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What Is Technological Literacy And Why Does It Matter?

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Defining Technological Literacy

Tagged Division

Technological Literacy Constituent Committee

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.1443.1 - 11.1443.8



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Paper Authors

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Greg Pearson National Academy of Engineering

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David Ollis North Carolina State University

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What is Technological Literacy and Why does it Matter ?


In February 2005, I was asked to speak before a group of several hundred high-achieving high school students from around the world who were visiting Washington, D.C., as part of a program called Presidential Classroom. I choose to talk about technological literacy, since the students' week in D.C. was focused on science and technology policy. I began with a simple interactive challenge. I flashed the following question on the screen at the front of the auditorium: "When you hear the word "technology," the first thing that comes to mind is "___________." After 5 seconds, I asked those who had thought first of "computer" or "computers" to raise their hands. Well over half the group did so.

I wasn't surprised, but I was a bit disappointed. Two recent Gallup polls had asked the same question 1, 2 , and nearly 70 percent of respondents, all adults, also said computers. (The next most common response, at 4%, was "electronics.") But this auditorium was filled with teenagers with a keen interest in science and technology. Was their view of technology really so narrow? And if it was, what did that suggest? Did it simply reflect the omnipresence of computers and computer-driven devices in these youngsters' lives? Might we wish something different of these "digital natives," Prensky's 3 term for people who since birth have known nothing but a world dominated by the silicon chip? If so, what? And what about the "digital immigrants" like me and most readers of this paper, who are part of the large but dwindling population of people older than the introduction of the personal computer. What ought we to make of their view of technology?

This paper will address these and related questions. It will begin by proposing a broad definition of technology and then using that foundation to build an equally encompassing concept of technological literacy. Technological literacy has strong links to science literacy, and to engineering, and the paper will discuss these connections. It will elucidate some of the potential benefits of technological literacy, which accrue to the individual as well as to society at large. And it will describe some of the initiatives around the country that aim to promote greater technological understanding. The paper draws heavily on Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology 4 , a report from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and National Research Council (NRC). A web-based version of the report is at

Technology Defined

It is not wrong to associate the word technology with computers, as many people do. Computers are technology, of course, and arguable one of the most transformational of our time, or any other. But they are far from the only technology that plays such a pivotal role. A carefully vetted list of 20 of the most important engineering achievements of the 20th century includes computers, but seven other technologies (electrification, the automobile, the airplane, water purification and distribution, electronics, radio and television, and agricultural mechanization) are ranked higher in importance. 5, 18 As the

Pearson, G., & Ollis, D. (2006, June), What Is Technological Literacy And Why Does It Matter? Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--391

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