Being Fluent with Information Technology


Implementation Considerations


Chapters 2 and 3 describe an intellectual framework for FITness. But while the committee believes that the framework of FITness is generally relevant to a very broad range of the citizenry, implementational issues are very different for every segment of the population that might benefit from FITness. As noted in the preface, issues of committee expertise and budget imposed some practical constraints, and the committee ultimately decided to restrict the implementational focus of the report to the higher-education community with which it was most familiar--the four-year college or university graduate. Box 4.1 offers a few comments on FITness and K-12 education.

A focus on college graduates is pragmatic as a first place to begin efforts to promote FITness:

A final reason for emphasizing college and university efforts is to promote equity. In an ideal world, all students would have access to the technological resources necessary to support their personal and professional interests. But in reality, technological advances frequently leave behind individuals with few opportunities, resources, wealth, or access to public facilities. 2 Colleges and universities provide important opportunities for such individuals, and such opportunities can be used to break down barriers to education, knowledge, and power. Conscious efforts to attack disparities in preparation among incoming students may well be necessary to promote a goal of all students graduating more FIT.

Enhancing undergraduate education for FITness will not be easy. U.S. undergraduate education is challenged as never before. Access to knowledge has become a requirement for many decent jobs, while at the same time, students, parents, administrators, and public officials look with dismay at the prospect of longer and more expensive courses of study required for a four-year baccalaureate degree. Solving the problem with ever-more narrow disciplines whose graduates know more and more about less and less is unsatisfactory. Such segmentation poorly serves a world where career changes are frequent and cross-disciplinary communication is needed to solve systemic problems.

The committee has considered the challenge of undergraduate education in two ways. First, its definition of FITness is parsimonious, broad, and flexible, with only ten requirements each in the three types of knowledge: capabilities, concepts, and skills. How the importance and context for each of these 30 requirements are tailored to the career and intellectual interests of individual students is the focus of this chapter. Second, it recognizes the practical issues of introducing new content into undergraduate curricula that are already packed.


Although the content of FITness is presented in Chapter 2 as a list of items, such a characterization does not imply that lecturing about them is the optimal form of instruction. FITness is fundamentally integrative, requiring the coordination of information and skills with respect to multiple dimensions of a problem and the need for making overall judgments and decisions taking all such information into account. For this reason, the committee believes the best way to develop FITness is through project-based education. Projects weave together the skills, concepts, and capabilities of FITness to achieve a tangible result. In a project, specific information technologies will be used, motivating students to become skillful with such things as databases, e-mail, and presentation software. Understanding the range of alternatives and implementing the solution will rely on or motivate learning the underlying concepts.

Projects of appropriate scale and scope inherently involve multiple iterations that provide opportunities for instructional checkpoints or interventions. And, an appropriately scoped project will be sufficiently complex that intellectual integration is necessary to complete it. (Appendix A provides some illustrative projects.)

An appropriately scoped project demands collaborative efforts. Project-based collaborative efforts are pedagogically valuable for several reasons. First, developing true expertise in any area requires the individual involved to assume a variety of different roles--creator, critic, partner, supporter, and so on--and a collaborative group effort is a natural setting in which to exercise these roles. Furthermore, learning to specialize and to deliver one's special information to a group is an important dimension of developing expertise, and so project-based learning helps teach students the character and nature of varied roles as well as how to play the role of a specialist. Second, a project requiring multiple collaborators can be large and complex enough to raise important intellectual and strategic issues that simply do not arise when problems are artificially delimited to be completely doable by a single individual. Third, students benefit from hearing explanations formulated by peers as well as experts. 3

A project-based approach is consistent with many different instructional models:

Each of these models can support project-based learning, though in practice no one approach suffices for a successful project. Effective courses need support and scaffolding so individuals can test their understanding against expectations regularly and obtain feedback on their weaknesses.

No single project bestows FITness, but a series of well-chosen projects can provide a foundation for the lifelong journey toward FITness. By working on a number of projects, students will have opportunities to use similar principles of technological solutions in different settings, to recognize technological analogies, to develop reasonable expectations for technological solutions, and to find work-arounds when technology falls short. A series of projects can provide sufficient breadth and diversity of experience that students can realistically "learn the rest" on their own, thus providing the intellectual foundation for self-directed, lifelong learning that can occur in many non-classroom settings. 4

Undertaking projects in complex problem domains provides a natural context in which FITness can be developed. For effective pedagogy, problem domains must be personally relevant so that the learner has reason to revisit and redefine his or her understanding of information technology. Individuals must use information technology in a domain they understand in order to develop FITness, but as long as that domain is relevant to the individual, it does not matter which domain is involved.

Finally, the description of capabilities, concepts, and skills described in Chapter 2 naturally raises for many educators the question of how much time is needed for each capability, concept, and skill in a time-limited curriculum for students to promote FITness. However, because FITness is a continuum, a specific educational context is needed to answer this question concretely. A course promoting FITness for history majors may well have a different weighting of topics than a course promoting FITness for engineers. A mini-course taught in an "independent activities period" designed for first-year students without designated majors is certain to be structured differently than a two-semester course for graduating seniors. Such matters are best handled by those who know the resource constraints of time and the availability of computing resources, as well as the competing needs, how the knowledge and skills are likely to be applied, and the value of deeper understanding to other student objectives.

The treatment of the three components of FITness--skills, concepts, and capabilities--may be approached differently. Students can learn word processing through the need to prepare and submit essays, spreadsheets or databases through the need to manipulate data in science courses, and so on. Many students will develop some of these skills prior to college, but even those who do not will have considerable motivation to learn them. College students have many non-curricular opportunities to develop current information technology skills, such as reading self-instruction books, learning from friends, or taking college or university workshops and non-credit courses taught by non-faculty professionals, e.g., computing center professionals and librarians.

The fundamental concepts are somewhat harder to integrate into standard curricula. However, as instructors develop and structure their courses to use information technology for enhanced pedagogical effectiveness, it will be increasingly possible to take advantage of the opportunities thereby provided for discussing the fundamental concepts and the application of these concepts in terms that are relevant to the disciplinary content of those courses. For example, art students study images, and often these images are images on a computer screen. But understanding the fidelity of these images to the originals requires an understanding of how images can be digitally represented. A business course might use computer simulations to demonstrate business processes. But understanding the limitations of a simulation requires understanding how processes can be modeled and the nature and scope of their limitations.

The capabilities also warrant being taught as part of disciplinary or departmental instructional programs. Indeed, these capabilities contribute both to FITness and to developing analytical skills that are necessary for success in multiple disciplines. The mode of instruction is primarily through projects that serve the purposes of the domain yet offer students the opportunity to learn and/or exercise the ten capabilities.


Many, if not most, colleges and universities understand that information technology will play an increasingly large role on their campuses. 5 Indeed, some are requiring that all matriculating students have a personal computer for use throughout their college careers. Some courses are being restructured and some new curricula are being developed to take advantage of new pedagogical opportunities offered by information technology.

Students who are successful in these courses must have skills adequate to support their use of the technology, and most institutions and courses provide some opportunities--whether in for-credit courses or not--for students to learn these skills. But the fundamental concepts and intellectual capabilities do not seem to be essential in these courses in any meaningful way. The challenge for colleges and universities is then how to build on the existing infrastructure of hardware, support services, and technology-adapted curricula and courses to support FITness.

One common reaction to calls for proficiency in X is to promulgate required courses on X. For example, in response to concerns about the writing ability of students, many universities require all students to enroll in (or place out of) a writing course. Only rarely have calls for new, universal courses of this type had a significant impact on curricula. Nevertheless, one first step toward FITness is a single college course, open to all students. No one course can fully realize the power and breadth of FITness, but it can provide a solid foundation upon which an individual can build further knowledge independently. With such a foundation in place, pedagogical efforts involving information technology should be easier and more efficient to undertake in subsequent courses.

This college-wide course would require students to complete a series of projects as a medium for acquiring the FITness capabilities and simultaneously to develop their understanding of the concepts and skills of FITness. It would be laboratory-intensive and ideally would draw projects from subject disciplines in which the student had some expertise or interest, whether or not those disciplines were technical. Thus, disciplines from engineering to economics or art history would be fair game.

If such a course were added to the undergraduate curriculum, what might it replace? The answer to this question will vary from one institution to the next, and there are a number of alternative strategies. For instance, many colleges and universities now offer a conventional computer literacy course for nonmajors, taught by the computer science faculty. It usually covers many of the topics listed as skills and concepts under FITness. In some cases, it also covers some of the capabilities by way of a programming laboratory component. This course could be converted, or updated, so that students who complete it are more FIT.

A better approach to FITness draws on the idea that information technology is pervasive. That is, when properly integrated, FITness will benefit the study of any subject, much as the ability to write well benefits students of any subject. By analogy to efforts that promote "writing in the major field of study," universities might consider offering FITness courses within a home discipline that are team-taught with a faculty member from the home discipline (who would provide the disciplinary context) and a faculty member from computer science (who would provide the conceptual foundations for information technology). 6 For instance, a FITness course team-taught by a computer scientist and an economist might involve projects in which students would apply algorithmic problem-solving skills to the development and exercising of economic models using appropriate modeling software. Science and engineering majors might benefit from a more thorough study of computer modeling, while humanities majors might benefit from a more thorough study of locating and evaluating information. Box 4.2 provides some examples of disciplinary courses that help to promote some aspects of FITness.

Over time, a series of these initiatives can help an institution educate graduates with a considerable measure of FITness, regardless of their major field of study. In the long run, faculty in various subject areas would offer courses that allow students to develop further their mastery of the concepts, skills, and capabilities of FITness in the context of problems drawn from their own fields; such courses would build on the foundations of FITness established in earlier years. Experience in establishing departmentally based efforts to fulfill global university-wide requirements (e.g., in areas such as expository writing) provides some confidence that departments can be successful in supporting university-wide goals to promote FITness.

Even apart from discipline-oriented courses, other instructional venues offer opportunities to develop FITness. Most institutions acknowledge that information technology will play an increasingly important role on their campuses. Thus, with information technology an increasing presence on campuses, most course designers make decisions (even if only implicitly) about what role information technology will play in their courses, e.g., whether students can communicate with the instructor electronically, are allowed to submit handwritten rather than typed papers, or are able to access the syllabus or homework assignments online. In addition, the institution itself provides many opportunities for using technology--course registration, class participation (e.g., through chat rooms), tutoring, application for financial aid, homework submission, databases of campus event information, and library research are among the possibilities.

Lest the integration of FITness across the curriculum appear too simple, the committee reminds the reader that a successful implementation of FITness instruction requires serious rethinking of the curriculum, just as campus-wide efforts to improve the writing abilities of undergraduates have involved such rethinking. The greatest successes in these latter efforts have been achieved not through a mandated requirement that all students complete the same writing course, but rather through the integration of writing into the fabric of courses taken by disciplinary majors.

Although Box 4.2 provides examples of individual courses that incorporate elements of FITness, projects that involve information technology in some essential way are still rare in non-technical courses. Universities need to concern themselves with the FITness of students who cross discipline boundaries and with the extent to which each discipline is meeting the goals of universal FITness. 7 The broad university-wide challenge is less about those disciplines where technology is stereotypically included (e.g., engineering) than those where technology is stereotypically relegated to a minor role or no role at all (e.g., the humanities 8). Thus, it is not sufficient for individual instructors to revisit their course content or approach. As with the efforts to promote writing, campus-wide collaboration is needed to develop appropriate goals for FITness and to determine how departments will contribute to those goals, and in any event, the process through which FITness can become a part of the regular curriculum must be evolutionary.

Faculty development is an essential dimension of campus-wide preparation to promote FITness. That is, to offer courses that seriously integrate appropriate information technology concepts, skills, and capabilities, instructors themselves will need to learn and utilize effectively the appropriate technologies as they become available for teaching and research in their respective disciplines. For instance, many fields within the social sciences are beginning to use computational-modeling software to help exercise and explain the principles of various social science phenomena, such as population growth or the interactions between various elements of the economy. Nevertheless, universal faculty FITness is not a prerequisite for universal student FITness, and not every course in a discipline needs to have a FITness component.

Currently, the level of FITness among college and university faculty is uneven, both among the disciplines and within any single discipline. For faculty who accept the idea that FITness is both fundamental to their students' mastery of their discipline and to their academic careers, support for faculty and curriculum development is necessary to help them become more FIT. Initially, such support might be external (e.g., provided by foundations), but over time, the institutions themselves must be willing to make the necessary investment on an ongoing basis. Evolution will also play a role in faculty development, in the sense that as new faculty are hired they will bring to the institution new expectations for information technology support, both in their research and in their teaching.

Curricular change will unfold in a context of broad integration of information technology into most aspects of a university operation and function in which instructors and administrators deploy the technology to support such possibilities (and associated infrastructure, such as adequate bandwidth for student usage) and learn how best to use that technology. For most students, the effectiveness with which they can use the university's information infrastructure will to a great extent determine the value of their educational experience. Box 4.3 describes some institutional imperatives for enhancing instructional use of information technology that will also support FITness.


1 See, for example, George T. Silvestri. 1997. "Occupational Employment Projections to 2006," Monthly Labor Review, 120(11).

2 For example, a report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) found, based on census data, that while as a whole the United States has achieved a significant increase in the last several years (i.e., between 1994 and 1997) in its ownership of computers and modems and its use of e-mail, the growth favors certain groups over others, and furthermore the gap between these groups is increasing over time. For example, those living in central cities and rural areas lag behind the national average for computer ownership and online access. Income levels, race, and educational levels greatly affect penetration levels. Nationally, the "least connected" groups are the rural poor, rural and central city minorities, young households, and female-headed households. See NTIA. 1998. Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide, Washington, D.C.

3 The literature on collaborative learning is extensive. See, for example, Gavriel Salomon (editor). 1993. Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations: Learning in Doing--Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives, Cambridge University Press, New York. A piece by Roy Pea, "Practices of Distributed Intelligence and Designs for Education," in this volume is particularly compelling.

4 While lifelong efforts to develop and maintain FITness depend most importantly on an adequate intellectual foundation, other elements are important as well. For example, students often lose access upon graduation to the information technology infrastructure they used to develop FITness. They may regain some level of access when they take new jobs, but the new information technology infrastructure may well not be as sophisticated as that left behind, disadvantaging them in subsequent efforts to maintain FITness. Some universities now offer graduates access to some basic facilities, such as "e-mail for life"; these steps move in the right direction. Of course, individuals must do their part as well, such as obtaining access to a computer that provides them with access to the infrastructure.

5 See, for example, "Computers Across Campus," Communications of the ACM, January 1998, pp. 22-25.

6 Because the concepts of information technology may be harder to teach in the context of other subject material (especially non-technical subject material), pairing a computer scientist with a faculty member in a home discipline may be particularly advantageous for explicating the fundamental concepts of information technology in a context that is relevant to the home discipline.

7 The difficulties of promulgating large-scale change across an entire curriculum are well documented. For example, many analysts believe that a faculty reward system that actively discourages junior faculty from developing innovative courses (because such work takes time away from research and publishing efforts) is a major impediment to change (see, for example, National Research Council, 1999, Information Technology and the Transformation of Undergraduate Education, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.). But these issues are beyond the scope of this report.

8 See, for example, American Council of Learned Societies. 1998. Occasional Paper No. 41, "Computing and the Humanities: Summary of a Roundtable Meeting." Available online from <>.

Copyright 1999 by the National Academy of Sciences