Mastering new literacies using ICT

The world of communication, literacy and education is changing. In the book centred culture of a century ago, to ‘read’ the classics was often considered to be the best education. Good handwriting and the ability to compose formal letters were essential life skills. Throughout the 20th century, a series of technological changes – telephone, radio, television, computers – has radically redrawn the map of communication. Children growing up in modern Europe socialise and communicate electronically: they are in constant electronic contact with each other through voice, text pictures and even video. Their primary day-to-day experience of reading comes to them through screens… (Rudd, A & Tyldesley, A. 2006:1. Literacy and ICT in the Primary School)
Children of the twenty-first century are fervent users of new technologies, which include computers, DVD, videos, cell phones, email, text messaging etc. These technologies are influencing and changing the activities that children engage with and are in turn influencing and changing literacy. What is evident is that traditional literacy is itself changing and that new and different literacies, now emerging very rapidly in the first part of the twenty-first century are reflecting these changes in technologies, media, the economy, and the rapid movement towards global scale in manufacture, finance and communications. (Evans, J. 2004:8. Literacy Moves On)

Our understanding of literacy has changed considerably in the last few decades. While the term once looked narrowly at reading, writing and speaking, technological changes have resulted in a world which is far more complicated than before.  The ways in which we communicate have changed radically, especially over the last decade and a half, impacting not only on reading and writing but the way in which we interact with the world around us, the way we work, play, buy goods and services and do business. We live in world in which we are overloaded with information, where the very meaning of communication has changed and where the number and kinds of communication tools has expanded. We a bombarded by a massively rich yet subtle tapestry of information. Interpreting and using this information effectively requires the mastery of a wide range of new literacies or competencies.

Lankshear and Knobel (2003:15) speak of oral literacy, visual literacy, information literacy, media literacy, science literacy and emotional literacy, saying that “these uses foreground the notion of being able to make meaning – as producer or receiver – from signs, signals, codes, graphic images and so on.”  They add (ibid) that “in cases of ‘media literacy’ or ‘information literacy’ we sometimes find implications that we need to learn to ‘read’ media or information sources in specialised ways in order to ‘get what is really there’ and/or to avoid being ‘taken in’.”  This highlights yet another competency – criticality – which is important in an age of spam, internet fraud and people who use the web to hide both their real identity and their dubious intentions.

The response of educational institutions has been disappointingly slow. Evans (2004:8) points out that schools are not preparing children for “life in an ever-changing world” despite “well-researched calls for  such change,” this in spite of the fact that children use internet and wireless devices all the time outside of the classroom.  Too many schools,  locked into a pencil and paper paradigm which sees literacy narrowly as reading writing and speaking, are providing an educational experience more suited to the 19th  than the 21st century,  ignoring the exciting new Information and Knowledge Societies which prevail outside the school gate.

Government has spent large amounts of money on hardware and software over the last ten years. In too many schools, however, children have less than one hour hands on experience with computers each week, at a time dictated by a timetable rather than their needs. Little of this time is dedicated to using technology to support cross-curricular work, or to use computers in the common-sense way in which they are used outside of school as writing and research tools which are always on and always within reach. Thankfully, a growing number of schools are investing in mobile technology in the form of wireless laptops which can be shared between classes. However, this still does not meet what some see as the minimum requirement for effective use of information and communications technology, where the computer is at the beck and call of the user, as and when they need it, throughout the day.

Let us consider, for a moment, how most of use work with computers and other information and communications technologies.  Firstly, the devices are always on and within reach so that we can write, read, look up information and communicate using mail, messaging, video-conferencing or applications like Pownce at any time. Many of us have multiple devices at out fingertips – mobiles, wireless PDAs, MP3 players, gaming devices – which we use in a multiplicity of ways for both learning and entertainment. We multi task, using windows which we can flick to and from as we engage with the rich world of information around us. For many of us, computers or mobile devices are constant companions, enabling us to work as we move about.

It is interesting to look at some of the recommendations of the Joint DG JRC-DG EAC Workshop (2006) into European education and training. The report of the group recognised that “Information and Communication Technology (ICT) give rise to new digital skills and competences that are necessary for employment, education and training, self-development and participation in society” and highlights the need for “a fundamental transformation of education and training throughout Europe” (page 1). Furthermore, it recognised that  ICT and other technologies  have an important role to play in realising these changes. An important recommendation is made – “that a new vision of ‘ICT and learning’ is needed that takes into account the shifts and trends that are transforming the way people work, learn, make sense of their world and have fun in a digitalized, networked and knowledge-based society” and the need for a proactive rather than “an adaptive strategy where reactions to new requirements would be made as they arise” (page 1).

The report places emphasis on the needs of what it calls a knowledge based society (KBS). Trends which are likely to shape this include:

  • Widespread broadband internet access
  • Weblogging, Short Message Service (SMS) and Multimedia Message Service (MMS) that are becoming major sources for personalisation of information and for connecting with others such as friends and now increasingly also friends of friends (social software)
  • The rise of podcasting (both audio and video) that provides opportunities for mobile
    learning via portable digital media players
  • The availability and use of open source software and open source content (e.g.
    Wikipedia), and the unlimited and cheap storage of digital information
  • The rise of new internet-native content players that experiment with content services
    that have clear educational implications (page 2).

Also highlighted is the need for “innovative applications of ICT for learning” (page 3) to make learning “better, different, more interesting, pleasant, and more relevant than it is today” (ibid). Experience-based learning, using immersive virtual worlds and experimental learning using computer-generated simulations are mentioned, together with the use of podcasting and blogging. The need to shift towards a digitalised and networked KBS, in which learners become co-producers in the learning process rather than simple receivers of learning content, is emphasised together with flexibility and user-friendliness (for both teachers and learners) and the use of different “digital” learning styles to support learning as a social process rather than an instructorless computer-generated activity.

The report places  good deal of emphasis on the need for new supportive learning spaces, which reinforce learning as a social process and place learners at the centre of learning. Such spaces are seen as connected and social, trusted, pleasant and emotional, creative and flexible, open and reflexive. It is acknowledged that large scale change is difficult. The need for incentives and effective training is highlighted.

There seems to be little evidence of these recommendations being noted in schools in the UK. Talking of primary schools, Wheeler (2005:1) points out that generally “teachers do not use ICT at all, or if they do, it is often reluctantly, and in a fashion that falls well short of its potential.”  To be fair, there are instances of excellent use of ICT to support effective learning, these tend to be isolated.  This brings to mind the assertion made by Cohen and Cuban in 1989, that computer technology would have little effect on schools, and that “to the degree that technology is flexible, it will be bent to fit existing practice and that, to the degree that it cannot be bent to fit existing practice, it will not be used.” (in Collins, 1991:28).

An increasing number of people are raising concerns about the fact that children – perhaps the most enthusiastic users of new technologies – are locked out of this participatory loop in the place where they should be most active in it – schools. Why is it that schools use ICT so poorly?

There are a number of reasons.

Toshiba Netbook, designed for working on the web.

Toshiba Netbook, designed for working on the web.

Firstly, there are not nearly enough computers to go around. To use computers effectively means providing each child with a computer which can link to the internet. The main reason for this has, to date, been cost. However, computers are getting cheaper, and changing their form. Netbooks, designed for working on the web as a platform, are relatively cheap. At the recent Handheld Learning Conference in London, a number of success stories were shared, demonstrating how children were using handheld devices (mobile phones, gaming devices, PDAs) effectively as learning and collaborative tools.  To my mind, the most important aspect of these successes was accessibility, in that the children owned the devices and were able to take them home to use as and how they wished. Ownership provides an important level of credibility to the way we use tools and devices. The teachers involved reported on the pupils being motivated by working with what they perceived as appropriate modern devices.

Secondly, effective change requires a critical mass of teachers who really understand the potential of ICT as an educational tool to force change. This mass has not been achieved. Schools are spluttering, rather than exploding with ideas of how to make the learning experience dynamic, relevant, exciting and motivating. An effective programme of training and development has never existed, leaving too many teachers nervous of and reluctant to use technologies in their classrooms. This critical mass will hopefully be achieved as more younger, technology canny teachers join schools.

Thirdly, government interference and micro-management of schools leaves little time and space for teachers to be be imaginative and creative. The regime of testing and targets, together with an ever increasing bureaucratic demands on teachers leaves little opportunity for them to produce their best, let alone get to grips with the tools which have promised so much yet delivered so little. There is an urgent need for government to trust teachers and to embrace a Theory Y approach with what is largely a highly dedicated and hard-working profession.

Fourthly, the National Curriculum is too big, too demanding and too inflexible for the kind of educational experiences that children need to prepare them for life in a knowledge society. There is an urgent need to re look at the curriculum and to streamline it to focus on the technological and knowledge skills which young people need not only for tomorrow but for today. There is also an urgent need to reconsider the design of schools and to develop supportive ‘learning spaces’ which serve the needs of our information society. Finally, there is an urgent need for government to realise that the best way to improve education is to give teachers the time and freedom to be imaginative and creative.

Finally, there is something about the nature of schools themselves, their management structure and their self-concept, which tends to make them conservative rather than open to change. This goes beyond the fact that most school buildings were built during a bygone age and that teaching rooms are not easily adapted to suit the use of the information and communications technologies available to us. It has something to do with the authority invested in teachers who are more comfortable teaching in the way they were taught than in the way which rapidly changing technologies allow us to teach. While we do use collaboration more often and talk about teachers and pupils being co-learners, too much of what happens in classes is based on behaviourist rather than constructivist principles.

Never before have we had cheap, flexible and easy to use technologies so suited to improving the learning environment, providing contexts for investigating and examining ideas such as composing, presenting, reading and transforming texts, exploring, interpreting and sharing information. Most of us know that word processing packages supports good writing, providing tools like spell checkers, thesauruses and a host of editing tools which make it almost impossible not to produce good writing. Desk Top Publishing software allows us to engage with the issues of design and layout in a non-threatening environment in which things like posters, menus, brochures and certificates are designed. Presentation software like Key Note and Power Point provide keys to support presentations. More importantly, their structure forces users to focusing the mind and to think carefully about the essentials which need discussing.

What we are looking at here are ‘traditional’ software tools which engage users as creators of content and knowledge in an environment which provides the freedom to concentrate on content and creativity, rather than on the nitty-gritty of punctuation, spelling and typefaces, which are easily ‘fixed’ once the content is laid down. Good use of these tools supports traditional literacies as taught in schools. They are perhaps less successful in supporting the development of the ‘new’ literacies of the information age spoken about by Lankshear and Knoble (2003) –  visual literacy, information literacy, media literacy – the competencies  required by the information and knowledge societies which are so important today.

These tools are at hand.  More importantly, we have a ‘native’ clientèle more than willing to use them. What we now need is teachers who are willing to learn to use them to provide a more relevant, exciting and motivating learning environment. These tools come from two sources – the tools that children already own such as camera phones and game consoles and  the powerful, free Web 2.0 applications which allow us to find and manage information and share ideas and resources world wide, using blogs, and applications like, Flickr, YouTube, Face Book and Twitter.

Mobile phones provide a relatively cheap method of capturing images and of supporting communication using voice and messaging. These are too often banned from schools for no good reason. Photographs are very much part of our visual world and working with them helps develop visual literacy. Picture taking opportunities are easily combined with learning, be it on trips out of school or walks in the school grounds to capture images of mathematical shapes or autumn colours which can be used to discuss mathematical ideas or for creative writing. Most phones today are capable of using free software which enables photographs to be loaded directly to the web – be it Flickr, a blog or social networking applications like Face Book.  We return here to the idea of ownership, where images captured by children have greater meaning than those from elsewhere. Using one’s own images adds relevance, meaning and validity to the task. SMS has been used at the University of Cape Town to create an anonymous collaborative questioning environment and in Kenya to train teachers.  In Finland, the MOOP project looked at children in primary school who used mobile phones to supports the process of inquiry learning, during which they outlined thoughts on the current topic, collected  information and observations from their surroundings and reported findings via a network-learning environment.

In other instances, children have been involved in producing podcasts. These are easy to create, using free software like Audacity which can be downloaded from the web.  As we have seen from the discussion on creating presentations, it is the process of creating which taxes us and makes us think and solve problems, providing the best learning experiences. What these examples illustrate is that imaginative teachers can use modern technologies innovatively, given the freedom to do so.

Panoramio enables users to upload their own photographs for others to see on Google Earth

The most important aspect of Web 2.0 lies in it participatory nature, in which users move from being mere consumers of information to creators and sharers of knowledge. Wheeler, Yeomens and Wheeler (2008) point out that user-created content encourages deeper engagement with learning through the act of authoring, because an awareness of an audience, no matter how trivial or tentative, encourages more thoughtful writing. The on-line voice afforded young learners demands that they take special care and adds credibility to their work. Blogging affords bloggers with membership of an on-line community of citizen journalists who make news (not all of it by any means useful or worthwhile) which can read by anyone on-line. The traffic is two way, given that blogs enable readers to comment on posts and develop lengthy discussion. Applications  like Wikipedia and WikiHow enable multiple users to participate in knowledge generation by adding to or editing information to wikis. What many do not realise is that Wikipedia is the result of the collaboration of a vast number of quite ordinary people, rather than a elitist creation. Anyone with an internet connection can register on Wikipedia and add and edit information. Google Earth allows one not only to explore the world and the heavens above us, but also to add value to the resource by adding one’s own photographs and other information to produce mashups. Participation is open to all, no matter what our age, gender, creed or race.

Working on-line means being part of what is perhaps the biggest popular movement of all time – creators of a massive on-line community which  which has no walls and few limitations.  In many respects, the internet provides a rare instance of real democracy in a world which by contrast is becoming increasingly autocratic. Teachers have a duty to lead the way and to ensure that pupils can make the most of the exciting new learning opportunities to develop the important literacies and competencies that our modern world requires.


Collins, A. (1991) The role of computer technology in restructuring schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(1), 28-36.

Evans, J. (2004) (Ed.) Literacy Moves On. Using popular culture, new technologies and critical literature in the primary classroom. David Fulton, London.

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2003) New Literacies. Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Punie, Y. &  Cabrera, M. (2006) The Future of ICT and Learning in The Knowledge Society.

Rudd, A. & Tyldesley, A. (2006) Literacy and ICT in the Primary School. David Fulton, London.

Unsworth, L., Thomas, A., Simpson, A. & Asha, J. (2005) Children’s Literature and Computer Based Teaching. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Wheeler, S (2005) (Ed.) Transforming Primary ICT. Learning Matters, Exeter.

Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. & Wheeler, D. (2008) The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(6), 987-995.

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