Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What is Literacy?

Traditionally, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write, but that definition is changing as digital communication becomes more prevalent. Scholars like Gunther Kress (Literacy in the New Media Age) and Phillip George (The Role ofFree and Open Source Software in Digital Literacy Education) argue that reading and writing in digital environments involve a visual element that changes the way we read and compose.

When you read something online, George points out, you rarely just read a block of text – there are normally images and hyperlinks, and often you find video or audio elements. The images contribute to your interpretation of what the text means, and things like links or videos change the way you experience the text – you may click away to another site or pause reading to watch a video. This method of reading makes it a nonlinear process – instead of comprehending layers of ideas that together build toward a conclusion, we comprehend multiple horizontal ideas and stitch together meaning.

Kress explains this in terms of composition by claiming writing is determined by the logic of time whereas images are governed by the logic of space. Composing in a digital environment requires an awareness of placement and design, and a recognition that the reader may not be reading linearly.

This changing understanding of literacy affects almost every aspect of our society. One response is of concern – kids today can’t seem to focus as well, they don’t read as much, they privilege the virtual world to the physical one. Another response is of excitement – kids today are consumers of vast amounts of information, they can use technology with an ease that’s impressive, and they are able to communicate virtually with people on the other side of the world.

Whether you think the shift toward digital is good or bad, it influences the way students learn, the way they communicate, and the way they are going to be required to communicate in the business world.

As composition instructor, this reality not only affects my understanding of how students learn, but it changes the content of my courses. My job is to teach literacy, and literacy now includes multimodal reading, social and collaborative writing, and an ability to adapt to the fast-paced development of new tools.

Like anything else, the first step is to being able to teach digital literacy is mastering it myself. I’m finding one of my biggest challenges is incorporating those visual elements, so I’d like to hear from you. Do you use images, videos, or audio elements when you “write” online? If so, how do you incorporate them? Why do you incorporate them?   


  1. I was also drawn to Kress's concept of how different "logics" govern writing-based and image-based texts differently. I thought that explanation made a lot of sense!

    I also relate to your struggle to become functionally literate! I'm not naturally a "visual" thinker, so I'm having to make some serious adjustments to my understanding of the best ways to help students. In my (limited) teaching experience thus far, I've found that I've primarily used digital media via video. Granted, I've primarily been a TA for literature coursework and have found that video often nicely augments (and spurs) discussion about text itself. However, I've never put digital literacy at the center of my literature classes (primarily because that's not entirely within my jurisdiction to do so).

    With that said, I think once I start teaching composition next fall, I'd like to consider some of the methods proposed by the authors we're reading to integrate greater digital tech into the classroom.

  2. I almost always use images when I blog. My blog is about experiences of American life, from the point of view of a Brit in the US, and I find that my audience is divided between 1) Brits reading it, and 2) Americans reading it to see what the outsider's point of view is. The images are almost always included for the benefit of the British audience.

    They don't know what, for example, a Turkey Vulture looks like. It's much easier for me to insert an image of a Turkey Vulture than to spend dozens of words functionally describing what one looks like. I am then able to devote that space to talking about Turkey Vultures and what they do, and why I'm writing about them, rather than what they look like. Similarly, the waves on the beach here are bigger here than in the UK, but if I simply talk about "12-foot waves" it's not useful for my readers. 12 feet is somewhat abstract to someone sitting in front of a computer, and no use at all to someone who doesn't have good spatial awareness. If, however, I show them a picture of a 12-foot wave about to break over a surfer, it helps them to place a 12-foot wave on the spectrum between the waves breaking on North Sea beaches, and The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

    All pictures are related to the subject matter of the paragraph in which they appear and many have captions- sometimes displayed as Alternate Text. I sometimes use the Alternate Text function to crack a joke, just as many webcomics (e.g. xkcd) do.

    That's my $0.02 worth.

    1. I was actually reading your latest entry about San Francisco right after I wrote this and it got me thinking about the use of photos versus the use of abstract or clip-art-like images. I think you're right that photos are a huge benefit to the kind of composing you are doing (or the composing I do on Facebook, where I'm trying to show my life to distant loved ones). But what about those other types of images? Do you ever feel compelled to use them?


  3. I toyed with hyperlinks for a long time before I got comfortable with how I use them. I used to link to random images or inappropriate links just for kicks. But when I started to feel like my online writing had the potential to "do" something (don't ask me what), I started thinking about conventions.

    The same goes from my use of images and video. I used to include an image because it looked pretty. Now I want the whole text to work together.

    Funny, over Jenae's blog I was complaining about how Kress puts too much emphasis on how language and format dictate the actions of the writer, but in response to your prompt, I'm realizing how the format has impacted my composition.