii and other areas, meanwhile, is considering revising its standards to include an "information literacy" mandate, according to Ralph A. Wolff, executive director of the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. The emphasis would be on teaching students the skills to find information from a variety of sources, including the Internet, and how to evaluate it, he said.

Some school officials believe the computer literacy requirement may be a temporary one, because many young people are already learning much of what they need to know in high school or at home on their personal computers. A survey of freshman last year by a research center at the University of California at Los Angeles, for example, found that 66 percent reported having used e-mail for communication and 83 percent had used the Internet for research.

Still, there can be gaps in knowledge. Wing says she is well-versed in using e-mail and word processing programs and conducting Internet research.

Spreadsheets, however, are another matter.

The EDUCATION column is published weekly, on Wednesdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.


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Pamela Mendels at mendels@nytimes.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.



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