Oct 31 2006

Can Technology Solve Our Quantitative Literacy Problem?

Reports and opinions say educators – and institutions – must change in order to equip students to work in today's global economy.

The media was abuzz in January with news reports, opinions and editorials sounding alarms over a study that said a significant portion of U.S. college students lack some very basic quantitative skills. The study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, D.C., discovered that more than 80 percent of students at two-year colleges and more than 65 percent of students at four-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of quantitative literacy – the ability to perform computations.

For example, the report noted that many students can't perform such basic tasks as calculating whether their car has enough gasoline to reach the next gas station, figuring out the total cost of ordering office supplies or comparing credit card offers with varying interest rates.

Even more disturbing, almost 30 percent of students in two-year institutions and nearly 20 percent of students in four-year schools have only basic quantitative literacy. That means these kids have trouble calculating the cost of a sandwich and a salad from a menu, the report said.

As the parent of a fourth-year college student, I don't know if he can figure out the cost of lunch plus tip, because he has never offered to pick up a meal check. However, I will admit that he is quite savvy when it comes to calculating his gas-to-home ratio, because he always seems to arrive home on an empty tank and pleads for gas money to get back to campus.

Seriously, the study's finding is no joking matter. “The surprisingly weak quantitative literacy ability of many college graduates is troubling,” says Stéphane Baldi, who directed the AIR study. “A knowledgeable workforce is vital to cope with the increasing demands of a global marketplace.”

On the flip side, the report noted that current graduates are generally “superior to previous graduates when it comes to other forms of literacy needed to comprehend documents and prose.”

Meeting Challenges

The same week the AIR report surfaced, I read an advertisement with a commentary by Pace University President David Caputo in The New York Times editorial section. The headline read “Higher Education: Passing or Failing Our Future?”

“I worry that we may be mis-educating our students,” Caputo wrote. “Today's global economy requires knowledge workers with high-level cognitive skills who are innovative, technologically competent and prepared to collaborate with people from around the world. For the U.S. to maintain its competitive edge in this environment, a citizenry educated in these realities is essential.”

Caputo noted that our biggest challenge is to be able to change quickly. “This is a tall order for higher education,” he wrote, adding that “higher education needs to be more innovative and adaptive.”

What I gleaned from the media reports on the AIR study, coupled with opinions such as Caputo's, is that there is obviously concern that we are not preparing students to tackle basic living tasks and the macro skills needed to handle technologically driven careers in a global economy. These issues underscore why we invited Peter Smith to pen this issue's Technology Leadership column on page 9. Smith, who is assistant director general for education for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the former founding president of California State University-Monterey Bay, is the author of The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education Is Failing America, in which he discusses how technology is driving the fundamental changes in our education system.

“Technology can no longer be resisted by those who teach,” Smith says, adding, “because it is now as basic to learning as the ABCs.”

Well said. I would add that technology alone cannot solve students' academic shortcomings, but when technology is employed to supplement and enhance a rigorous curriculum, the students, teachers and society will be better for it.

Tom Halligan is editorial director of EdTech.

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