Being Fluent with Information Technology


In response to a request from the National Science Foundation, the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) of the National Research Council initiated a study in August 1997 to address the subject of information technology literacy. The rationale for such a study was that the increasing importance and ubiquity of information technology in daily life make it essential to articulate what everyone needs to know and understand about information technology. Such an articulation would be an essential first step toward empowering all citizens to participate in the information age.

Information technology as a topic for literacy has multiple constituencies. For example, the library science community has developed a conceptual underpinning for skills that are important for finding, evaluating, and using information, all of which are important aspects of any definition of information technology literacy. Because they spend their professional lives as creators of information technology, computer scientists have their own perspectives, as do practitioners in disciplines that have traditionally relied on computational tools, such as science and engineering. Disciplines in the arts and humanities are just beginning to tap the potential of information technology and will become (indeed, some would argue are now) important stakeholders. More generally, the broad category "knowledge worker" encompasses many professions in the workplace, and virtually all knowledge workers make use in greater and lesser degrees (increasingly greater) of information technology. Traditionally "blue-collar" workers such as auto mechanics and heating/air-conditioning technicians must also cope with a proliferation of embedded computing devices. And as government begins to provide more services to the public using information technology, the citizenry itself becomes an interested constituent.


In addressing its charge, the committee chose a broad definition of information technology. Information technology was defined to include the more traditional components of information technology (such as general-purpose computational devices, associated peripherals, operating environments, applications software, and information), as well as embedded computing devices, communications, and the science underlying the technology.

As for the knowledge and understanding component of its charge, the committee decided to use the term "fluency." Professor Yasmin Kafai, who briefed the committee, noted that fluency connotes the ability to reformulate knowledge, to express oneself creatively and appropriately, and to produce and generate information (rather than simply to comprehend it). This report uses the term "fluency with information technology," or FITness, and it characterizes as fluent with information technology (FIT) those who use, understand, and know about information technology in the ways described in Chapter 2. Chapter 1 contrasts fluency with the more common term "literacy."

All of the committee believed in the social desirability of the broadest possible dissemination of a set of fundamental concepts, skills, and capabilities. Good arguments were made to and by the committee for defining "everyone" in terms of all junior high school graduates, all high school graduates, all non-college-bound individuals, all college-bound individuals, and all adult citizens (as lifelong learners). But in the end, rather than argue that FITness was required of everyone in some demographic category of the population, the committee instead chose to make its case for the education of individuals who want to be able to use information technology effectively. Furthermore, issues of committee expertise and budget imposed some practical constraints on the committee's work, and the committee decided that it was best qualified to focus, as a first step toward fuller implementation, on the group of learners with which it was most familiar--the four-year college or university graduate. This first step toward implementation is discussed in Chapter 4.

The intent of this report is to lay an intellectual framework for fluency with information technology that is useful for others in developing discipline-specific and/or grade-appropriate efforts to promote FITness. However, this report is not a FITness textbook, a curriculum for FITness, or even a description of standards for FITness.


The committee sought input in three ways: through briefings on the topic from individuals who have worked in the field ( Appendix C), from electronic input in response to a set of questions about FITness that the committee broadcast widely over the Internet, and from perspectives provided at an invitation-only workshop in Irvine, California, held to explore the subject, for which participants were sought from a broad range of backgrounds and interests ( Appendix D). The committee, itself composed of individuals representing varied backgrounds and expertise (Appendix E), used this broad range of input in an integrative manner to inform its own deliberations on the appropriate scope and nature of FITness.


The committee appreciates the sponsorship of the Cross-Disciplinary Activities of the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering of the National Science Foundation for this project, and especially the support of John Cherniavsky.

The committee benefited from input from a broad range of sources. A list of workshop participants is contained in Appendix D; a list of briefers is provided in Appendix C. Douglas Brown of Bellevue Community College and Mary Lindquist of Columbus State University provided useful comments on Chapter 2. Comments of reviewers (listed immediately following this preface) helped the committee to tighten its presentation and to determine the appropriate emphasis on the various topics contained in the report.

Copyright 1999 by the National Academy of Sciences