Digital Technologies: A new era in literacy education?

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    Digital Technologies: A new era inliteracy education?HELEN NIXON aa University of South Australia , Adelaide, AustraliaPublished online: 01 Jul 2010.

    To cite this article: HELEN NIXON (2003) Digital Technologies: A new era in literacy education?,Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 24:2, 263-271, DOI: 10.1080/01596300303035

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  • Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education

    Vol. 24, No. 2, August 2003

    REVIEW ESSAY

    Digital Technologies: a new era in literacy education?

    HELEN NIXON, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

    Teachers and Techno-literacies: managing literacy, technology and learn-

    ing in schools

    COLIN LANKSHEAR & ILANA SNYDER with BILL GREEN, 2000

    Sydney, Allen & Unwin

    xxi 178 pp., ISBN 1-86448-946-4

    Silicon Literacies: communication, innovation and education in the elec-

    tronic age

    ILANA SNYDER, 2002

    London and New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group

    xii 190 pp., ISBN 0-415-27668-3

    Although microcomputers have been a feature of many Australian schools for over

    twenty years, it was not until the advent of the personal multimedia and internet-capable

    computer in the mid-1990s that English/literacy educators began to pay systematic

    attention to the literacytechnology interface. Teachers and Techno-literacies: managing literacy,

    technology and learning in schools written by Colin Lankshear and Ilana Snyder with Bill

    Green, and Silicon Literacies: communication, innovation and education in the electronic age edited

    by Ilana Snyder, both enter into dialogue with and contribute to current debates about

    the complexity of contemporary literacy practices in the age of digital technologies. The

    two books are complementary in that they argue that it is not tenable to try to

    incorporate the new information and communication technologies (ICT) into conven-

    tional literacy frameworks. Both books call on educators to develop the readiness to think

    about the changing world of literacytechnology in informed and systematic ways, and

    both books contribute to the theory and information base required to enable this to

    happen.

    The authors of these two books, Lankshear, Snyder and Green, were members of a

    research consortium that carried out the first major piece of Australian research on

    literacies and technologies in education in the mid-1990s, a project from which todays

    literacy educators and researchers are still able to learn a good deal. Funded by the

    Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs

    ISSN 0159-6306 print; 1469-3739 online/03/020263-09 2003 Taylor & Francis LtdDOI: 10.1080/0159630032000110775

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  • 264 H. Nixon

    (DEETYA) through the Childrens Literacy National Projects Program, and reported as

    Digital Rhetorics: literacies and technologies in educationcurrent practices and future directions

    (Lankshear et al., 1997), the project was jointly led by Colin Lankshear and Chris Bigum;

    other researchers on the team were Ilana Snyder, Bill Green, Cal Durrant, Eileen

    Honan, Wendy Morgan, Joy Murray and Martyn Wild. The Digital Rhetorics project is

    cited as a stimulus and resource for Teachers and Techno-literacies and it clearly builds on

    that report.

    In the space available I am unable to do justice to Teachers and Techno-literacies as a

    whole. The book comprises six chapters. Chapter 1 provides portraits of three schools.

    These portraits are used to identify issues and themes related to managing literacy,

    technology and learning in schools, which are in turn developed and enlarged through-

    out the chapters that follow. I have found this chapter a useful introductory reading in

    professional development courses for teachers new to this field precisely because the

    contrastive portraits are grounded in the realities of school life and they vividly

    foreground some of the complex philosophical and practical challenges posed by the

    perceived imperative to integrate ICT into the curriculum. The questions posed in

    Chapter 1 remain as relevant today as when they were written:

    How may literacy teachers learn to use new technologies effectively in their pro-fessional work?

    What pedagogical models exist that take literacy and technology into account in wayson which teachers can build for classroom use?

    How are literacy and technology related, and how can literacy teachers make sense ofthis relationship to build sound pedagogy?

    What sorts of principles exist for guiding the integration of new technologies intoclassroom learning?

    What methods count as sound uses of new technologies in classroom-based literacyeducation? (p. 3)

    Chapter 2 aims to integrate the three constructs of literacy, technology and learning.

    This is the most theoretical chapter of the book and, because it bears close reading and

    discussion with colleagues and pre- and in-service teacher education students, I devote

    significant space to it below. Chapter 3 provides a short overview of what educational

    policy is and does, and explores the policy roles that teachers need to play in their

    professional lives (p. xx). This chapter is a useful historical document in its focus on

    national and state-level policy documents that apply directly to the interface between

    technology, literacy and learning. Chapter 4 draws on site studies conducted in the Digital

    Rhetorics project and complements and expands on the three school portraits in Chapter

    1. The authors use classroom portraits from five schools to provide an information base

    from which to develop ideas, strategies and plans for building on existing strengths and

    addressing current shortcomings in pedagogy, policy and professional understanding at

    the literacytechnology interface (p. xx). Chapter 5 draws out a framework of patterns

    and principles for thinking about the findings of the site studies. Subsequent research into

    literacy and ICT in other schools (e.g. Comber & Green, 1999; Nixon & Kerin, 2001)

    suggests that the five patterns of classroom practice discussed herecomplexity, fragility,

    discontinuity, conservation and limited authenticityare still very much in evidence.

    The five principles for the effective integration of ICT into classroom-based literacy

    education classroom practiceteachers first, complementarity, workability, equity and

    focus on trajectoriesremain pertinent, and literacy educators need more accounts of

    these principles being adopted in educational sites. Chapter 6 translates this framework

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  • Digital Technologies 265

    of patterns and principles into suggestions and guidelines designed to assist policy makers,

    literacy educators in universities, school leaders and individual teachers to plan and

    programme in order to address the many challenges explored in earlier chapters.

    Given the prior histories of collaboration between the authors, it is not surprising that

    Teachers and Techno-literacies and Silicon Literacies proceed from a similar theoretical

    positionthat literacy is a social practice (Street, 1984). From this perspective, emerging

    technology-mediated literacy practices can be understood only when they are con-

    sidered within their social, political, economic, cultural and historical contexts (Snyder,

    2002, p. 5). This argument is most fully developed in the second chapter of Teachers and

    Techno-literacies, which is titled Understanding the changing world of literacy, technology

    and learning. The authors quite rightly claim that this chapter offers some ideas that

    will be useful to literacy teachers in this challenging and changing context (p. 23). Many

    of these ideas, first published in Digital Rhetorics in 1997, remain productive and

    provocative at the time of writing in 2003. These include the ideas that literacy is

    increasingly having technology added to it; that new information and communications

    technologies (ICT) provide new ways of doing literacy; that different contexts of social

    practice embed different forms of literacy; and that what literacy means is always

    changing along with new modes of human practice and ways of experiencing the world

    (p. 26).

    Chapter 2 of Teacher and Techno-literacies also includes an elaborated discussion of what

    has come to be known as the 3D model of literacy (Green, 1988; Durrant & Green,

    2000; Lankshear et al., 1997). The 3D model considers literacy to be an ensemble of

    social practices that involves three dimensionsoperational, cultural and criticalwhich

    overlap, intersect and are interdependent. This model was influenced by Greens (1988)

    research into the relationships between literacy and subject or content-area learning and

    was subsequently developed in response to the increasing technologisation of literacy

    (Bigum & Green, 1993; Durrant & Green, 2000). In more recent discussions, Green uses

    the shorthand device of emphasizing the IT in the word l(IT)eracy to symbolize the

    bringing together theoretically of literacy and IT within this model. The operational

    dimension of l(IT)eracy learning includes how to make the computer work from the

    basics of turning on to searching databases or operating a CD ROM. The cultural

    dimension includes understanding that we use texts and technologies in particular

    contexts to make meaning and to do things in the world. The critical dimension of

    l(IT)eracy learning includes being able to assess and critique software and other

    resources, and to appropriate or redesign them for particular purposes. This model

    emphasises that literacy learning is done as people participate in the social and cultural

    practices of making meaning for real purposes, and that textual and communicative work

    is always done in actual communities and institutions and has real effects. It foregrounds

    the socially constructed nature of any literacy into which people become socialised, and

    emphasises the potential for a literacy to be acted on and transformed. The 3D model

    of literacy thus provides a timely corrective in this era of narrow conceptions of literacy

    and so-called literacy standards, and reminds educators of the importance of adopting

    a socially critical stance as consumers and users of computers.

    The final sections of Chapter 2 in Teachers and Techno-literacies provide support for

    educators wanting to adopt a critical stance towards new technologies. Bigum and

    Greens (1995) resource-context model of new technologies is brought together with

    Paceys (1983) notion of technology practice, and Sproull and Kieslers (1991) idea of

    first and second level effects of new technologies, to argue the need for a close

    examination of the feedback loop that exists between the claims made for the new

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  • 266 H. Nixon

    technologies and the resultant changes in their settings or contexts of use. The authors

    provide a logical explanation for why computers get schooled, or made into things that

    support and sustain the technology that is the school (p. 37). Chapters 1 and 4 of the

    book, which provide snapshots of school and classroom practice, illustrate this process at

    work, showing how computers become schooled as many teachers attempt to conduct

    business as usual. However, they also suggest what it might look like for educators to

    adopt a socially critical approach to the introduction of ICT into daily workplace

    practice.

    Chapter 2 of this book also challenges teachers to think critically about the literacy

    technology interface by arguing the necessity for rethinking established ways of associat-

    ing literacy and text. The questions posed here remain pressing for literacy theorists and

    educators alike:

    Is the text metaphor (Morgan, 1996) adequate or even appropriate for

    understanding multimedia practices, information flows, or meaning-making

    practices in general within a dramatically mutating semiotic landscape

    (Kress, 1995, p. 25)? Does text encompass image? Sound? Multimodality?

    Non-linearity (Snyder, 1996)? (p. 38)

    The argument is made that the shift from print technology to computing and digital

    technology problematises a number of former assumptions about the specificity of a text,

    including its boundedness in time and space:

    With the emergence of database technology, hypertext and hypermedia, we

    can now ask: Where is the text? Indeed, more radically and unusually, we can

    ask: When is the text? Also: What is the text? Which is the text and which is

    context? (p. 38)

    Finally, the authors argue that another key problem for literacy education is the

    traditional view that texts encompass or subsume information. In a society that increas-

    ingly privileges information, there is a need for us to view literacy as involving, even

    requiring, the integration of text and information (p. 39). As the authors point out, the

    new privileged status of information confronts head-on the liberal-humanist tradition of

    literacy theory and pedagogy (p. 39) which has as its objective the encouragement of

    children to experience and create their own imaginative worlds through reading and

    writing. In an attempt to assist readers to consider the possible implications of thinking

    together literacy and computing, the authors suggest that various types of literacy/

    computing might be classified according to whether they are text based, information

    based, programming based or games based. Although this is an interesting idea, it

    remains to be seen how useful such schemata might be for the field of literacy education.

    Taken as a whole, Chapter 2 is immensely thought provoking and I continue to find its

    speculations and provocations challenging in my own research and in professional

    development contexts when I work with teachers inquiring into the literacytechnology

    interface.

    Since the mid-1990s, Ilana Snyders contribution to the literacytechnology debates

    has been significant, beginning with the publication of Hypertext: the electronic labyrinth

    (1996), followed by the edited collection Page to Screen: taking literacy into the electronic era

    (1997), co-authorship of the Digital Rhetorics report (Lankshear et al., 1997) and the

    subsequent Teachers and Techno-literacies, and now Silicon Literacies: communication, innovation

    and education in the electronic age.

    Unlike Teachers and Techno-literacies, Silicon Literacies is an edited collection of essays on

    literacy and technology. It builds on the work begun in Page to Screen (Snyder, 1997), and

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  • Digital Technologies 267

    includes contributions by some of the same authors (Catherine Beavis, Nicholas Bur-

    bules, Jane Yellowlees-Douglas, Michael Joyce, Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear).

    For the title of this collection, Snyder coins the term silicon literacies to describe the

    ways that meanings are made within the new communication systems of multimodal

    hypertext. In her introduction and conclusion, Snyder makes the argument that a

    complex interplay of three constructsthe new communication order, the new political

    order and the new work ordershapes and circumscribes the lives, identities and

    possibilities of contemporary students. Silicon Literacies takes as its particular focus the new

    communication order centred around ICT. The range of authors in this collection

    illustrates Snyders contention that the field of literacy and technology studies is

    essentially an interdisciplinary endeavour. However, the challenge for contributors to the

    collection was to find ways to provoke readers to consider what the use of these new

    technologies means for educational practices.

    Silicon Literacies is organised in two parts. Part 1 (Online literacy and rhetorical

    practices) looks at the emergence of new types of text, new language practices, and new

    social formations as people find different ways of communicating with each other (p. 5).

    Part 2 (Teaching, learning, technology and innovation) looks at the possibilities for

    creative changes to pedagogical and institutional practices when ICTs are used (p. 8).

    The diversity of topics addressed in the collection is testimony to the way that the

    widespread take-up of ICTs is changing how culturally significant information is coded

    and forcing university- and school-based educators to rethink their fundamental goals,

    values and pedagogical approaches.

    Part 1 informs readers about some of the changing cultural dimensions to literacy

    technology practice. In the opening chapter, Knobel and Lankshear document some of

    the new literacy practices engendered by the internet. Focusing on the community

    ratings feedback system on eBay, they explore the idea of cyberspace as a new socialising

    space, and discuss the social issues and responsibilities such new practices may evoke

    (p. 15). Their discussion reminds educators that widespread use of the internet is likely

    to produce many new issues of relevance not only to literacy education, but also to moral

    and civic education.

    In Chapter 2, Chris Abbott argues that users of the world wide webmany of them

    young peopleare developing changing representational resources, and he calls for more

    ethnographies of how different groups develop and use these resources. The main focus

    of the chapter is on the potential for the availability of symbols through ICTs to extend

    opportunities for students with special needs. In Chapter 3, Catherine Beavis also reports

    on the widespread use of ICTs by young people, though her focus is on computer games.

    She explores the potential for new kinds of narrative and multimodal communicative

    practice associated with computer games to inform the English/literacy curriculum. Both

    authors remind the reader that it is one of the paradoxes of what is often referred to as

    the digital divide that many of those people who have most to gain from such

    technologies are often those least able to get access to them (Abbott, p. 39).

    The remaining three chapters in Part 1 of Silicon Literacies focus more specifically

    on the language and rhetorics of the internet. In Languages.com: the internet and

    linguistic pluralism, Mark Warschauer explores the paradox that although the internet

    has English as its global language, members of Indigenous and minority groups make

    use of the internet to try to preserve and revitalise endangered languages. Further, the

    internet has seen in Egypt the rise of new forms of colloquial Arabic and in Singapore

    the rise of Singlish. Thus the complex relations that exist in a globalised cultural

    economy between global networks and local identities are having complex effects in

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  • 268 H. Nixon

    relation to language and literacy practice. In relation to education, Warschauer supports

    the call for a pedagogy of multiliteracies (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; New London Group,

    1996), which he argues is required to address two key forms of plurality in contemporary

    conditionsa plurality of media, and a plurality of dialects and languages. Educators

    need to encourage reading, writing and communication in diverse media, genres,

    dialects and languages (p. 72).

    In the final two chapters in Part 1, Nicholas Burbules and Michael Joyce explore the

    rhetorics of the web. Joyces chapter is both a dissertation on, and brilliant performance

    of, post-hypertextual rhetorics, which needs to be read first hand. In The web as a

    rhetorical place, Burbules develops arguments about the characteristics of hyperlinks

    begun elsewhere, including in Page to Screen. He surveys five key characteristics of

    hyperlinks to suggest some of the ways in which their semantic possibilities are limited

    by their navigational features (p. 77): they are bi-directional, but their relation is not

    symmetrical; hyperlinks are one-to-one links, and this binary form may have a limited

    capacity to represent the complexity of meanings that are multiple, multi-layered and

    semantically complex; hyperlinks are static; they are author driven, operate almost

    instantaneously and tend to be invisible as moments in themselves; and hyperlinks and

    their contents can be represented in different ways. An argument is made for the

    importance of critically hyper-reading not only for avoiding manipulation but also for

    forging more dynamic and creative understandings of the material at hand (p. 77). The

    second part of the chapter argues that the web is a rhetorical place rather than space and

    suggests that this opens up several educational opportunities. These include building

    more dynamic, open and productive hyperlinked structures; the opportunity to find and

    imagine within apparently binary links moments of complexity and even paradox

    (p. 83); and to conceive of learning in the context of the web as the achievement of a

    certain kind of mobilitya capacity to move from place to place, but also to create new

    places, in a kind of learning that goes beyond registering information to forming the

    capacities of interpreting, evaluating and adding to what is found (p. 83). This dense and

    closely argued chapter rewards re-reading and will, I am sure, productively inform many

    readers future teaching of critical approaches to reading the web.

    Part 2 of Silicon Literacies comprises five chapters that explore aspects of teaching,

    learning, technology and innovation. Jane Yellowless-Douglas and George P. Landow

    provide US-based case studies of internet innovations at the University of Florida and

    Brown University, respectively. Landow traces the history of the development and

    application of hypertext systems in education, scholarship and the creative arts at Brown

    University and draws from it general conclusions about initiating and supporting

    innovation within universities. He concludes that the conditions that stimulate innovation

    are not the same as those that nurture it; that innovations still often come as a surprise;

    that changed attitudes are frequently more important than the original innovation; that

    organisations that wish to promote innovation must have someone to track and evaluate

    innovations; and someone in a position of major authority who must understand both

    the nature of the technology and at least some of the potential effects upon the institution

    in regards to teaching, learning, scholarship, intellectual property, publication, institu-

    tional structures, and the like (p. 114). The chapter by Yellowlees-Douglas recounts

    lessons learned from students who undertook a writing-intensive internet-only Master of

    Business Administration. Her discussion of the successful features of online teaching

    environments emphasises the value for students of discussion, attention and feedback,

    and provides useful guidelines for incorporating team assignments, class meetings, and

    peer critique and evaluations into online pedagogies. One of her conclusions is that

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  • Digital Technologies 269

    online courses provide valuable impetus for faculty members to try new methods of

    teaching.

    In the final three chapters of Part 2, Chris Bigum, Ron Burnett and Douglas Kellner

    each suggest ways in which teachers might become what Snyder calls in her conclusion

    agents of a new educational imagination (p. 179) in an increasingly mediated world in

    which communication, culture and learning intersect on a daily basis (Burnett, p. 152).

    In Technology, learning and visual culture, Burnett emphasises the need for interdisci-

    plinary debate on the role of literacy, not only at a pedagogical level, but also as a

    broad-based cultural activity (p. 141). In particular, he suggests a need for the disciplines

    of education and communication to establish more explicit connections with a view to

    exploring the interconnected discourses of learning and communications. He argues for

    a far more integrative and holistic approach to pedagogy (p. 144), and provides a

    number of guidelines that may both form and inform the development of pedagogical

    strategies in literacy education (p. 144). Burnett shares with Kellner a belief in the

    importance of taking seriously the cultures in which our students participate and goes so

    far as to inquire, Why do students have to learn from people who may have very little

    respect for the cultural context in which students live? (p. 142). Burnett notes that visual

    culturesof which the web is both a part and a foundationare very complex, adding

    that it is nonetheless urgent that we develop creative tools with which to critique them.

    Focussing more broadly on media culture, Kellner makes a similar argument. In his

    view, ICTs and new media both require and make possible a critical reconstruction of

    education. The objective is that students learn to analyse media culture as products of

    social production and struggle (p. 159), and learn to be critical of media representations

    and discourses, but also learn to use the media as modes of self-expression and social

    activism.

    In Design sensibilities, schools and the new computing and communication technolo-

    gies (CCT), Chris Bigum argues for a fundamental rethink about the roles that schools

    can play in the new communication order. In doing so he revisits some of the issues

    explored in Teachers and Techno-literacies. For example, the latter posed the following

    question:

    At what point does the value and benefit of offering students opportunities to

    work with new technology applications become outweighed by the risks of

    apprenticing them to less than optimal versions of social practice? (p. 97)

    Bigum expresses a similar concern, noting that within school-based education

    There is little consideration of the possibility that existing teaching, learning,

    curriculum or assessment practices may not be appropriate for a world outside

    schools, increasingly shaped by the use of CCTS. (p. 133)

    Bigum draws on the concept of design sensibilities (Schrage, 1998) to explore the

    limitations and possibilities of certain ways of framing CCTs in classrooms and schools.

    For example, he argues that a design sensibility based on information delivery is limited

    at the outset because, traditionally, schools are information consumers rather than

    producers. In contrast, Bigum explores the potential of a design sensibility that empha-

    sises the impact that digital technologies are having, and will continue to have, on the

    relationships between people and between people and organisations. Thinking about ICT

    in schools in terms of relationships

    shifts the focus from the technology per se and problems of how best to integrate

    CCTs into the curriculum towards schools as social organisations, their internal

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  • 270 H. Nixon

    relationships and those with the local community, government and other

    schools. In effect, the focus shifts from the question, What on earth do we do

    with this new technology? to What kinds of relationships do we want to have

    with the world beyond our boundaries? (p. 136).

    The chapter concludes with what Bigum describes as a preliminary account of the early

    exploration by schools of ideas about how they might operate as and within communities

    that are in the business of developing knowledge and expertise about themselves. This is

    a very challenging concept because it requires schools to move from the relatively safe,

    pretend space of conventional curriculum to doing work that is judged by external

    groups as useful and valuable (p. 137). This is precisely the kind of shift and design

    sensibility advocated, but rarely found in schools, by the authors of Teachers and

    Techno-literacies. Bigum is quick to point out that this avenue of development in schools

    is exploratory. Nonetheless, the school he describes is taking steps to ensure that the

    school can more fully engage with local community needs and interests. Students and

    staff now employ digital and video cameras to do their work, the end result of which is

    student production of knowledge products that are directed at audiences beyond the

    school. Bigum sketches the potential for schools to become systematic researchers about

    things that matter to their communities, with the potentialif this work is taken

    seriouslyfor schools to form new kinds of relationships with the local community, and

    thus to take on new roles as knowledge producers within the new communication order.

    However, he does not underestimate potential difficulties of achieving such outcomes,

    not the least of which is the task of remaking schools in the eyes of the community.

    Both Teachers and Techno-literacies and Silicon Literacies make important and challenging

    contributions to the field of literacytechnology studies. Each book provokes anew

    important questions that bear repeating. Neither book is afraid to confront some of the

    more complex issues that accompany the move to integrate computers into the curricu-

    lum. Neither book shies away from politically unpopular views. They emphasise, for

    example, the resource-intensive and demanding nature of online education and the fact

    that educators and researchers are still not fully literate in the use of computers, and they

    note the enduring educational and social issues to do with fair and reasonable forms of

    access and equity that accompany the widespread take-up of ICTs. Finally, both books

    argue that for literacy teaching and learning to be embedded in contexts of practice that

    are meaningful to students, education will need to take very seriously many forms of

    practice that have been considered non-conventional for education. These include

    elements of youth culture, leisure and recreation pursuits, as well as practices associated

    with life in the home where young people interact with a range of mature uses of

    technologies and information with friends or by observing and interacting with older

    siblings and adults (Lankshear & Snyder with Green, p. 153). In short, if literacy

    education is to enter a new era in response to changing literacies associated with digital

    technologies, the field needs more books like these.

    Correspondence: Helen Nixon, Centre for Studies in Literacy, Policy and Learning Cultures,

    University of South Australia, Holbrooks Road, Underdale, South Australia 5032,

    Australia. Email: Helen.Nixon@unisa.edu.au

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