Review – Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era by Laura Kijak
November 14, 2001 Leave a Comment
With the invention of computers and the Internet educators have been asking themselves if this “new” technology would improve student writing. How would it affect the classroom? Would it revolutionize how literacy is taught?Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era sheds light on these questions. I read this book in two ways: first, as a first-year rhetoric graduate student and second, as an educator. Page to Screen is a collection of essays broken into four sections that discuss the influence of this new technology: ‘The spaces of electronic literacies,’ ‘Emerging literacies,’ ‘The problems and possibilities of hypertext,’ ‘Changing the cultures of teaching and learning.’
The main themes running through Page to Screen include the debate about the newness of the technology, the need for parents and educators to keep up with the technology, and a shift in our culture. Snyder says, “what is certainly occurring is a change in how we do literacy” (Snyder, xxiii). She is correct. Every chapter in Page to Screen addresses this issue. A cultural shift has occurred and an electronic technological revolution is in progress.
To review Page to Screen I will first summarize the main points of each section and then discuss the weaknesses and strengths found in the book. Page to Screen had a few weak areas. I will concentrate on a lack of discussion of how electronic technology provides an access to power, the lack of conclusive research cited by the authors’, and a chapter topic that does not connect with the ideas and themes running through Page to Screen. I will then discuss three strong arguments in Page to Screen, which are important as a first-year rhetoric graduate student and educator: as a graduate student the background information in the research from the last twenty years, the definitions and explanations of hypertext and email, as an educator the importance of understanding today’s computer game savvy children. But first I will supply a brief summary.
Page to Screen begins with an overview of literacy and technology in the past twenty years. ‘The space of electronic literacies’ provides a platform or framework with which to view literacy and technology today. This section presents a critical overview on research studies and how literacy is influenced by social, political, and cultural changes. These chapters focus on the advent of computers in the classroom, i.e. the impact of word processing programs on student writing, and research studies on first and second language education. It sets up a comparison of what theories were first made about the introduction and use of technology in teaching literacy. Michele Knobel, Colin Lankshear, Elieen Honan, and Jane Crawford have two main points in their chapter: one, the influence communications and information technologies (CITs) have on primary and secondary language education; two, the worry that some educators will view CITs as a magic cure. After reviewing past and ongoing studies, they conclude that even with all of the contradictory evidence, CITs can enhance learning.
The next section ‘Emerging literacies’ “…extends the theoretical boundaries of thinking about new genres, rhetorics and literacies associated with electronic technologies” (Snyder, xxv). This section concentrates on the changes occurring in visual and verbal modes of communication and discusses email and the new computer-enabled media along with the difference between “…these forms of communication and postal mail, telephony and face-to-face communication…” (Snyder, xxv). Gunther Kress explores email as a technical priority or a social priority and the implications of both. Kress also examines the shift that is taking place. In the past writing was the main form of communication; today it is multimedia representation. This shift has social and political ramifications. Kress also addresses the change from narrative to display. He states, “the screen is the new space of representation” (Kress, 72). One of the most important points Charles Moran and Gail Hawisher make is the argument that the World Wide Web is a limited access place. Only 2 percent of the world’s population has access to it. This means that only a few voices are heard. This is important because the Internet is a ‘gated community,’ as Moran and Hawisher refer to it, and not as free as many seem to feel. Nicholas Burbules explores the ethics of links as related to ‘hyperreading.’ Because of the nature of hypertext, we read it in a non-linear fashion and cannot control where the links take us. Our feelings about a topic can change by how we read it. Burbules also uses literary phrases to explain different types of links. An example is synecdoche. He defines it as figurations where part of something is used as short hand for the whole thing. On the web a clustering of related issues through links can influence how a user thinks about a topic.
Hypertext is not a new concept, but ‘The problems and possibilities of hypertext’ section gives a good definition. “Hypertext—a way of communicating text, pictures, film and sound in a nonlinear manner by electronic links—exists only online” (Snyder, xxvi). Ilana Snyder explores the influence of hypertext on education and how educators should use it. She concludes that using hypertext in the classroom is a good thing. Educators can use hypertext to support new theories of reading and writing or to promote the traditional approaches. ‘The problems and possibilities of hypertext’ takes a turn when it looks at how “sociologists who use traditional print but want to express their ideas in truly reflexive and relativists ways” (Snyder, xxvii). But the most important point in this section comes from Michael Joyce. He says that educators need to find a ‘middle voice’ to teach and use hypertext in the classroom. Joyce reflects on distance learning and the virtual classroom. He says, “the computer, like our classrooms, becomes a theatre of our desires as well as of our differences” (Joyce, 164).
The final section of Page to Screen is a look to the future. ‘Changing the cultures of teaching and learning’ homes in on computer games and how they affect literacy. This section also reflects on the cultural shift of how we pass stories from generation to generation. Snyder says, “We do not pass stories down linearly from generation to generation but experience them multiply and simultaneously, across global communication networks” (Snyder, xxviii). The section states that children have learned to live in this new place and are comfortable there; however, parents and educators fear this place. Children are more likely to ‘play’ with a game than learn its rules and structure first. Adults have trouble with this concept. Johndan Johnson-Eilola compares this idea to modernism and postmodernism. Adults want to follow a set structure, which is similar to modernist ideas. However, children are more flexible and want to disregard the rules and structure, which is similar to postmodernist ideas. The section concludes with the idea that computer games are changing the way children learn and process information. The main argument of this section is “…a belief that teachers and educators must confront the articulation of these significant cultural shifts or be further marginalized” (Snyder, xxviii).
While Page to Screen has several themes running through it, Snyder introduces the idea of access to power as a main theme in the introduction. While it is a logical conclusion given the nature of power and the subject matter, only one chapter referenced this idea. Moran and Hawisher discuss the ‘gated community’ idea in relation to the World Wide Web. This is an extremely important idea. But, they only hint at the problem of access. They say that only 2 percent of the world has access to the World Wide Web and discuss the complications of this. This was a fascinating argument, but it was not discussed at length. So, how then can this idea of power through the World Wide Web be a main theme if they are the only ones who explored it?
The first two sections of Page to Screen discuss and summarize important research studies conducted on technology and literacy. In Hawisher and Selfe’s chapter they site a study conducted by Dubrovsky in 1991. Dubrovsky and his colleagues studied four person electronic discussion groups between first-year college students and MBA graduate students. The researchers found that the ‘lower status,’ first-year college students asserted themselves more and influenced the group more in the electronic discussions. This behavior is called the ‘equalisation phenomenon.’ This study is important to literacy educators because it allows all students to participate on equal footing (Hawisher and Selfe, 9). While this was a fascinating study and researchers gained important data, many research studies referenced had inconclusive findings. The authors’ would go on to suggest that obviously more research is needed, but no one ever suggested how or why the other studies didn’t work.
On the other hand, the location of the studies cited was limited. Many are from controlled classrooms, but Australia seems to be a major place to study literacy and electronic technology. While I can see why, it would have been more convincing to have studies from a variety of places. I realize that there may only be a few of such studies, but a disclaimer would have been useful.
The arrangement of the chapters, from past to future, is key to understanding the major themes in Page to Screen. However, in ‘The problems and possibilities of hypertext’ section, the middle chapter seemed out of place. Jane Yellowlees Douglas discusses sociologists and their search for reflexism through hypertext. The subject matter is not closely related to education and literacy in the classroom. It provides a shift in the focus of the book, and the reader has trouble making the connection. So, I have to wonder what was the importance of including this chapter. What ideas did it contribute to Page to Screen?
As a first year graduate student of rhetoric, Page to Screen has provided a window into literacy theory and electronic media. The review of research studies for the past twenty years is an efficient way to bring the reader up to the present day. Hawisher and Selfe review research on the affect of word processors, electronic networks, and hypertext and hypermedia. They answered the question, does a word processing program help a student to write better? They stated that while student produced longer texts and had fewer mechanical errors, the quality of the writing had not changed. Hawisher and Selfe found that computers can change cultural values, but more importantly that computers can maintain cultural values as well. But, these studies indicate that as teachers using email for discussion groups and as supplemental to the classroom, structure is the most important element. How the educator uses email, such as weekly or biweekly occurrence. How ever the technology is incorporated into the classroom it needs to not become the focus of the class, only a supplement to the class work.
The explanations of hypertext and email were informative. Moran and Hawisher discuss privacy issues concerning email and the difference between email and postal mail. Because email can be copied, stored, and retrieved readily it is an easier and faster way to communicate. With the current debates about who has access to your private email account, this chapter brings to light some of the contemporary concerns. Moran and Hawisher also look at the language of email. They state that email is a new medium. It evolved and incorporated all styles of communication, both written and spoken. Since we are still trying to understand the rules of email it makes sense that people are having trouble adjusting to this new medium. Hawisher and Selfe, in the first chapter of Page to Screen, also discuss this idea in a research study that found emails often contain ‘flaming’ or emotionally charged language. The writer seems to lose their inhibitions and sense of audience. Both of these examples point to a lack of language and style conventions for email. This discussion is important because as a first-year rhetoric graduate student we are looking at the changes in communication from an oral tradition to a written one. Email combines both with no apparent rules. This makes it fascinating to explore.
The last section, ‘Changing the cultures of teaching and learning’ was the most informative because it spotlighted the difference between school-age children and educators. Johndan Johnson-Eilola discusses a profound cultural shift. Children growing up with computer games have a different outlook on the world and approach to things. The ‘just play’ mentality is crucial for an educator to understand. These children figure out the rules of a game through trial and error. Johnsan-Eilola provides a dialogue between himself and his 8-year-old daughter Carolyn. He says,
To someone raised in an historical worldview—one valuing linearity, genealogies, tradition, rules—Carolyn’s explanations of the game sound haphazard, unplanned and immature. But to someone familiar with global information spaces such as the World wide Web, games such as these provide environments for learning postmodernist approaches to communication and knowledge: navigation, constructive problem-solving, dynamic goal construction (188).
His most important point for educators is to embrace this new technology and understand it. Otherwise, students will drift away from their teachers. Catherine Beavis says, “The study of electronic games helps [educators] to identify the shifting forms of contemporary narrative, to see how textual forms emerge in the orbit of rapidly evolving technology, and to determine what engagement with texts might mean in a multimedia, multiliterate environment” (Beavis, 252).
Page to Screen provides a quick look at literacy theory for the rank beginner. The prose of the authors’ and approach to the topics is consistently accessible. The themes of newness, shifts in culture, how important it is for educators to stay abreast with the technology are intertwined throughout. There are multiple discussions about hypertext and email and how this new space is changing the way we communicate and form opinions.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The ‘new’ medium concept in Page to Screen is both correct and misleading. All of the authors’ address this issue and I conclude that electronic technology is still a new medium because it is constantly taking on a new form. It changes every day, and that is why educators have to try so hard to keep up with the technology. I was raised with computers and I know that when I try to explain how to use a game or a simple computer program to someone of an older generation I always tell them to ‘just play with it.’ And every time I get a funny look. In the academic world we are continuously revising and rewriting theories. The concept of literacy is no different, so it makes sense that we would have trouble defining it and teaching it with another concept, electronic technology, which is continuously changing as well.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about literacy theory and how educators are grappling with electronic technology. As Snyder stated in her introduction this book was published at a timely period. Everyday the rules change. How are we expected to keep up? Page to Screen offers a little theory for the student and a few pointers for the classroom.