Computer-mediated Discourse as a New Literacy

I have been thinking a lot about understanding Computer-mediated Discourse (CMD) as a legitimate  type of new literacy.  I recently returned to this idea after some debates on ITForum.

Basically, a few listserv members wanted to unsubscribe from the listserv but rather than follow the correct steps to unsubscribe (or what others perceived as not even trying to look up the correct steps to unsubscribe) they simply kept sending messages to the entire list (which has over 2,000 members) that they wanted to be subscribed.  This angered some members of the list and insults were exchanged and the flaming began.

While a number of people talked about ways to improve the listserv, I kept thinking about Will Richardson’s idea–where do we teach Wikipedia? Now when he mentioned this in a keynote I saw online, he  wasn’t focusing necessarily only on Wikipedia as much as he was about how do we or when do we (if ever) teach students how to participate and contribute in this new Web 2.0 world we find ourselves in.

For me the bigger and more foundational question is when and how do we teach students (or anyone for that matter) how to effectively communicate in computer-mediated environments (e.g., listserv’s).  Susan Herring has argued that CMD is different than F2F oral communication and yet also different than written communication and somehow a blend of the two.  But this type of literacy like all literacy is situated, contextual, and specific.

I have written in the past (with different colleagues) about different conceptions of literacy and the importance to acknowledge and sometimes explicitly teach these different types of literacy as well as how important it is to pay attention to the language and labels we use (Lowenthal & Wilson, 2009; White & Lowenthal, 2008).  For instance, John White and I have argued,

The New Literacy Studies (NLS) have shown that literacy is far more complex than the simplistic definition of being able to read and write (Colombi & Schleppegrell, 2002; Street, 1995). NLS posits that literacy is more usefully understood when examined as a tool for (and function of) relationships between people, within groups, or in communities rather than as a set of individual skills (Barton, 1994; Barton & Hamilton, 2000).    Specific environments and situations require specific kinds of literacy; relationships of power within these contexts affect literacy uses and the meaning resulting from them (Bizzell, 1982; Corson, 2001; Gilligan, 1993; Heath, 1983, 1991; Hymes, 1971; Medvedev & Bakhtin, 1978; Nystrand, 1982; Pratt, 1998). NLS highlights the fact that what counts as literacy is not the same in all contexts; different domains of life require specific kinds of literacies.

Given this, CMD appears to be a not necessarily new but increasingly used literacy that is permeating every aspect of our life. Now I am thinking this is more than just digital literacy or information literacy; or at least something different that overlaps these two ideas in ways. But we aren’t spending time teaching people how to effectively employ CMD.  Rather, we assume that people can learn this on their own and that they can figure out the differences between emailing, postings comments on a blog, taking part in a listserv or even tweeting.  And while everything we need to learn in life doesn’t have to be formally taught and  in fact many would argue that the most important things in life aren’t taught in a formal learning environment, as CMD increases, we need to start seeing courses or opportunities out side of courses on how to read, write, communicate and exist in mediated environments.

Back to the beginning of this, I wasn’t that surprised with those who were willing to send multiple emails to be “unsubscribed” to over 2,000 people (which includes possible future employers I bet)  but I was surprised when arguably literate CMD users were willing to get nasty (in front of over 2,000 people) with these new and arguably illiterate (at least when it comes to listserving) people.  We need to think about what it means to be literate when it comes to CMD and how we can explicitly teach it or at least model it for others.

After writing this post in the middle of a conference, I later created a Pecha Kucha on the same topic. The following is a rough recording of the Pecha Kucha.

3 thoughts on “Computer-mediated Discourse as a New Literacy

  1. wrtngtchr

    Learning CMD by trial and error has its obvious perils, but the beauty of CMD is its seemingly open access to everyone. This open access implies relaxed rules reflecting the writer’s voice. “Teaching” means “standardizing” which implies rules which eliminates authentic voice.

    Before we pile CMD on the literacy train, let’s think more deeply into the possible consequences of “teaching” CMD. Too often education becomes a sorting mechanism through grades, achievement scores, etc. The value of CMD lies in its authentic voices–all of them.

    Most of my students tell me their digital voices are more authentic/truthful than their face-to-face voices. My bias leans toward letting that authenticity and exploration develop by trial and error. Mistakes lead to discovery and creativity more often than following rules.

    Let society be the final judge rather than an institution like education.

  2. Patrick Lowenthal Post author

    Thanks so much for the comment!!!

    I totally agree that “teaching” often means “standardizing” (and there are obvious draw backs to standardization) and that online communication shouldn’t necessarily imitate “traditional” forms of writing or communication.

    In fact, I think the beauty of CMD lies in its differences. But at the same time, I think we have lots of authentic voices that represent different aspects of ourselves and that even with online mediated communication we (especially those who are very “skilled” at it or “literate”) tend to write differently depending on the context (e.g., public vs. private vs. web page vs. tweet…) and that we need to help students (well… all people) recognize the importance that context plays when we read and write. Literacy never happens in a vacuum.

    My fear with learning how to effectively read and write through a trail by error process (though it is a great way to learn certain things) is the way things have changed. These days everything is being archived and much more public. A silly public mistake could stick with someone for years.

    But I should add that I think this type of “education” doesn’t have to be taught solely in our classrooms, it is the kind of thing that can and should be taught at home by friends and family.

    What do you think? Am I crazy?


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