Posted by: Ellie Kutz | March 26, 2012

How the Web Has Changed Literacy and Learning

John Seely Brown was one of the first to see the web as a “transformative medium for social practices” and to explore how the characteristics of the web as a medium of communication would affect learning and learners. What’s different about the web as a medium, according to Brown?

  • It easily supports two- way communication vs. more typically one way communication of print or even of older audio-visual media such as movies or television.
  • It typically draws on multiple intelligences, “abstract, visual, musical, social, and kinesthetic.”
  • It can link the efforts of many people ( who needn’t be in the same physical space) in a common project.

Brown and his colleagues invited 15 year old digital learners to participate as researchers at Xerox’s research center, and identified, through observations of their work, some dimensional shifts in their literacy practices. For these digital learners, they found:

  • Literacy involves image and screen literacy: “The ability to ‘read’ multimedia texts and to feel comfortable with new, multiple-media genres.”
  • “The new literacy, beyond text and image, is one of information navigation. The real literacy of tomorrow entails the ability to be your own personal reference librarian—to know how to navigate through confusing, complex information spaces and feel comfortable doing so. ‘Navigation’ may well be the main form of literacy of the 21st century.”
  • Learning involves a shift from learning in an authority-based, lecture oriented environment to learning that is “discovery-based”– e.g. web surfing for both entertainment and information.
  • Learning is active, involving mucking about vs. being told, and requires making good judgments as you find what you need and build on it.
  • Learning has a social as well as a cognitive dimension.

In his essay, Brown reminds us that knowledge is created in communities where participants share both explicit knowledge (knowing what—key concepts, facts, and theories) and tacit knowledge (knowing how—how to shape an interesting question, offer convincing proof ) and that people learn the latter from being immersed in a community of practice (a community whose participants are involved in a shared knowledge-creating enterprise) and coming to understand its ways of seeing, interpreting, and acting. The role of members in such a community is both collaborative and participatory and outsiders can become insiders over time by gradually taking on a larger role (moving from lurking to participating in online forums, for example).

One example that Brown offers of such a knowledge-creating community is one formed by repair reps at Xerox, who, in discussing repair problems, kept adding fragments to an evolving process. This “multi-person storytelling process” was augmented with a web-based platform for peer review, so that the stories could be refined and connected to other stories to create a repository of relevant knowledge. Many such knowledge-creating communities now exist in both professional and educational contexts. But Brown also saw the virtual communities that were starting to emerge on the web around areas of shared interest as offering a model for what learning communities might look like in the future—communities where participants would be both consumers and producers of knowledge, interact with many others, and not bounded by physical proximity. Brown anticipated a.shift from using technology to support the individual to using technology to support relationships between individuals and thus to support social learning and even a general culture of learning.

Since Brown wrote his essay, the Web has continued to evolve in the ways he identified and to become an increasingly social environment, while we’ve come to recognize some of the new literacy practices that learners draw on and need, both outside and inside the classroom. But while Brown envisioned a world of virtual communities rich in knowledge-sharing,  the developers of Blackboard and similar systems for higher education were focused on “learning management.”  We might ask, then, ” How are our faculty creating effective online learning communities within that platform,  involving the participants, our students, in a knowledge-sharing enterprise?”


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