Information Age Education
   Issue Number 219
October 15, 2017   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Computer Literacy Revisited

David Moursund
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

“Teach a student to use computers and you prepare her to function in a digital world. Teach her to program one and you prepare her to solve the world’s problems.” (Krueger, October, 2017.)

“Whatever you may be thinking when you apply for a job today, you can be sure the employer is asking this: Can this person add value every hour, every day—more than a worker in India, a robot, or a computer? Can he or she help my company adapt by not only doing the job today but also reinventing the job for tomorrow?” (Thomas Friedman; American journalist, author, and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner; 1953-.)

The term computer literacy was coined in 1972 by Andrew Molnar, Director of the Office of Computing Activities at the National Science Foundation. Quoting from Molnar (1972):

We started computer literacy in '72 [...] We coined that phrase. It's sort of ironic. Nobody knows what computer literacy is. Nobody can define it. And the reason we selected [it] was because nobody could define it, and [...] it was a broad enough term that you could get all of these programs together under one roof. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Now, 45 years later, an agreed-on definition remains elusive. (My current personal definition of the term is given in the Final Remarks section of this newsletter.) During these 45 years, computers have become ubiquitous, and their costs in terms of price-to-performance ratio have decreased remarkably. I am amazed by the 1972 insights of Molnar and others that have held up so well for so long, and especially through these many years of the dramatic decrease in the cost of compute power.
Some of My Personal History

I taught my first computer education for precollege teachers course in Summer, 1965. I ran and taught in many National Science Foundation funded summer institutes for precollege teachers beginning in 1966. The Nicole Krueger quote given at the beginning of this newsletter is from a recent issue of Empowered Learner—a computer education journal that I started in May, 1974, as The Oregon Computing Teacher (there have been several title changes since then). So, I became interested in what precollege students could and/or should learn about computers a very long time ago. Over the years, I have been extensively involved in promoting the ideas of computer literacy for all students. See, for example, Precollege Computer Literacy: A Personal Computing Approach (Moursund, 1983), and Collected Editorials (Moursund, 1985, 2005).
Some History of Electronic Digital Computers

The history of electronic digital computers can be viewed in terms of progress toward making computer systems more readily available and easier to use. The first stage was to make computers available—to invent the fundamental ideas and to build the first machines. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, substantial progress occurred in England, Germany, and the United States. The first general-purpose electronic digital computer built in the United States was the ENIAC, which became operational in December, 1945.

The ENIAC and other early vacuum tube computers were difficult to use. Each computer required a team of electrical engineers and technicians to insure operation, as the machines were not very reliable. Computer memories were quite small and internal instruction sets (machine languages) were restrictive. The process of preparing programs and getting them into machine usable form was exacting and time-consuming.

The UNIVAC 1 was the world’s first “mass-produced,” commercially available, electronic digital computer. It was built in the United States and sold during the years 1951-1954. The term mass-produced is quite a stretch, since only 46 of them were produced.

This machine could perform about 2,000 additions or 500 multiplications per second. This was, of course, blazingly fast compared to a person working with a mechanical or electric calculator. The price for a complete computer system was in the range of $1.25 million to $1.5 million. (Adjusted for inflation, in 2017 dollars this is about $11.25 million to $13.5 million.)

Figure 1. UNIVAC 1 system (left), and circuitry inside the actual computer (right).

The left picture in Figure 1 shows a large room containing a compete UNIVAC 1 system and some of its staff. The right picture shows the processor and memory unit. It was 14.1 feet long, 7.9 feet wide, and 8.5 feet high. It contained 5,000 vacuum tubes, weighed about eight tons, and consumed 125 thousand watts of power (Wikipedia, 2017a).

Today’s desktop, laptop, tablet, and Smartphone computers are more than a million times as fast as the UNIVAC 1, and cost (adjusted for inflation) about 1/10,000 as much. That is, the cost of a given amount of computation has decreased by a factor of about 10 billion during the past 65 years! Much of this change is due to the invention of the transistor and computer chips.

In 1956, the Industrial Age officially ended in the United States and the Information Age began It rapidly spread to many other countries located throughout the world (Moursund, 2017). Electronic digital computers have emerged as an important component and powerful change agent in our Information Age. They will continue to be a powerful and rapidly changing change agent for many years to come.

Some History of Computer Literacy in Precollege Education

As time-shared computing (a number of terminals networked to a single computer) first began to become widely available in the 1960s, a number of precollege students and precollege teachers learned to use computers. It became clear that precollege students could learn to use computers and that it eventually would be desirable for all precollege students to have some computer knowledge and skills. Quoting from an early report from the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (April, 1972):

It is generally agreed that all students should become computer literate, but no definition of computer literacy has gained widespread acceptance. This short booklet defines computer literacy in a manner that can guide educators as they work to implement universal computer literacy through precollege education.

This booklet is intended for curriculum specialists, elementary and secondary school teachers, media specialists, teachers of teachers and others concerned with curriculum in precollege education. It defines and discusses computer literacy for elementary and secondary school students. The approach is via an analysis of personal computing and the aspects of computers that can have a direct impact on students. Students can be personally involved with computers through computer assisted learning, computer assisted problem solving, the study of computer and information science, and through the use of computers for entertainment. Students can learn how computers are affecting the world of business, government and industry–and thus, how computers will be part of their future. Each of these aspects of personal computing contributes to the definition of a set of goals for computer literacy in elementary and secondary schools. The resulting overall goal is for a working knowledge of computers-that is, knowledge that facilitates the everyday use of computers by students. This knowledge lays a firm foundation for future learning about computers and for coping with the inevitable changes that will occur in this technology. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Art Luehrmann’s 1972 seminal article, Should the Computer Teach the Student, or Vice-versa?, helped to define computer literacy and presented his thoughts on what instruction in that area should emphasize (Luehrmann, Spring, 1972). In this article, he argued that schools should focus on teaching students how to use a computer as an aid to solving problems rather than on using a computer to teach students. In those days, teaching a student to use a computer to help solve problems meant teaching the student to write computer programs. The programming languages of choice for this endeavor were BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) and Logo (Wikipedia, 2017b, 2017c.)

The teaching of computer programming began to gain a significant foothold in schools. However, this was eventually overshadowed by the benefits and greater overall success of teaching the use of computer applications such as word processor, spreadsheet, database, desktop publication, graphic artist tools, computer algebra systems that could solve a very wide range of math problems, and so on.

Since 1972, we (humans) have developed desktop, laptop, and tablet computers We have developed the Internet to connect hundreds of millions of computer users, and the Web to provide readily available information to computer users. It is now feasible in a country such as the United States to provide every precollege student with a good computer and good connectivity that is available 24/7. As we continue to make progress in that endeavor, we still face the issues of how computer technology should be used, both in school and outside of school.

Becoming Computer Literate

The three Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic, are considered basics in education. We want all students to gain a level of knowledge and skills in these areas that satisfies their personal needs and also that meets “standards” established by the “powers that be.” Formal schools were established starting about 5,000 years ago to teach the basics of the 3Rs and history to a small number of students. Now, some 5,000 years later, this level of education has grown to be considered a birthright throughout most of the world.

Our schools have adopted the idea of learning to read and write, and then reading and writing to learn across all curriculum areas. To a lesser extent, this idea has been accepted for math education.

My book, The Fourth R, recommends adding Reasoning/Computational Thinking to all levels and in all subject areas of precollege education (Moursund, 12/23/2016). In brief summary, I want all children to learn to use both their human brains and computer brains to help solve problems and accomplish tasks “across the curriculum” as well as in their lives outside the curriculum. Thus, I want all students to learn to make effective use of computers as:
  • a general aid to learning both in school and outside of school.
  • an aid to solving problems and accomplishing tasks both in school and outside of school.
  • an object of learning in itself: the discipline of computer and information science.
  • a powerful change agent that itself is changing—and becoming more and more powerful.
Moreover, I want all students to learn about some of the perils of computer technology use such as: identity theft; outright stealing through use of stolen credit cards and banking information; distribution of fake news and outright lies; predatory behavior; becoming addicted to computer games; invasion of one’s personal privacy (“Big Brother” and many large companies are watching you); and so on.

Computer literacy is not a “one size fits all.” For example, suppose that from early on a child is particularly interested in music. The child deserves the opportunity to learn appropriate roles of computer technology across the music curriculum. This means that this child’s music teachers need to be appropriately prepared to provide the basics of this instruction, and appropriate computer facilities need to be routinely available.

The music example can be applied to every discipline of study. This means that all subject matter teachers at every grade level need to be computer literate in the subject areas they teach, and to make use of this computer knowledge and skill as a routine component of the instruction they provide. Needless to say, our educational systems face a huge and continuing preservice and inservice teacher education challenge.

The example also illustrates the advantage a child gains by having grown up in a family environment in which adults and other children have knowledge and skills across a variety of areas, and help their children to develop interest, knowledge, and skills in some of these areas. While school and formal education are a very important part of learning in our society, the one-on-one and/or small group tutoring provided in home and other outside of school environments is exceedingly valuable.

Indeed, think about the computer literacy that today’s children are gaining outside the regular school environment. On average, it far exceeds the computer knowledge and skills they are learning in their formal schooling. Add to this the start that has been made in providing students with high-quality computer-assisted instruction. Part of a child’s education is learning to make effective use of the wide range of aids to learning that are available.

Final Remarks

The meaning of computer literacy continues to change as the capabilities and availabilities of computers grow. Unfortunately, right now our formal educational systems are thinking too narrowly and changing too slowly to meet the computer literacy needs of today’s children. I think about computer literacy for a precollege student as consisting of:
  • Computer-related knowledge and skills adequate to help solve the problems and accomplish the routine tasks that one encounters in day-to-day life both in and outside of school.
  • Preparation for continued learning and use of the computer-related knowledge and skills needed in the vocations and avocations that one may want to pursue.
As you think about increasing your own level of computer literacy, consider the current roles of computers in all aspects of your daily life. Also consider the ways that gaining more computer knowledge and skills can improve the quality of your own life. As you increase your personal level of computer literacy, it is important that you share your increased knowledge, skills, and insight with others. This sharing and helping will increase your personal level of computer literacy and will be of assistance to those who learn from you.

References and Resources

Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (April, 1972). Recommendations regarding computers in high school education. Retrieved 9/22/2017 from

Krueger, N. (October, 2017). New era, new language. Empowered Learning. Portland, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Luehrmann, A. (Spring, 1972). Should the computer teach the student, or vice-versa? CITE Journal. Retrieved 9/22/2017 from

Molnar, A. (1972). Computer literacy. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/28/2017 from

Moursund, D. (2017). Information age. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/22/2017 from

Moursund, D. (12/23/2016). The fourth R. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from Access the book online at

Moursund, D. (1985, 2005). Collected editorials. Contains Moursund's autobiography together with the first 53 editorials and editor's messages published in the International Society for Technology in Education’s flagship periodical. Available free online at

Moursund, D. (1983). Precollege computer literacy: A personal computing approach. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/22/2017 from

Wikipedia (2017a). UNIVAC 1. Retrieved 9/29/2017 from

Wikipedia (2017b). BASIC. Retrieved 9/22/2017 from

Wikipedia (2017c). Logo. Retrieved 9/22/2017 from

Free Educational Resources from IAE

David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See

In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See Information Age Education is now fully integrated into the 501(C)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is the Chief Executuve Officer of AGATE.


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