There is a growing sentiment in our society that today’s students need to be multiliterate, in order to be successful, functioning members of society. Literacy today means something quite different than it did 700 years ago. To be literate in today’s world, one must be multi-literate; one must be able to communicate and gain meaning from “a burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” (New London Group, 1996, p. 2). Multiliteracies accounts not only for the cultural and linguistic diversity of increasingly globalized societies, but for the plurality of texts that are exchanged in this context. (Dobson & Willinsky, 2011). Yet schools continue to focus on the basic skills of reading and writing using fiber-based media in the form of novels and textbooks. In fact, Kevin Leander claims “school structure and teaching practice have remained substantially unchanged for 700 years” (Leander, 2006, p. 26). Indeed, “dominant educational institutions – from Socratic dialogical circles, to medieval monasteries and universities, to the industrial era school – do not have outstanding track records engaging with new communications technologies” (Luke, 2003, p. 397).
While students’ needs are tremendously different today than they were 700 years ago, and society’s expectations for the upcoming generation has changed dramatically, tension lies in the fact that 21st century classrooms have not been able to accommodate the changing notion of what it means to be literate in today’s world. It is therefore important to consider just exactly what are the needs of today’s students, what it looks like to be literate today and to consider the challenges and tensions facing educators as they deal with these changing needs.
The authors of “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures” examine the changing social environment facing students and teachers. In their approach to literacy pedagogy, they argue that “mere literacy,” which looks at the basic aspects of literacy such as mastery of sound-letter correspondence lends itself to a more authoritarian kind of pedagogy (New London Group, 1996). Multiliteracies, on the other hand, focus “on modes of representation that are broader than language alone” (New London Group, 1996, p. 4) and include a multi-modal understanding of what it means to be literate. Thus, the New London Group identifies six different modalities that are important to being able to communicate meaning. Besides the linguistic mode, they identify visual, audio, gestural, spatial and multimodal, the latter of which links all the other modes together. It is important to remember, however, that “although the fundamental principles of reading and writing have not changed, the process has shifted from the serial cognitive processing of linear print text to parallel processing of multimodal text-image information sources” (Luke, 2003, p. 399).
Educators are bound by government-mandated curricula when they design their teaching practice. Teachers are expected to measure mastery of academic learning outcomes and to use traditional pedagogy to ensure the mastery of these outcomes. Students are tested on their knowledge in discrete subjects. Luke describes this as being “collection code curriculum,” which implies that “teachers deposit knowledge ‘bits’ in students who, in turn, accumulate, indeed collect, largely disconnected discipline-based facts and figures through skill and drill pedagogy” (p. 400). In contrast, Luke states that “digitalized knowledge and networked environments, critical understandings of the relations among ideas, their sources and histories, intertextual referents and consequences” to be “as important if not more so than mastery, reproduction and recombination of discrete facts“ (Luke, 2003, p. 400). Thus, there is a conceptual shift from “collection to connection” (Luke, 2003, p. 400).
21st Century students, rightly or wrongly, are considered to be “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001). What this implies is that students today have been born into a world full of digital media and as such are adept at manipulating a variety of different aspects of communication technology. One does not have to go far to see evidence of this. Students today come to school with cellular phones, are connected to their friends and family through text messaging and can look up anything at any time. They are gamers and solve problems in virtual reality. Their social space is vast. They tweet. They even blog. Yet when they come to school they usually are asked to leave their phones in their backpacks. Generally speaking, schools cannot cope with the various technologies to which students have access.
There are many theories that attempt to explain why it is such an uphill battle around the use of technology in schools. There are of course myriad superficial reasons for this antipathy to exist. These include everything from inconsistent wireless accessibility to lack of technology to lack of professional development for teachers.
Kevin Leander was able to study a girl’s private school, Ridgeview Academy, which was in the unique position of having no issues with the actual technology or reliability and accessibility. The students, from Grade 5 to 12, each had a laptop, which they brought to school every day. Yet, Leander found that the technology still interfered with the business of education, as understood by the administration and teachers at that school. In fact, he found that there is an underlying tension surrounding the integration of technology when providing learning opportunities that will meet the needs of today’s students. (Leander, 2007)
Leander identified four major areas of contention between the use of technology in a school setting and the fulfillment of curriculum goals. The concerns he identified revolved around the issue of internet safety, the effect technology had on classroom climate and space, concern about plagiarism and cheating on tests and the need to place books above information gained on the internet. Thus, he argued, “the challenge of integrating the internet into school is not chiefly technical… but rather spatial and temporal” (Leander, p.26, 2007).
He noted that technology at Ridgeview Academy was used to support well-established pedagogical practices, such as writing process pedagogies, student note-taking, online newsletters, distributing assignments and submitting work, and quick searches for online information (Leander, p. 28). He also noted that even though laptops were being used for supporting things such as writing practice, students were using their computers to research both inside and outside of school time, they were using email to gather information and conduct interviews, and that the laptops encouraged constant writing. It is fair to say that when technology is used in other schools, that these are common uses as well. While teachers at Ridgeview Academny wanted to develop strong young women, they were concerned that the students were vulnerable, and would possibly put the school community at risk through their possible misuse of technology (Leander, 2007).
Leander’s observation regarding the conflict between online resources and library resources, with the book being touted as the superior source of information has also been noted by Gunther Kress. Kress argues that writing as the predominant way of communicating ideas in the form of books has dominated our culture, making it difficult for multimodal forms of communication to gain a foothold. He argued that the representation of ideas and communication is closely bound up with social and ethical values within the wider framework of economic, political, social, cultural and technological change (Kress, 2005).
Leander also found the teachers’ observations that students could cheat on tests and plagiarise work when they were online to be of interest. He wrote that, “with an open information space, the idea of the skill set necessary to succeed changes entirely. In this case, rather than remembering information, locating, and if necessary, combining and synthesizing information are at stake” (Leander, 2007, p. 34). Thus, with respect to testing, Leander noted that the school began to close the newer space of open information through containment for testing (Leander, 2006).
Many teachers struggle with this dichotomy because we are asked to measure an individual’s knowledge of any given subject. Traditionally, testing is one way to measure assess mastery. Yet in recent years there has been a shift away from traditional modes of assessment, at least at the elementary level, to one where project-based learning, assessed with rubrics is becoming more commonplace.
Finally, Leander’s comment on the damaged nature of communication in the classroom space can be disconcerting for someone who is used to manipulating the conversation that happens in the classroom. It is a difficult place to be when one feels excluded from what is taking place behind those laptop screens. This supports Leander’s contention that the resistance to embracing technology in classrooms has to do with the space, both temporal and in terms of school organization (Leander, 2007).
While Leander identifies that the common conception at this school was that curriculum must remain at the center of anything new, this is a commonly held conception in the majority of schools. This is because of the government mandate communicated through curriculum guides. In addition, Leander’s finding that new technologies must support goals already in place from the curriculum is similarly true in regular schools. In current curricular practice, there is evidence to support the idea that technology is an “add-on” to support forms of practice that are well rehearsed, rather than be a transformative power to engage students in 21st century learning in multi-literate dimensions.
It appears that the problem of educating students to be multi-literate goes beyond the training teachers receive at university to the more ubiquitous structure of how education is provided in our school systems. Therefore, not only does there need to be change in the way teachers deliver curriculum, so that learning is student-centered and project based, using the technologies available to them to their greatest effect, but there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way government prescribes what is to be learned away from “collection” of facts to “connection” to the world. Even the space in which education takes place needs to move from the closed-in boxes that are our present day classrooms to a more fluid, interactive temporal space away from the constraints of traditional teacher/student interactions. Only when this occurs will we have a situation where learning opportunities will mesh with 21st Century learning goals in a multi-literate space.
Dobson, T., Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital Literacy. The Cambridge Handbook on Literacy. (pp. 1-30)
Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition. 22. (pp. 5-22).London: University of London
Leander, K. (2007). “You Won’t Be Needing Your Laptops Today”: Wired Bodies in the Wireless Classroom. In Lankshear, C., Knobel, M., Biguym, C., and Peter, M. (Eds.), A New Literacies Sampler. (pp. 25-48). New York: Peter Lang.
Luke, C. (2000). Cyber-schooling and technological change: Multiliteracies for new times. In B. Cope, M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures (pp. 69-91). Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Macmillan.
Luke, C. (2003). Pedagogy, Connectivity, Multimodality, and Interdiscip[linarity. eReading Research Quarterly, 38(3): pp. 397-403.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. NCB University Press. 9(5): pp. 1-15
The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review. 66(1). p. 60-92.