[Note: This is the first in a series of articles, coordinated by Bonnie Bracey Sutton, ETCJ associate editor, featuring experts that she has come to know personally. The following excerpts are from Jason Ohler's Digital Community, Digital Citizen, published by Corwin Press, 2010. -Editor]
Should we consider students to have two separate lives — a relatively digital free life at school and a digitally saturated life away from school — or should we consider them to have one life that integrates their lives as students and digital citizens? ["Preamble," 9]
[Note: The following is from a section titled "Value Writing, Now More Than Ever," 207-208. -Editor]
Amidst the explosion of new media, writing has become more important than ever. There are new reasons for this that might not be immediately apparent.
First, while the essay form of writing is still very important, long narrative pieces don’t read well on the web, where they appear as walls of text to everyone except the few who are truly committed to their content. In contrast, a new kind of presentation is in wide use for effective blog or web writing that I call “visually differentiated text” (VDT), a kind of visual rhetoric that employs a number of writing conventions that are used to visually sculpt text. Paying more attention to the visual presentation of text has become important because reading words on screen is more difficult than reading them on paper. In addition, information overwhelment has produced a need for information that is more concise so that it can be scanned and referenced more easily. Typically, sculpting text requires using the 7Bs (breaks, bullets, boldface, boxes, beyond black and white, beginning, and banners). More about the 7Bs on my Digital Citizenship website (jasonOhler.com/dc).
Rest assured that essay writing is still important. But, students need to be able to command multiple approaches to writing. While essays, such as the one you are reading right now, focus on detailed argument presentation, VDT is used to present text concisely — a combination of narrative and factoids. Bear in mind that while essays are generally written for an audience of instructors, web material is read by the general public. Thus, the pressure is on for web writers to write clearly and precisely for a wide audience. After all, while our eyes may skip paragraphs, readers tend to focus on bullets surrounded by white space.
The second reason writing is so important is because it still serves as the foundation of much of the new media that we see on screen. Digital stories, movies, documentaries, and many new media narrative forms are built upon clear, well-researched, creative writing. The old theater saying “If it ain’t on the page then it ain’t on the stage” is particularly true today in a world in which it is easy to create personalized media. I have helped students and teachers create many hundreds of pieces of media over the years and have discovered the following: If there is one element of student media production that separates the good projects from the not so good projects, it is that the former are built on solid written foundations.
What should our school board do? They should honor multiple forms of writing, including essay, report, story, scripts, and VDT. They should expect to find examples of each in student portfolios, and in the web writing that students develop for student projects.
[Note: The following is from a section titled "Shift from Text-Centrism to Media Collage," 206-207. -Editor]
If literacy means being able to read and write the media forms of the day, then today this translates into being able to construct or at least manage an articulate, meaningful, navigable media collage. Media collages abound in many forms, including webpages, digital stories, mashups, virtual environments, and social media sites. Keep in mind that the essay media form on the left in this picture [see below] represents what we test for in school, while the collage media form on the right represents what we hope and pray kids will be able to produce before they enter the work force. The cognitive dissonance this produces fractures kids’ lives in two, a nondigital one at school, and digital one out of school. This brings us back to the question posed in the Preamble of this book: Should we help ours kids live two lives or one?
While mediasts may claim to understand the pedagogical implications of media, the reality is that much of what we know about media and learning was developed before Web 2.0 exploded and created the plethora of new media that are now widely available. Thus, while everyone may have an opinion about how to approach Web 2.0 learning, expert advice is in short supply.
What should our school board do? Encourage teachers to experiment fearlessly with their own work and the work they ask students to create. Movies can show scientific processes or document history concepts; social media can be used to create lively, informed discussions about a poem, piece of art, or item in the news; and so on. Experiment, trust your instincts, become an action researcher in your classroom, ask your students for guidance in the use of media, and troll the web for what other educators are doing. We are all relearning our sense of literacy together.
[Note: The following is from a section titled "Adopt Art As the Next R," 208-209. -Editor]
Clearly, in the world of the media collage our students need new foundational literacies that will help them “consume and produce the media forms of the day.” I am not referring simply to the ability to use the media effectively but also to the ability to craft media that is clear, creative, and that expresses a sense of vision and personal statement. Given the current structure of schooling, this is best addressed as a specialty area within the art curriculum, which deals with narrative that combines form, color, design, and collage as part of everyday communication. I am also referring more generally to “the arts” as well, including music, drama, and other art forms, which also play a major role in the forms of media collage that populate infosphere.
Yet, the reality is that art is largely viewed as expendable in K–12 education, particularly when budgets get tight and high stakes testing brings pressure to bear on the other three Rs. At those times, art is often seen as fluff with no ties to the real world of work. Given that the world of work is now built upon visual presentation and the media collage, a dumber thought was never had.
What should our school board do? Solidify art’s place in standard K–12 learning fare by treating it as a literacy rather than just a content area. After all, while content areas may come and go, literacies are forever. Art needs that kind of permanence in our curriculum. In addition, our school board should infuse art across the curriculum the way reading and math have been infused over the years. This will ensure that the media forms of the day are being pursued broadly throughout academic pursuits.
[Note: The following is from a section titled "Practice Private and Participatory Social Literacy," 211-212. -Editor]
McLuhan (1964) explained that conventional literacy caused us to trade an ear for an eye, forcing us to trade the social context of the oral tradition for the private point of view of reading and writing. To counteract this impact of literacy, television facilitated our first step in what he called “retribalization” by providing a common social experience that could serve as the basis for community dialogue in the global village.
But, television was a mass medium in the classic sense of the term. That is, a very few producers used it to deliver a very limited amount of content to vast audiences of consumers. In this scenario, the mass mediasts told their stories, not ours. With the advent of Web 2.0, however, consumers could join the ranks of producers. Much of the emerging nature of literacy is a result of Web 2.0 tools that are often free, easy to use, and eminently available. The result is that literally anyone with standard gear and modest Internet access can play a part in reinventing literacy.
One of the results of this development is that literacy is no longer a purely private pursuit. The new media collage depends upon individual and collective thinking and creative endeavors.We work together, responding to each other’s blogs, editing each other’s work, and annotating each other’s wikis. Our new approach to literacy requires that we balance our contributions as individuals with those we make as team members.
What should our school board do? Require students to maintain social media that facilitate team research and expression. Bear in mind that many schools currently block social media for fear it will be misused. However, there is another approach to addressing this fear: model how to use social media in ways that are productive, articulate, and representative of their best uses, particularly as we see them employed in the world beyond K–12 education. Again, we return to the question in the preamble — should we help our students live two lives or one?