Dealing with (digital) reality: A pedagogy to meet the changing literacy needs of our students

Introduction & Background
Rapidly advancing communications technologies including email, online discussion forums, instant messaging, and text messaging along with mixed-mode and graphically-based information presentation strategies call for a re-examination of the traditional concept of literacy and careful consideration of how the shift from print to digital literacy impacts our social and educational lives. Teresa Dobson and John Willinsky (2009), Gunther Kress (2004), and the New London Group (1996) address these concerns and more, promoting the development of multiliteracies and diverse skill sets.

In Gains and Losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning, Gunther Kress (2004) asserts that the shift in literacy from the book and other traditional text-based modes to multimodal communication offers a new capacity for choice on the part of the knowledge-seeker. The audience is no longer simply a reader, passively subject to experiencing the linearity of the author’s thought processes, but a visitor, encouraged to navigate content produced by an author non-sequentially and make meaning individually. “Speech and writing tell the world; depiction shows the world. In the one, the order of the world is that given by the author; in the other, the order of the world is yet to be designed (fully and/or definitively) by the viewer” (Kress, 2004, p. 16).

In their article Digital Literacy, Dobson and Willinsky (2009) contest that although the rapid expansion of digital literacy does constitute a leap forward in literacy’s evolution, its aims and impact remain rooted in print literacy. They focus on the ways in which “digital literacy differs from and extends the work of print literacy” making the case that digital literacy alters the literacy landscape in ways that reveal a logical progression, that the path cut by digital literacy tends to mirror earlier advancements in literacy in that they are male-dominated, as well as controlled by and beneficial for the wealthy first and the masses second (Dobson & Willinsky, 2009, p. 21).

In A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,The New London Group (1996) approaches this shift from print to digital/multimodal literacy by identifying specific needs arising from it, saying that a pedagogy of “multiliteracies,” is required, involving a purposeful pursuit of differentiated curriculum designed to meet the changing uses of text and image in schools, workplaces, and social environments.

Literacy and Democracy

Digital technologies are carving ever-wider access routes to information, and using multimodal approaches to do so. The New London Group (1996) suggests that the very nature of global communication via the Internet carries with it affordances which can have a democratizing effect, prizing diverse viewpoints without requiring cultural or intellectual assimilation as the price of admission: “Yet in the emergent reality, there are still real deficits, such as a lack of access to social power, wealth, and symbols of recognition. The role of pedagogy is to develop an epistemology of pluralism that provides access without people having to erase or leave behind different subjectivities” (New London Group, 1996, p.11). Theirs is an inclusive model of social interaction and critical discourse which provides space for varied perspectives, strengths, and values, treating diversity and variation itself as a vital component.

Dobson and Willinsky (2009) argue that this democratizing effect of digital literacy is an extension of the ongoing impact of print literacy, rather than an entirely new phenomenon, saying that digital literacy is “closely connected to the traditional association of literacy and democratic rights, as well as to more specific notions of e-government” (p.12).

Digital literacy and the global community

One of the most profound applications of global communication technologies has been the aggregation of knowledge from diverse cultures and communities, filtering the cacophony of voices into organized threads of perspective and information contribution. While Kress (2005) voices trepidation in the statement, “When everyone can be an author authority is severely challenged” (p. 19), it is precisely this shift in the sense of authorship which is so vital to the rise of non-proprietary approaches to writing and production, as seen in the development of open-source software and projects like the Creative Commons. It is projects such as these which highlight a growing need for increasingly digitally literate students, an awareness of and respect for authority, copyright, and resource credibility, along with the ability to sift through the sea of self-published information on the web to find valuable, reliable, insightful information.

Digital literacy and diverse educational goals and outcomes
So how then do we educate our youth to succeed not only in education, but in their careers as well, given the shifting definition of literacy? The New London Group (1996) puts it rather succinctly, saying, “Our job is not to produce docile, compliant workers. Students need to develop the capacity to speak up, to negotiate, and to be able to engage critically with the conditions of their working lives” (p. 7). Part of that process is that students need to learn how to learn; to critically examine materials they come across, whether computer-generated graphics, photographs, video, or print. If it is true that “less regulated, multi-channel media systems…undermine the concept of collective audience and common culture,” then what mechanism do we have in place currently to deal with the “increasing range of subcultural options and the growing divergence of specialist and subcultural discourses” in classrooms across North America and around the world (New London Group, 1996, p.9)? Forward-thinking pedagogy must discard the notion that disparate cultural values, languages, and learning styles in the classroom are a ‘challenge’ to overcome. Rather, in a pedagogy designed to promote multiliteracies, this diversity should be viewed as an asset to the students, and to their communities.

Literacy can no longer be defined in the traditional sense, and the time for a shift to a true pedagogy of multiliteracies is now. Students require, and are ready for, more critical-thinking and reasoning activities, discussions on appropriate communication modes and styles in different arenas of social, educational, and professional life, as well as opportunities for guided experimentation with developing modes of information representation and transmission. Are we?

Dobson, T. M.,& Willinsky, J. (2009) Digital literacy. Draft chapter for the Cambridge Handbook on Literacy.

Kress, G. (2005). Gains And Lossess: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition, 22, 5-22.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review 66(1), pp. 60-92.

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