Re-thinking Literacy: Web 2.0 and Education


The emergence and rapid development of Web 2.0 has resulted in a rethinking of what literacy means. Just as notions of the transfer of knowledge shifted with the advent of text and led to our basic definitions of literacy in a traditional sense, computer-mediated technology has, in an exceptionally short period of time, transformed notions of literacy and led to the emerging concept of multiliteracy. Alexander’s (2006) article, “Web 2.0: A New Wave of Innovation for Teaching and Learning?” highlights the vast range of online applications that have been rapidly utilized across the spectrum of education and how communication is increasingly multimodal. By incorporating text, oral, visual (fixed and video), Web 2.0 affords individuals a range of ways to interact and transmit ideas and highlights the need to consider communication in terms of multiliteracy.


Traditional definitions and notions of literacy have focused on written and printed materials and have not considered other forms of media. For example, UNESCO defines literacy as:

“The ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.” (as cited by the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, n.p)World Literacy by Country

The lack of comment on other media forms is unsurprising in that literacy has considered text to be the key vehicle of communication. In contrast to the linear nature of text-based traditional narrative, multimodal communication is increasingly diverse. Connectivism, as espoused by Siemens (2004), sees learning and knowledge as taking place through a highly connected process. In other words, it is networked and communication does not follow traditional linear patterns.

The New London Group (1996) argues that multiliteracy affords new ways to look at the complex nature of text and has two key interrelated elements. The first is the diverse ways that we create meaning in which text is interlaced with visual, audio and spatial elements. Second, they suggest that it is the diversity of language and cultural that has both local variances and global connections that help shape multiliteracy itself. A case in point is Alexander’s (2008) example of a blog which included a range of media including text, hyperlinks, video, still images, and networked discussion that crossed borders. This example demonstrates the diversity of media now commonly used online. I Alexander (2008) furthers this by noting the impact of gaming and virtual worlds which further demonstrate the multifaceted ways that information and ideas are shared.

Literacy -> Digital Flow

The four salient qualities of Web 2.0 described by Alexander (2008) arInformation Media and Digital Literacye: microcontent, social filtering, social connection, and openness. Being small, microcontent is quickly and easily accessible; therefore, the time required to digest information is minimal both in terms of writing/publishing and reading/accessing. Social filtering, with its folksonomic quality as seen through tagging, is a way for individuals to connect information found in both primary and secondary Internet sources. Connections between individuals are built through tools and websites such as blogs and Facebook and allow connections to occur. Last, Alexander (2008) openness simply refers to the fact that Web 2.0 typically places content in the public sphere. Taken together, these elements present a broad picture of the ways that the online environment differs from traditional notions of communication and literacy.

Implications for Education

Though administrative decisions and what applications are available in a particular context differ, in the educational realm what technology or medium is utilized is in the hands of the instructor or the instructional design team within the constraints of what is available. It is the instructor/designer who ultimately makes the critical choice in what tools to include and how to best do so. When technology is the tail that wags the proverbial dog, then mishaps in its application in class will follow. Multiliteracy offers innovative and engaging ways for both learners and instructors to communicate ideas and collaborate. Through interactivity and cooperation, education and learning can be enhanced and extended. Moreover, it is the multimodal aspects of new media that both require and allow learners to take a much more active role in the learning process; however, they need to transfer the multiliteracy skills to the academic and learning environment.

When information and ideas can be expressed in diverse ways, learners are also better able to choose the form that they feel best fits their needs and inherent learning preferences. When information flows in linked and new spatial forms it may also better allow for creative thinking and the immediacy found in both synchronous and asynchronous spaces can influence and enhance the communication and feedback cycle. The educator’s role in this is critical, but shifts in this new paradigm to one of facilitation and guidance.

Just as there are many positives in the affordances of Web 2.0, multiliteracies and the computer-mediated communication may have some drawbacks. Alexander (2006; 2008) does not touch on questions of how these environments may hinder depth of thought and concentration. For example, the microcontent that he sees as one of the hallmarks of Web 2.0 has limitations in engaging in developing and sustaining thought beyond more rudimentary and less complex thoughts. Furthermore, the openness and vast stores of information and networks online can be overwhelming. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is a daunting task and learning how to best distill what is or is not relevant or the veracity of a particular source or idea thread is challenging even for those more practiced at identifying meaningful resources. That said, multimodal forms of communication will continue to evolve and become increasingly entrenched. The challenge for educators is how to best harness new applications and ensure that achieving educational outcomes and understanding their appropriate and pedagogically sound use.
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The digital age is still in its infancy and its evolution will continue. This will unquestionably force a continued reconsideration of the fundamental aspects of communication. Current Web 2.0 technology, and the interactive and connected aspects that it affords will undoubtedly change in novel and inventive was that further move it away from the its roots as a linear and static roots. How literacy is defined is already shifting, and multiliteracy as seen through the diverse communication means at our disposal will continue to challenge assumptions of what being literate means in the twenty-first century.


Alexander, B. (2006). Web 2.0: A new wave of innovation for teaching and learning? EDUCAUSE Review, 41(2), 32-44. Retrieved from

Alexander, B. (2008). Web 2.0 and Emergent Multiliteracies. Theory into Practice, 47(2), 150-160. doi: 10.1080/00405840801992371

Canadian Literacy and Learning Network (n.d.). Canadian Literacy and Learning Network Homepage. Retrieved from

New London Group (1996). A Pedagogy of Miltiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1). Retrieved from

Siemens, G. (2004, December 12). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved from

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