New-Media Literacies

Don’t be so text-centric; experiment with the media technologies your students use.
By Jason Ohler

Being literate in a real-world sense means being able to read and write using the media forms of the day, whatever they may be. For centuries, consuming and producing words through reading and writing and, to a lesser extent, listening and speaking were sufficient. But because of inexpensive, easy-to-use, and widely available new tools, literacy now requires being conversant with new forms of media as well as text, including sound, graphics, and moving images. In addition, it demands the ability to integrate these new media forms into a single narrative, or “media collage,” such as a Web page, blog, or digital story.

The nature of literacy has changed in another respect as well. Since the advent of the Web, expression has shifted toward including social, rather than strictly individual, kinds of communication. Traditional essays remain vitally important, but they now co-exist with new media within the context of a “social web,” often referred to as Web 2.0, which permits collaborative narrative construction and publication through blogs and services like MySpace, Google Docs, and YouTube.

As our students migrate to new media, we must blend the essential aspects of more traditional media with the offerings of new forms of media. While students may be tech savvy, I have found that they often need help navigating the new-media maze to create narrative that is coherent, relevant, and meaningful, regardless of the media they use. Thus our role as instructors is more important than ever.

From Read-Only to Write-Possible

New media were initially controlled by a handful of technicians, developers, and distributors who could understand or afford them. The rest of us evolved into writers only after the media tools became easy to use, inexpensive, and widely available. Now, however, the lag time between reading and writing media is shrinking dramatically. Some historical perspective is helpful here.

For centuries, a literate elite owned and controlled books and other texts, which were available in “listen-only” format to the illiterate masses. Historically speaking, the idea that everyone should be able to read and write as a foundation of citizenship is rather new and took many centuries to develop.

In contrast, it took roughly a hundred years after the invention of motion pictures and television for moving images to become widely “writable” thanks to the emergence of free, user-friendly software programs like iMovie and MovieMaker. While media creation has become easier, so has media publication and distribution. Video-sharing sites like YouTube have given people everywhere a home for their media collages.

The Web took even less time to go from read-only to writepossible. It began roughly fifteen years ago as a text-based billboard, its contents written by few and read by many. But with the development of social networking tools such as MySpace, Facebook, and numerous blogging services, creating Web narrative is within everyone’s grasp.

Today, with minimal training, the least technical among us can create a basic blog—essentially an interactive Web site—in minutes. With a little experience, we can turn our blogs into media-rich information sources thanks to YouTube, Google Docs, SlideShare, and other services that make it easy for the nontechnician to store or show essays, movies, presentations, and other media. Like print and television, the Web is now ubiquitous, and Web literacy is essential for those who want to be seen as educated and functional in the world of work and personal expression. Additional literacy pressures will certainly arise as new media emerge with ever-shorter “read to write-possible” lag times. It will be up to instructors to find educational uses for new media that support and inform pedagogy and methodology.

Media Collage in University Instruction

Many of today’s university instructors attended school when there was little focus on media beyond text. They are understandably reluctant to require students to develop new-media projects that they are uncomfortable creating or evaluating. In the meantime, students are charging ahead, speaking their own media-based language and trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance caused by the different mediascapes they encounter in and outside school.

If the objective of literacy is to interact and communicate in the real world, then it is in the public’s interest to train instructors in the kinds of new media that are prevalent in the workplace and online social communities. We also need to help instructors understand and apply new media in courses and engage them in developing effective strategies for assessing new-media projects.

Interestingly enough, what instructors typically do not need is sophisticated technology training, because they can depend on today’s students to understand many of the advanced “clicks and tricks” of digital communication. It is more important for instructors to learn how to articulate the nature of quality in the new-media domain and to help students express themselves clearly, regardless of the media used. Instructors also need to be able to organize their students into learning communities so that they can share their talents. In other words, instructors need to be the proverbial guide on the side rather than the technician-magician.

Blogfolios: A Working Example

Blogging has deservedly gained a reputation as the Web 2.0 tool with a thousand and one uses. My experience as a technology instructor in the master’s program for secondary school teachers at the University of Alaska Southeast bears this out. My students, who are preparing to teach subjects from art to physics in public schools, use blogging to develop their portfolios and coordinate the teaching resources they find. In addition, many use it with their own students in their work as teachers.

The master’s program requires two semesters of educational technology. I begin the course series by creating a blog that serves as the class homepage for the year. Students then create their own individual blogs, which are their personal “blogfolios.” The class blog provides access to assignments, resources, and links to students’ blogfolios.

Even though my students are typically in their twenties, with a scattering of older students who are switching professions, many have limited blog experience. Still, most are at home in the digital milieu and adept at picking up digital skills. And because it takes only a few minutes to create a blog, and perhaps another ten to fifteen minutes to grasp its primary features, students who have never blogged before often need no help from me to get up and running.

All the work that students produce during the year is either posted to or cited on their blogfolios. Links typically lead to projects they have posted through free media hosting services. Students are encouraged to visit one another’s blogfolios throughout the year for ideas, inspiration, and conversation.

Blog Management

From a functional perspective, a blog is simply a basic Web-page template for nonprogrammers that can serve multiple purposes. Using blogs successfully in your professional practice depends largely on choosing the appropriate metaphor for your application. Will your blog function as a newsletter? A debating venue? A cooperative research project? The metaphor for my students was a portfolio. As a result, they thought in terms of developing blogs through which they would present themselves professionally to the public. This in turn helped them make decisions about what to post and how much interaction to allow from readers.

Blog writing is different from other kinds of writing. When we encounter an essay on a Web page, it often appears as a wall of text, uninviting to all except the few who are truly inspired by the content. In contrast, blog writing requires a kind of visual rhetoric I call “visually differentiated text.” It uses conventions intended to make on-screen reading easier, most notably the four Bs: bullets, boldface type, breaks, and beginnings. That is, students must visually sculpt blog writing. There are many other techniques to differentiate text visually beyond the four Bs. Some, such as the judicious use of color and paragraph titles, are quite simple, while others, like inserting callout text in boxes, require programming skills.

Both essay and blog writing are important. For that reason, they should complement rather than conflict with one another. Writers can develop longer arguments in essays, while blog writing requires synthesis and brevity—writing a bullet that hangs in midair, for example, demands clear, sparse writing. And while only instructors may read student essays, the public reads blogs. For my students, the public may be a potential employer. Thus the pressure is on for them to be brief, clear, and concise.

Blogfolio Content

During the course of a year, the students in our master’s program post assigned projects on or through their blogfolios. Here is an example.

For an energy self-study, all the students, regardless of academic area, examine some aspect of their energy consumption to determine how lifestyle choices affect energy use. Projects usually address a particular question, such as, How much gasoline would I save if I rode my bike to work one day a week? or, How much energy would I save if I switched from incandescent to energy-efficient light bulbs? The main blogfolio posting describes the project and reflects on the value of the assignment. Within the posting are links to the artifacts they create, which include the following:

  • Lifestyle spreadsheet. After collecting data about their energy consumption, students use a spreadsheet to determine how they can reduce energy use by playing “what if?” with their lifestyles. Many use Google’s mini-application spreadsheet to post, modify, and even create documents compatible with Microsoft Excel. (“Mini applications” are small programs or utilities that perform limited functions, and they are widely available and free.) Students who create traditional reports that include graphs typically convert them to Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files and post them on sites like SlideShare and Google Docs, which allow free PDF posting.
  • Presentation slideshow. Students create a slideshow, typically using Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote, to show their research process, from initial question to findings to call for further study. They post it on one of the free services available for hosting slideshows and link to it from their blogs.
  • Recorded presentation of findings. Students record themselves presenting their results, usually with their slide presentations running behind them. Afterward, they assess themselves as presenters, the way athletes and performance artists use recorded performances to improve their craft. They post their presentations on a free videohosting service, like YouTube or TeacherTube, often with limited viewing access.

The value of the assignment is multifaceted. It models crosscurricular education by calling oneach student, regardless of academic  area, to use the scientific process and basic math to evaluate an issue appropriate for a social studies curriculum. In addition, it models the use of authentic, project-based learning by requiring students to respond to an issue of personal and global importance using technology effectively.

The use of blogfolios permits the students to share their work with a larger instructional community, allowing others to benefit from their units of instruction and research results. The assignment also models the use of self-assessment, a concept the students can use later in their own teaching. In the process of pursuing these valuable pedagogical goals, students are also learning the skills and perspectives needed to be Web-savvy educators.

Media Presentations

Students are required to create two media-collage presentations as part of their educational technology training. Using some blend of audio, video, text, and images, students develop an introduction describing themselves and their educational philosophy, mostly aimed at potential employers. They also construct a digital documentary that tells a personal or academic story. Artifacts generated for this project include the following:

  • Written reflection. The students write about the nature and value of the project, as well as the benefits and limitations of using new media in their professional practices. They post their assessments on their blogfolios.
  • Completed media. The students post their media collages on YouTube, TeacherTube, or another suitable video-posting service and link to them from within their blog reflections.
  • Planning documents and reports. The students post any research reports, story maps, scripts, and storyboards they use or develop on their blogfolios or through a posting service accessible through links embedded in their blogfolios.
  • Assessment rubric. Students develop a rubric for assessing new media based on what they have learned through the assignment. Most post the rubrics using a service like Google Docs and link to it from within their written reflections. This was an important part of the assignment, because most of my students had received a traditional education that had not prepared them to evaluate media beyond text.

By the end of the year, students have created a multimedia portfolio—a new-media collage— that integrates traditional and emerging literacies and refers to activities they can use in their own classrooms. Most important, they have created a portfolio that others, particularly potential employers, will actually read. Most K–12 hiring teams expect incoming instructors to have a good grasp of technology as a teaching and learning tool. A blogfolio greatly helps them examine a potential employee’s abilities in this area.

Making the Shift

Because of space constraints, this article could not address several issues that might be considered when shifting to blogfolios and new media. These include media production values and media grammar—the effective use of media in communication—and planning and project assessment, in particular the effective creation of story maps, story boards, scripts, and other planning artifacts that aid in production and evaluation. Another issue is practical, namely, whether to rely on institutional blogging capabilities or something more public, like one of the many blogging services available on the Web. Numerous resources on the Web can help instructors examine topics like these.

For now, let me stress that in the world of blogfolios and media collages, the instructor’s role is to be a guide, not a technical expert. Students will figure out the keystrokes on their own. They need instructors to articulate quality standards and provide effective feedback that will allow them to meet those standards. My advice to instructors venturing into the digital domain is to explain to students what you expect in terms of voice, clarity, and scholarship and enjoy your education as you watch digital-age students familiarize you with the inner workings of a world that you experience mostly as a reader, not a writer.

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast. Ohler also teaches in the media psychology program at Fielding Graduate University. His e-mail address is jasonohler@gmail.com.


Examples of Student Work

Students work on their blog portfolios throughout the masters program, adding to them as experiences compel and course activities dictate. Each blog responds to a number of assignments, including resource assessment, creating media and materials for academic purposes, and participating in virtual professional communities. Check out this year’s class blog, but bear in mind that while the site is open to the public, it has been created for students who understand its purpose and structure.

Student blogfolios are linked on the right hand side of the class blog, or you can look at the blogfolios created by the students listed below in order to gain an idea of the breadth of portfolio development and utility. Student blogfolios do not need to be completed until Fall, 2009, so in most cases you will be viewing works in progress.

Bethany Waggoner (art): http://bethanywaggoner.blogspot.com/
Renee Moseng (math and science): http://reneemat.blogspot.com/
Ann Stone (language arts): http://amstone13.blogspot.com/
Ben Milano (social studies): http://milanoteach.blogspot.com/
Paul Haag, math, http://teacher-paul.blogspot.com/

Issues Involved with New Media Narrative

Overall Assessment Strategies

Instructors who are not used to creating new media have a difficult time assessing media created by others. And without a practical, meaningful way to assess it, they are understandably reluctant to require students to develop it as part of a course curriculum.

Over the years I have helped many instructors explore and develop new media assessment strategies. Typically they develop assessment traits that are both personal and professional, speaking to both their emerging understanding of how new media works, as well as their desire to retain familiar approaches to assessment. Visit my Web site for a discussion of many new media assessment traits developed by transitioning faculty.

Media Grammar

An instructive place to start the journey into media assessment is by using “media grammar for non-technicians.” Media grammar addresses grammatical infractions that impede clear communication in a media production – think of them as new media’s “the run-ons, fragments, and dangling modifiers.” One does not need to be technology savvy to see them and provide helpful feedback about them. Read more about media grammar and assessment on my Web site.

Comments:

I completely relate to this article because I use many of the same assignment parameters and tools.  Graduating seniors and lower level  students are  better prepared to attain competitive jobs and internships because of their in class room technology training and application with me.  I recently gave some commentary on the notion of the "Gutenberg Moment"; we are in the midst of transition like the one we experienced many years with the discovery and progression of the printing press and now, we need to embrace the tools that are available to us to develop our assignments making them richer, more professional and collaborative in nature.

I appreciate the support as there is still much resistance to this transition, but articles like this keep the momentum!

Thanks,
Suzanne

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