My 8/10/08 Missoulian column
The high-tech world is one of constant change, with headlines about security issues, new gadgets that regularly appear and beg for our attention, and the seemingly endless software updates for our personal computers PC. And it’s a world that one needs to be able to navigate, because everything these days seems to depend on the World Wide Web and a PC, at home or at work.
In order to make your way “around the block,” you need to know at least the basics, intimidating as that may sometime seem. But high-tech concepts are no different that those in every other discipline or trade: They need to be learned.
There’s an old warhorse that goes “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” and that remains reasonably true in the high-tech world. If you learn to navigate an operating system, a word processor and digital photo management software, then a lot of the time you can learn the latest thing that Google has developed just by tinkering with it.
When we learn enough about a subject or develop enough skill to be able to adapt and teach ourselves, we can be called fluent. Fluency is a word that gets tossed around a lot in the context of languages – if someone is fluent in a language, they can communicate at a high level in that language, conversing, understanding and dealing with most situations that arise.
Carpenters need to have certain knowledge in order to be considered lead carpenters (sometimes known as journeymen), the title of someone who is “fluent” in carpentry – how to follow plans, how frame a building to code. Students must have certain knowledge and pass tests measuring that knowledge in order to get a degree. If we’re fluent in a skill or language we can perform an action or speak with little thought and can think our way through new situations.
Fluency is also a buzzword in the high-tech world: If you’re fluent in information technology, you have a working knowledge of the high-tech world and the skills to learn about the new technologies that regularly appear.
What do we mean when we say “fluency with information technology?”
The information technology, or IT, part is somewhat self-explanatory – it’s the technology behind storing, manipulating and retrieving information. By information we mean, at the most basic level, all the ones and zeros that make up digital information; at a user level, it means all the photos and documents and Web site favorites we’ve collected and work with. I think we can also expand the definition to include the tools we use: PCs, e-mail programs, Web browsers and iPhones.
The word “fluency” means a good, working knowledge of those aspects of information technology. I think being fluent also means that you’ve learned to be able to take an educated guess at new terms and concepts and can use deductive reasoning to figure out how to use a new program or gadget, or solve a problem.
What’s all this leading up to? A class I’m teaching at the University of Montana this fall called “Fluency with Information Technology” (Computer Science 111).
The class is a lecture with a lab, aimed at learning the basics and understanding the language of information technology. It will answer questions related to building a base of IT knowledge: What’s an algorithm? What’s a computer language? How are those two related and how do they work? How does one set up and use a simple blog? What does one need to know about online security? What’s the difference between an operating system and an application and cloud computing? The class has a practical side, too, covering the use of programs such as word processors, spreadsheets and Web browsers. CS111 won’t cover PC repair or troubleshooting, programming or Web site design. (The lectures and labs will meet in the late afternoon; check with UM for times and registration information. There’s also an online section being taught by another instructor.)
And as I teach the class, I’ll be using this column to cover different aspects of information technology fluency in between news and other timely topics. There’s always something new in the IT world, and you can’t go wrong with a good grasp of the basics. Becoming fluent in any language – especially one used in the day-to-day world – is always a good investment.
Follow-up on the Domain Name System flaw: Bigger Internet service providers have been busy patching their networks and hacking risks are dropping each day, with upward of
80 percent of major DNS servers no longer at risk. At the Washington Post, the Security Fix column covers the latest on the issue – see “Kaminsky Details DNS Flaw at Black Hat Talk” – and recommends using the OpenDNS service as a safeguard. You can watch Dan Kaminsky’s PowerPoint show from Black Hat on his Web site. A new angle is that e-mail is also at risk.