New Literacies

14 Jul

I am continually aware, as a teacher, of the changing face of literacy in the 21st Century. The school where I teach has two libraries, one a traditional stacks with books affair, and the other a multi-media, Internet-connected centre. The one is continually used, the other a haven of peace and quiet.

It’s not that books are dead. I see kids reading books, and Harry Potter, Twilight and so on are even popular. It’s just that literacy has changed, and reading is done in many media now, from the mobile phone, computer screen and iBook. Writing too is done in the traditional way, with pen and ink, but increasingly it is done digitally too, even in schools.

The new literacies bring with them new opportunities as well as new pitfalls. I think we, as teachers, do need to be genuinely excited by the prospects that digital literacies offer for enhancing meaning making activities. the added engagement of the multi-media which the new literacies employ, the gloss and professional look which even novice users can get out of computer packages are surely only good for connecting with and encouraging students to connect with the world.

The ability to find information instantly, anywhere, anytime is truly transformational in the classroom setting. A few weeks ago I had a class engaging in real-time discussions with students on the other side of the world about Blake’s poem The Sick Rose. I know that that experience introduced perspectives which would not otherwise have entered the classroom, and that students were enthralled and engaged in ways a paper anthology cannot really achieve.

It struck me, while watching the students’ intensity as they bashed in their replies to forum posts, and excitedly discussed the responses with their neighbours that eduaction is primarily a discussion. We’ve known this since the Socratic method first emerged, and probably before that too, back to the cave, but reliance on print has perhaps led us to glory in the image of the isolated scholar, alone with his books, burning the midnight candle to enlightenment. We’ve lost sight of the social aspect of learning. I know we all pay lip service to learning theorists such as Vygotsky, but deep down teachers of my age don’t really get it, we still think learning is something you get individually and from books.

The new digital literacies are inherently social, and I believe Facebook is the new Academy – the new literacies gravitate towards social learning, discussion and sharing in ways books cannot do.

I felt a little spare, as a teacher as I read the posts on Blake my students were writing and reading from over their shoulders. No-one cared that I was even in the classroom. I was superfluous to the learning that was going on. Once in a while a student would share a particularly juicy comment with me. They were being very sweet to include me. But truth to tell they didn’t need me to learn about Blake. I had so much to impart. I love Blake! But I loved even more that I didn’t have to jump in and take centre stage.

I struck me just how democratic the new digital literacies are, potentially, in ways that print media were too, at their inception. The ability to read the Bible democratised religion in ways that were truly revolutionary. The Internet is revolutionary too, in giving anyone a chance to publish their views, and a chance for everyone to discuss whatever they want with whomever they want, whenever they want. And get instantanious feedback!

As the Internet and mobile communication increasingly invades the classroom I know that it is a wave that will take us far from where we are now. I don’t know where it will takes us, but it will be to a different space, and that is incredibly exciting. It has never been a more envigorating time to be a teacher.

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Posted by on July 14, 2010 in 21st Century Skills


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