Edinburgh International Book Festival

Had a really enjoyable day yesterday at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was taking part in a panel discussion, and making a presentation on Technology and Literacy. My co-presenters were Judy Robertson, a computer scientist at Heriot-Watt University, and Lili Wilkinson, an Australian cyber-journalist (no, I had never heard of it either) and the session was chaired by Joy Court of CILIP. The subtext for the seminar was, “Can video games, the internet and other ICT applications help young people engage with literature?”

Judy spoke about her work on the Adventure Author project and about storymaking through computer game design, while Lili took us into the fascinating world of www.insideadog.com.au , a website which promotes young adult literature, highlights Australian writers and their work, and generally engages young people in the world of books. The name incidentally comes from the Groucho Marx quote, “Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend, inside a dog it’s too dark to read.”

For my part, I was wrestling with the notion of engaging young people with literature, and how this related to technology and literacy. Engaging with literature is certainly “a good thing”, but literature and literacy are two different animals. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is a slightly abridged and adapted version of my presentation. Some of the references will be familiar to you if you are a regular visitor to the blog, but I make no apologies for referencing them again.

“In her wonderfully clever but very readable book  about the development of the reading brain, Proust and the Squid, American professor Maryanne Wolf tells the story of how Socrates, in the 5th Century BC, called on all his rhetorical skills to fight against the acquisition of literacy and the introduction of the Greek alphabet, believing passionately that the written word posed a serious threat to society.

His concerns had three aspects. First, he contended that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life. Secondly, he regarded the fact that the written word reduced the role of memory as catastrophic, and finally he warned that oral language had a unique role in the development of morality and virtue in society. In other words, he felt that writing was just plain bad and was likely to lead to the end of civilisation.

Professor Wolf sees clear parallels between Socrates’ resistance to that  transition from an oral to a written culture, and the shift that we are currently witnessing  from a written tradition to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information.

 (It should be remembered of course, that we wouldn’t know any of this but for the fact that his words were being recorded in writing by that young rascal Plato, who obviously knew a thing or two about the future).

So the nature of literacy is changing. Reading is no longer simply about reading words and sentences, or even books; it’s about reading other codes as well, particularly the codes of still and moving images. And of course, it’s about reading and creating multi-modal texts, texts which combine words and pictures and sound.

In attempting to redefine literacy for the new century, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence  has it as “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful.”

There is at least one reference to “society” too many there for my liking, but you have to commend the attempt to recognize that literacy is a much broader concept than it was even twenty years ago.

So what part then does, or should, technology play in developing this new literacy?

I’m inclined to agree with Marc Prensky, the American learning and technology expert, author of Games-Based Learning and Don’t Bother me Mom, I’m Learning, when he says “the role of technology in our classrooms is to support the new teaching paradigm”, a paradigm which he describes as the shift from the old pedagogy of teachers “telling” or “talking” or “lecturing”, to the new pedagogy of young people teaching themselves with the guidance of the teacher, a combination of “student-centred learning”, “problem-based learning” and “case-based learning”.

Prensky argues that “if we can agree that the role of technology in our classrooms is to support the “new” pedagogy…..then we can all move much more quickly down the road of reaching that goal. But if every person continues to talk about the role of technology in a different way, it will take us a whole lot longer.”

 That description of the new teaching paradigm may bring a bit of colour to your cheeks, especially if you are a teacher, but the key message is clear – technology is a means of supporting learning, it is not an end in itself.

The question posed in the programme for this event was “Can video games, the internet and other applications help young people engage with literature?” The answer of course is YES. Games like Myst, Samorost and Neverwinter Nights, to name but three, provide exciting, stimulating, and imaginative contexts in which young people learn to solve problems, work collaboratively and think creatively. They have the potential to transport young people into the kinds of worlds which they might also encounter in literature (think of the world of Narnia for instance). More than that, the games allow them to collaborate to create the imaginary world and the narrative for themselves, and to explore the meaning and the rules of genre, which encourages them to look for more, and so on.

However, not only do the games encourage comparisons with literature, and provide introductions to more traditional written texts, they are perfectly valid texts in themselves, if we accept the broad definition of “text” as “the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated.”

Technology can also broaden opportunities and help to eliminate social inequalities. For young people who for various reasons are unable to go very far from their immediate environment, it can bring the world to them. It can give them access to people and events they would not otherwise be able to take advantage of.

GLOW is the world’s first national intranet for education. Funded by the Sottish Government and managed by Learning and Teaching Scotland, it connects learners and teachers in a number of ways. Glow Learn is a Virtual Learning Environment which includes tools to share, organize and search for digital resources and courses, monitor student progress and provide learners with access to structured content – it can be used at any time and from any location which has internet access. Potentially, for example, it could provide the ideal solution in THE EXTREMELY UNLIKELY EVENT THAT ANY KIND OF PANDEMIC HEALTH ISSUE SHOULD CAUSE THE CLOSURE OF OUR SCHOOLS.

The Glow Meet facility is a web conferencing tool which allows people to interact using video, audio and a shared whiteboard space.  Dr Mel Gibson’s presentation, Visual Literacy, Learning and Graphic Novels was relayed live from this venue last Thursday, not only allowing a wider audience to hear the presentation, but allowing them to ask questions and take part in the discussion as well.

 So I believe that far from being in opposition, technology and literacy are mutually supportive. I also believe that the reason literature matters so much to us lies in the importance of narrative. It is through constructing our own narrative, and reading other people’s narratives, that we come to understand who we are in the world and how we relate to everyone else.

Video games (computer games?), the internet and new Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, podcasts and social networking tools make it easier to share, and enthuse, and engage young people with the traditional literature which we all know and love, but sometimes it is the computer game, or the film, or the graphic novel, which provides the narrative and which is every bit as valid a text as the book.

Finally, to return to Socrates for a moment, I suppose if we are entering a new era in the development of language and literacy, we need to have a new alphabet.

Now repeat after me: A is for Apple, B is for Blogger, C is for Cooliris, D is for Delicious…………………



Bowmore or Bust

I’m just chilling out today, as we younger dudes say, after a very enjoyable cycle trip to Islay to catch up with my good friends Ian and Andy. The visit was the ideal way of seeing a part of Scotland which is so significant to our cultural heritage, including the production of some of the finest malt whiskies on the planet, and at the same time making up in some part for missing out on the hugely successful unconference back in June. To call it a cycle tour is a slight exaggeration as in actual fact most of the journey was by boat and some of it by train.

Setting out from Ayr on Wednesday I tooJourneyk the train to Ardrossan Harbour and boarded the ferry to Brodick. From Brodick I cycled the very hilly road to Lochranza which was basking in glorious sunshine as I waited for the short ferry ride to Claonaig. Another five hilly miles across the Mull of Kintyre to Kennacraig and I was ready to board another ferry for the two and a half hour journey to Port Ellen at the southern end of Islay. Arriving at around 8.30 in the evening my effort wasn’t quite finished as I had booked in to the Bowmore Hotel in the main town ten miles to the north. Fortunately this part of the island is pretty flat, although that coupled with the fact that this stretch of road is also very straight can make it feel like you are never getting there. The round church at the top of the hill was a welcome sight as I freewheeled into Jamieson Street and found my digs for the night.

On Thursday I left Bowmore and headed round to Portnahaven to have a coffee in An Tigh Seinnse, the best (only) pub in Portnahaven and one of the smallest in the world, and to take some pictures of  the sandy bay where a group of children in wellies were playing along the water’s edge and a lazy seal lay sunbathing on a rock, posing for tourists. Stopping for lunch with Ian and Caroline at Port Charlotte I then headed to the distillery at Bruichladdich for a sample of the local produce (highly recommended) before making my way back to the hotel and the sanctuary of a hot bath.

After a bite to eat it was time to for a tour of some of the more remote parts of the island – this time in a four-wheeled vehicle – and a trip to the awesome Machir Bay to watch the breakers rolling in and the sky darkening as the rain clouds gathered. We retreated to the Bridgend Hotel for a few beers and a game of pool while we sorted out the Scottish education system and described with increasing clarity our vision for the curriculum in the twenty-first century.

I took my leave of Andy and Ian, as I was to be up early on Friday morning for the cycle back to Port Ellen and the same journey in reverse. I hadn’t been on Islay for much more than a day but I had seen enough of the island and the people to convince me that there’s something special there, and perhaps it’s best demonstrated by the fact that as you cycle the roads almost every driver gives you a wave, and not in the way they tend to on the mainland.

For more photos of the tour go to LiteracyAdviser on Flickr