in New Literacies

Forms of Literacy

As with Literacy, last week’s post after time spent doing some research, this blog post is a synthesis of some of the issues I have been looking at as part of my studies. I’m aiming to investigate the concept of ‘digital literacy’ and issues surrounding it in my Ed.D. thesis. You can read my proposal at digitalliteracies.edublogs.org.

As evidenced in my last post relating to my Ed.D., ‘literacy’ is not a stable concept with a fixed meaning. In fact, since the 1960s, literacy has been deconstructed and re-cast into many different forms. This has followed a change in education, from the imparting of academic knowledge, through to more constructivist theories of learning (Martin, 2003:3) By many, literacy is no longer seen as merely the ability to ‘read and write’, but instead to make sense of the world through wider competencies and abilities.

It has been estimated (Grov Almås & Krumsvik, 2007:481) that by the age of 21 the average person will have spent 20,000 hours watching television, 50,000 hours in front of a computer screen, and only 15,000 hours in formal education. Clearly, if literacy is the ability to communicate with, and make sense of, the wider world, it is more than simply the ability to ‘read and write’ texts.

The problem is that, until recently, ‘visualisation [was] seen as an unproblematic kind of ‘translation’ from one semiotic mode into another – as a simplistic kind of translation from one language to another’ (Kress, 1998:55). As a consequence,

…the idea that visual literacy is necessary for reading visual materials [was] not as widely accepted as the self-evident fact that textual literacy is required for reading text. This is partly because visual materials in general are typically not considered to pose any reading challenges to the viewer. (Lowe, 1993:24)

Since the 1990s when these writers were working, however, I believe there has been a shift in thinking. Schools have been urged to consider the different ‘learning styles’ of students, suggesting at least various aspects of literacy. In my own academic career I have had to shift from being an undergraduate working primarily from the books of ‘dead white men’ to working almost exclusively in the digital realm. There is no longer a ‘canon'; information and knowledge are everywhere. Literacy in this digital realm needs to include at least some sort of reference to trust and the ability to critically analyse sources of information.

Given the need to describe competency in various areas and the ability to work with some ease with the material present in those domains, many different forms of ‘literacy’ have emerged. ‘Media literacy’, ‘Visual literacy’ and ‘Information literacy’ were popular terms in the late 1980s/1990s, with their proponents urging the need to include more of it in our schools. However, when looked at in more detail, there are very close similarities between them – as Tyner (1998:104) notes,

The similarities between the stated competencies of information literacy, visual literacy, and media literacy are so close that separating them seems unnecessarily artificial.

The need to set one literacy apart from another can only be explained by a need to use the concepts for other reasons, that is, to strengthen the professional status of its constituencies, or to take issue with the approaches used by proponents.

The tendency is for these proponents to decide that their term – say, ‘information literacy’ – is an umbrella term under which other forms of literacy belong. For example, ‘media literacy’, ‘visual literacy’ and other literacies may make up ‘information literacy’. Meanwhile, proponents of the other literacies do exactly the same thing. Potter (2004:33) gives a perfect example of this, when he states,

Reading literacy, visual literacy and computer literacy are not synonyms for media literacy; instead, they are merely components.

It is as if they are trying to grasp for something in common but falling short of describing it adequately. Johnson (2001:1), Rodríguez Illera (2004:58-59), and Søby (2003) illustrate this desire to move away from literacy to a new concept that involves communication, context and competence. They wish to stress procedure over prose, reforming literacy as a series of literate practices.

Seemingly realising that ‘literacy’ is to this new conception what ‘horseless carriage’ was to ‘car’, Søby (2003) attempts to use the German word bildung in conjunction with ‘digital’ to refer to a state which is difficult to describe, is very complex, and can only be approached with a holistic understanding of the field (Prange, 2004:502). As a result,

…digital bildung suggests an integrated, holistic approach that enables reflection on the effects that ICT has on different aspects of human development: communicative competence, critical thinking skills, and enculturation processes, among others. (Søby, 2003)

In the hunt for a new term to define this digital realm that is both similar to, yet very different to print-based media, some have stumbled across somewhat clumsy terms. For example, Electracy, originally coined by theorist Gregory Ulmer, which is, supposedly, ‘to digital media what literacy is to print’ (Ulmer, 2003). Erstad (2003:11) clarifies Electracy to some extent, stating that it is, ‘something young people develop by growing up in a digital culture,’ being, ‘literacy for a post-typographic world.’

These conceptions remain rather vague as they try to describe the literate practices of some individuals within an increasingly heterogeneous society. In fact, as Koltko-Riviera (2004:249) notes, some research has shown that certain ‘personality types’ are more or less likely to demonstrate ‘digital competence’,

[Dr. Schaab’s] results are at least compatible with the notion that digital competence (i.e., competence in working within a highly computerized environment) is not equally distributed across personality types; rather, some personality types are simply more digitally competent than others. Such a finding, if replicated, would have profound consequences for human factors theory, research, and practice.

The last word in this post, however, will go to Suzanne Stokes (2001) whose lengthy quotation can be justified by its insight. In the end, literacy is a reflection of society. The fact that we have multiple forms and conceptions of literacy upon which we cannot agree tells us a lot about the kind of world in which we live:

A culture’s predominant mode of literacy depends on the technology and mass media it embraces (Sinatra, 1986). In education’s continuing mission of meeting the needs of learners, an apparent shift from the long-standing process of reading, writing, counting, and text memorization skills that may have been appropriate for the medieval clerk, are giving way to skills of analysis and innovation that are considered desirable in today’s modern cultures (West, 1997). Proficiency with words and numbers is insufficient and must be supplemented with additional basic skills as new and emerging technologies permeate activities of daily living. Viewing change with fear and skepticism often accompanies shifts such as these that can revolutionize society.

It’s time to stop making the academically-equivalent error of calling a car a ‘horseless carriage’… but I’m not convinced that ‘electracy’ is the answer! :-p

References

  • Grov Almås, A. & Krumsvik, R. (2007), ‘Digitally literate teachers in leading edge schools in Norway’ (Journal of In-service Education, 33(4), pp. 479–497)
  • Johnson (2001) quoted in W. James Potter Theory of Media Literacy), 2004, p.30-1
  • Koltko-Riviera, M.E. (2004) ‘Personality Theory and Human Factors Research’ (in Vincenzi, D., et al. (eds.), Human performance, situation awareness and automation: Current research and trends, Vol. 1, 2004, pp. 249-252)
  • Kress, G. (1998) ‘Visual and verbal modes of representation in electronically mediated communication: the potentials of new forms of text’ (in I. Snyder, Page to Screen, London, 1998)
  • Lowe, R. (1993) Successful Instructional Diagrams
  • Martin, A. (2003) ‘Towards e-literacy’ (in A. Martin & H. Rader (eds.), Information and IT literacy: enabling learning in the 21st century, London, 2003)
  • Potter, W.J. (2004) Theory of Media Literacy
  • Prange, K. (2004), Bildung: a paradigm regained? (European Educational Research Journal, 3(2), pp.501-509)
  • Rodríguez Illera, J.L. (2004) ‘Digital Literacies’ (Interactive Educational Multimedia, number 9 (November 2004), pp. 48-62)
  • Søby, M. (2003) Digital Competence: from ICT skills to digital “bildung” (available online: http://folk.uio.no/mortenso/Dig.comp.html)
  • Stokes, S. (2001) ‘Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning: A Literature Perspective’ (Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education)
  • Tyner (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information
  • Ulmer, G. L. (2003) Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (as quoted at Wikipedia)
(image credit: you have on new message @ Flickr)

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19 Comments

  1. I’m still not convinced this hunt for the ultimate definition of “literacy” isn’t a giant red herring. Perhaps “literacy” meant being able to read and write, but even in those pre-digital days, critical thinking and the ability to make connections and understand cultural references were all considered important, even if they weren’t given an umbrella name like “literacy”. Those skills are still important in the digital age; the digital age hasn’t made them any more or less important, I would argue. I’d agree that “writing” means something new with the advent of web-publishing for everyone thanks to Blogger, WordPress, etc.: when you have the option to add media and links, it matters whether you use this or not.

    On a slightly different tack, Stokes writes In education’s continuing mission of meeting the needs of learners: Gatto would argue that never was compulsory schooling’s mission. And skills that may have been appropriate for the medieval clerk, are giving way to skills of analysis and innovation that are considered desirable in today’s modern cultures “Considered desirable”… by whom? “Proficiency with words and numbers is insufficient “. Insufficient… for whom? Who decides? Literacy is not a natural phenomenon, but man-made. It’s important to examine the values that underpin literacy, in order to make up our minds whether those values are our own, or did we absorb them uncritically?

    • Marc, you’re absolutely right about the ‘red herring’ bit. See my
      comments about ‘horseless carriage’, etc. The concept of ‘literacy’
      doesn’t work in the digital arena. These blog posts are signposts
      towards the main bit of my thesis which will discuss more along the
      lines of ‘electracy’. I’m planning (at the moment) to conclude that
      there *is* no such thing as ‘digital literacy’, but some such
      construct may be ‘good in the way of belief’ (to follow my Pragmatist
      methodology). :-)

      • And today’s School Gate informs me “Maths is certainly not what it used to be. For one thing, its name has changed; your child no longer learns “sums” or “maths”, but “numeracy”.” I smell bullshit….

  2. I'm still not convinced this hunt for the ultimate definition of “literacy” isn't a giant red herring. Perhaps “literacy” meant being able to read and write, but even in those pre-digital days, critical thinking and the ability to make connections and understand cultural references were all considered important, even if they weren't given an umbrella name like “literacy”. Those skills are still important in the digital age; the digital age hasn't made them any more or less important, I would argue. I'd agree that “writing” means something new with the advent of web-publishing for everyone thanks to Blogger, WordPress, etc.: when you have the option to add media and links, it matters whether you use this or not.On a slightly different tack, Stokes writes In education’s continuing mission of meeting the needs of learners: Gatto would argue that never was compulsory schooling's mission. And skills that may have been appropriate for the medieval clerk, are giving way to skills of analysis and innovation that are considered desirable in today’s modern cultures “Considered desirable”… by whom? “Proficiency with words and numbers is insufficient “. Insufficient… for whom? Who decides? Literacy is not a natural phenomenon, but man-made. It's important to examine the values that underpin literacy, in order to make up our minds whether those values are our own, or did we absorb them uncritically?

  3. Marc, you're absolutely right about the 'red herring' bit. See mycomments about 'horseless carriage', etc. The concept of 'literacy'doesn't work in the digital arena. These blog posts are signpoststowards the main bit of my thesis which will discuss more along thelines of 'electracy'. I'm planning (at the moment) to conclude thatthere *is* no such thing as 'digital literacy', but some suchconstruct may be 'good in the way of belief' (to follow my Pragmatistmethodology). :-)

  4. Re “numeracy” and “literacy”. Reading the School Gate blog entry
    http://timesonline.typepad.com/schoolgate/2008/11/number-lines-ex.html
    helped me clarify why I think this is a red herring (i.e. bull***t): what is the fundamental skill? “”I have seen children who struggle with calculation transformed by the use of number lines. We have probably all used them in some form or another, for example, using a ruler to help us add one number to another. Today all children learn with a number line – first encountering them in reception when counting on, adding on or taking away.” Then the basic skill is not the “numeracy” or learning how to use the number line; it’s counting and addition. It’s the use of the word “numeracy” or “number lines” which suggest or imply (or are used to fool people into thinking that) counting and basic arithmetic are “old hat” and no longer apply. But they do. Driving a truck is not the same as driving a passenger car, but it is still driving! If you can drive a car, you are already familiar with many basic aspects of driving a truck. It’s not a completely different skill, and someone who tells you that driving is history and what people need to learn now is TRUCKING are either ignorant or trying to fool you (probably into paying for an expensive course in trucking in 25 lessons, the first 20 of which will actually consist in teaching you DRIVING but everyone will be most careful never to use that word.) And how do I change the photo that somehow got associated with my name on these ‘ere comment thingies?

    • Marc, I have to say that I think you’ve conflated a number of issues here. *All* words are human constructs and English especially is far from being a ‘pure’ language. Surely, if a term adequately describes something that we hold to be important then it should be used? That would be the Pragmatist’s response, anyway…

      As for the avatar, you must have interacted with http://disqus.com at some point, which powers this blog. Why, is that not you? ;-)

  5. Re "numeracy" and "literacy". Reading the School Gate blog entryhttp://timesonline.typepad.com/schoolgate/2008/….. helped me clarify why I think this is a red herring (i.e. bull***t): what is the fundamental skill? ""I have seen children who struggle with calculation transformed by the use of number lines. We have probably all used them in some form or another, for example, using a ruler to help us add one number to another. Today all children learn with a number line – first encountering them in reception when counting on, adding on or taking away." Then the basic skill is not the "numeracy" or learning how to use the number line; it's counting and addition. It's the use of the word "numeracy" or "number lines" which suggest or imply (or are used to fool people into thinking that) counting and basic arithmetic are "old hat" and no longer apply. But they do. Driving a truck is not the same as driving a passenger car, but it is still driving! If you can drive a car, you are already familiar with many basic aspects of driving a truck. It's not a completely different skill, and someone who tells you that driving is history and what people need to learn now is TRUCKING are either ignorant or trying to fool you (probably into paying for an expensive course in trucking in 25 lessons, the first 20 of which will actually consist in teaching you DRIVING but everyone will be most careful never to use that word.) And how do I change the photo that somehow got associated with my name on these 'ere comment thingies?

  6. My favourite philosopher at the moment, Ayn Rand, has exactly the words I was groping for to express my uneasiness with “digital literacy”: “all human knowledge has a hierarchical structure… [we must] learn to distinguish the fundamental from the derivative.” Is digital literacy a fundamental, or a derivative? And what are the consequences of learning/teaching a derivative while ignoring the fundamental? To whose benefit is it to push a derivative before a fundamental? Or even, to push a derivative AS IF IT WAS a fundamental?

    • Thanks Marc, I wasn’t aware of Ayn’s discussion of this. Have you a link to this?

      I think the problem is that there *is* a ‘fundamental’ out there, but that we’re referring to it in derivative terms. I don’t actually think that ‘digital literacy’ is a good descriptor and that we’ll probably come to call it something different. Exactly what is kind of the point of my whole thesis!

      • The quote comes from Ch 2 “Philosophical Detection” (I think) in her book “Philosophy: Who Needs It?” Here’s a link to Rule of Fundamentality entry in the Ayn Rand Lexicon
        http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/fundamentality.html
        Search for the book on Google books, then search for “fundamental” and “derivative” (the excerpts they give you are severely limited. If you can, get the book).
        “I think the problem is that there *is* a ‘fundamental’ out there, but that we’re referring to it in derivative terms. ” So the fundamental is NOT literacy, you think? I found Rand’s distinction of fundamentals from derivatives (and especially her stress on the importance of making this distinction) very useful. You may or may not find it helpful.

  7. Marc, I have to say that I think you've conflated a number of issues here. *All* words are human constructs and English especially is far from being a 'pure' language. Surely, if a term adequately describes something that we hold to be important then it should be used? That would be the Pragmatist's response, anyway…As for the avatar, you must have interacted with http://disqus.com at some point, which powers this blog. Why, is that not you? ;-)

  8. My favourite philosopher at the moment, Ayn Rand, has exactly the words I was groping for to express my uneasiness with “digital literacy”: “all human knowledge has a hierarchical structure… [we must] learn to distinguish the fundamental from the derivative.” Is digital literacy a fundamental, or a derivative? And what are the consequences of learning/teaching a derivative while ignoring the fundamental? To whose benefit is it to push a derivative before a fundamental? Or even, to push a derivative AS IF IT WAS a fundamental?

  9. Thanks Marc, I wasn't aware of Ayn's discussion of this. Have you a link to this?I think the problem is that there *is* a 'fundamental' out there, but that we're referring to it in derivative terms. I don't actually think that 'digital literacy' is a good descriptor and that we'll probably come to call it something different. Exactly what is kind of the point of my whole thesis!

  10. The quote comes from Ch 2 “Philosophical Detection” (I think) in her book “Philosophy: Who Needs It?” Here's a link to Rule of Fundamentality entry in the Ayn Rand Lexicon http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/fundament…Search for the book on Google books, then search for “fundamental” and “derivative” (the excerpts they give you are severely limited. If you can, get the book).”I think the problem is that there *is* a 'fundamental' out there, but that we're referring to it in derivative terms. ” So the fundamental is NOT literacy, you think? I found Rand's distinction of fundamentals from derivatives (and especially her stress on the importance of making this distinction) very useful. You may or may not find it helpful.

  11. By many, literacy is no longer seen as merely the ability to ‘read and write’, but instead to make sense of the world through wider competencies and abilities.

    Is this a good thing? Does not redefining the word literacy to cover more topics merely lose us specifity? What’s gained by redefining “literacy” as something wider than reading and writing?
    For centuries there have been ways for making sense of the world that are more than merely the ability to read and write. For example, maps (useful for navigation), technical drawings (used by engineers), the conventions of mathematics (eg what the equal sign means), the command of speech-making skills or oratory, the scientific method. I think all of these are very valuable, but I don’t see what is gained by redefining literacy to include all of them and anything else you can think up.

    And I have some doubts about some of the claims, for example you quote Kress in 1998 as saying

    The problem is that, until recently, ‘visualisation [was] seen as an unproblematic kind of ‘translation’ from one semiotic mode into another – as a simplistic kind of translation from one language to another’

    Kress doesn’t say who was seing this as an unproblematic kind of translation, but this view was certainly not true of specialists in visual literacy such as engineers. I took a high school exam in technical drawing in NZ in 1992 and the course had been offered for decades so presumably the Education Department was quite comfortable with the idea of it being a tough enough subject to be worthy of an examination. My engineering university programme included as a compulsory course more technical drawing, and particularly good examples of visulisation have been admired for decades – for example the first diagrammatic map of the London Underground (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tube_map). And I note that Harry Beck drew on previous mapping skills. If all of society regarded visualisation as unproblematic, why so much emphasis on teaching it, and on teaching it in university engineering schools?
    Of course there may have been people in society who regarded it as unproblematic, and it may be that those people are the ones who Kress was referring to. But when it comes to *anything* in my experience you can always find some idiot who holds an outlier view on it, except perhaps ideas that are fatal in the short-term. There are people who have apparently sincerely believed it is possible to do without food (although not for very long). Merely referring to the uninformed doesn’t tell us much about what is happening in education policy any more than the breatharians tell us much about the agricultural industry.

    And I am curious about the comment by Tyner that visual literacy shouldn’t be separated from information literacy or media literacy. Does he provide in his report more detailed explanations of why he thinks this is so? In high school my English teachers were supposed to teach us visual literacy, but the gap between their knowledge and the feedback they could provide and that that my graphic design teacher was providing was vast. For example the graphic design teacher could list all the different distortions introduced by various projections onto paper, and expected us to be able to identify them to, the English teachers never even used the word projection. Presumably if my graphic design teacher had decided to teach English literacy he would have shown similar gaps. How does Tyner address this sort of difference in knowledge?

  12. By many, literacy is no longer seen as merely the ability to ‘read and write’, but instead to make sense of the world through wider competencies and abilities.

    Is this a good thing? Does not redefining the word literacy to cover more topics merely lose us specifity? What’s gained by redefining “literacy” as something wider than reading and writing?
    For centuries there have been ways for making sense of the world that are more than merely the ability to read and write. For example, maps (useful for navigation), technical drawings (used by engineers), the conventions of mathematics (eg what the equal sign means), the command of speech-making skills or oratory, the scientific method. I think all of these are very valuable, but I don’t see what is gained by redefining literacy to include all of them and anything else you can think up.

    And I have some doubts about some of the claims, for example you quote Kress in 1998 as saying “The problem is that, until recently, ‘visualisation [was] seen as an unproblematic kind of ‘translation’ from one semiotic mode into another – as a simplistic kind of translation from one language to another’ ”

    Kress doesn’t say who was seing this as an unproblematic kind of translation, but this view was certainly not true of specialists in graphic design. I took a high school exam in technical drawing in NZ in 1992 and the course had been offered for decades. My engineering university programme included as a compulsory course more technical drawing, and particularly good examples of visulisation have been admired for decades – for example the first diagrammatic map of the London Underground (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tube_map). And I note that Harry Beck drew on previous mapping experience. If all of society regarded visualisation as unproblematic, why so much emphasis on teaching it, and on teaching it in university engineering schools?
    Of course there may have been people in society who regarded it as unproblematic, and it may be that those people are the ones who Kress was referring to. But when it comes to *anything* in education you can always find someone in society who thinks it’s dead simple, either because they are a natural at it or because they don’t know anything at all about it. Merely referring to the uninformed doesn’t tell us much about society.

    And I am curious about the comment by Tyner that visual literacy shouldn’t be separated from information literacy or media literacy. Does he provide in his report more detailed explanations of why he thinks this is so? In high school my English teachers were supposed to teach us visual literacy, but the gap between their knowledge and the feedback they could provide and that that my graphic design teacher was providing was vast. For example the graphic design teacher could list all the different distortions introduced by various projections onto paper, and expected us to be able to identify them to, the English teachers never even used the word projection. How does Tyner address this?