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…………………



14 thoughts on “Edinburgh International Book Festival

  1. Re Graphic Novels

    I use them in ‘tech teaching’ to add more literacy to my teaching so I can see the meaning of your ‘narrative’ as it does come out through the GNs produced which are open design tasks. It’s fun to read them to !

    An English teacher, G Miller, wants his S1 class to watch and interact with my S1 class when they are doing their GNs but I only have trial glow access.

    Mr T

  2. Thanks Mr T.
    Don’t I remember you from a well-known television series? I think it’s great that you are making the cross-curricular links between the graphic design of the picture-books and the English classroom, because as I said in the presentation, the connection is the need for narrative ie to tell a story in one form or another.
    If, as I suspect, the English teacher is in the same school, isn’t it possible to bring the two classes together at any point, or failing that to think about setting up a wiki so that they can share, not only with each other but the wider community? If you want further support with that I can give you the appropriate links.


  3. Indeed Joe,
    It’s not a question of books vs technology, they are mutually supportive, and books are now coming in a bigger range of formats than ever. Engaging readers (young and old) is really about finding the right book at the right time. Thanks for the links – I’ll certainly add them to my delicious.


  4. Bill I’m with you but the English Departments haven’t all caught up yet 😉 some of the if you liked this then you’ll like this – or books by genre tools are great ways just to talk about books and what an individual might like to read.
    There may even be a Bebo or other plugin doing this too – probably reviewing latest teenage vampire book trend – may even help reading lists move on a decade or two in some schools

  5. Joe,
    I agree with you but I’m sure most English teachers will tell you it’s difficult enough to find any reading time for themselves never mind keeping up with teenage fiction as well. That’s why they need someone (me) doing the job for them. I’m trying to accumulate decent websites on my Delicious, and I have a collection of reviews of good texts which I will eventually get on to the blog in some shape or form. When you talk about “books by genre tools” did you have anything in particular in mind?

  6. http://www.nextfavorite.com/

    another example

    Amazon and the ones above do it too I can’t find system I was using in 1990’s – thought I had it on my old website – but there were a few websites about then that we used with candidates looking for something for their review of personal reading.

    These were aimed at making suggestions for reluctant readers – some folks out there will have URL for this

    Worth getting into Diigo and you can do some funkier collaboration and sharing

  7. Hilery,
    Thanks for that. Sorry I didn’t see you on Monday, or if I did I didn’t recognise you- oops! You should have come over. I see you’re also into The Seven Basic Plots which is a great text and one which I’m planning to build some training around soon. As for Twitter, sign up for a free account, have a look at some of the people I follow and follow anyone you think might be interesting and you’re away. My friend Mike (@mikecoulter) describes it as having a personal army of researchers – and you get to meet some really good people – sometimes in reality. Let me know when you sign up and I’ll put out a tweet, but you must write a brief profile of yourself or people will be less likely to follow you.


  8. Pingback: Can ICT applications help young people engage with literature? « Hilery Williams

  9. I would have said hallo but there were half price cocktails on offer on George Street. Tough choice!
    I’m not too sure about the book on the 7 plots. Doesn’t quite add up to me. Adam Mars-Jones’s review is scathing (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/nov/21/fiction.features) stating that Booker focuses too much on plot as ‘the genetic code of a work of art’. I agree that there are archetypal shapes but there is so much more to good story than this.
    I feel a blog post coming on! I’ll lok with interest for your thoughts.
    I’ll keep thinking about Twittering.

  10. No contest Hilery. I would have gone for the cocktails every time. Interesting review of the Booker text. I hadn’t seen any comment or criticism of it before. The only thing I would say is that he doesn’t seem to me to be arguing “good” or “bad” story but talking more about “completeness” or about common patterns. I agree that it becomes a bit rambling after a while as it’s probably two or more books in one. See you on Twitter.


  11. I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)

    A definite great read..Tony Brown

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