New Media Literacies? Please.

This post began as a comment to The New Media Literacies by Susan Carter Morgan over at scmorgan: teacher, learner, which, by the way, is my addition to the One Comment Project (#OCP) for today.

I have a hard time with the term ā€˜media literaciesā€™. These arenā€™t literacies. Plain and simple. They are tools and networks. So often literacy is confused with context and tools.

Why does this matter?
Because when people start to talk about tools and context as literacy they shift their focus to the tools rather than keeping their eyes on the big picture.

We see schools, teachers, districts seeking out technology for their schools and classrooms and then we end up with computer labs that aren’t used because many teachers don’t know how to manage learning in a computer lab yet. Or interactive white boards (big expensive smart boards) that are used to enhance lecture because teachers don’t know what else to do with them yet. Or professional development that advocates for the use of social networking in classrooms within schools whose IT departments ban social networking sites on the school’s network.

As Angela recently wrote in Needing a Framework to Facilitate Learning,

Itā€™s impossible to make choices around tech tools until we understand where we need to support kids better as learners and create plans for accomplishing that. These plans have to be systemic in nature in order to effect change. This requires expertise in so much more than technology.

This is a theme I’ve been writing and talking about for a long time. What I am happy about is that lately I am seeing more and more blog posts, like Angela’s, around the same ideas. What ideas? That we need to focus on professional development. That we need to re-connect teachers with their passion for teaching in order to clear the path for change in how they teach. In order to re-connect teachers with the children in their classrooms and their needs and in order to teach teachers the skills they need to answer to these needs in a collaborative, systematic, systemic, mindful way.

Literacy is about understanding the world around us through symbols that are used to create meaning, mainly through text and the various ways text is presented. We can do that through a variety of hard and soft tools. But the big picture for us teachers is how we will use the tools at our disposal to help our students develop their literate selves.



  • Hi Tracy–Thanks for inviting this conversation. The points you make are important ones, and Marcy’s argument in support of action research touches on the big picture I personally find myself compelled to understand.

    I honestly think that as service providers, it’s important that we are literate in far more than those areas of expertise we are invited to speak and train and coach around. For example, as a literacy coach, I need to understand how to conduct an effective needs assessment, how to design strategic plans, how to use various measures of data to inform my own work, and how to work with stakeholders to ensure that the work of the initiative I am leading isn’t conflicting with the work of a another one.

    As I’ve been called upon to help teachers and administrators make meaningful use of technology, I’ve wondered if it would help to provide protocols that might lend some clarity to the process. My post reflected a bit around that curiosity, which has been needling at me all year, and my realization that such protocols might do little more than impose simplistic structures on a process that is far more complex and meaningful. Two weeks ago, I spent some time at the Communities for Learning summer retreat, and there, I learned a great deal more about their framework for leading complex change. This is the framework that I spoke to in my post, and it is one that I feel can truly guide leaders in meaningful ways. It provides more questions than answers, but it helps us define what the best questions might be.
    .-= Angela Stockman´s last blog ..Homecoming =-.

  • Tracy says:

    Quick notes:

    Antonio, I left out the word context. I should have included context in the sentence that you refer to about tools and networks. My apologies.

    Play and negotiation happen all the time in the kg classroom, from forever and before. These are contexts, actions, is it literacy?

    Would you say that someone who can read, write, and speak yet has difficulty with play and negotiation is illiterate? Using that logic, people with autism, who generally do not negotiate, are all illiterate due to the different wiring of their brains.

    Conversely, can we describe someone who can play and negotiate yet can’t read or write as literate?

    Perhaps we are talking semantics, as you say Susan. Literacy is literacy. These are modes of learning, contexts, abilities through which literacy can happen. Collecting them all under literacies does not sit well at all with me.

    Antonio, thank you for the resource. I intend to explore it tomorrow morning, when I have a good chunk of time I can set aside for it.

  • I appreciate this discussion, too, as our school IS focusing on UBD again this summer, and I am enjoying our local online discussions on what “understanding” really means. I read Tomlinson’s work on differentiation years ago, and do agree that both authors can help us frame our discussions. I am still struggling, though, with separating the ability to work and learn online into the “tool” category, Tracy. I find this kind of sharing and learning from others very different from the kind of sharing/collaborating we did in the classroom years ago. To me, it requires a new definition, a new kind of learning/literacy that goes beyond text (including learning how to read hypertext). Are we arguing semantics? I don’t know. I agree totally with not focusing on tools (wikis, blogs, online apps), but I want my students to code-break, just as Angela says. Her first link articulates well my own thoughts–that tools are totally ineffective without the big picture, just as we don’t want to teach skills without the essential questions. I believe the code-breaking is very different online, thus I call that a type of literacy. Thanks for your thoughts. This helps me with some thoughts I’ve been having for our faculty ning UBD discussion! Perhaps as I continue reading and listening, I’ll be swayed.
    .-= Susan Carter Morgan´s last blog ..Burying the lede, indeed =-.

  • Antonio Viva says:

    Not sure I agree with you Tracey. The basic definition of literacy is the ability to read, speak and write. The landscape that we are using to do this has and continues to change. Therefore, a redefining of what it means as well as what it takes to thoughtfully and critically read, speak and write is where I believe this research is going. The full report put out by Project New Media Literacies, formerly at MIT and now at USC lists these critical skills as:

    Playā€” the capacity to experiment with oneā€™s surroundings as a form of problem-solving

    Performanceā€” the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery

    Simulationā€” the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes

    Appropriationā€” the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content

    Multitaskingā€” the ability to scan oneā€™s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.

    Distributed Cognitionā€” the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities

    Collective Intelligenceā€” the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal

    Judgmentā€” the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources

    Transmedia Navigationā€” the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

    Networkingā€” the ability to search for,synthesize,and disseminate information

    Negotiationā€” the ability to travel across diverse communities,discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

    So I respectfully disagree with the statement that these are nothing more than tools and networks. I am not sure that any of these qualify as tools or networks as Project NML is currently defining them.


  • Tracy says:

    Angela, thanks so much for the resources. This is a conversation that obviously gets my velcro up and looking for more.

  • Tracy,

    What a great discussion and an incredibly necessary dialogue and as you said so elegantly: “when people start to talk about tools and context as literacy they shift their focus to the tools rather than keeping their eyes on the big picture.”

    One of the most powerful models of helping sift and sort through the “literacies” and the “tools” debate is a model by Luke and Freebody. It breaks down – REGARDLESS of context, medium, and time the essential elements of effective literacy. The reader/learner “roles” are the competencies we need to teach students across medium and mode in order to help them understand the world around them and their important place in it! More details here: and here

    For more great conversation around the blogosphere on 21C Literacies- great stuff from @bengrey:

    GREAT stuff!!

  • Tracy says:

    Hi Susan and thanks for your comment!

    I disagree. Collaborating, sharing, and learning online are not new literacies. They are new ways to help share and create meaning, therefore are new tools.

    I see it this way – literacy (understanding and creating meaning from the symbols around us) is the big picture, technology that helps us to get there are the tools – including social networking and learning tools.

    UBD is a great way to keep the learning focus clear. I find that combining UBD with differentiated instruction is a great way to stay focused on what needs to be learned while keeping in tune with the different students in my classroom. Have you done any work with that? Jay McTighe and Carol-Ann Tomlinson wrote a great book on it a few years back. (Wow – in looking for a reference I found this great school blog! )

  • Thanks for stopping by, Tracy. I couldn’t agree more that the big picture is often what’s missing when people start hyping technology in the classroom. When teachers think that simply adding technology will improve teaching and learning, something has gone very wrong. On the other hand, I don’t find the term media literacies misleading. As Jenkins said, the skills of collaborating, sharing, and learning online are the new literacies–not the tools, not the laptops, and certainly not the white boards (I refuse to buy one). I believe giving students ways to reflect and share what they are learning strengthens their ability to research, write, organize, and read. We use social networking tools to help students understand the “symbols” around them, which include text, visuals, and sound. In fact, by using Understanding by Design as a starting point, our teachers frame their lessons with essential questions that guide all their decisions about whether technology is appropriate or necessary.
    I am absolutely in agreement about Action Research. We have a team of teachers tackling our teaching of writing this fall, hoping to learn more as we teach and share our discoveries. We plan to use online tools to help us track our progress:)
    .-= Susan Carter Morgan´s last blog ..Burying the lede, indeed =-.

  • Tracy says:

    Yes. Action research is at the heart of how we need to be as educators. Though I would extend the concept. Participatory action research is where we need to be thinking and acting.

    I (we :) ) re-designed an action research model a few years ago while conducting my own action research on how teachers talk about students. The traditional action research model focuses on the researcher and what she is looking for. In a sense, that is how mine started however it began because of a need within a school system and throughout the process the research was defined by the participants not only by the researcher (me). What I liked especially was how reflection became active. It was not something to do after the fact to see how things went but throughout the process, acting as a rudder to keep things on track.

    Maybe I need to write some more about this.

    Thanks for the excellent comment Marcy. Excellent because it got me thinking about things that I need to think and do more of.

  • Marcy Webb says:

    Hi, Tracy.

    I, too, believe the moniker, ‘media literacies’ is erroneous.

    Which leads me to another term: Action Research.

    Does anyone remember it?

    Action research is not as sexy a term as ‘media literacies’. And yet, it gets teachers doing exactly the thing you’re advocating:

    “What we need to re-connect teachers with their passion for teaching in order to clear the path for change in how they teach. In order to re-connect teachers with the children in their classrooms and their needs and in order to teach teachers the skills they need to answer to these needs in a collaborative, systematic, systemic, mindful way.”

    Too many teachers, hyped up on technology, have forgotten how to reflect, and in that reflection, how to connect, or, perhaps in some cases, re-connect to one’s teaching voice, and, to the students.

    I like technology, and, as you and I demonstrated in our exchange at about this time on yesterday morning, it can be a powerful tool for collaboration, teaching, and learning. But, it most certainly isn’t the end-all and the be-all. Which makes me think of the Smart Boards collecting dust at my own place of employ.

    Excellent post, Tracy!
    .-= Marcy Webb´s last blog ..The Ignorant American? =-.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *