Social Media Doesn’t Threaten Literacy!

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

You can read a lot about the threat of new media to literacy and the printed word. Harold Jarche’s blog post, “Literacies,” is an example. Often there is a link made between the ability to engage in deep and meaningful learning, on the one hand, and reading large bodies of text, on the other. Or rather, there’s a link between an inability to learn and the fast-pace of media in the Web 2.0 world. Well, I just don’t buy this. In fact, it’s rubbish.

“Literate” doesn’t just mean the ability to read large bodies of text. In fact, you can be literate in a number of different communication tools — not just the one that dominates by necessity as the primary means of mass media distribution. Now the oral tradition is making a comeback, and I have no real problem with that. It’s the way it was done before books were on the scene, and it’s still the dominant way in many non-Western societies.

composed image, with an old laptop with floppy slot on the left and history book on the right

Also, text literacy isn’t threatened by social media — it’s enhanced by it. Facebook and messaging forced teenagers to use words and sentences for their communication where previously they relied only on speech. (For example, I never wrote a letter to a friend when I was a teenager). OK, the messages are short, but what’s the matter with that? I’m more in line with Negroponte on this issue. He says:

Reading and writing are going to be around forever. The word is not going to go away and collecting words into bodies of thought is not going to go away.

There is no question that words are powerful, that they always have been and always will be . . . . But just as we seldom carve words in rocks these days, we will probably not print many of them on paper for binding tomorrow.

Let’s not confuse reading with publishing. Publishers want reading to be synonymous with books. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it really isn’t now. The ability to quickly reference, aggregate, annotate, and manipulate text on web-based computers is a massive, massive plus for learning and understanding. It can be done and was done in the old way with paper and pen, but not as easily as we’d care to admit.

Often the book champions are avid readers. What about those that don’t read much? Surely, engaging in social media is a plus for them. Their exposure to words goes up drastically. Now, because of the web, conditions for learning (admittedly only in computer rich societies) are far more desirable.

Thinking about how I learn, I realize that I like printing and noting, but I also like RSS, online note-taking, bookmarking, and blogging. For me, these web tools are fundamental. They facilitate my learning and democratise learning for all. The single biggest factor in helping the quality of my literacy is this blog (please don’t comment on my grammar; it’s improved a lot)!

The biggest barrier to facilitating online learning is not knowing how to use the various social networking tools, and an obstacle to this learning is the negative light on Web 2.0.

Claude Almansi on 8 April 2010 said:

Thanks from an avid book reader who taught students who were emphatically not, before social media – before the internet, actually.

There were work-arounds even back them, granted: when I was teaching French in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland in the early 90s, grade 9 students rather enjoyed group activities where I told them e.g. to cut off all the descriptions that made their eyes glaze in the photocopy of a short story (with real scissors), to turn it into a script for a radio play by inserting transitions between the surviving dialogues: we then discussed what these original descriptions did. They also liked editing with a spell-checker the OCRed version of another story, split between different groups, then adding the translation of words they did not know in footnotes, to produce a “proto-e-book” version (1).

But with Web 2.0 social media, this kind of group activity has become so much easier, and you can extend it beyond just one given class. Maybe the negative light on Web 2.0 you mention stems from some teachers’ view of learning as much as from the tech aspect: if teachers believe in individual – possibly competitive – learning, then they are not likely to offer social learning activities – whether with scissors and cellotape or with a wiki or social network.

(1) The proto-e-book activity (1994) arose thanks to a student, in another class, who was going blind due to retinitis: so the school acquired a scanner to make electronic versions of text books he could magnify on his computer, and his teachers taught me how to use the OCR for that.

One Response

  1. Thanks from an avid book reader who taught students who were emphatically not, before social media – before the internet, actually.

    There were work-arounds even back them, granted: when I was teaching French in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland in the early 90s, grade 9 students rather enjoyed group activities where I told them e.g. to cut off all the descriptions that made their eyes glaze in the photocopy of a short story (with real scissors), to turn it into a script for a radio play by inserting transitions between the surviving dialogues: we then discussed what these original descriptions did. They also liked editing with a spell-checker the OCRed version of another story, split between different groups, then adding the translation of words they did not know in footnotes, to produce a “proto-e-book” version (1).

    But with Web 2.0 social media, this kind of group activity has become so much easier, and you can extend it beyond just one given class. Maybe the negative light on Web 2.0 you mention stems from some teachers’ view of learning as much as from the tech aspect: if teachers believe in individual – possibly competitive – learning, then they are not likely to offer social learning activities – whether with scissors and cellotape or with a wiki or social network.

    (1) The proto-e-book activity (1994) arose thanks to a student, in another class, who was going blind due to retinitis: so the school acquired a scanner to make electronic versions of text books he could magnify on his computer, and his teachers taught me how to use the OCR for that.

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