Technology and Literacy

This article was published in TES on 25 September 2009.

Can video games, the internet and other ICT applications help young people engage with literature?

 In Proust and the Squid, her wonderfully clever but very readable book about the development of the reading brain, 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 importance of memory as nothing short of 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 likely to lead to corruption, especially of the youth of Athens. (How ironic that at the same time he was seen by the city elders as corrupting the minds of the wealthy aristocrats’ sons with his revolutionary views and unorthodox ethics.)


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


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, where the verb “to google” is so second-nature that it feels as if we have always done it.


The one certainty in all of this is that the nature of literacy is forever changing. Reading in particular 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, the Literacy and English framework in Curriculum for Excellence describes 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 now than it was even twenty years ago.

The question posed in the subtext for this presentation was “Can video games, the internet and other applications help young people engage with literature?” In some respects it is the wrong question, since it is really our understanding of “literature” which needs to be re-examined, before we begin to look at the relationship between literature and literacy.


However, taken at face value, the answer to the question is almost certainly yes. Games like Myst, Samorost and Neverwinter Nights, which are story and character-based, provide exciting, stimulating, and imaginative contexts in which young people learn to use logic, solve problems, work collaboratively and think creatively. The contexts can transport young people into the kinds of worlds which they might also encounter in traditional or classical literature – think of the world of Narnia or the Harry Potter stories. More than that, many of the games are interactive, so instead of simply being passive observers, the learners are often invited to collaborate in creating the imaginary world and the narrative for themselves, and in doing so to explore the meaning and the rules of genre.


So not only do the games provide comparisons with literature, and provide in the words of Howard Gardner an “entry point” to learning and to more traditional written texts, they are perfectly valid texts in themselves. The more valid question, and one which needs far greater investigation, is what we are hoping to achieve by using the text at all.


Marc Prensky, the American learning and technology guru, says the role of technology in our classrooms is “to support the new teaching 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”. He says, “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.”


Prensky acknowledges the fact that many teachers will baulk at this notion, and that every teacher is currently at a different point in “the continuum between the old and the new paradigms.” In order to accept that definition of course, the teacher has to see himself or herself primarily as a co-learner in the learning process, but when examined carefully his words should be more of a reassurance than a threat. The key message is clear – technology is a means of supporting learning rather than an end in itself.


Far from being in opposition, technology and literacy are mutually supportive, and I would suggest that the reason literature matters so much to us in the first place lies in the importance of narrative. It’s 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. It’s the reason we tell stories.


Video games, the internet and new Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, podcasts and social networking tools make it easier to find the right texts, share ideas and opinions, and to fire an enthusiasm in young people for 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.

4 thoughts on “Technology and Literacy

  1. Many of the kids do of course. However, many of them don’t know or don’t have access, so one of the challenges for teachers and educational professionals generally is to make sure we are clued up to help them make the connections.

  2. Nice article thanks Bill. I clearly see a place for the use of technology in education be it as a simple mechanism to facilitate communication (discussion) through to, as you discuss, the construction of rich, immersive narrative “worlds”. My only caveat to the argument for supporting the use of technology is that the choice of technology has to be carefully considered. Technology should be used intelligently to augment good, extant educational practice and not for technologies sake! This may sound like such an obvious statement but I see many examples of educators using technology which is clearly not fit for purpose but has been used just because it is available. We have to be cautious of the “well young people love I.T. and computer games so they will love I.T. and computer games based learning” attitude. This is just so wrong on so many levels. Aside from the argument, often sited by young people, that they prefer separation of “school time” from “down time” (remember this all of you who think it’s a good idea to put your classes on Facebook!) if the student does not see (or even better, experience) the benefit of the chosen intervention – they will quickly disengage – “funky” computer game or not.

    My broader argument is let’s not forget the lessons we have learned about what constitutes good learning and teaching, this should still be at the core of what we think and do as educators. Yes, let’s use technology to enrich the experience for us all as learners but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water!


  3. Hi Simon,
    Thanks for the comments. You make some very pertinent points, most of which I absolutely agree with – technology just for the sake of it, separation of school and social etc. Speaking as someone who has a very limited knowledge of technology, I think teachers now have an absolute moral responsibility to be familiar with basic technologies, even if they started teaching before the internet age – it isn’t good enough to carry on pretending that it’s optional. As far as computer games are concerned, The games I have looked at, such as Samarost, provide opportunities to explore, discuss, write creatively and so on. If you didn’t know why it was important for learners to explore, discuss and write creatively in the first place, games aren’t going to change that, but then again you have a problem anyway, even if you only ever use printed texts. I suppose what I am saying is that I agree with your point about good educational practice, while suggesting that there are many rich contexts within which to develop it.
    Not sure about avoiding certain technologies or applications because kids see them as their space or something they might do with friends. Seems like a good opportunity to demonstrate that the same technologies can be used for different purposes. A bit rambling but I hope some of that made sense.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s