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Literacy in the cyber age

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue May, May 1 - May 31 2000 | BY R. W. Burniske 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

"Composing Ourselves Online: Broadening the Definition of Computer Literacy," adapted from the soon-to-be-published book.

What exactly does it mean to be literate in the "post-modem" world? And what are educators talking about when they use the term "computer literacy" these days?

If we ask five people to define "literacy" we're likely to hear ten different answers. That's what happens, though, when words develop a split personality. On the one hand, "literacy" conjures images of the technical skills required to "read and write," the denotation that the United States Army reinforced when it coined the term functional literacy during World War II. This line of thinking, as a number of literacy experts have noted, bred the ideas of "survival literacy" and "basic literacy." However, the second strain of literacy, critical literacy, vexes the conversation far more today because of its many connotations, most of which stem from the idea of what it means to be "educated."

Where functional literacy lends itself to standardized tests that measure skills of one kind or another, it's clearly more difficult to determine when someone has acquired the critical literacy that describes a liberally educated or learned person. It's little wonder, then, that our five respondents would hedge their bets, offering definitions that address both specific, technical skills and the more nebulous qualities that would fully describe the literate individual. Though they may not be able to articulate it, many people intuitively understand that "functional literacy", though prerequisite to other types of literacy, seldom demands higher order thinking skills. The teacher who incorporates new technology into her classroom may help students learn how to "read and write", but she also needs to teach them how to interpret and "contextualize" the words and information they encounter in chat rooms, discussion forums, websites and more.

Unfortunately, many how-to books dedicated to technology in the classroom neglect this type of literacy, stressing technical skills that fail to help students find meaning through a truly "educated" approach to online reading and writing. Perhaps this explains why such books feel obsolete before the ink dries upon their pages. Educators need something more than a discussion of technical issues. To prepare ourselves and our students for new types of literacy we must be receptive to new definitions of the term itself. This requires more than technical knowledge; indeed, it demands that we ask open-ended questions about the human condition, searching for more satisfying definitions and a deeper understanding of these matters.

With this in mind, it may prove helpful to think of literacy in terms of a taxonomy. The functional literacy required to read and write letters of an alphabet, and sound the words they form, serves as a stepping stone to more complex types of literacy. By embracing that notion we invite a more robust definition for literacy's most recent offspring, that troublesome fellow we call computer literacy. It's time for educators to approach this, too, as a type of critical literacy, invigorating discussions of computers in education and the online learning environments in which our students increasingly work.

Just as we must learn to read and write the alphabet to develop functional literacy, so too, we must learn how to "read" visual images, discursive practices, personal ethics, community actions, cultural events, and global developments. What's more, while learning to "read" others online we are also composing ourselves. This double entendre suggests the need for composure as well as the desire for invention. We cannot achieve civil discourse online without composure, but neither can we satisfy our need for personal invention without giving full expression to a complex persona that others must interpret through the pastiche of our words and images.

Unfortunately, competence with one form of literacy does not guarantee fluency with another. As a matter of fact, one of the more important questions is whether or not some forms of literacy are mutually exclusive. Clearly, we need a far more sophisticated definition of computer literacy, one that takes us beyond functional literacy. Most schools have passed the stage in which computers are confined to a "keyboarding" or "computer applications" course. Thus, we can no longer view computer literacy in purely technical terms, nor as the province of a particular academic discipline. One's keyboarding skills are hardly a measure of computer literacy at a time when people speak of hypertext composition, virtual architecture and the myriad concerns of netiquette. For the classroom teacher to succeed with the integration of networked technology in pre-existing curricula, therefore, she must bring a theoretical foundation as well as technical skills. In fact, the former may prove more significant than the latter, since it will help the classroom teacher determine which skill sets she values and believes most significant for her students' development.

What exactly can we do to help students acquire a more satisfying computer literacy? Start with a delicate merger: the marriage of rhetorical traditions with emerging technologies. This produces a new synthesis that we might call media literacy. To succeed with it, we must adopt a holistic approach, establishing a "literacy-across-the-curriculum" program similar to writing-across-the-curriculum initiatives. Can we really ask this of teachers who have not been formerly trained in rhetoric? Are teachers of mathematics and science, let alone the humanities, equipped to pose as rhetoricians? Yes, indeed, for we are all engaged in rhetorical activities each day, whether we are seeking a truth or trying to persuade someone to believe a story, cast a vote, buy a product or take some other action. All of these activities require that one participate in the ancient "art of persuasion" that the scholars of ancient Greece called rhetoric.

What this shift requires, more than formal training, is a re-orientation in the way we look upon computers and computer technology. Until now, we have approached computer literacy as if it were just another form of basic literacy or a functional literacy necessary to succeed in the workplace. These forms of computer literacy required us to "look through" the technology, learning how to manipulate hardware and software so that we could accomplish certain tasks. However, it is now time to step back from the machinery and "look at" computers, networks and the interactions they enable so that we can learn how to read and interpret their impact upon us. By "looking at" the machinery instead of constantly "looking through" it we will return to the rhetorical heart of education and broaden the definition of computer literacy.


R.W. Burniske is a doctoral student in the Computers and English Studies program at the University of Texas. This article is adapted from Literacy in the Cyber Age (in press) (c) 2000 SkyLight Training and Publishing Inc., by permission of SkyLight Professional Development (, Arlington Heights, IL (800) 348-4474; email: [email protected]


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