Expanding the Concept of Literacy for New Millennium Learning

by Hap Aziz

In their article “Connecting the Digital Dots: Literacy in the 21st Century,” authors Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan (2006) make the assertion that prior to the 21st century, literacy was largely defined by a person’s ability to read and write (separating the educated from the uneducated), while the rapid introduction of new technologies has changed society such that literacy itself is in the process of developing new meanings that cover the effects of these new technologies.  This understanding that literacy is effected by a society’s level of technology is not new.  Sinatra stated in 1986 that technology and its associated mass media defines the predominant form of literacy in a society (Stokes, 2001).  Clearly, the implication is that as technology changes and becomes more sophisticated, the forms of literacy meant to support our technological endeavors will, by necessity, become able to support that complexity—and it must do so in an efficient way.  Technology turnover means that society no longer has the luxury of lingering on artifacts for years, let alone generations.

There is no dispute or question regarding the pre-21st century definition of literacy.  Stokes cites several definitions from the literature (2001), and a Google search on the term “definition of visual literacy” returns 106,000 hits, with many of the definitions offered on the first few pages corroborating the literature survey performed by Stokes.  I find my thoughts returning to Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan who offer the commentary that the concept of literacy itself must be expanded to beyond that of simply reading and writing in order to properly conceptualize this era of new technologies.  While this reasoning seems appropriate, it certainly begs the question, “why?”  That is, why must the concept of literacy be expanded?  What has happened to society that renders our long-standing definition of literacy inadequate?

There are several key points that can be considered the “game changers” as far as our concept of literacy is concerned.  (It is important to note that when discussing “literacy,” I am specifically speaking of the mechanism to provide education across all subject areas rather than a specific literacy required for a particular subject or topic area; i.e., “gender issues literacy.”)

  • Literacy must be considered a coping mechanism by which we are able to make sense of the current state of civilization, and ultimately thrive within our particular rule set.

What I’m saying here is that literacy is one of the key ways that people are able to understand the world around them and then function successfully in it.  So, for example, in a world heavily reliant on print information, literacy can be thought of as primarily print literacy, which takes us back to a more traditional definition.  This works well up to the point of the early 20th century when much of life resembled what happened in previous generations—and the change elements were easily absorbed by print or one-on-one apprenticeship or tutoring situations.  (The actual shift came with the onset of the Industrial Age, but the industrial advances were not an onslaught of overwhelming changes to lifestyle, simultaneously and from multiple sources.)

  • Literacy is both dependent upon and defined by the current state of communications technology in a society.

Throughout history as populations have grown and societies have become more complex in structure, the methods of bringing youth into adulthood have resulted in changes in literacy mechanisms, though over vast amounts of time.  First there was the oral tradition of literacy where people relied on memory and recitation.  After the invention of the alphabet, literacy largely became dependent upon a person’s ability to code and then decode verbal communications into symbolic-written communications.

In this modern age, people regularly supplement their communications with photographic and videographic materials.  Icons, pictographs, and even more complex video clips are included in lines of communication to convey meaning.  If we look at the explosive growth of electronic communications media such as Facebook and YouTube, it becomes apparent that text-only literacy is insufficient for the information density that is being communicated.  When “a picture is worth a thousand words,” it is exceedingly difficult to tell a story or otherwise convey meaning in short bursts of text without pictorial supplementation.

  • As a result of points 1 and 2 above, literacy has a functional window of opportunity during which time information regarding the surrounding world can be conveyed and must be understood in order to be considered effective.

A key point to consider in any discussion of the transformation of literacy needs into visual literacy needs is that of the amount of information that must be “digested” by a population over a finite span of time.  When societal change was slow (as driven by significant technological changes in the world), the process of information encoding (writing) and information decoding (reading) was not a hindrance to covering the ground that needed to be covered in the allotted amount of time—whether it was a class period or the span of an education career, K-20.  But as technology changes basic operational aspects within society now many times in a single generation, coding and decoding though an alphabet is not adequate—both in regards to available time as well as in regards to complexity of the topic or process being addressed.  Imagine assembling any Lego model through text instructional alone.

Briefly, let’s revisit the idea of the alphabet and its impact on communications, knowledge transfer, and, ultimately, literacy.  The interesting connection here is the alphabet’s connection to and reliance upon available technology.

Prior to the abstract symbols of the alphabet characters, pictograms were used to convey meaning in written format (think of Egyptian hieroglyphs).  These pictographs were time-consuming to produce, and there was not any widespread formal training or universal agreement regarding meaning—being able to read was an artifact of the elite class in a society.  Over time, hieroglyphs gave way to alphabet symbols, and with the advent of the printing press, reading became accessible to those not a part of society’s elite class.

The interesting thing to note is that well before the development of the alphabet—and even before the development of pictorial images dating back to cave paintings—the process of learning was a multimedia activity, largely reliant upon visual literacy.  How does the father teach the son what animal had passed through their path?  It is done by visually recognizing the signs on the trail, the foot prints on the ground, etc.  It certainly wasn’t done by handing the young hunter a book, instructing him how to read, then saying that there would be a test at the end of the week, for example.  In fact, the original methods of teaching and learning have more in common with modern multimedia and visual literacy than they do traditional text literacy.

I would close here with the statement that visual literacy as a component of education is a natural evolution that actually brings us back closer to our natural method of learning.  The invention of the alphabet was an accident of technology that removed us from our multisensory learning style, necessitating a transformation of people into coding-decoding machines.  With the reintroduction of visual (and other!) media back into the educational mix, we will ultimately find that the creation, acquisition, and transfer of knowledge will become easier—more natural—for a wider range of people… not those already predisposed to learning well through reading and writing.


Jone-Kavalier, Barbara R., and Suzanne L. Flannigan. “Stokes, Suzanne. “Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning:.” Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education 1.1. Web. 27 Oct. 2009. .” EDUCAUSE Quarterly 2 (2006). Print.

Stokes, Suzanne. “Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning:.” Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education 1.1. Web. 27 Oct. 2009. <http://online.education.ufl.edu/file.php/3300/stokes.pdf>.


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