Computer Literacy: What You Really Need to Know

Computer literacy is the ability to use computers and related technology efficiently and effectively. We all use computers for things like e-mail, e-learning, and e-commerce, so everyone knows a little about web browsing, word processing, and basic keyboard commands. But to be fully computer literate also requires additional understanding of computer components, terminology, and how computers work. So then, what should be covered in an introductory computer class? Here are some ideas, with examples:

Introduction to computer history

It’s always interesting to learn how computers, the binary system, and the Internet were invented. This helps us to gain an appreciation for all the work that went on behind the scenes to make the power of computing both offline and online available to everyone. Many pioneering computer scientists contributed to the development of the computer as we know it today. Computers have progressed through three generations. The first generation used vacuum tubes, the second generation used transistors, and the third generation uses integrated circuits.

An overview of computer technology and terminology

The motherboard is the computer’s main circuit board. Other electronic components can be attached to it. The Central Processing Unit (CPU), as the name implies, is the computer’s main processor. The Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is another type of processor. In addition, there is the Random Access Memory (RAM). Since the RAM sticks are not directly built on the motherboard, they can be replaced. The motherboard also provides slots for plugging in many other components such as CD/DVD players, hard drives, etc. The motherboard and everything attached to it are mounted inside a protective computer case.

Peripheral hardware and storage devices

A peripheral device is any component that is connected to the outside of the computer case. Some examples of peripheral devices are: monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, microphone, camera, game controller, and printer. Storage devices can be either internal or external. Examples of storage devices include Hard Disk Drives (HDD), Compact Discs (CDs), Digital Video Discs (DVDs), Solid State Drives (SSD), and USB Flash Drives (thumb drives).

Word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software

Software is generally considered to be a collection of programs on a disk. A program is a set of instructions (lines of codes) telling a computer what to do. Code just means a snippet of a program. For instance, the functionality in Microsoft Word that allows us to open a file would be a single program, which in turn could be hundreds of lines of code. The Operating System (OS) is the software that coordinates all the activities among the computer’s hardware devices. Windows and Linux are examples of operating systems. There are always lots of programs running in the background of an operating system. Applications, or apps, are programs designed specifically for the end user.

Three common apps are Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Word processing is an extremely important tool for writing papers, and there are many things to know how to do besides changing font sizes. Excel spreadsheets offer a powerful means of number crunching. PowerPoint is the most popular presentation software. Your computer may have come preloaded with free versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. If not, you can buy Microsoft Office which includes all three of these classic programs for use at home or school.

Web browsers, search engines, and network connections

A browser (Firefox, Safari, Chrome) is used to access websites by typing in the URL (Uniform Resource Locator); whereas a search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo) is used to search for information using keywords. A computer becomes a much more powerful research tool if you know how to focus your results using advanced search and Boolean Operators (such as “and/or,” “not” or “and not”).

A computer network is simply a connection of two or more computers. The Internet is the largest computer network and it spans the entire globe. In a metropolitan area, there could be one or more Internet Service Providers (ISPs) providing network services. A small network in a classroom or a computer lab is called a Local Area Network (LAN). The Intranet is a private network securely connecting a single company or organization that has multiple sites spread across many cities or countries.

The World Wide Web (WWW) is a collection of websites available through the Internet. The most basic web pages use HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language). The protocol that the web uses is Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP). You should know the difference between DNS (Domain Name Systems) and IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, and be able to solve basic networking problems to ensure connectivity to the Internet.

Computer setup, maintenance, troubleshooting, data protection

It is tough to claim to be computer literate if you can’t even get it hooked up and turned on without help. Regular cleaning and maintenance is necessary to keep your computer in a good state of repair. Plus it’s useful to know what to do when hardware fails or something else goes wrong. When a storage device fails, it could partially or completely lose the data, and/or cause the data to be corrupted. The simplest and straightforward way to protect yourself against such failures is to perform periodic backups.

Security, privacy, and online safety

Data security entails all of the practices and processes that are in place to ensure that websites or private data aren’t being used or accessed by unauthorized parties. There are many ways to stay secure in cyberspace, including strong passwords, encryption, and other forms of access control (virtual private networks, firewalls, biometric devices, etc.) Everyone should install a good anti-virus, anti-malware, and anti-spyware program. Also, always keep your computer up-to-date with security patches and other updates. Learn to recognize spam, scams, and forged emails. Students who know how to safely navigate the Internet are poised for success both in and out of the classroom.

Social and ethical issues related to computers

In addition to all the practical how-to’s and general computer knowledge, a course in computer literacy should include a liberal arts/humanities aspect that covers the many ethical concerns that arise from the Internet. The use of social media, the pervasive negativity and bullying that occurs through anonymous (or direct) comments, and freedom of speech as well as copyright and digital rights management are all areas where ethical decisions need to be made.


Being computer literate is a long way from becoming a rocket scientist, and you don’t necessarily need to understand computer programming to simply use a computer for everyday applications. But if you master certain skills, you will certainly be able to do more and work faster than the average computer user. In an increasingly digital world, a high amount of computer literacy will give you an advantage at school and on the job.

This article touches on just the tip of the iceberg, but if you really want to be computer literate, you can find most of these topics and many more in Computer Basics Absolute Beginner’s Guide, Windows 10 Edition, which covers everything you need to know about using a computer. Even if you’re not an absolute beginner, you will surely learn some things in this book that you didn’t already know, which will make computing easier. Although computer books typically get outdated quickly, this one includes a Content Update Program, in which updates will be delivered to you via a free Web Edition of the book.

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