Who is Teaching Whom?

The purpose of this research project is to review the current literature about the use of new digital media (NDM) in the writing classroom.  I think it is fair to say that the term literacy has changed in recent years due in large part to advancements in computer technology.  What did it mean to be literate a hundred years ago?  Being literate a hundred years ago meant the ability to read and understand text from a book, newspaper, or magazine and the ability to write text, more than likely by hand, on a piece of paper.  Then, about fifty years ago, the first computer was invented and the term literacy began to change.

As I was looking for resources to use to write this report one of my first search locations was the university library.  I noticed several books about teaching and new technology.  Many of these books were written in the 1990s.  As I scanned these books I noticed that many of the topics were rather outdated, so I limited my search to books that were published after the year 2000.

The first resource I will be reviewing is the book, “Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms” by Will Richardson.  This book was a recommended resource in the composition and rhetoric class I am taking this semester.

The next resource in this review is an article concerning the definition of literacy and how the meaning of literacy shapes how the educational system responds to the need to educate students to become literate in society today.  “Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare or Red Herring?” by Peter Roberts compares three definitions of literacy: quantitative, qualitative, and pluralistic.

“Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms” by Will Richardson is a resource text for educators.  But what sets this book apart from other resource books about new digital media (NDM) is that the author uses examples of technology being used today in classrooms.  Also, as Richardson states in the preface, “This book may look like a book about technology, but it’s really a book about the connections, collaborations, and conversations that the new ‘cool tools’ of the Web are allowing us to create” (vii).  The book is divided into two sections; in the first part the author discusses some history and definitions of current technology and in the second part he gives examples of significant technological tools and the teachers who are using them.

After reading this book I don’t think educators, in particular writing teachers, have a clue about the capability or potential of the World Wide Web to shape education.  The author talks about the collaboratory and creativity aspect of the web.  Since the beginning the internet has been a platform for creative people to get together and communicate about common interests.  Initially, the common interests for many of the individuals who had access to the internet were the development of the internet itself;  collaboration to create web sites and build the necessary programming language to allow the internet to become truly interactive.

In the beginning, the internet was utilized more as a research tool.  A person could “surf“ the internet for information, news and commercial interests: advertising became prevalent on the internet in the 1990s and continues to grow exponentially today.  At the turn of the century the computer language to make the internet truly interactive was developed; HTML.  This programming language allowed users to upload text onto the internet.  Richardson calls this new internet format the “Read/Write Web” (5).  The implications to education of this new read/write web are mind-boggling; in particular for the educator who teaches writing and rhetoric.

The author provides a “toolbox” of technologies that may help the educator become a part of the read/write web.  This “toolbox” consists of technologies “made up of a mix of those that publish, those that manage information, and those that share content in new collaborative ways” (8).  A brief summary of toolbox items follows; publishing and collaborating technologies like Weblogs and Wikis and information management tools such as Diigo and del.icio.us.   These tools allow read/write access to the internet with relative ease.  Richardson discusses the merits of each tool and the pedagogical implications for using the technology in the classroom.

The first resource Richardson discusses is Weblogs or Blogs.  According to the author there are many uses for blogs in the classroom; depending on the grade level and motivation of the teacher.  Here is just a partial list of the ways in which a blog can be integrated into a classroom (32):

  1. Posting class related information.
  2. Communicate with parents.
  3. Provide examples of class work.
  4. As a link to online reading.
  5. Post comments on class activities.
  6. Student comments on topics being used to promote language skills.
  7. Class newsletter.
  8. Link with another class somewhere else in country or world.

Richardson gives examples of class blogs currently being used from the elementary level through high school.  The possibilities are endless and the only limiting factor is the motivation of the teacher to introduce a blog into his curriculum.

The author brings up some good points to consider before, during, and after the decision has been made to begin a blog for educational purposes.  Some questions to consider are:

  1. How will the blog be used?  Primarily to disseminate or create information?
  2. Class blog, student blogs, or combination of both?
  3. How will security be addressed?  Parent letter and administration approval?

One of the most important sections of this book is the section on weblog pedagogy.  The author outlines six pedagogical benefits for using blogs as a teaching tool (27-29):

  1. A blog is a “constructivist” tool for learning.  The students’ and teacher’s creation of content adds to the vast content of knowledge already on the internet.  Also, there is a much wider audience to write to.
  2. The possible connectivity to other students and teachers allows collaboration to happen.  Richardson says, “Learning to work with far-flung collaborators is becoming an important literacy.”
  3. The next benefit is organizational.  “When blogs are a part of the learning process there is a readily available trail of student work that is easily retrieved by the teacher and the student.”
  4. Blogs allow all students to contribute, even the less vocal or shy student.  “Everyone has a voice in the conversation, and all ideas, even the instructor’s, are given equal presentation on the blog.”
  5. The next benefit of blog use in the classroom is that students can “enhance the development of expertise in a particular subject.”
  6. The final benefit has to do with keeping up with technological advances.  “The extent of our collective knowledge doubles every 18 months (Olofson, 1999).  It’s important to learn research and organization skills in order to keep up.

The author mentions the pedagogical benefits of blog use, but he also cautions about the use of blogs as a resource.  Much of the information on the internet is credible; however there is also a large quantity of questionable material; to limit student use of blogs because of the latter would be unfair to the student because of the possible gains from accessing the former.  Richardson is a proponent of assessing the reliability of a source; how to do this needs to be taught by the teacher.  The author suggests (39):

1. Learn about the blog author.

a.  Find out the bloggers reputation.

2. Look at the blogroll or list of links.

a.  Discuss and teach these blog assessment strategies with students.  In addition, develop class standards for assessment.

In the next section of the book Richardson discusses the Wiki; three advantages of using a wiki to publish and how it could be used in education.  The most common Wiki is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.  Wiki’s are websites devoted to information gathering.  They were originally created as a means to publish on the internet.  Today the Wiki websites are set up as an interactive publisher.  The content of a wiki can be input by anyone.  Everyone is an editor on a wiki website.  Considering that there is no official check about the facts that are entered into a wiki site the contents of a wiki are very accurate; slightly less accurate than the same entries in the “Encyclopedia Britannica”.  When inaccurate facts are entered onto a wiki a relatively short period of time elapses before the information is found and corrected.

Another publishing advantage of a wiki is the timeliness of the information that is posted to it.  The author used the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake as an example of the speed at which the information about the earthquake appeared on Wikipedia.  According to the author, “The event occurred just after midnight on December 26, and the first 76-word post was created at Wikipedia about 9 hours later.  Twenty-four hours after the first mention, the entry had been edited more than 400 times and had grown to about 3,000 words, complete with some of the first photographs of the devastation, a chart documenting the dead and injured, and other graphics describing how the tsunami was spawned” (61).

A third advantage of using a wiki to publish is the ease of collecting, organizing, and storing information.  Wikis are being used by businesses, project teams, and educators; to respectively, collaborate, keep track of work, and build resource sites for their students.  The author provides excellent site references to assist those wanting to develop a wiki of their own.

Richardson discusses the use of wikis in education mainly as a resource tool.  The wiki is tailor made for use in the classroom.  The advantage of using a wiki in the classroom is that students learn how to write, research, and publish all at the same time.   The author provides the URL for a high school online collaborative writing wiki: http://schools.wikia.com/wiki/High_School_Online_Collaborative_Writing.

New topics can be added to this wiki by merely clicking on the template. Templates are provided for a range of topics; Economics, Environment, Health, Macbeth to name just a few.  In addition, there are existing topics that have already been updated with text; for example anorexia, binge eating, and bulimia.  From this site I could also set up my own wiki.  Richardson has demystified the wiki by providing links to websites that are active and he has clarified instructions and made them easy to understand and use.

The next web tool that Richardson delves into is RSS (an acronym for Real Simple Syndication).  This application provides information from blogs and websites to a user rather than the user having to visit a blog or website.  With the use of an “aggregator” it is possible to link the content a user desires to a “feeder” that in turn sends the content to the user.  Of all the web tools that are described in this book RSS will make a user very efficient at obtaining and organizing information.  The author recommends the website: http://Bloglines.com to create an aggregator that will feed content to a user.  Richardson connects RSS to education by describing how to feed information with student weblogs, without student weblogs, with a search feed only, for a new search, for weblog searches, for website searches, for news group searches, and for bookmarks (80-84).  The RSS web tool is a tremendous time saver.  Rather than visiting several websites or blogs to obtain information, the RSS streams the website or blog information directly to the user.  I can understand the implications as a teacher; students and teacher using RSS to enhance research abilities.

The next section in Richardson’s book is titled “The Social Web: Learning Together.”  In this part of the book the author elaborates on the new social connectivity that the web is facilitating.  Through social bookmarking services like del.icio.us users can bookmark or annotate links to different websites or portions of websites on their del.icio.us account.  Del.icio.us organizes these links using a “tag” system and then provides a connection between users who have tagged similar websites and used the same “tag” in the process.  Richardson compares this new social bookmarking with the traditional librarian, “Back in the old days, we used to rely on librarians and others to sort and categorize information for us” (92).  The author refers to this new form of information organization as “folksonomy”: a blend of folk and taxonomy.  Folksonomy is the organization of collaboratively shared information using a “tag” to annotate and categorize.  This is another example of the web serving as a social force to facilitate and promote knowledge.

The next two sections of Richardson’s book are about using visual media: still and video images.  Flickr is a site that allows for collaborative photo sharing.  It is a digital image archive that has features that allow for annotation and tagging.  Photos may be uploaded to the users Flickr account or images may be viewed from the Flickr library of photographs.  In Flickr, an image can be annotated; this means that any part of the image can have text attached to it.  Whenever the mouse is dragged over parts of the picture a text box appears; this text box may contain words that explain the picture.  Tagging refers to the attachment of a label to the photo.  This form of tagging is similar to the tagging of a text document in Diigo, for example.

From an educational standpoint the annotation and tagging features in Flickr provide a tool for students and teachers to collaborate and share photos with any other Flickr user throughout the worldwide web.  Richardson gives several examples of teachers using this Flickr in their classrooms to enhance student motivation.

The author then discusses Podcasting (Personal On Demand) and describes it as another method of creating audio content.  The difference between podcasting and other audio broadcasting is that the content created as a podcast can be downloaded to a personal computer of ipod and then listened to or watched at the leisure of the user.  The author provides resources for educators to learn about podcasting.  Mr. Mayo, a middle school teacher in Virginia, is an example of the use of podcasts in the classroom (http://mrmayo.typepad.com/podcasts/ ).  The technology to produce a podcast is inexpensive and easy to use: microphone and software to capture what is recorded in MP3 format (the open source program Audacity was recommended by the author; http://audacity.sourceforge.net/).  Richardson suggests spending time developing a topic to broadcast, for example, create an audio tour of the school; whatever topic is used the main consideration should be the audience.  The podcast process involves three steps,

1) recording, 2) editing, 3) saving to a server or the internet.

Screencasting is another web tool with applications for the classroom.  Screencasting is a combination audio and video production: the video part of a screencast shows what is happening on a computer screen and the audio portion narrates the video.  An example of a screencast can be seen at: http://www.idratherbewriting.com/2009/03/10/michael-picks-perfect-screencasts/

Just click on the words “Play Video” and watch an example of a screencast about “Gears”, a web browser add-on.  According to Richardson, screencasting is just as easy to produce as a podcast.

The author gives two reasons why technology should be used in the classroom;

1) The amount of information available on the internet is going to explode.  For example, Google plans to scan and digitize 50 million books and InternetArchive.org founder Brewster Kahle plans to do the same with 500 million volumes from the Library of Congress. 2) There is a trend toward more collaboration in the creation of content on the internet.  Students today need to become “collaboratively” literate as well as technologically literate.

In the article “Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare or Red Herring?” by Peter Roberts the author discusses three definitions for the term literacy.  The first two definitions deal with the quantitative and qualitative aspects that define literacy.  Roberts supports a broader definition of literacy; a multiple or pluralistic perspective of the definition of literacy.  According to Roberts, how literacy is defined has social and political ramifications.

Important decisions regarding allocations of resources and resource effectiveness of literacy programs is based on how literacy is defined.  The author presents two types of quantitative definitions of literacy; one based on reading ages and the other based on years of schooling.  According to Roberts both quantitative methods are easy to use as “political rhetoric” when a politician makes a case for program change or improvement.

The “reading age” definition of literacy is based on how well a person scored on a test of reading ability; “Many of the tests used over the years to determine ‘reading ages’ have been designed by psychologists, and are premised on models of supposedly ‘normal’ cognitive and behavioural development” (414).  For example, in this country, literacy is defined as having a “reading” age of seven years: actually it means a person tests at a reading age of seven years (1975).

Another quantitative definition of literacy concerns the amount of schooling a literate person possesses: for example, a person was deemed literate if they had been in school a certain number of years or achieved a reading level equal to a grade or class level.  For example, the U. S. Bureau of Census, in 1980, based calculations of functional literacy on the percentage of the population fourteen years and older who had completed five years or more of school (414).

There are problems defining literacy using a quantitative approach.  One of the main problems in using the “years in school” approach is that according to this definition any person who has at least five years of education is considered literate.  However, this designation does not take the quality of that education: the school environment, curriculum, or community influence.  The same problems could be said of the “reading age” approach to literacy definition.

Another approach to the definition of literacy is the qualitative approach.  Qualitative definitions refer to the “qualities” associated with being a literate person.  Some examples will illustrate the many varieties of qualitative definitions (418-419):

(a) ‘Literacy’ is:

‘the ability to intelligently deal independently with recorded symbolic information’ (Tuinman, 1978, p. 299).

‘… a combination of technical skills that make it possible, with content and purpose, to interact with the specific environments in which people live and function’ (Harman, 1987, p. 96).

(b) To be ‘literate’ is:

‘… not to have arrived at some pre-determined destination, but to utilise reading, writing and speaking skills so that our understanding of the world is progressively enlarged’ (Mackie, 1980, p. 1).

‘… [to be] able to get the information and ideas … [one] needs from the materials one needs to read’ (cited Tilley, 1984, p. 13).

‘… [to be a] person who reads to explore him or herself, to discover other people, to find respite, or to be startled’ (Guthrie, 1979, p. 451).

As you can read, these definitions of literacy are not definitive.  They vary according to the author, community, or country.  The qualitative definitions of literacy are “prescriptive”; they define an ideal of literacy that may be unattainable or for that matter measurable (419).

Pluralistic definitions of literacy, on the other hand, are multimodal in nature.  According to Roberts a pluralistic definition of literacy can account for a wide range of literacies.  In other words, there is more than one definition of literacy depending on the context of the reading and writing being defined, the time period of the definition, and the place.  The author uses the term particularistic to define literacy.  According to Roberts, “Literacies, an increasing number of theorists argue, are always social, diverse and many” (421).  This view of defining literacy makes sense to me because we live in a complex, technological world.  There are too many variables to take into consideration in order to strictly define literacy using one narrow definition; either quantitative or qualitative.

In conclusion, this literature review focused on two distinct writings.  In the book “Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom” Will Richardson enlightens and informs us about the many technological tools that are available to us on the World Wide Web.  In the journal article “Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare or Red Herring?” Peter Roberts suggests a multimodal definition of literacy that is more in tune with today’s multimodal society; high tech, new digital media, and the internet.  Roberts said that “Measurable people are manageable people. Assigning people to their ‘appropriate’ place on an educational or social hierarchy requires a system for distinguishing between individuals” (416).  The system Roberts speaks of is our system for defining literacy; if it be quantitative or qualitative.  A pluralistic definition of literacy takes into account the fact that we are individuals; individuals with multiple literacies depending on the context that is being discussed.

As teachers of English we are at the forefront of literacy education.  However, English literacy education today should include the use of NDM (New Digital Media).  Stuart Selber sums up the role of the English teacher in the twenty-first century, “rearticulating the responsibilities of teachers to include the design of literacy technologies is an essential task if the profession hopes to remain relevant pedagogically and to influence the computer interfaces shaping how students think about, and engage in, discourse-related activities online” (12).  Pedagogical relevance means the teacher keeps up with current technology: blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networking.  These technologies are currently changing and they will not be current for long.

Works Cited

  1. Roberts, Peter “Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare or Red Herring?” Source: British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Dec., 1995), pp. 412-432
  2. Richardson, Will “Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms” Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, California. (2006)
  3. Selber, Stuart “Multiliteracies for a Digital Age” Southern Illinois University Press. (2004) Ch. 1

1 comment for “Who is Teaching Whom?

  1. December 6, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    You have a lot of great resources in your article. Thanks for the mention and link back to my blog.

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