Computer Literacy, Computer Skills, and Computer Use
in Schools and Small Businesses.
From the personal experiences of
People have many misconceptions about the uses and misuses of computers
in business and in schools. Although many people are now using computers
in their daily lives, both at home and on the job, many small businesses
and most schools are not using them efficiently and, in many cases, are
misusing computers and related technology. Although computer systems, if
properly implemented, can be very useful in increasing efficiency, they
can decrease efficiency just as much when improperly used.
July 27, 1997
I define efficiency as use of a computer system to accomplish well defined
goals with less expense than before in terms of time and money. If use of
computer systems either prevent reaching goals or make reaching goals more
expensive or more time consuming than before, then I consider that misuse of
computers. The fundamental point that is often overlooked or under emphasized
is that use of computers is not itself a goal but that computers are tools to
be used to accomplish objectives usually unrelated to the computer itself.
Computerizing Small Businesses
I have been setting up small business computer systems in my rural area of
Kentucky for eighteen years. This has included systems analysis, hardware
acquisition, custom programming, and training employees, most of whom had
never touched or even seen a computer before. I had the first computer in the
area. I don't mean personal computer. I mean computer of any kind. When I
started computer consulting no bank or hospital or business of any kind in the
area had a computer except for a couple of IBM 5110s which had been purchased
by a local gas company for gas billing. Those were floppy disk drive systems
that cost $20,000 each. The company had paid a firm in Lexington, Kentucky
something like $40,000 to develop gas billing software for them but they told
me later, when I computerized their operation, that the previous system never
did work right because it wouldn't keep gas and equipment inventory
information for them. Also, it was set up so that the receivables were tied
to the location of the gas meter which meant that, if one person moved away
from a location and someone else moved in, the person moving in inherited any
unpaid gas bills from the customer leaving.
I have computerized nearly 200 small businesses and trained probably 300 to
500 people to use these systems. Some of my customers have been using my
computer systems continuously for up to fourteen years. At one time my area
of south central Kentucky probably had more businesses computerized for the
size of the community than any in the state and probably than most in the
nation. Now, of course, computers are common in small businesses here and
elsewhere, although I have installed and do maintain most of the local
business computer systems.
Most computer systems have been in the past and are still being used by
small businesses for various accounting and database purposes to keep up with
money and customers and to a lesser extent for word processing.
At one time, when no college offered any computer classes I put on classes
for local people because so many people asked me for these. These classes met
for two hours one night a week for ten weeks. The purpose of the class was to
give students, mostly local business employees, some basic familiarity with
the hardware and operation of a computer system by discussing information
storage and programming so that the students would learn what types of uses a
computer could have in business. They were then in a better position to make
decisions about computerizing and knew some of the advantages and
disadvantages of doing so.
After I had been offering these classes for about three years a local
college decided that they should be offering computer classes. When they had
trouble finding anyone capable of teaching such a class they contacted me and
asked me if I would offer the class I had been teaching for them. That way
my students could get college credit and they could also furnish more
students. I had been charging my students $5.00 per lesson or $50.00 total
for the ten week course. That way I got paid $1,000 for teaching 20 students
and it was relatively inexpensive for each student. The college said they
would charge each student $300 and they would pay me $300 for teaching the
course for ten weeks. I told them where they could go.
They eventually found someone to teach their course and began offering it
locally so I quit offering a course myself. I found out later that rather
than teaching bookkeeping and accounts receivable uses and the uses and
limitations of computers, the college was teaching students how to use a
spreadsheet program and how to set up spreadsheets. So far as I know very few
people in this area have ever used spreadsheet programs on a computer. That
may be because their primary needs are in bookkeeping and I set up dedicated
bookkeeping systems for most of the businesses in the area.
After I had been at this business for a few years people began talking about
"Computer Literacy" and "Computer Skills". I never understood these terms.
Businessmen, when they discussed computer systems with me, would ask me if
they would need to hire a computer operator for their new system. I always
told them that if they had an employee who knew how to do the job they wanted
done manually, that I would teach that employee or those employees how to
operate the computer in twenty minutes and how to use it for their business
application in two to four hours with a few follow up training visits. To me
"Computer Literacy" meant how to turn a computer on and how to read and select
from a menu. That I could teach in twenty minutes. The only thing I could
think of to call "Computer Skills" would be knowledge of touch typing if the
computer was to be used for word processing. Otherwise, the skills needed
were a basic knowledge of the accounting and bookkeeping needs of the
business. These were not computer skills though but business skills. These
installations were always successful when the business did have employees who
understood the needs of the business. Success was not assured if this was not
I also discovered that the easiest employees to train were those who had
not had any classes on using computers. Usually those employees who were
hired because they had taken a local computer course at either the high school
or college level did not know anything about business. They were taught in
the classes, for example, that if they had problems with a computer they
simply had to reset the computer to start over. Any time they didn't
understand how to do something they would reset the computer losing any data
they had been entering and making a hash of computer index files. It would
sometimes take me hours to repair the databases. They usually were also not
taught what computers do, but how to use specific commercial computer
programs, usually spreadsheets and word processors. They seemed to be lost
when they had to use applications that they had not been taught in school.
Employees who had taken accounting courses at the local vocational school
were sometimes better if the accounting system was already set up and running.
However, I discovered that if the business did not have an existing accounting
system, they were incapable of developing one. I had one business owner who
set up a new business and hired a graduate of a State University with a Degree
in Accounting. She also was incapable of setting up an accounting system.
She eventually cost him several tens of thousands of dollars due to improper
bookkeeping and eloped with one of his customers.
See Some Thoughts on the Development of Personal Computers.
Computers in the Schools
In the mid 1980s a local teacher decided to offer a course on computer
literacy at the high school. Basically he showed a bunch of high school
students how to play games on computers. Later IBM donated some castoff PC
Juniors to the primary grades with a program they had developed called Write
to Read. I think they developed that system and donated those computers to
get tax writeoffs for computers they couldn't sell. Later when Texas
Instruments found that they couldn't sell their computers they reduced the
price of the remaining units from a couple of thousand dollars to about $50.
At that point a few local teachers bought some of those and put them into
their classrooms. They lasted a year or so until the hardware failed and
since the company no longer supported those computers, they were junked. A
couple of teachers at the High School had a computer in their classrooms and
there were maybe one or two other computers in use in the entire school
district before about 1990 or 1991.
By the time my younger son was in the 7th grade in 1990 we had
encyclopedias and other reference books on CD ROM and had been using online
services for research for years at our home. My son was assigned an essay
about some famous person to write that year. He just found the entry on the
CD ROM and printed it out directly on our printer complete with copyright
notices and everything and turned it in to his teacher. I told him he
couldn't do that because it was plagiarism and that he would get an F. The
teacher gave him an A because she was so impressed that he could find
information on a computer and print it. No one had ever done anything like
that in our school system before. He told me he didn't even read the essay
before he turned it in.
When the Kentucky Education Reform Act passed the Kentucky General Assembly
in 1991 or thereabouts, it provided for a "technology coordinator" for each
school system. By that time the local high school had a room with several
computers and a teacher who was teaching spreadsheets and word processing.
The school superintendent asked me to advise him on how best to implement the
push to get technology into the schools. I interviewed most of the people in
the school system who were already using computers in some way. I then told
him that computers would have three functions in the schools.
The teachers soon informed the Superintendent that I did not know what I was
talking about and that the thing to do was to buy a bunch of computers and put
them in a large room, (computer lab). They did this and when my son got to
High School they would take one hour in his English class once a week when the
whole class would go to the computer lab to type their English assignments on
the computers. A teacher's aide was in charge of the computer lab. Her
function seemed to be to see that the students did not try to do anything
other than word processing on the computers. They were fanatic about the rule
that diskettes could not be brought into the computer room from outside or
taken out of the computer room. They didn't want any kids bringing viruses
in. Printers were available only on the network. Sometimes they weren't
working or other people were keeping them so busy that there wasn't time to
print out their work. As a result my son would sometimes type his English
assignments on our computer system at home and sneak the printout into the
computer lab. His teacher could tell he had done this though because the
print quality was so much better than that from the computer lab. Once or
twice she reminded him that he wasn't allowed to bring work he had done at
home to school because he was supposed to learn about computers in the
computer lab. She didn't seriously try to enforce this though.
- The Administrative Function - Each school should have a computer
system set up to keep school and student records, account for school money
etc. Also to the extent it was feasible teachers who were interested should
have computers available to keep class records and lesson plans.
- Computers as objects of Instruction - A class in computer
programming and in the basics of the hardware could be offered in the high
school. However, I said that I felt there would probably be too little
interest and too few students with an aptitude for this to make it feasible.
- Computers as mediums of Instruction - Computers should be set
up in the library of each school with access to reference materials on CD ROM
and at least one of these computers in each library should have on-line access
to the Internet. Possibly notebook computers could be available to be
checked out by students to give students without home computers access to
complete computer assignments at home. All computers would have word
processing software available with the librarian available to teach the
students to use the software. In addition teachers who came up with good and
innovative ways to use computers to enhance the subject they were teaching
should have computers and appropriate programs available in the classroom. I
told him that the only use I could see for what they were calling "computer
labs" would be to teach touch typing by computer, but since that was a
function of the nearby vocational school and was not taught at the High School
that use would not apply. I also mentioned the use of other technology such
as video cameras in the schools. We discussed the concept that computerizing
a school was not a one shot deal but that plans should be made for phasing
computer use in and replacing computers at least every three to five years.
Later on they got a program called "Knowledge Master" which was a trivia
quiz type program and was supposed to give the Academic Team extra practice
for academic tournaments. Students were allowed to go into the computer lab
during any free time they had to use that program.
It is my understanding that some school systems are now cutting back on
purchases of lab equipment, shop classes, field trips, etc. to have money to
buy more computers. As they say about television on TVLAND, "It's 34% better
than real life." The point is that schools are now using computers as an end
in themselves rather than as a tool to facilitate learning other subjects.
I put this site on the Internet in July 1995. The local county had become
part of a Rural Empowerment Zone in late 1994 and
federal money and employer benefits were available to attract much needed
employers to the area. In late 1995 I talked to a few local community
leaders, officials from the Empowerment Zone lead agency, Kentucky Highlands,
and members of the local Chamber of Commerce about the desirability of
promoting the local area and it's business advantages on the Internet.
Probably partly because local Internet access was not available, they said
they could see no benefit from that. I offered to make a presentation to the
Chamber of Commerce about the Internet and how it could be used but they
seemed to think there would be no use in that because the Internet wouldn't
catch on for several years.
By late summer of 1996 three or four local people had begun using the
Internet through America On Line. Because of that and because of some changes
in the local leadership of the Chamber of Commerce they did invite me to make
a presentation at one of their meetings to acquaint them with the Internet. I
made such a presentation at that time. It included a
computer set up with Internet access in which we visited state promotional web
sites, other sites promoting local areas, and a web site about a school in
Japan. I also handed out a number of printouts of sample web pages and copies
of these notes. It was well received and seemed to
generate interest that night. Within a couple of months an ISP began offering
local Internet access. However, I heard no more about any interest in
advertising the Empowerment Zone or promoting the local area on the Internet.
In the Spring of 1997, I guess the local leaders did decide that some
promotion was needed because they put a billboard up at the county line
identifying Clinton County as an Empowerment Zone area. Within a few months
they had erected one or two more similiar billboards at other places on the
county line. Then lately someone told me that a state agency had suggested to
someone locally that the county seat could have a page on a state web site and
they were considering the idea.
Two years ago, when I first suggested the idea, a search of the Internet for
cities in Kentucky yielded Web pages for only two cities, Louisville and one
of its suburbs. I thought, at that time, that if a search yielded those two
plus Albany, Kentucky that would be a big plus for the local area and make it
look very forward thinking. When I could get no local interest in the idea I
just put the promotional page on my web site and let it
go at that. I had originally envisioned and talked to people about a site
with lots of high quality pictures of the area, economic descriptions, and
maybe a contest sponsored by local businesses giving away monthly vacations at
local lakes to web site visitors drawn at random.
I still think that such a site put on the WWW at that time and well publicized
on the Internet would have been quite a boon to the area.
Links to related subjects on this web site
Links to related subjects elsewhere on the WWW
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Last revised July 27, 1997.
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