Until about a month ago, I worked for a research group called Project New Media Literacies. During my tenure there, the group’s Creative Manager, Anna van Someren, produced the following video to describe our work:
I love this video and think it does a fantastic job describing the focus of Project New Media Literacies. What it doesn’t do, however, is answer the question my friend Kathleen asked me the other day: “What is new media literacy?”
Here’s my answer: It’s like print literacy, only different.
A short definition of print literacy
Think about learning how to read. You start by figuring out words and sounding out short sentences. Kids spend a lot of time learning vocabulary, practicing with different kinds of texts, and writing their own texts. The whole point of that is to increase learners’ fluency with the words, symbols, and markers that comprise a language, so that when they encounter an unfamiliar type of text they’ll be able to decipher it in context. By learning how to read this
And even if you can’t exactly decipher everything included in the examples above, most people would likely at least know what kind of text they were looking at and, even if they didn’t know what opah was or whether it tasted good, they would at least know how much it cost to find out.
New Media Literacy
Keep in mind that, though we tend not to think too much about this, there are tons of technologies involved in the creating and communicating of print messages. Word processors are communication technologies, of course, but so are pencils, quill pens, telegraphs–even language itself is a technology–an invention devised to support a specific kind of communication.
New media literacy starts from the premise that digital technologies like email, Twitter, chatrooms and so on are simply new communication resources that can be clustered in the same category as pens, paper, and the printing press. While they’re the same class of technologies, however, the types of communication these new digital technologies support are significantly different from those supported by print technologies.
One interesting feature of print literacy is that while it’s related to oral literacy–the ability to speak and understand a language–oral literacy and print literacy can in theory and often in practice exist in mutual exclusion. This is because what it takes to interpret the symbols that make up a spoken language (deciphering a series of intentionally ordered sounds) is fundamentally different from what it takes to interpret the symbols of a printed language (deciphering a series of symbols, intentionally ordered). Print literacy, however, is built on the shoulders of oral literacy: While we can easily imagine a powerful public speaker being functionally illiterate, it’s practically impossible to picture someone who is able to read but unable to speak or understand the language she can read.
Print literacy and new media literacy are connected and separate in a similar way. In order to master new media platforms and social communication tools, you have to possess a fluency with print media (in addition, increasingly, to visual and sound-based media formats). On the SAT, here’s how this all would play out:
oral literacy:print literacy::print literacy:new media literacy
In other words, print literacy is necessary but not sufficient, because the conditions surrounding print media in social communication environments are fundamentally different from those surrounding print media in, for example, a textbook.
The goals behind new media literacy education are, however, the same as those surrounding print literacy education: To support learners’ facility with a set of texts and allow them to navigate new media platforms with relative fluency. There’s no point in learning how to edit Wikipedia, for example, if it doesn’t offer us skills that carry over into other collaborative knowledge-building environments. Twitter might (though I doubt it) flounder and fail within five years, but that doesn’t mean learning how to engage with it it pointless. Through Twitter, we can learn how to build and participate in a community that features a largely invisible audience, persistence of information, and tacit but fairly firm rules for engagement. If we can learn how to jump into the world of Twitter, then, we might also learn how to navigate this:
All of the above technologies are built on combinations of oral and print literacies, but that doesn’t mean knowing how to speak, read, write and understand are enough. The words may be the same, but the social competencies required to decipher them inside of their context are different.
There: new media literacy. It’s kind of like learning how to read and write and kind of not like that at all.