e-Books Redefine Literacy

This morning I enjoyed a thoughtful podcast from my favourite CBC radio show, Ideas titled, Closing the Book. It examined the perspectives of scholars, authors, book publishers, and many others who have a stake in how the e-reader is changing the way in which we interact with texts.

The podcast peaked my interest so I moved on in my research and found a paper called Moving Towards a New Literacy: The Impact of the Internet on Literacy by Matthew Beall and Steve Topp, and an article in the April 2009 Wall Street Journal titled, How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write, by Steven Johnson.

Books are dear to my heart, as I grew up reading them every night with my parents from as far back as I can recall. Although the debate over e-books often begins with the question of whether a tactile book provides a richer experience than text on a screen, I can honestly say that I do not have a preference. So I will not include that as part of the debate here. However, I credit the early practice of reading with my parents for helping me develop strong literacy skills that carried me through my schooling and helped develop my love of reading and writing.

There are enough points mentioned in the podcast and articles to warrant their own research papers, so I am going to tackle a few major ideas that stand out for me, in terms of how we as educators can think about and approach student literacy in the 21st century. Here it goes:

  • The new literacy is a social experience. Gone are the days in which we curled up with a book in isolation and spoke about it to (maybe) a handful of people. Soon, all books, like websites, will be filled with suggestions, comments, and links to explanations, videos, and other media that relate to every highlighted passage, term, and theme in a book. Reading will become a collaborative process. As educators we can harness this collaboration by engaging our students in open discussions and sharing around reading material. We can interact with anyone in the world who has information and opinions about topics in a book. We can get into the heart of a book from many different perspectives–from real people. The challenge will be not to lose the essence of what an author expresses, even as we delve deeply into as many related topics as we can around a single book. This array of experiences will allow students to engage with and relate to books in new ways and we will have to help expand their understanding of these social experiences.
  • The new literacy holds less attention. With e-readers, people can purchase books in a seconds and carry hundreds of them around in a single, portable device. This makes it easier for us to leave a book unfinished and jump to something new. We can read a paragraph here and there, get distracted by a link to related content, and abandon a book for something else very quickly. There will be much less devotion to finishing a book the way we may once have, simply because the effort to borrow or purchase it in paper form used to be much greater. This may be a positive change. Although we may finish fewer books, we have the opportunity to explore more of them, and the ones that we do not finish might still give us a brief overview of a subject or a glimpse of the highlights of that material. We will also learn to think less linearly, and may be able to synthesize and connect concepts to each other in our brains more efficiently. As we know, information extraction, analysis, synthesis, and organization shapes our information-rich world, so why not get the abridged overview and leave the details for when we really need them? These are the skills that we will teach our students.
  • The new literacy is multi-sensory. We already use speech-to-text, text-to-speech, videos, podcasts, images, interactive widgets, tablets, and more to interact with media. I believe that books are moving toward a highly multi-sensory universal design where accessibility is greatly increased, and people expect and demand literature that fits their personalized way of learning and understanding. As educators, this increase in accessibility can only help students to learn and grow their passions, and will also encourage them to create their own texts (in a variety of mediums) to share with others. This is a major shift in the way we should think about reading and writing. I can see a move towards equalizing the status of visual, auditory, and multimedia texts as compared to the traditional superiority of printed literature. Literacy will be about communication of many kinds, not just type-written words on a page.
  • The new literacy focuses much more on content and presentation, depending on the text. Here, I am referring to two focuses: type-written texts and audio/visual texts. Type-written texts, as they all look the same in e-reader or PDF form, will no longer consider type-faces, fonts, paper quality, leather covers, or the like, to be important. Therefore, the content presented will become hyper-important to the reader and the presentation of the text will become unimportant. This can elevate the quality of writing in type-written texts. On the flip side, presentation will become hyper-important to the consumer of audio/visual texts including images, podcasts, and multimedia. I speak of the term presentation as the aesthetic elements of these texts, including the placement, items chosen, clarity, colour, sound quality, production values, and professionalism. Such elements of presentation will come under the magnifying glass, and will push producers of these texts to create better quality products. We can use both type-written texts and audio/visual texts to encourage our students to examine closely their audiences and the professionalism applied in creating their work.

What are your thoughts of the changing landscape of books and literacy? Are we leaving some fundamental learning or skills behind as we move toward a highly (or fully) digital world?

(Image: Holbeach e-book marker [old photo], by Paul Stainthrop. 2009. Available under a Creative Commons Share-Alike License.)