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

  1. vschrader says:


    Once again, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your post, but as I do so, your words remind me that, while they are your words, it is my voice and my inflections that I am hearing silently resonate in my mind. Seems ironic, and in reading my own words here, I ‘sound’ egocentric but not at all virtuous.

    I personally believe that effective writing often is phrased as though spoken, so there must be a type of marrying of the two that forms an ideal composition or oration. I do not believe that one will ever stifle the other to extinction or exile. And with the rapid growth of new technologies, we now see venues such as Skype and Wimba that with growing popularity, practice and ease of use, will allow us to remain in physical isolation at our computers but in vocal e-community with our colleagues.

    Thanks for your great words,

    • deedee says:

      Hi Vicki,
      I agree with you that that the rapid growth of new technologies will help to balance out the challenges in e-learning between what you refer to as the physical isolation at our computers with the vocal e-community with our colleagues. Your point about effective writing is phrased as though spoken rings true. I often find myself reviewing what I’ve written many times over while I look and listen for the “story” and “spoken words” I’m wanting to convey.

      Thanks for brining up these points.

      Dee Dee

  2. lesliedawes says:

    I really enjoyed reading your commentary. It got me thinking and reflecting on my relationship with my laptop. Skype does offer a more personalized way to interact and perhap that is one of the goals already realized by designers. Maybe a more interactive 3D personalized learning evironment is on its way to reality.

  3. Jeff Miller says:

    Hi Gord,

    Interesting commentary, Gord!

    It is quite remarkable how the quiescence of text catches us in such a strange dilemma. At the same time as we are using technologies of text to communicate and share our ideas with one another, or bodies and our voices are left out of the mix and that does isolate us in curious ways. Reading with our eyes is not the same experience as experiencing with all of our senses.

    For those who do want to bring more oral aspects into the course, there are ample options available to you. We have voice tools within the Vista course, and you can also introduce your voices here by using audio clips rather than written text. Multimodality does seem to be a rather natural fit when we are interacting in the world, but we’ve developed any number of constraints on our modes of communication when we produce academic discourse.


    • deedee says:

      Thanks for pointing out the voice tools available and the ability to introduce our voices using audio-clips.
      I completely agree when you said that “reading with our eyes is not the same experience as experiencing with all of our senses”.

      Dee Dee

  4. deedee says:

    This was very interesting. Your commentary spoke directly to me as I endeavour to adapt to integrate into this online learning environment. Like you, I am predisposed to orality and find “the lack of oral content with this type of learning unfamiliar”. Good to know I’m not alone!

    Dee Dee

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