Perpetuating the Story of Difference? or Literacy, revisited.

Literacy is a topic close to my heart.

I became a teacher 12 years ago because I felt a call to do whatever possible to make sure that all children knew how to read. Since then, the theme has deepened for me, coming to mean much more than just knowing how to read.

Dennis and I recently hashed out our working understanding of literacy in Boy in the Bubble revisited and in Literacies – digital and otherwise…or not. Christopher has explored the historical roots of education and literacy and we discussed what this might mean in a contemporary context in Digitality or Why ‘Literacy’ is Dead and again in Literacies – digital and otherwise…or not, referenced above.

I am coming to know literacy as being able to use cultural tools to make sense of the world we live in.

When I couple that with my understanding of experience and story – see Who are teachers? and my comment to SASSY reviews CNN’s Black in America: Black Men – I need to respect that there are many ways to do this, to make sense of the world we live in – to make sense of me in the world I live in relation to you and you in the world you and you live.

And so I am unsettled this morning as I reflect on how we – those of us who champion educational technology – think about, blog about, talk about, present about, attempt to persuade about, make assumptions about sense-making in our world.

This unsettled feeling has been creeping up on me, hanging out in my shadows. It stepped out of them for a moment this morning as I read Doug Belshaw’s EdD Thesis Proposal, in particular his equation of literacy in the 21st century with digital literacy. I commented (or at least I tried to, until edublogs’ server dropped the connection to the site … once again…):

Yup, still unsettled by the equation
literate in the 21st century = digitally literate

I think it is part of the equation, one of the ways to get there, but the sole definition of contemporary literacy?

Certainly excludes people without much access to digital media. Is there a danger of creating an even larger illiterate world by virtue of this definition?

I’m curious as to how you will explore this.

And I still ask the question – are we creating an even larger divide between peoples and cultures with different access to media when we make statements like:

“Literacy today depends on understanding the multiple media that make up our high-tech reality and developing the skills to use them effectively” (from Connecting the Digital Dots: Literacy of the 21st Century (2006) by Barbara R. Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne L. Flannigan)?

Can we really say that literacy depends on that? To rephrase using somewhat out-of-date terminology, by doing so are we creating an even larger divide between the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd worlds? And what about between the different socio-economic situations within our own countries?

Are we honouring different stories and experiences by limiting our definition of literacy to digital, or at the very least by claiming it to be the most relevant?

Are we making the differences even more apparant?

Are we making the differences even more apparent? (UNHD 07/08 World Literacy Map)

I have a lot of questions.

I feel unsettled.


  • I think that ‘digital literacy’ is often understood in the following way:

    – Students need to know/use digital technologies because that’s what they will use in their day-to-day lives once they leave our institution.

    I think that you (at least seem to) use technology in the following way:

    – My students need to become literate and, in this, I plan to use whatever technological tools that will encourage that literacy. This might mean using pens and paper, wikis, blogs, or videos – if it lets my students become critically aware of their surrounding environment, then I want it in my classroom!

    Thus, I would suggest that you are encouraging ‘digital literacy’ (i.e. awareness/use of digital toolsets) in order to promote your wider project of critical understanding. Your concern (as it seems to read) is that by using digital tools too heavily, we risk undercutting the benefits that are realized from other ‘modes’ of literacy, and that by overweighing digital tools we enter an environment where those without access to those tools are classified (rightly or wrongly) as ‘illiterate’ for the modern/postmodern era.

    If I haven’t missed something critical, I think that the latter restatement of your position would be how I have been struggling to articular my concerns regarding literacy-general, versus the modes of becoming literate.

  • Tracy says:

    That’s pretty much how I was thinking as I wrote my last paragraph in that last comment.

    My concern right now – which is what inspired these posts on literacy – is that learning with technology is being afforded, by some, a, dare I say, evangelical status…”if only everyone would teach with tech, teach digital literacy, then education and our children would be saved! If only!”

    Could this be because it is internalized for me (I’m thinking out loud here)? I don’t see it as a radically different way of learning/teaching/thinking because it is integrated into how I do things?

  • Hi Tracy,

    I think that it’s helpful to remember that when a new technology ‘arrives’ it is something that is foreign, but something that over time we realize as having radically affected how we live our lives. The microwave oven and instant-cooking foods are great examples; when they were first sold they were revolutionary, they contributed to a ‘new’ form of cooking, whereas now we see them just as elements of the (typical) Western home-cooking process. I think that the same can be read/said about digital literacies. Given that digital technologies are fresh, we see them as separate because of a normal need to identify, categorize, and recognize as different. While these new technologies are different, they’re only different for so long as we are operating with a pre-digital mindset; once we recognize digital-analogue hybrid life as ‘normal’ at a core level (i.e. once we have internalized the digital, which is happening as people recognize wikipedia and Google as core knowledge discovery tools) I think that the notion of ‘digital literacy’ will again be compressed into ‘critical media awareness’. Given time, digital literacy will be seen as a facet of this larger class of literary experiences, but it will take a few years *grin*

    Christopher Parsonss last blog post at Education and IT

  • Tracy says:

    Hi Chris,
    I thought you’d have something to say on the subject. Glad you came by! I didn’t realize you were moving (go west young man). Congratulations – it isn’t easy :)

    You sum the conversation up really nicely for me with your last line (and I’m finally realizing that we have been talking about the same things all this time)

    …perceiving it as one facet of a larger discussion of critical understanding.

    As tech gets folded into our lives, into our understanding of the world around us, it will become the contemporary wheel or electricity – a part of life that can allow us to achieve our understanding in different ways than before…but not the understanding itself.

  • Hi Tracy,

    I am, indeed, finally getting to my feed reader (stage one of the move out West was a little more involved than first imagined *grin*), and wanted to comment on the notion of ‘digital literacy’.

    Digitization (the shifting of information into digital bits) is a pretty new phenomenon – this isn’t surprising, as computers are (relatively) new to the world. I think that something that is instructive is that, when each new form of ‘world-shaping’ technology is birthed into the world there are heralds claiming that it will save the world, that all must become ‘literate’/’knowledgable’ about it in order to function as a member of society. Vincent Mosco, a Canada Research Chair at Queens, put out a book that explored this phenomenon a few years ago.

    Mosco looks at how ‘important’ it was for people to understand electricity in order to unlock its hidden potentials. With electricity, famine, education, and disease would be solved – electrical power was THE panacea! This, of course, hasn’t been the case. Indeed, we didn’t really REALIZE the power (forgive the pun) of electricity until it pretty well receded into the background of our lives; only once technologies become ubiqutious are their respective possibilities realized.

    Of course, electricity has changed our lives, but not in the ways that were first imagined. While there are individuals who understand how electricity works, and how it is generated, those who are genuinely ‘literate’, or critically aware, of how electricity works are few and far between – literacy as it pertains to a new technology isn’t a necessary precursor to realizing its benefits, or integrating it into one’s life, and I don’t necessarily think that this lack of full awareness of new technologies is an inherently bad thing (though I would go so far as to say that it’s not good).

    The notions that ‘new’ media types would totally change how we understand and operate in the world also came with television, radio, etc. While these new media types changed the face of the world in substantial ways, I wonder if whether or not we should focus on the specific technologies in question (media literacy as it pertains uniquely to text, radio, TV, the ‘net, etc), or instead look to a larger, overarching set of meta-principles to make clear what is occurring in these divergent media environments. These principles might provide a way of understanding and talking about new technologies, and the ajoining skill shifts that accompany them, so that rather than talk about ‘digital literacy’, we’re able to talk about a broader notion of literacy/critical understanding and recognize ‘digital literacy’ in an analytic sense (i.e. a useful division for discussion an ajoining skill set, and ways that approaching that skill set diverges from, say, cursive literacy), while simultaneously perceiving it as one facet of a larger discussion of critical understanding.

    Christopher Parsonss last blog post at Education and IT

  • Tracy says:

    Greg – …and therein lies the rub. It is just that – as you can see in my follow-up post and,more specifically, in the comments – that is troublesome. As Steve referred to, the cart is rolling without a horse to guide it…at times.

    Thanks for adding to this conversation.

  • Greg Cruey says:

    Hi Tracy,

    I think I agree with Scott. There’s no question that the kids needs these skills to be viable participants in the economy. If I know that and they don’t, I really don’t feel guilty about explaining it to them (or to their parents). I work in a school where 90-some percent of the kids live below the poverty line. If the kids I teach today don’t acquire technology skills, we’ll still be able to describe them that way a generation from now. On the other hand, geography has been the economic enemy for ages now and technology can negate that as to some extent here in Central Appalachia.

    I AM concerned with terminology in the larger discussion. IN ADDITION to technology, my kids need strong literacy skills. Sometimes I get the impression that people think that technology skills will make them employable DESPITE weaknesses in literacy. “Digital literacy” may not be an oxymoron, but it is a misleading term when it gives people the impression that there are more important skills in our society than READING..

  • Tracy says:

    Steve, your last sentence:

    I have been feeling for some time now that we are allowing the cart to pull the horse.

    invokes the sentiment that spurred my latest post, and what I wrote as a comment there as well.

    Thanks for joining in.

  • Steve Ransom says:

    Great discussion here!
    In this very interconnected world, there is no vacuum in which most of us learn and live. The dominant culture has always created the undercurrent that tugs at the less dominant cultures and sets standards of all types. If one wants to thrive with dominant cultures, then one has no choice but to embrace all sorts of standards and definitions. This may not be just or kind, but it is what it is. I don’t think that it is that we are making judgements on less dominant cultures regarding literacies – it is just that new standards are being set, bars are being raised, changes are happening. That’s progress, for better or for worse. More power to those who can successfully “buck the system” and still thrive in a personally meaningful and satisfying ways.
    -Let’s just be certain that if we present the notion that “This is what you need to be successful in the 21st century!” as Scott points out, that it is indeed true. I have been feeling for some time now that we are allowing the cart to pull the horse.

    Steve Ransoms last blog post at Motivation and Technology

  • Tracy says:

    Thanks for these questions Scott. I need to sleep on this…but I will be back :)

  • Scott McLeod says:

    Tracy, you said, “My initial question goes beyond if people should learn how to negotiate digital technologies. It delves into whether they are illiterate if they do not. It delves into our right to make a judgement on a person/group/culture’s literacy based on their access to and use of digital technologies.”

    I guess I don’t understand why you are so hesitant. If we don’t say, “This is what you need to be successful in the 21st century!” (i.e., make a judgment) because of cultural relativism concerns, how are we ever going to mobilize peoples (and their governments, schools, etc.) to move forward? And if underserved populations don’t move forward because we didn’t want to be class- or geo-centric and thus didn’t help them, they’ll continue to be left behind… No?

    Scott McLeods last blog post at learn from failure more than success

  • Tracy says:

    ok, I promised myself some painting time today, but want to reply quickly.

    Thanks for your rich response, Greg. When I wrote who are we to tell you how to learn – I was referring to the medium, not learning styles. (Poor word choice above, sorry.) And I was referring to education as a system, of which the teacher in the classroom plays a role but is not the whole picture.

    As a teacher I use digital technologies extensively. I teach my students how to use different technologies to learn and express themselves through different styles of learning so that they can be successful in their learning. I teach students with special needs and have been able to increase active participation in learning through the use of text-to-speech technologies, podcasting, blogging, visual story-telling, and others.

    As a learner I also use digital technologies. This blog is one example. I use microblogs like twitter or school-based forums (both where I work and at university) to communicate with my colleagues and members of my cohort. As a visual learner I take advantage of the incredible opportunities that digital technologies afford me to both learn and express myself visually.

    The use of digital technologies is very relevant in my learning community. (These technologies, however, would be irrelevant if I were illiterate. If I could not make sense of the written word I would not be able to participate in my community.) They are one way through which I manage my learning. Not the only way by far. In fact, I’d say that the deepest learning in my classroom takes place during our morning meetings, when we sit in a circle, greet each other, and talk.

    My initial question goes beyond if people should learn how to negotiate digital technologies. It delves into whether they are illiterate if they do not. It delves into our right to make a judgement on a person/group/culture’s literacy based on their access to and use of digital technologies.

    I am still making sense of this. This conversation is precious to me. I feel it needs to be had.

  • Greg Cruey says:

    Let’s make some distinctions: We’re not talking about how anyone learns. The emphasis on differentiated instruction has taken care of that. They can learn however they want – however is best for them. Curriculum packages today (at the elementary level, at least) are designed to approach the skills they try to impart from a variety of learning styles so that the visual learners get it and the kinesthetic learners get it and the tactile learners get it and etc. We’re not trying to manipulate how kids learn.

    What we are discussing is the medium of instruction. Should kids learn through the Internet? Should they learn through iPods and cell phones? Should they listen to NPR online or read a paper? Should they read that paper online? Should we teach cursive, or should we teach keyboarding? And the choices aren’t as binary as I’ve presented them. The answer to the last question, for example, is “yes.” We should teach cursive and we should teach keyboarding. The issue is finding a balance: how much of each, and when.

    The problem that gets presented when we choose the digital medium for instruction is that we lose a great deal of control over the content. The vast majority of what’s available for your iPod relates to pop culture. Try teaching Albert Camus or William Faulkner to a literature class in a manner that’s iPod friendly. How do we embrace the medium without letting it dictate the content?

    So there’s how (learning style) we learn and there’s what we learn through (medium) and there’s content. People seem to think that embracing digital medium just necessitates changing our content. I don’t agree…

    Let’s also distinguish between literacy as a literal concept and literacy as a metaphor or euphemism. Literacy is the ability to look at symbols (like our alphabet) presented in a logical order and infer language from that symbolic logic. Strictly speaking, literacy is about reading. Digital literacy (or cultural literacy) is a metaphor, a comparison. Someone who is digitally literate has mastered technology the way a reader masters the alphabet and the written page. The question for the future is whether literacy and digital literacy (a metaphor for fluency in the use of technical tools and gadget) will coexist, or whether listening to mp3 files and watching YouTube will replace reading in our culture. No new gadget is going to change literacy, per se. Reading is reading. Listening and watching are something else (though you can compare them to reading if you like with the metaphos, “digital literacy”).

    In response to the “who are we…?” question, I have an answer. I am the keeper of a culture, the opener of doorways – of pathways for the mind. I can’t make kids like Emily Dickinson. But it’s my job to make sure they’ve heard her; and it’s not my job to wean them from their iPod. I am ordained (through the licensing process) by the states of Georgia and West Virginia to expand the background knowledge of naïve and inexperienced children who haven’t seen what I’ve seen. And I am anointed by (and contractually obligated to) my school district to impart life skills and specific content to my students.

    When I tell a fifth grade student that they really need to become a better reader and they shake their iPod in my face and ask “Who are YOU to decide that?” my answer is simple: “I’m your TEACHER!”

  • Tracy says:

    @ Greg, I like this line:
    It’s not just about the cultural tools. It’s about the culture itself…

    That is where I am heading in my thought process when I write about confusing the tools with the lore.

    I’m starting to feel a certain class and geographic centricity (if that is even a term) in the discourse around ‘digital literacy’ and edtech.

    Who are we, really, to say – come on all of y’all. We know what is right for you – this is how you have to learn or else you are illiterate. Is this what we are saying?

    @ Ken, Is that what you are getting at?

  • Ken Allan says:

    Kia ora Tracy!

    You have said it all here and confirmed the validity of my post and <a href=”post“>assertions on the position of so-called ‘digital literacy’.

    Like you, I have nothing against ‘digital literacy’ as such. It is more to with attempts to implement it that I wonder about.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

    Ken Allans last blog post at with Google Analytics on my 50th

  • Greg Cruey says:

    You should feel unsettled…

    If literacy is being able to use cultural tools to make sense of the world we live in, doesn’t that a). mean embracing the cultural tools of the dominant majority and b). being alienated by a lack of “literacy” skills to a greater extent than ever before?

    I teach in an impoverished environment. Many (perhaps most) of my kids do not have Internet access at home. And at the age of 48 with three degrees and 100+ graduate hours I don’t own a cell phone myself because, well – why should I? There’s no signal for it to pick up at either my home or my place of work.

    While it’s obvious that tomorrow’s world is a digital world, I think that we’re currently in the process of determining what tomorrow’s culture will value. While I don’t mind 50 Cent having a place in it, my concern is that kids eventually find a way to appreciate William Blake on their iPods, too. It’s my job to help create that world.

    It’s not just about the cultural tools. It’s about the culture itself…

    Greg Crueys last blog post at a Gun to My Head… (When a Pledge Is Not a Pledge)

  • Tracy says:

    I have a quick moment, though not enough time for the in-depth response that these thoughtful comments deserve.

    In no way am I saying that that digital technologies are not important. If you take a look at some of the work I do with students you will notice that it plays a crucial role in my work.

    I am questioning the notion of literacy being so closely tied to our digital lives and I am concerned that we are losing perspective.

    I am wondering if we are confusing the tools with the lore.

    I want my students – I need them – to be able to use digital technologies to enable a deeper and keener understanding of their place in the world.

    But I am hesitant to say that literacy in the 21st century = digital technology, or depends on it to the point that I and others have emphasized in the recent past.

    As I said, I feel unsettled. I am appreciating this conversation so far as I need to explore this unsettling feeling I have.

  • Heidi Pence says:

    Students today are like students that have come before. They have to adapt to the changing world around them. This is the same for people everywhere. You are not going to get very far in the real world unless you adapt and change. Many individuals of all ages are struggling both economically and with their communication in this technology driven world.
    Of course we need to learn how to read and write and have as a society a high literacy rate. This is not enough! Our children need to be prepared for life after school and digital literacy is critical to their education. We have not done a good job of this yet. Schools need to change and adapt as society changes. I am hopeful that this new generation of digital native teachers can infuse our educational system with real change. It is critical to our students literacy!
    * Heidi Pence

    Heidi Pences last blog post at I chose to teach?

  • Scott McLeod says:

    I am by no means a ‘literacy’ expert. For me, the idea of literacy means something like ‘fluency in the dominant information landscape(s) of your time, both as a consumer and as a producer.’ In the past, that has meant being an adequate reader and an adequate writer. It is increasingly clear that the dominant information landscape of our present and future is one that is digital, networked, interactive, hyperconnected, dispersed, rapidly-changing, multimedia, and so on. This new information landscape requires additional fluencies beyond those needed for a paper-based world.

    Fluency in paper-bound text and graphics is still a necessary skill today. The need to be a high-level reader and writer is going to be around for a long while. But the dominance of the written word slowly will be eroded by other forms of audio/video expression. For me, the exciting thing about many of these new ‘literacies’ is that students and educators now have unprecedented opportunities to create things of value to the larger world, to have a legitimate voice, and to reach authentic audiences.

    Like any good progressive, Chris Lehmann advocates emphasis on facilitation of students as digital citizens rather than emphasis on preparing students to be digital workers. I too am very much in favor of empowering students personally and on the citizenship front. But I also want my kids to have a meaningful, rewarding career (that, hopefully, also contributes to society in some way). And that means getting what Richard Florida calls a ‘creative class’ job – one that requires autonomy, independent judgment, creativity, innovation, creative problem-solving, and, yes, fluency with digital technologies. Creative class jobs are facilitated and enhanced by digital technologies, not replaced by them (as often happens with service or working class jobs).

    So I empathize with your concern, Tracy, about respecting others’ approaches to sense-making. And I too am concerned with the differential access that developing countries and underserved student populations have. But I think the task for all of us is to bring them into the digital, global 21st century, not to define ‘literacy’ in ways that continue to disempower them socially and/or economically for decades to come (note: I’m not saying you’re doing this).

    Here’s an old post of mine on social justice that might be of interest:

    Thanks for a thoughtful, thought-provoking post. I look forward to reading others’ comments!

    Scott McLeods last blog post at Facebook for you!

  • Tracy says:

    Christopher – if you read this, I am starting to understand your concern with looking at different literacies.

    Is there such a thing as digital literacy? Or perhaps there is a need to clarify literacy and understand the digital part as a tools to get there.

    again, got to run but I can ensure you I will be thinking on this.

  • Tracy says:

    Hi Doug, and thanks for your clarification.

    I did read through your whole proposal.

    By reading this statement as a bullet under Research Aims:

    “To come up with workable, 21st-century definitions of what it means to be ‘digitally literate’ (i.e. literate in the 21st century)”

    I made the assumption that you were in fact equating digital literacy with 21st century literacy. This statement suggested to me, even though you did make reference to diverse literate realities later on, that you are entering this thesis with that equation as your main assumption.

    I need to run – but help me to understand how Kellner isn’t running with the same assumption.

    I dig all of this, my unsettled feeling is an indication that something important is being uncovered for me. It’s a process ;)

  • Doug Belshaw says:

    Hi Tracy,

    Not sure if you read all of my thesis proposal, but I’m certainly not equating literacy in the 21st century with digital literacy. As I say in the thesis proposal:

    Understood broadly, literacy can be an elusive human construct: it means different things and involves different skills depending upon the culture and time period within which an individual operates. Whilst in the western world ‘literacy’ has traditionally meant the ability to read and write with pencil and paper, this makes a nonsense of societies with oral traditions and records.

    I then go on to quote Kellner (2002):

    As technological convergence develops apace, individuals need to combine the skills of critical media literacy with traditional print literacy and new forms of multiple literacies to access and navigate the new multimedia environments.

    In other words, digital literacy is one type of literacy that is needed to function adequately in 21st century society. :-)

    Doug Belshaws last blog post at new Digital Literacies codex

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