Friday, September 15, 2006

More on the changing face of literacy

Now that I've started to put some structure in place around my thinking on how what constitutes literacy has changed over time, I find that my mind is worrying at it like a sore tooth. I mentioned yesterday, that the written word had gone from being something that was elitist to something that was widely accessible. And of course, somewhere in the middle of the night, my subconscious mind found dusty recollections on some of Mark Weiser's work that I mulled over some time back.

He also referred to the process of the written word becoming ubiquitous. There was once a time when the written word could only be accessed by a select few and then the individual had to go to where the written word could be found. Over time, the written word became ubiquitous - a part of our world, accessible from where we happened to be, even to the point where it appears as grafitti. We are so rich in words, that we can afford to treat them as waste.

His own goal was to see us reach the same state in respect of computing - hence the term ubiquitous computing. Rather than the user having to go to where the computer was to make use of its functions and features, he looked to a world where the computer entered our world. We're getting there. I remember the days when computers were kept in rooms so cold all the computer (not called IT, yet) staff wore jumpers to work, even in the middle of summer. Now we see a far more portable technology and always-on connectivity, thanks to wifi.

Thinking in terms of modern literacy, imagine how lost you would be if you were trying to navigate your way around a foreign country where all the street signs were only in the native language, which you didn't speak. When we travel to Sweden, I am always glad of the fact that we make use of a combination of public transport and the good grace of family members. Driving on the right hand side of the road would be tough enough to cope with, but even as a passenger with none of the responsibilities associated with safe driving, I am still unable to read the signs before we've passed them. I'd be fine if I could stop in front of each sign for a minute and figure it out, but this is not exactly practical. In Sweden, I am not sufficiently literate to be independent and this makes me entirely reliant on my husband and his extended family (and on the fact that almost all Swedes speak beautiful English). This is how it must be for people who can't read their own language. Just thinking about the doors that are only open if you can read, I find I can't imagine how disabling it must be not to be able to do so.

And now we face the fact that the inability to make use of ICT technology is closing door after door as well. In my lifetime, will this form of illiteracy become as disabling as the inability to read? It looks increasingly like it.

On the back of Mark Weiser's work, much attention is being paid to the notion of ubiquitous learning (sadly no entry in Wikipedia yet, but you can Google it) - learning that goes to where the people are, rather than learning that must be accessed in a special environment (do we see a pattern emerging?). It is a subject on its own, and I have touched on it briefly before (here and here), but I think it has pertinence to this topic in that it is likely that it will presuppose functional and IT literacy to an increasing degree.

And, as a sad postscript, I was just reading this week about the number of kids coming through the education system with no more than the most basic reading and writing skills. We've let them down, folks. Imagine trying to earn a living when faced with all those closed doors - it doesn't leave a whole lot of legal options!


Anonymous said...

Since he is not the type to post a comment on this blog, I feel constrained to submit one on my long-suffering husband's behalf. He took exception to my assertion that grafitti=waste. He pointed out that that was very much an establishment view, and that, to those who generate grafitti, they may be seen as something more akin to the painting on cave walls I mentioned in the precursor to this post. It is a fair point and I leave it to the reader to decide its accuracy. All I can say is that I have seen some grafitti that look (to me) like art and some that look (to me) like vandalism, but I have to concede that any assessment of the differing motives of the creators of these grafitti based on their (subjectively perceived) aesthetics would be purely conjecture.

Lenva said...

Sorry to be so late reading your blog. I only discovered it after reading your comments on David Warlicks blog. Isn't it great how the conversation go round.

When you say we've let down all the kids who are coming out of school almost illiterate, I agree. But I don't think we can blame teachers (I am one), we have tried our best. The problem is that we don't have enough knowledge and skills to find the type of education that works for each individual. We teach what works for most. We MUST know learn how to personalise the learning so that every child succeeds and how we can use different combinations visual, kinesthetic, traditional or digital techniques to achieve this.
All kids of course need to learn to read, but more importantly they need to learn to read between the lines.

Anonymous said...

Hi lenva, thanks for the comment - the great thing about blogging, as you say, is that it's never too late to join a conversation.

When I said "we" had let the kids down, I didn't mean teachers. I meant all of us who are involved with children: parents, society, the education system. The African proverb is that it takes a village to raise a child.