Thinking about digital literacies

In an effort to get more materials aimed at educators and to improve our professional development library, we currently subscribe to three academic periodicals including the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. This weekend I had a chance to read many of the articles in the September 2008 issue of JAAL, and I highly recommend it for everyone, but especially for our technology teachers who are working with many of the issues covered in the publication. With that said, I would like to offer my thoughts on the articles and ideas in JAAL.

While I love technology, and advocate heavily for its use, I found myself conflicted by what I was reading. It reminded me of the double-speak I often hear at universities and seminars; it sounds good on paper, but in practice it’s a different animal. Furthermore, I wasn’t convinced that the digital literacies described throughout are comparable substitutes for the orthodox literacies they are replacing.

In defining what digital literacies are, writers O’Brien and Scharber say: “We take the position that digital literacies include the composition and reading of multimodal texts. In multimodal composing and reading, ideas and concepts are represented with print texts, visual texts (photographs, videos, animations), audio texts (music, audio narration, sound effects), and even dramatic or other artistic performances (drama, dance, spoken word)” (p 66).

As I was reading, I found myself thinking that the writers were confusing the technical abilities that students display with meaningful construction. True meaning making is different than creating a collection of personally significant artifacts that reflect random feelings, moods and affiliations. Choosing a background color, banner, font scheme, screen name, personal epigram, theme song and photo for your home page may be a creative process, but some authors seemed to be trying to convince me that this should be included in our school time.

It’s interesting to take a peek at what our students are creating when they forget that everyone is looking or able to look. Even a perfunctory tour of the web pages and spaces created by most of my students will reveal that they are typical high school students, pushing the boundaries of their limits and urgently trying to achieve status by displaying their brand associations as badges of inclusion. They are little consumers, except that now the store is digital.

When I was doing my student teaching at Holyoke High School, one of the many technology companies pushing to move into schools was a program by Christopher Whittle named Channel One. The idea was simple. Channel One would provide schools much needed “technology”, that is televisions, satellite dishes, and all the necessary cabling. Each morning Channel One would broadcast a two or three minute “news” segment highlighting important events around the country and internationally. The catch was that the programming included a one minute commercial for companies who paid big bucks for a captive audience (Whittle didn’t pay for all those TVs himself, after all). I wrote a paper against this program, believing that the cost was too high. Delivering our students into the hands of companies vying for their attention and loyalty seemed to me, to be against what I was trying to do as a teacher.

One of the articles in JAAL, Remix: The Art and Craft of Endless Hybridization, discusses how digital tools allow users to take original content and create new versions that reflect the creative and whimsical impulses of the users. As evidence, they offer sites such as, where visitors can compete by creating altered photos around a theme such as “Mythical Creatures”. Another example of this kind of digital mashing is music videos created by anime fans, where they take their favorite song and clips from different anime episodes to create an original music video. Other examples, left me even less convinced that these are worthy of school time.

Interestingly enough, an article in the same issue of JAAL by Wendy Glenn, focusing on trends in Young Adult novels, mentions how publishers have honed their marketing techniques to attract readers by providing provocative situations, morally questionable characters and an insider’s look at the exclusive world of the socially elite. Some of the most successful YA titles, such as Gossip Girl, have web-sites and even television series which also attract the same demographic. This all reminded me of a video that my friend and fellow educator, Carl Tillona, sent me a while back.

The video is a student project called “A vision of students today“, completed at Kansas State University in the Spring of 2007. The video features a calmingly, haunting musical score and a series of statements written on walls, chairs, notebooks, computer screens and other surfaces. The underlying argument of the video seems to be that students today learn and live so radically differently than in previous times, that all of our pedagogies are archaic and ineffective.

Two series of statements especially caught my attention. In the first series, a student holds up a notebook stating, “I will read 8 books this year, 2300 web pages & 1281 Facebook profiles“. The next student, holds up a sign saying, “I will write 42 pages for this class, and over 500 pages of e-mail.” I found it disheartening to say the least, that college aged students could equate the experience of reading Twain, Austen, Hemingway, Morrison, Miller, Vonnegut, or any of the long list of writers available to us all, with checking out what a thousand people think about themselves. I also found it insulting that they could compare 42 pages of critical thinking and notes to any amount of e-mails; that is unless they are having much more serious correspondences via e-mail than I usually engage in.

The second series is both ironic and hilarious. In this segment, a number of students hold up pages stating how many hours they spend each day doing various things such as eating, talking on the phone, working, showering etc. The final tally is twenty six point five (26.5!) hours a day of activities, which is of course both impossible and ridiculous. The conclusion is that they get in 26.5 hours each day by “multi-tasking, because [they have to]”. I propose that they get to math class, pay attention and put down their electronic gadgets.

See you all tomorrow and thank you for stopping by.

© 2008 henry toromoreno

About htwilson

born in brooklyn, raised in queens, massachusetts, that's where I be.
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