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Literacy in the Information Age: Inquiries Into Meaning Making With New Technologies

Editor: Bertram C. Bruce
Publisher: Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 2003
Review Published: October 2004

 REVIEW 1: Dianne Potts

The conflicted relationships between technology, education, and the classroom play out at multiple levels of society.  The public face of these conflicts often revolve around access and technology: U.N. level conflicts on how best to bridge the digital divide; gaps between teacher-directed and student-directed use of the internet for educational purposes;  the types of student gadgets that should and shouldn't be allowed in the classroom; internet filtering by schools and libraries.  However, as much as these issues absorb the time and attention of the media and the public, there is an additional form of access that is of equal if not greater concern to educational researchers and teachers.  It is the ability of the mind to access, absorb and transform the ideas that are presented in digital contexts.  It is the student's ability to create in and with digital media and to use the opportunities afforded by technology to pursue their desired social future.   It is these notions of access that Bertram Bruce addresses in the edited volume Literacy in the Information Age: Inquiries Into Meaning Making with New Technologies, a compilation whose entries are largely selected from past editions of the Technology Column of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

For educators, the history of the column provides a meaningful context for the book.   Allan Luke, one of the individuals who originally asked Bruce to write the Technology Column in 1998, is a member of the New London Group.  This group of prominent researchers and academics from the fields of language, linguistics, and education collaborated on a 1996 Harvard Educational Review article in which they presented a model for a pedagogy of multiliteracies.  The model has since become a reference point for a global inquiry into the teaching of (multi)literacies and the chapters in this book explore many of the issues confronting literacy researchers from the perspective of the teacher-practitioner.

Bruce's book is first and foremost a book for educators.  Researchers who have read deeply on any of the subjects touched on in this book would find the treatments superficial, although the questions posed in each of the articles are rarely so.  However, educators interested in the underlying social and philosophical issues of the "what" of literacy education, in addition to the "how," will likely come away from the book immensely richer for having engaged with  this highly readable and accessible treatment of the challenges and opportunities that technology presents to educators.   While not without its frustrations for the reader, Bruce has managed to put together a collection that will alternately stimulate both thought and action among its intended audience and that can serve as a basis for thoughtful discussion in the classroom and the staff room.

Bruce's original intention in writing the column was to "increase dialogue about new communication and information technologies and explore what those media mean for literacy and literacy educators . . . to engage with those rapidly evolving literacy practices . . . [and] to understand what they imply for literacy education" (1998, 46).  He has rearranged the columns in a manner that apprentices a new reader to the field rather than following the chronological order in which the columns originally appeared.  The book's first section, Historical Perspective, reflects upon historical perspectives of literacy, looking at how previous technological transformations have influenced what and how we learn.  All three of the first chapters were written by Bruce himself, and he stakes out a position in opposition to technological determinism, using his university students' own investigations into learning technologies to question the impact of everything from the invention of graphite to the invention of the telescope.  In doing so, he has us pause to consider if there is any technological innovation that could not be considered a learning technology and on the need for "being open (to change) so that one is able to learn more easily" (34).  Bruce's strategic choice to build an argument for change is understandable, for even if teachers accept the existence of new literacies, it does not mean they accord them the priority required to integrate their new understandings into a changed syllabi.  Lest people assume this is a not a post-secondary issue, one need only reflect on the example early in the book that illustrates how little instructors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign understand their students' use of AOL's Instant Messenger.  Beliefs in new literacies cannot translate into changed classroom practice when acceptance is not transformed  into actionable understanding.

Having laid out his stance towards technology, Bruce moves on in Section Two, Evolving Media Practices, to evolving media practices, sharing authorship with Mike Sharples, Cushia Kapitzke, Bernhard Jungwirth and Michael D. Brunelle, who also contributed to the column.  He again foregrounds the work of his students, showing how even his most apprehensive students begin to mix hypertext and paper, e-mail and envelopes to successfully complete a class assignment.  Practical issues such as screen reading comprehension are addressed, but so are more theoretical challenges such as changes to conceptions of art when digital reproduction allows for rapid, frequent, and altered dissemination of a work.   Each chapter is accompanied by an annotated collection of weblinks, edited and updated for the book, that assist the reader in further exploring the issues put forward in the chapter.  The linked sites are as variable in their content as the chapters, sometimes connecting the reader to academic research and theoretical discussions, sometimes leading to rich informational and/or interactive sites that can be used as course content at multiple grade levels.  Occasionally a contributor seems to be straining to identify the "new" of new literacies and literacy practices, as in Cushia Kapitzke's attempt to label a "cybrary" as a place in which users not only learn but also learn how to use information.  Lovers of libraries may be forgiven for quibbling that physical libraries share both of these traits with their digital antecedents.  However, information literacy can arguably be considered a new literacy in an age when knowledge and information take on increasingly multiple forms and when the sheer volume of information requires students to manage information in novel ways.

Bringing the point back to one of immediate relevance to teachers, Bruce links the difficulty of quantifying the internet and of regulating the text, sounds, and images that it carries to the accepted need for developing students' critical literacy skills.  Bruce continues to capitalize on teachers' pragmatic orientation by providing useful advice on conducting effective web searches, information useful to a teacher personally and in lesson development.  However, the remaining chapters in this section return to a more theoretical or generalized perspectives of evolving media practices, perhaps frustrating the teacher whose practical instincts have been engaged by the earlier advice.

The third section of the book, "Personal Meanings," begins with one of the book's stronger chapters.  Punyashloke Mishra, Michael D. Nicholson, Steven K. Wojcikiewicz, Gail E. Hawisher, and Marcella J. Kehus explore the tendency of computer users to ascribe human characteristics to machines and, as the authors point out, "It is clear that this reading of agency into interactive media is something that can be used against us as information consumers . . . The ability to instantiate stereotypes, to enhance certain social behaviors over others, can be used to manipulate us for good and for ill" (122).  These are issues into which teachers can sink their teeth. The bridge between current classroom practice and this conception of media literacy is one teachers can make independently, and may serve as a useful scaffold for teachers to introduce new forms of literacy into their classroom practice.  However, these authors and others in the section do not belabour the negatives of new media.  Instead, they move on to the more creative, affirmative aspects of media literacy, providing examples of self-representation on the internet, exploring the limitations imposed not by the medium but the user, and providing examples of public writing spaces that allow students to proactively assert self-selected identities, while at the same time developing the technical and social skills required of the media literate.

Ethical issues pertaining to new media transcend the classroom, yet teachers are often expected to work through these challenges independently when exploring if, how, and when to integrate new media into their classroom practices.  As educators, my counterparts and I have been frustrated by the differences in access, experience, and external support for learning and experimentation that students bring with them to the classroom, and by our inability to level the playing field given little or no access to equipment and software capable of the task.  These issues are largely ignored in the chapters dealing with ethical and policy issues.  Instead, the section begins with the limitations placed on students' learning by teachers and the manner in which they incorporate new media into their classroom tasks.  While the student-centered learning opportunities offered by the KLICK! program are probably superior to many offered in school classrooms, most classroom teachers do not have access to the support of MIT's Media Lab. Indeed, Bruce himself highlights the problems of using experimental models as benchmarks for system-wide change (194).  In foregrounding the limitations created by teachers' (lack of) imagination, this section has the potential to alienate many educators dealing with Pentium II processors, networks that crash for a week at a time, and non-existent budgets for software licenses.  Later chapters dealing with ethical issues pertaining to educational systems, American or otherwise, do little to help teachers sort through ethical issues related to the technical disparities children deal with inside and outside their immediate classrooms.

John Dewey's thoughts on education serve as the gateway into the fifth section on "Learning Opportunities." Bruce notes: "Dewey would certainly have valued technology, if it means that students become more capable of participating in society and it enlarges the scope of their abilities to communicate" (204). Allan Luke, whose editorial feedback on the chapter is included as an addendum, points out that Dewey's attitudes to technology would likely be qualified by "the kinds of problems they (technologies) are applied to and to what ends" (206).  This exchange is more than a simple statement of ideas.  It exemplifies Bruce's attempts to capture the interactivity of new media in print text, and to model the constructivist approaches to education which appear to underlie much of what he writes and selects.  Each of the chapters that follow illustrates how learners participate, communicate, and engage in rich, meaningful tasks within the context of new media.  Bruce and co-author Ann Bishop describe their own engagement in inquiry-based learning, inviting readers to join them in creating inquiry units for their growing community.  Subsequent contributors explore models for on-line writing centers, noting the hybridity of the evolving forms and the altered relationships between writer and tutor; describe hypermedia authoring in elementary and secondary schools and the opportunities it affords for engaging students in critical literacy by juxtaposing text, signs and symbols from students' rich personal media worlds with their print-dominant experiences in school (244); detail investigations into after-school enrichment programs designed to enhance adolescent literacy skills by capitalizing on students'  fascination with computer games; and develop programs of study that use the internet to access high-quality scientific data and to collaboratively explore the scientific process in a project that integrates technology with the classroom curriculum. 

These and the other examples in this section are the kinds of practical examples that fire the imaginations of teachers.  Their limitation is that they generally fail to address "how," relying instead on descriptions of the project and on the questions that have arisen from observing the project's progress.  Many of these projects have been undertaken by or with the assistance of a major research university.  It requires an imaginative individual to envision how these projects and their lessons might be adapted to classroom practice within the boundaries of time, space, and resources available to most teachers.  Yet they are effective as a beginning of a personal exploration and appropriate for a collection that is intended as an inquiry not a procedure manual for new literacies.

The final section dwells on ideas of community, with community used in this context to represent research and geographic communities engaged in new literacies and supported by the internet. The authors in this section address a topic frequently referenced and researched in the fields of internet research and technology-mediated communication; that is, the world is increasingly engaged in collaborative tasks that span time and space.  Individuals working in this new paradigm require new sets of communicative skills and new means of storing and sharing mutual resources.  Karen Lunsford's opening chapter will seem very basic to many readers of this web site; however, teacher-practitioners may find in the chapter a rationale for models of learning and learning outcomes championed by educators but ignored in standardized tests.  The remaining chapters highlight the  barriers some communities continue to face accessing worlds through the internet.  Technological change has already altered some of the barriers described.  It is useful for those of us with high-speed connections, multiple graphics programs, and powerful databases to remember that for some of the world, lack of electricity is still one of the major barriers that must be overcome before new literacies can be practiced.

Bruce created for himself the challenging task of balancing theory and practice, the hypothetical and the pragmatic.  In large part, he succeeds.  While readers may be frustrated by one of the chapters presented in this book, they are equally likely to be engaged by another.  The sequence of the book is effective; however, there is no need for the reader to slavishly follow the book from beginning to end.  Like readers of hypertext, the readers of this book can easily move back and forth between the chapters that interest them, following the threads of their own inquiry.  Like the students in Bruce's class, the reader can shift between print and digital worlds, following the links provided within and at the end of many of the chapters, a sampling of which have been included in this review.

Community is the segue back to a final definition of literacy.  After exploring multiple contexts, tasks, technologies and challenges, Bruce finishes by concluding that "literacy is that which we actively construct" (337), an assortment of practices as well as the spaces in which they occur.  Unity in conceptions of literacy stems from a unity of purpose in the community in which literacy is practiced.  It is a definition that some may find frustratingly slippery; it is also a definition that captures the inherent changeability of our literacy practices.  Communities are the space in which we work to establish shared meaning and making meaning is the fundamental goal of all our literacy practices.  The book lends itself to the practice of meaning-making and inquiry-based learning, providing questions but also leaving it open for readers to create their own.  In the process of engaging with this book, readers will find themselves constructing their own literacy practices.

Bruce, B.C. (1998). "New Literacies." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 42: pp. 46-49.

New London Group. (1996). "A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures." Harvard Educational Review 66: pp. 60-92.

Dianne Potts:
Diane Potts is currently pursuing a PhD in Language and Literacy Education at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She is heavily involved in the national literacy study "From Literacy to Multiliteracies" which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and is exploring literacy practices and pedagogies in the New Economy.  <cnukeepintouch@hotmail.com>

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