Ralph D. Westfall
University of Southern California
Marshall School of Business
Information and Operations Management Department
December 15, 1997

This position paper addresses the "know" aspect of a working definition of literacy as "what everyone should know about information technology." It first identifies characteristics of information technology that make it very different from most other fields of academic study. In light of these differences, the paper then identifies technology evaluation and assimilation skills as key aspects of literacy in this area, which should be taught in most classes related to the subject. The paper concludes with a review of how this concept of literacy has been instantiated in an introductory information systems class.

Rapid Accumulation of New Knowledge

Information technology is a relatively young field, in contrast to most other academic disciplines. Nevertheless, in approximately 50 years it has accumulated a body of knowledge that is arguably as large and probably more complex than that of traditional academic disciplines such as literature or psychology, or of professional fields such as business or law. However information technology is fundamentally different from these other disciplines in several major respects, and therefore information technology literacy must of necessity differ from literacy in other areas.

In a traditional discipline, knowledge grows at a much less rapid pace. Small quantities of new knowledge slowly accumulate onto a much larger body of existing knowledge. Much of this new knowledge expands on and elaborates the body of existing knowledge, corresponding to Kuhn's (1970) concept of normal science.

On the other hand, the body of knowledge associated with information technology is expanding at a very rapid pace. Growth of this knowledge is largely driven by a phenomenon identified by Gordon Moore (1965), one of the founders of Intel. Moore's Law, as popularly understood, indicates that the power of computer chips will double every 18 months while the cost remains constant.

The effects of this exponential growth in processing power, and the associated rapid declines in price-to-performance ratios, are rippling across almost every aspect of current society. Computer hardware is becoming much more powerful and somewhat less expensive. Software designers are taking advantage of this extra power and declining costs. They are creating more powerful versions of existing types of software, and are inventing entirely new categories, for example, spreadsheets in the 1980s and web browsers in the 1990s.

Businesses use the enhancements in existing hardware and software capabilities, and the new capabilities, in two ways. They produce existing products and services more cheaply, more quickly, and in more diverse forms. They also develop innovative new products and services, which often include information or information technology as a significant component. These improved and new products and services have a major impact on competitive relationships in specific industries, and subsequent impacts on other areas of society, including entertainment, education, and consumer behavior.

One aspect of information technology literacy is knowledge about the characteristics and functionality of the various kinds of computer hardware and software that are currently available, and about their organizational and societal impacts. Another aspect is skills in keeping this knowledge up to date after the completion of formal education. Acquiring and maintaining this knowledge base is very challenging because of the current breadth of the field, and the continuing growth driven by Moore's Law.

Devaluation of Existing Knowledge

Another unique aspect of the field of information technology is the impact of new knowledge. Kuhn (1970) described several situations in which scientific discoveries led to radical transformations of traditional disciplines. In these "scientific revolutions" the new knowledge made obsolete large portions of the previous conceptualizations of these fields.

In other fields, such transformations are infrequent. In information technology, they are commonplace. For example, mainframes were initially the dominant source of computing capabilities, but now organizations have far more aggregate computing power in desktop computers. Most computer users currently use GUIs rather than command line interfaces. Although the web browser was invented only five years ago, many organizations are now making it their primary interface between employees and data resources. In these examples, the new technology does not make the preceding one obsolete. However when such transitions occur, knowledge related to the previous technology becomes less central to the field and more relevant to specialists than to the general population.

In the above situations new, more advanced technologies are superseding previous ones. The information technology field also has another form of knowledge devaluation. Competitive forces can lead to the ascendance of certain products, along with products that depend on or support them, at the expense of others with comparable technologies. Intel-based PCs now dominate the market, at the expense of the arguably more functional personal computers produced by Apple. Microsoft's word processing and spreadsheet software have superseded comparable products under the WordPerfect and Lotus brands.

The economic forces that drive these transitions from one information technology to another are different from the traditional economics of other industries. Arthur (1996) points out that, in contrast to the decreasing return on incremental investment typical of manufacturing, technology-based companies can experience increasing returns as volumes increase. Increasing returns are a major factor in situations such as the current dominance of PC-architecture computer relative to Apple's products. I do not have room in this paper to discuss economic forces in detail. However these economic aspects are another reason why information technology is fundamentally different from other academic fields, and thus needs to be taught differently.

Individuals and organizations can become victims of these kinds of transitions. A person who has skills with Apple computers and software, but not PC technologies, will have fewer job opportunities than a person who has skills with PC rather than Apple hardware and software. Organizations that still depend on mainframes for most of their processing may find themselves at a disadvantage vis a vis competitors using client/server technologies.

Therefore, to be computer literate it is not enough to just to have knowledge that encompasses the broad range of information technology products and their impacts on organizations and society. In addition, individuals must have skills in evaluating technologies and economic factors and trends, so that they can make informed judgments about the future prospects of specific technologies and products.

But it is still not enough to know the facts about information technologies and trends at the time of a person's formal education. A large proportion of what students learn in courses in this field will become devalued or outdated within five to 10 years. The rapid growth and constant threat of obsolescence require yet another skill, and to a greater degree than in other fields of study. To be truly successful in developing information technology literacy, educators must successfully impart both the skills and motivation to students to keep themselves up-to-date in this field throughout the rest of their careers.

Information Technology Literacy in Context

As a practical matter it will not be possible for most people to learn about and keep up with everything that is happening in the information technology field. Nor is it necessary. If students understand the relationship between their career plans and information technologies, they will be in a better position to focus their learning efforts on specific technologies that will be most important to their futures. The obsolescence issue can also help prioritize learning efforts. If people have the skills to identify technologies that will be more important in the future, they may be able to limit their efforts on technologies that are likely to become obsolete. Thus they will have more time to spend on technologies that will be more valuable to them and their organization in the future.

Another important consideration is that information technology is something that people use. Literacy is therefore not just knowledge about information technologies; it must include knowledge of how to use specific technologies, usually in organizational settings.

Learning to use new information technologies is usually not easy and, for many people, it is not enjoyable. Because of the increasing importance and pervasiveness of information technology, as well as the obsolescence issue, people will have to learn new technologies nevertheless. However this learning can become easier and more enjoyable with practice. Therefore hands-on experience in assimilating new information technologies must also be an aspect of literacy.

Considering the preceding, I suggest that any definition of information technology literacy will need to include, as key elements, the ideas expressed in the following points. These points deal with the "know" aspect of literacy as "what everyone needs to know about information technology." Note that these skills are relevant to most segments of the population in the 21st century, albeit in varying degrees, instead of being limited to categories such as entry level, executive, etc.

Information technology literacy must include (but is not limited to):

Instantiating This Concept of Literacy: The Learning Needs Model

In Westfall (1997) I describe a practical application of this concept of information technology literacy in an introductory information systems class. Figure 1 below diagrams the traditional concept of information systems education, which corresponds to classes preparing for careers in various other professional fields. Figure 2 shows the concept of the Learning Needs Model, which embodies the concepts of the above definition.

I designed an integrated series of learning assignments to implement the Learning Needs Model in introductory information systems classes at the University of Southern California. These assignments develop skills corresponding to most of the points in my suggested definition, and include the following:

Note that although that I implemented this approach to literacy in an introductory information systems class, these concepts could be incorporated into other classes in information technology. From the perspective of literacy, I suggest that teaching technology evaluation and assimilation skills needs to be an integral part of most classes in this area.


Information technology is fundamentally different from other academic disciplines. Therefore the definition of literacy, in terms of what a person needs to know, must also be different. As in any other field, knowledge of the current factual content and specific skills is important. However information technology requires a critically important set of additional skills. To be truly literate in information technology, people will need to know how to identify what technologies to focus on in the future, and be able to assimilate them. To use an analogy with the technology industries, a course should provide students with the skills they need to identify and follow the "migration path" between the course content and what they will need to know later in their careers.


Arthur, W. B. (1996, July-August). Increasing Returns and the New World of Business. Harvard Business Review 74, 100-109.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moore, G. E. (1965, April 19). Cramming More Components on Integrated Circuits. Electronics 38, 114-117.

Westfall, R. D. (1997, November 22-25). Using the Learning Needs Model for Introductory Information Systems Classes. In E. P. Robinson (Coordinator), 1997 Proceedings: Decision Sciences Institute (pp. 106-108). San Diego, CA.