The Evolution of a Digital Discipline

A few decades ago, when the digital revolution was just beginning to influence education, it was not uncommon to read enthusiastic forecasts of what computers and online communication could mean for science, math, career and technical education, foreign language study, and the social sciences. But the prevailing notion at that time seemed to be that, except for embracing word processing, English and literacy studies wouldn’t change much.

And as we can well see, that notion has turned out to be completely wrong.

The evidence that literacy teaching has been transformed by digital technologies is everywhere. Just one example: the Conference on College Composition and Communication, with the theme “Open | Sources, Access, Future,” offered countless presentations that demonstrated the fundamental shifts in our understanding of what a text is, and how the borders continue to blur between texts rendered in different media. New grammars are emerging that reflect the changing sensibilities of a public immersed in a limitless stream of text, music, photographic and video images, and social media. It’s no exaggeration to say that what it means to read and compose today looks very different than it did a single generation ago.

One effect of this evolution—an effect I would argue is mainly positive—is the democratization of knowledge. Not only is so much more information readily accessible today, but there are countless ways to find meaning in that information. Rather than relying on a handful of famous critics/analysts to  explain what a text means, students can learn to build a plausible case for their own interpretations—to defend their claims with evidence.

And while many today associate this push for argumentation and appropriate use of evidence with Common Core Standards, it seems more like a natural priority in a digital age where authority for meaning making is shared.

Several years ago, NCTE established and then updated its definition of 21st Century Literacies, further supplementing it with a Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment. Both documents were based on the notion that learners today must:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so as to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

In every era, what it means to be literate is inextricably linked to prevailing technologies. Thus in 18th-century America, being literate meant being able to sign your name on official documents. Later, in an era where books were scarce and highly valued, the ability to “sight read” and recite poems and passages from memory defined the literate citizen. Still later, literacy was associated with knowledge of rules of language and the ability to interpret books and articles. In every case, the standard of literacy shifted when the tools for publishing/expressing thoughts or reading/analyzing language evolved.

So it appears the digital revolution not only swept English and literacy studies along with it, but has challenged literacy educators to think about their work differently.

Historic shifts like this are never easy—we tend to keep trying to do all that we’ve done before and layer new digital literacies “on top.” But once we’ve worked through the transition, what a landscape of possibilities we see for literacy teachers and students alike. Our literacies are sure to evolve as fast as our culture and our newest technologies.

To borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll, literacy is sure to keep getting curiouser and curiouser!

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