Defining Literacy in the 21st Century

I spent Friday giving a keynote and presenting three workshops at the Adult Literacy Practitioners Association annual conference in Wellington. The keynote was followed the theme of the conference and was titled “Challenges, Change and Trends“, focusing on the impact of ICTs in education, in particular, on the development of literacy(ies). It was great to be among a group of people with whom I’ve had little contact before, people passionate about providing high quality literacy education to those with whom they work – often second chance learners.

Later in the day a member of the group was heard to comment, “I don’t agree with Derek – I think books and libraries will always be important.” I was bemused for two reasons. Firstly because I had been at pains to emphasise that I wasn’t saying that I think books and libraries will be obsolete, rather, that their form and function may change, and that our view of literacy needs to expand to embrace the opportunities and change that are presented by these emerging technologies. Secondly because this response illustrated another point in my talk – that our response to change or the threat of it will often cause us to retreat into a stable state mindset, and often cause us to have selective hearing.

The experience reminded me of the responses to Ewan McIntosh’s article in the Guardian newspaper just over a year ago, titled Beyond the three Rs – Literacy for a 21st century digital native is more about blogs than books, which I had referred to in my talk.  I first read this article on the day it was published and was impressed with Ewan’s explanation and support for the outcomes for Literacy in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. What I wasn’t prepared for was the depth of feeling reflected in the responses that were posted over the following couple of days, including;

“What’s wrong with the ‘old fashioned’ books, poetry and such like? They will be around far after the networking sites and texting have finished.”


“Teachers trying to keep the curriculum up with the latest digital communications fad is as sad as balding paunchy dads dancing Nu Rave.”

It sums up for me the need for us to be critically examining the impact – both positive and negative – of the new forms of expression that are emerging through the use of these new technologies, and how we must be adapting our views of literacy and what it means to be literate in the 21st Century.

Jeremy Philip’s recent article in ZDNet titled Encartas demise speaks volumes draws attention to the fact that new technologies are profoundly changing the way we create, share and use information. A recent impact of this, as he reports in this article, is the decision of Microsoft to cease development of it’s Encarta encylopedia, both on disk and online. Philips observes;

Kids for whom ‘Google’ is a verb, not a trademark, can instantly summon up images, sounds, text and marshal them into an interactive multimedia document of their own, which they can then email to teachers, share with friends, deconstruct and reconstruct at will, without the infuriating shackles of censorship in the form of sanitised content.

Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen, and we’ll all have an opinion on this. The important thing for all educators is to understand that these sorts of shifts are occurring, and to actively engage in the research and exchange of ideas and experiences that might lead us to an understanding of how to address this in our education system.

While we do have a literacy and numeracy strategy, and a clearly defined set of literacy progressions, we’re still working towards a “multi-literacies” framework in New Zealand (although it seems the work on this has sadly fallen off the radar at the moment with changes in MoE personnel and new government priorities), but I hope the work will continue among practitioners in an open-minded, critically engaged sort of way that will ultimately benefit the young learners in our schools.

4 thoughts on “Defining Literacy in the 21st Century

  1. Great post. I agree that there will always have a use for books, but online text nowadays can be pretty fantastic!

  2. Kia ora e Derek!

    My (20th century) experience with digital technology is that fashion gets carried away with novelty. So those in the know tend to think that everyone thinks the same as they (or should think the same) and that they support the same technology.

    I agree in part when you said, “(t)he important thing for all educators is to understand that these sorts of shifts are occurring . . .” I also think it’s important for educators to understand that there is a wide spectrum of opinion about the efficacy of technology (which allude to here) together with the same for accessibility to the fashionable way-to-go technologies. The problem with that spectrum is that some people at the digital end do not see the relevance of those at the other end using the technology that may be all that’s available to them. The campaigns and polemics I have recently seen and listened to over the matter of the book, the text-book and in fact ANY printed matter, leaves me wondering about their ability to embrace the diversity of humankind itself.

    The market availability of the present technologies is still nearly new, which means it’s also changing all the time. So whatever is adopted today may be trashable (by some) in 3 to 6 months. One clear character that the book (and related etc) has over ‘present day’ technologies is the universality of its form, fashion and function. Those who won’t, can’t or don’t want to recognise this aspect of legacy technologies do not have the diversity of mind action to go very far into the 21 century. The diversities of technology and its uses are not going to narrow.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  3. Hi Ken – I think you’re probably right about the spectrum – always a problem with being an optimist is that you assume others will see the potential etc etc. Perhaps there’s hope when you read things like the Twitter Experiment in my most recent post (6 June)? This is the sort of thinking and exploring I’d love to see lots more of 🙂 (Like the old days when you were in eSection!)

  4. Hi Derek

    I was at the ALPA conference and I was blown away by your presentation and the “Did you Know” video that was shown prior to your talk. You’ll be pleased to know that I have since signed up my wife and children to online maths education, started two wikis – one for home and one for work, looked at reanimating my old blog which has been gathering dust, downloaded SketchUp on all our home computer, bought another computer for our two kids to share (4yrs and 8rs), downloaded Scratch, and started investigating software for music recording, played with googledocs until I got frustrated and switched to Office Live… I’m now looking at ways to engage my colleagues in some of this technology… All this from one talk… Thanks for your input… still thinking about the implications of what you said…

    Best regards


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