The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary 3 Multiliteracies and Assessment

            The New London group (1996) caught my attention with the words “a multiplicity of discourses” (p.2). These words made me reflect upon how often university discourses target a restricted audience and of how sometimes we cater only for the privileged elite in our academic world. Mabrito and Medley (2008) ask us to reflect on a question that I believe is crucial for university professors “Are educators rising to the challenge of teaching these students? Some evidence suggests that they are not. The most significant problem may be that since most faculty members do not fit the profile of the Net Generation, they most likely do not share the same learning styles as their students.” (p.2).

            In my experience most college and university professors tend to be more mature as they have often had other work experience before becoming professors. It is therefore reasonable to assume that many current professors do indeed lack, not only technological skills, but more importantly the knowledge of how to incorporate multiliteracies in to their curriculum and equally important how to evaluate the results from the students.  Prensky (2001 compares these professors to immigrants arriving in a new country and he explains “our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.”(p.2).These words may sound harsh, but this is our reality, especially for those of us in developing countries.

            I believe that before we can adapt our university curriculum to include multiliteracies we must first investigate how wide the gap is. One aspect that I think must be taken into consideration is as Mabrito and Medley (2008) advise us “Learning how to teach the wired student requires a two-pronged effort: to understand how N-Gen student understand and process texts and to create a pedagogy that leverages the learning skills of this type of learner.” (p.4). As educators we have a responsibility to analyse, understand and then implement what we consider to be the most beneficial aspects of multiliteracies. Another element that I think is important is as Dobson and Willinsky (2009) comment “we must consider expertise with the medium, content-area expertise, learning styles and preferences,” (p.6).Whether we agree or disagree with the particular theories of Gardner, Dunne and Dunne or the other experts in learning styles and preferences, we cannot ignore the fact that not all students learn in the same way.   Neither can we ignore, as the New London group (1996) mention, that “Schools have always played a critical role in determining students’ life opportunities. Schools regulate access to orders of discourse – the relationship of discourses in a particular social space – to symbolic capital – symbolic meanings that have currency in access to employment, political power, and cultural recognition.” (p.9)

            In order that universities are prepared to use multiliteracies in their curriculum they must first analyse the technological abilities of their professors and students and notwithstanding the needs of the society in which they live. Barnes et al (2007) explain that many students “are frequent users of electronic tools, Net Geners typically lack information literacy skills, and their critical thinking skills are often weak (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005). They may be digital natives, but they do not necessarily understand how their use of technology affects their literacy or habits of learning.” (p.2). Bolter (2001) also expresses his concerns about how “traditional views of literature and authorship have been undermined not only by the work of academic theorist but also by the uses to which both popular culture and the academic community are putting new electronic technologies of communication” (p.165). While Postman (1993) warns us that “It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut,  information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.” (p.70). These concerns should be addressed by educators and theorists before major curriculum changes are implemented.

            Professors also need to take into account how they will evaluate multilteracy tasks, as I have seen that many professors incorporate new technology and multiliteracies into their programmes, but frequently continue to use the traditional written examinations to grade their students work. Dobson and Willinsky mention that “Hayles (2003), cautions against judging e-literature, which is still in the incunabular phase, against the standard set by print genres developed over half a millennium. A more appropriate course of action would be to develop models of reading and aesthetic response that account for the diversity of contemporary literature, both print and digital” (p.9).

            Tapscott (1998) quoted his colleague Phil Courneyeur as saying “The biggest impediments to learning are social not informational. Teachers need to have the expertise, the motivation, and the time to address the social and psychological roadblocks to learning. (p. 154). Barnes et al (2007) “educators can use technology and multimedia in appropriate ways to incorporate autonomous learning activities while also ensuring that sufficient classroom time is devoted to fostering information literacy and higher-order critical thinking skills.” (p.5) Whereas Gee is quoted by Gallo Stampino (2008) as saying that “learning technologies such as games have the potential to be exploited as tools to get us started in different semiotic domains and to acquire literacies which depart from the traditional concept associated with print texts. The recognition of multiliteracies and multiple approaches to understanding may result in a redefinition of how topics are introduced in the classroom but it also generates a challenge for assessment.”

            Kalantzis et al (2002) recommend that there are four important domains to consider, “Situated Practice”, “Overt instruction”, “Critical Framing”, “Transformed Practice” and that each of them should have be assessed according to their nature. In other words a teacher could evaluate an activity in “Situated Practice”, such as a film clip, by means of a rubric grading the degree of decoding or comprehension a student showed. Whereas, a “Critical Framing” activity would be graded on the student’s ability to make links to other materials or to make predictions based on the material seen. There is no one way to assess or grade multiliteracies and it is this diversity of grading, which although it can be so rewarding, may well be the cause of future dissention at a university level. University professors, on the whole, come from a long tradition of standardized assessments and I believe some of them will resist the change into more flexible grading schemes.    



Barnes, K. Marateo, R. and Ferris, S. (2007). Teaching and learning with the net generation. Innovate 3 (4). Retrieved the 20th of November, 2009 from:


Bolter, J. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Mahwah, N.J. USA.


Dobson T, Willinsky J. Digital Literacy. In: Olson D, Torrance N, editors. Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2009. Retrieved the 13th of November, 2009 from:


Gallo Stampino, V. (2008). Multiples Approaches to Understanding. Retrieved the          20th of November, 2009 from:


Kalantzis M. Cope,B. and Fehring, H. (2002) PEN: Multiliteracies: Teaching and Learning in the New Communications Environment.


Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology. First Vintage Books. New York, USA.


Prensky, M. (2001 ) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. From On the Horizon. MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5 Retrieved the 12th of November, 2009 from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf


Mabrito, M. and Medley, R. Why Professor Johnny Can’t Read:

            Understanding the Net Generation’s Texts. Retrieved the 11th of November, 2009 from:’t_Read-__Understanding_the_Net_Generation’s_Texts.pdf


Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing Up Digital. The Rise of the Net Generation. McGraw-Hill. New York, USA


1 Catherine Gagnon { 11.25.09 at 5:32 pm }

Clare, I think your comments about assessment are very timely. As a high school teacher, I am all for differentiated assessment but my students need to have solid marks for their university and college applications. It’s our responsibility to prepare the students for the rigors of post-secondary but there is definitely a disconnect between the two levels.

We get all kinds of information from post-secondary offering articulation agreements to allow students to go from college to university or great programs allowing students to complete high school credits while attending college. But I have yet to see anything that will prepare students for post-secondary class sizes and the lack of assessment and feedback that exists at that level. Since teachers are trained at universities, surely there is a clear understanding of the pedagogical needs of high school studies. And much of the research of education and assessment is done at the post-secondary level. So why the disconnect? Is it just a resistance to change?

2 Clare Roche { 11.26.09 at 5:40 pm }

I think to be honest fear is one factor and age is the other. Many university professors are older and have not had as much experience with technology and I believe many are afraid to ask questions. I am also sure that there is a lack of real communication on both sides.
In Mexico there are huge differences between class sizes, curriculum requirements and also teaching methods depending on where the school is located, whether it is private or government controlled and as far as I have seen there are no standard guidelines I can follow with my students. I show them discovery techniques for teaching English, but then when they go to practice the school may demand dictation or grammar exercises.

You must log in to post a comment.