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Computer Literacy in Higher Education

Ian Reid

Study Adviser, University of South Australia



The dramatic increase in the use of computer-aided instruction in higher education has come to the point that the use of a computer for a range of learning tasks is now a part of a student's basic learning toolkit, as much as taking notes or reading texts.

Possible definitions of the term 'computer literacy' are discussed and a Computer Literacy Program, developed from a collaboration between Study Advisers, Faculty Academics, IT professionals and Library staff, is described.

Evaluation of the program indicates that students found this type of support timely and useful. It also found that the assumption that some Academic staff make, that students already have computer literacy skills, is often erroneous.

It is argued that a partnership between Academic staff, Support staff and students is the most appropriate model for such support in order to provide quality and cost-effective assistance to students who need it whilst allowing subject lecturers to assume some level of basic skills.

Future prospects for the program are also discussed.


The issue managing the introduction of technology in the delivery of Higher Education is becoming of paramount importance for institutions in Australia (Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, 1996; Yetton, 1997). The teaching of computer literacy to all students is of increasing importance as the dramatic increase in the use of the computer has come to the point that its use for a range of learning tasks is now a basic learning skill, as much as taking notes or reading texts. There have been numerous studies such as that by Tapper (1997) which focus on the development of these skills in a single subject. There is a need, however to consider how these skills can be developed across the entire institution in a consistent and cost-effective manner (Ferren, 1993). This should be done in a way that motivates and empowers students to use these skills in the most effective manner possible so that students' prior experiences can be effectively acknowledged and built upon (Lee, Pliskin, & Kahn, 1994).

Defining Computer Literacy

Although it is generally agreed that the need for students in Higher Education to be computer literate is increasing, there are numerous definitions of what it means to be computer literate, which can depend on learning contexts, and as many ways in which Tertiary Institutions attempt to ensure that their students are computer literate.

A recent report at the University of South Australia (Grant, 1995) surveyed Academics across the institution, other Universities and external bodies to attempt to gain an operational definition of the what computer literacy meant for the various disciplines. There was a great variety in the responses. The results of this study indicated that Universities in general assumed a level of computer literacy but did not define the level of competence required. Two exceptions to this were the University of New South Wales, which defined it in general terms of 'familiarity with the vocabulary and strategies associated with computers and computing techniques', while the University of Woolongong had formal prerequisite subjects and a subsequent exemption policy established. The Australian Computer Society did not have a statement that addressed computer literacy.

The University of South Australia has defined the term by describing four types of user: the emergent user, the progressive user, the high user and the dependent user.(Bradley, 1996) These definitions describe particular behaviours, ranges of software use, frequency of use and reliance on use. For example the emergent user was characterised as:

This user was used for the design of the computer literacy program described in the case study below, by aiming to provide skills and understandings that an emergent user would possess.

Teaching Computer Literacy

Ferren (1993) describes seven main methods by which Higher Education Institutions typically integrate computer literacy training into Undergraduate programs:

Each of these models has a number of advantages and disadvantages that depend on the type of University in which the model is to be implemented. Yetton (1997) shows that the type of University changes the strategy needed for delivering Higher Education via Information Technology. The following case study is an example of the fourth model above. The main advantages of this model are that it positions Computer Literacy as a learning skill, rather than a separate discipline (which could impair its articulation with students' other subjects) whilst making it clear whose responsibility it is to teach these skills. It is argued that this is an efficient and appropriate model for a large and diverse institution to pursue, when it is expanded to include the types of staff and student partnerships it describes.

A Case Study


As one of its strategic initiatives for 1997, the University of South Australia identified the need for generic computer literacy training for all commencing students. This included a Computer Literacy Training workshop, with supporting resources, which was to be offered to all commencing students. This program was to enable them to have access to the skills and understandings required to become an 'emergent user', as described above, of Information Technology relevant to the University of South Australia's developing learning environment, which is increasingly becoming dependent on the use of computer technology.

Workshops such as this had been offered on some Campuses in some faculties in the past with mixed success and there was a need to bring together these disparate resources into a coordinated and common program at all Campuses.

As a result a working party was formed with representatives from the Flexible Learning Centre (FLC), the Library, the School of Computer and Information Science and the Information Technology Services unit (ITS) to manage the establishment of a basic computer literacy program to be run during Orientation week for commencing students at all Campuses, and the production of a complementary suite of basic computer literacy leaflets to be available to all students.

Aims of the program

The aims of the program were to:

Independent Learning Resources

Ten leaflets comprising 4 A4 pages in A3 folded form were produced. The suite of computer literacy leaflets covers:

  1. Rules for use of University computing facilities
  2. Introduction to the University's computer network
  3. Good working habits when using a computer
  4. Basic email
  5. Using a listserv
  6. Introduction to the Worldwide Web
  7. Researching using the Worldwide Web
  8. Basic Word Processing
  9. Using a Word Processor to write an essay or report
  10. Accessing the Library Catalogue

The leaflets were produced in time for week 1 of lectures in 1997 and are available at all Student Support Centres and Campus Libraries. They were contributed to by staff from the Library, the Information Technology Unit, the school of Communication and Information Studies, the School of Computer and Information Science and the author, from the Flexible Learning Centre and major contributors are individually acknowledged. These are also available on the University's intranet. Links to these leaflets will be available from the ITS HelpDesk web pages.

Orientation Workshops

The orientation bridging course and associated reference booklet cover logging on at a pool computer room, using Windows or the Macintosh operating system, basic word processing skills, using email and basic web browsing.

There were three main phases in the program:

Development of Teaching Resources

A 40 page booklet was produced as a result of a survey of material from other Universities and existing material produced by the University of South Australia. The booklet was a result of a collaboration similar to that described above for the independent learning resources. Much of the material was located in disparate locations in the University, but this was the first time a consolidated booklet of this form had been produced. This booklet provided the basis of the content for the training sessions for the presenters as well as the workshops during Orientation Week.

Training of Students to Present the Course

Faculty Academics recommended students who were suitable candidates to present the workshops during Orientation Week. As a result, 66 students were invited to take part in one-day training session conducted at their home Campus during the week of 10 - 14 February, 1997. These training days covered the materials and how they could be used; basic teaching techniques; administrative matters such as payment, expectations, availability and evaluation; the handling of critical incidents and time for discussion.

46 students attended these training sessions and received a payment of $50 for attending in addition to a certificate stating that they had attended. On the basis of their attendance at the workshop, students were selected to conduct computer literacy workshops during Orientation Week.

Presentation of Workshops

A total of 51 workshops were conducted, on every Campus with the exception of the City West Campus, the construction of which was not completed. A total of 456 students attended the workshops, as shown below. The workshops ran from 9 am to 12:30 pm and from 1 pm to 4:30 pm on each day of Orientation Week, if there was demand for the workshop.

The publicity of the program was confined to advertisements in the University's newspaper, memos to course coordinators, fliers and advertising posters during enrolment, inclusion in information given to students in Transition to Tertiary Study workshops conducted by Study Advisers, talks at Introductory Lectures and a section in the leaflet Enrolment Guide for Commencing Students 1997.

The workshop cost $20, and USANET students (who are part of a targeted cohort of low SES or isolated students) were given a $10 discount. Students enrolled by paying the fee at Campus Services during enrolment, or afterwards if they could not pay at that time. This fee structure allowed the recovery of costs for the program including workshop presenters' payments and materials production, while making the workshops affordable and accessible to students.

Workshop Evaluation

To evaluate the effectiveness of the workshops, a survey instrument was administered to gauge the effectiveness of the instruction, and the level of computer anxiety experienced. A follow-up survey is currently being administered.

Survey Responses

In answering the question 'Was the workshop useful?' students' responses were as follows:

Was the workshop useful?

Percentage of students





no answer


Table 1. Student Ratings of Workshop

Most of the negative responses were related to poorly presented workshops at one Campus where student expertise was low, or due to students expecting more than a basic introduction, despite the basic nature of the course being made clear in all publicity.

When asked 'What did you find useful about it?' students responded as shown in Table 2.

What did you find useful about it?

Percentage of Students



general computer use (logging on etc)




Word Processing


Worldwide Web


increasing confidence


Table 2. Skills most valued by students

The use of email is new to many students and is a clear need for commencing students. This is reinforced by the very high demand for the basic email leaflet that has been experienced.

When asked the question 'How could the workshop be improved?' students responses could be categorised in Table 3.

How could the workshop be improved?

Percentage of students

more specialised (wider range of software or cater for wider range of computer literacy in students)


can't be improved


smaller groups


more time


better teaching techniques


improved access (to accounts)


could be shorter


Table 3. Suggestions for improvement

As noted above, some students wanted more advanced instruction than was possible in a three and a half hour introduction to computing. There appears to be a demand for this.

It is clear that the need for this type of training, especially in the use of email, is significant. It is likely that this need will continue to grow despite the fact the Information Technology is increasingly being used in schools, due to the broadening diversity of the student body and the specialised environment that University Information Technology facilities comprise. Student-presenters are ideally placed to appreciate the implications of this student diversity and to understand the local IT environment. Students are anxious about this aspect of the Tertiary learning environment, and there is a great need for this anxiety to be harnessed into productive learning by this sort of program.

Computer Anxiety

Computer anxiety is a well researched phenomenon (Glass & Knight, 1988) that affects students' ability to engage with information technology. In attempting to assess this for the students attending the workshops, the 19-item Computer Anxiety Ratings Scale (Heinssen, Glass, & Knight, 1987) was administered. When developed with 270 students of average age of 19.05 it was found to be internally consistent, reliable and stable, and to have a high correlation with other anxiety measures. The developers found the scale to have a mean of 43.58 and a standard deviation of 11.73. Results for the students attending workshops are given in Table 4.

These results indicate that after the workshop the levels of computer anxiety were lower than those found by Heinssen et al., significant at the 5% level. This is a good result, given that these students self-selected as being in need of computer literacy training, although there are clearly still many students who remain anxious about the use of computers. It is worth noting that students in the faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences and Nursing had means above the total mean, although these differences are not statistically significant. The small sample from Whyalla cannot lead to any firm conclusions.

How could the workshop be improved?

Percentage of students

more specialised (wider range of software or cater for wider range of computer literacy in students)


can't be improved


smaller groups


more time


better teaching techniques


improved access (to accounts)


could be shorter


Table 4. Computer Anxiety following workshop


The program as described in the above case study has been successful in meeting its objectives for 1997. The response of students to the program indicates that there is an ongoing need for such a program.

It would appear that the model of students running sessions under the guidance of a study adviser is successful and worthy of further development. It has the advantages of being cost effective, easy to access, presented in an on-Campus context, utilising and coordinating resources from across the institution, and presented in a student-friendly peer delivery mode. The model will be expanded in time and place to increase its availability in 1998. There are also proposals to include this sort of training across the University at different levels of skill to cater for the computer literacy needs across the range of disciplines. Some of these proposals involve a modular approach where different Academic units could develop materials and/or deliver modules of teaching that Faculties could 'buy in' on a curriculum needs basis, as a combination of models 5 and 7 defined by Ferren(1993). This paper argues for the inclusion of partnerships between staff, students and academic functions in order to make the delivery of computer literacy training efficient and efficacious.


Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee. (1996). Exploiting Information Technology in Higher Education: an Issues Paper. Canberra: Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

Bradley, D. (1996). Integration of Information Technologies into Teaching and Learning. University of South Australia: Unpublished report.

Ferren, A. S. (1993). General Education Reform and the Computer Revolution. The Journal of General Education, 42(3), 164 - 177.

Glass, C., & Knight, L. (1988). Cognitive Factors in Computer Anxiety. Cognitive Theory and Research, 12(4), 351 - 366.

Grant, R. (1995). Report of the Working Group on Student Access to Computers. University of South Australia: Unpublished report.

Heinssen, C., Glass, C., & Knight, L. (1987). Assessing Computer Anxiety: Development and Validation of the Computer Anxiety Rating Scale. Computers in Human Behaviour, 3, 49 - 59.

Lee, D. M. S., Pliskin, N., & Kahn, B. (1994). The relationship between performance in a computer literacy course and students' prior achievement and knowledge. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 10(1), 63-77.

Tapper, J. (1997). Integrating Online Literacy into Undergraduate Education. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(1), 25 - 40.

Yetton, P. (1997). Managing the Introduction of Technology in the Delivery and Administration of Higher Education. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.



(c) Ian Reid


The author(s) assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author(s) also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 97 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.


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