Commentary #1: Where Does Orality Fit into On-Line Learning?

How extraordinarily planted in the literate world we are as we sit at computers, as individuals, and meld our thoughts together with people around the world without a single auditory sound coming from our mouths.  How incredibly non-oral we are, as we cast our voiceless thoughts out into our electronic learning space, and wait to hear soundless, text-rich voices of our classmates either praise or lambaste our silent utterances. Aptly titled, “Text Technologies: The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing,”  my  initiation into this course has stirred in me many questions and reflections about reading and writing and how these two ancient arts will evolve in the future, as well as how basic communication and speech will be impacted by technological change.

Postman’s “The Judgement of Thamus” poses the question, “Four centuries of print & orality.  Will computers defeat communal speech.  Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?” (Postman, page 17).

Has the computer already defeated communal speech?  No, of course not.  We are speaking as a learning community, though our voices are in neutral.  The computer is not speaking, it is transferring.  It is not interpreting, it is simply a vehicle of transmission.  However, the computer is allowing some of us to disengage a little bit more with our orality, making it possible to learn in an egocentric manner, devoid, yes, of the messy face-to-face debates and dilemmas that come up in traditional classroom settings; but devoid also of the meaningful connections that come with how the spoken word is presented (inflection, emphasis, emotions), and the non-verbal cues that participate in holistic communication.

As I enter the on-line learning environment I am confronted regularly by the excellent thoughts and commentaries of my highly literate colleagues and chosen authors for this course.  While this has been enlightening, I find the lack of oral content with this type of learning unfamiliar.  I am stretching to read and interpret purely textural information, knowing that my predisposition to orality is not serving me well in this context (no marks for being a strong public speaker and good listener here!)

Ong painstakingly characterizes primary oral culture in Chapter 3 of his book, “Orality and Literacy.”  While I cannot begin to imagine persons who have never been exposed to text of any sort, I can find some of my preferences and dispositions towards learning rooted in oral culture.  I tend to find significant meaning and assimilation of information based on dialogue with others or simply listening.  I create mnemonics and formulas to commit abstract concepts to memory.  I tend towards using repetition and exaggeration in my mind to fortify important concepts or habits of mind that I want to retain. I work in a highly charged oral environment, an elementary school.  My stock and trade is to listen and speak, to communicate with a whole range of modalities.  I use a computer a great deal of the time, but mostly to record information or relay messages and information that have a basis in face-to-face communication with people.  In this course, and I suspect the on-line learning environment in general, the emphasis is on my ability to hear the conversation in my head, imagining what Jeff, Ryan, Irene, and all the other participants sound like and how they mean to sound as they present their arguments and ideas.  It occurs to me, as I read their electronic posts, how reliant I am on “communal speech” to develop my understanding.  Will “orally-biased” people like me be selectively removed from on-line academia as learning turns more and more towards literature and text delivered and responded to electronically?  Or will the technology continue to advance to the point that the full range of learning styles will be richly and fully accommodated in the future?  I tend to believe the latter will come to fruition, given the extraordinarily rapid pace of advancement in learning technologies.


Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Postman, N. (n.d.). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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