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Professors, librarians, and other college officials are increasingly coming to grips with the somewhat confounding reality that despite students' affinity for IPods and their complete comfort with Google, many of them lack the technological literacy they need to navigate today's information landscape. But recognizing the problem is not the same as knowing how to measure or fix it -- tasks that many colleges are puzzling over.

The California State University system is drawing a bead on a solution, though. Its officials are  putting the finishing touches on a test -- developed in conjunction with Educational Testing Service -- that they believe accurately gauges students' technological literacy. And they are contemplating making the test a requirement that students would have to pass to move on to higher level courses, much like they do now for writing proficiency.

“People are good at learning technologies, but they are not so good at applying them,” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor of communications at California State University at Sacramento. O’Connor has become a strong advocate for increasing technological literacy.

But as technology evolves so quickly, experts toil to grasp the extent of the problem, said Diana Oblinger, vice president for Educause, a nonprofit group that deals with technology issues in higher education. “We’re now working on our next white paper and we’re struggling to define technology literacy,” she said. “There are more questions than answers because a couple of years ago we didn’t even have podcasts.” Oblinger added that Cal State has been working on improving technology literacy longer than any other system.

Cal State began to focus on information literacy in 1995. Early attempts to improve students' skills included workshops for instructors and librarians to emphasize the importance of information technology, and grants to allow faculty and librarians to redesign courses, and to help academic departments create curriculums that incorporate information literacy.

The most recent effort is the information and communication technology literacy test created with Educational Testing Service. More than 3,300 students across the Cal State system took the assessment this year. In a follow-up survey, 90 percent of students said that the test was challenging, while three-fourths said that the assessment tested tasks that they perform at school or work.

“We feel that the test is almost in final form,” said Lorie Roth, assistant vice chancellor for academics at CSU. “We look at this as foundation skills that all students should have just like math and writing,” she said. Roth said that about half of the system’s 23 campuses are now using the test in introductory college courses, and some of the system’s business schools are considering implementing the test as well. Roth mentioned several other possible uses of the test, but said that it will require more discussions before a final decision is made.

Currently, Cal State requires students to pass an assessment in writing proficiency before they can enroll in upper division courses. If students fail that test, they can either take a course to brush up on their writing, or study on their own before taking the test again.

O’Connor said that she would like to see the new test become a requirement for students wishing to take upper division courses. “We haven’t voted on that yet, but it’s moving in that direction,” she said.

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