Traditionally, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write, but that definition is changing as digital communication becomes more prevalent. Scholars like Gunther Kress (Literacy in the New Media Age) and Phillip George (The Role ofFree and Open Source Software in Digital Literacy Education) argue that reading and writing in digital environments involve a visual element that changes the way we read and compose.
When you read something online, George points out, you rarely just read a block of text – there are normally images and hyperlinks, and often you find video or audio elements. The images contribute to your interpretation of what the text means, and things like links or videos change the way you experience the text – you may click away to another site or pause reading to watch a video. This method of reading makes it a nonlinear process – instead of comprehending layers of ideas that together build toward a conclusion, we comprehend multiple horizontal ideas and stitch together meaning.
Kress explains this in terms of composition by claiming writing is determined by the logic of time whereas images are governed by the logic of space. Composing in a digital environment requires an awareness of placement and design, and a recognition that the reader may not be reading linearly.
This changing understanding of literacy affects almost every aspect of our society. One response is of concern – kids today can’t seem to focus as well, they don’t read as much, they privilege the virtual world to the physical one. Another response is of excitement – kids today are consumers of vast amounts of information, they can use technology with an ease that’s impressive, and they are able to communicate virtually with people on the other side of the world.
Whether you think the shift toward digital is good or bad, it influences the way students learn, the way they communicate, and the way they are going to be required to communicate in the business world.
As composition instructor, this reality not only affects my understanding of how students learn, but it changes the content of my courses. My job is to teach literacy, and literacy now includes multimodal reading, social and collaborative writing, and an ability to adapt to the fast-paced development of new tools.
Like anything else, the first step is to being able to teach digital literacy is mastering it myself. I’m finding one of my biggest challenges is incorporating those visual elements, so I’d like to hear from you. Do you use images, videos, or audio elements when you “write” online? If so, how do you incorporate them? Why do you incorporate them?