Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Is reading on the .net "real reading"?

My colleague Emily sent me a message on Twitter yesterday, asking for my opinion on an article in the New York Times titled "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" It's a big, deep, and broad question with many more aspects than I'll be able to discuss here, but I'll give it my best shot, Emily!

In the concluding chapter of a book I read recently* (and yes, despite the fact that I am a netaholilc, I also read books), the author discussed this very issue. One of her conclusions is that the Internet age is bringing us into a "Secondary Orality", which is to say that communication and interaction with 'text' on the Internet is bringing us back to aspects of the oral culture which preceded our current literate culture. As one of the people interviewed in the Times article said, the 'net is more about conversation than it is about reading. It's just that, in many cases, the conversation takes place in print.

Reading on the 'net is sometimes real reading (I sat down and read a 4 page article from the Times on the 'net, didn't I?) but in many cases it's really more of a discussion. In a discussion, ideas flow quickly in a stream. We don't rest our mind on any of them for long, but rather we allow ourselves to be swept along in the give and take, point and counter-point, tangent and return, fluid experience of words and ideas.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Discussions are wonderful! I thrive on them--both the online and the face-to-face kind--and love the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation with people from many places and perspectives. But it's a bad thing if it completely replaces the quiet, reflective, self-to-text introspection that can only come when one individual sits down to read. As Maryanne Wolf explains in her excellent book, the most important thing that literacy gave us is time to think. Reading is thinking. Discussion is also thinking, but it's not the same kind of thinking. Discussion, in my experience, is usually thinking broadly (many ideas touched on lightly) while reading is thinking deeply (one idea explored thoroughly).

Ultimately, I believe that we need to be able to do both things well to succeed in the modern world. Reading on the 'net is not a substitute for reading books, but it is an important complement to it. I wouldn't give up either for a fist full of greenbacks.


*The book in question is: Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf, Harper: 2007. Learn more about this book on LibraryThing!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wasting Energy

Right up front I'm going to admit that this post has very little to do with technology literacy. But bear with me.

Why is it that as demand for energy grows, prices go up, and the planet suffers from our endless consumption, our country is still fundamentally incompetent when it comes to conservation? On my way to a meeting across town (a sort of one-on-one training about wikis for a colleague) at 9:15 this morning, with the sun blazing down in glorious brilliance, I noticed that all the street lights along this particular stretch of busy city street were also on. What the heck is going on here? How is it that the city of St. Paul cannot time its street lights (or make them light sensitive) such that they turn off during daylight hours? Was this just a random error, or are they on every morning? How much energy is being wasted lighting up streets in broad daylight?

(In case you're wondering, it's not as though the sun had just come up, either. We're in the northern latitudes here. In the summer, sunrise is really early. According to the Weather Channel, sunrise this morning was at 5:50 a.m.)

For all my infatuation with 21st century technology, I believe that technology needs to serve people well, not just look flashy. What good is all our information technology if we can't consistently accomplish even basic tasks, such as turning off the lights in the morning?

Alright, I'm getting down off my soapbox now. Thanks for bearing with me. And turn off the lights when you leave the room, please.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Is McCain out of step with tech savvy senior peers?

Thanks to my ever-so-helpful husband for referring me to this interesting article from CNN.com about how Senator McCain (presumed Republican presidential candidate) compares to other seniors in his Internet use (or lack thereof). To sum up: the Senator admits to being technologically "illiterate" and relying on his wife to help him navigate the Web. The CNN article sites statistics that only 35% of seniors use the Internet, but that 75% of white, college-educated men 65 and over do. If you look at those numbers, McCain looks a little out of step with his peers.

But perhaps things are not quite what they appear. The Senator's aides have clarified that he is capable of getting on the Internet himself and does so several times a week. It seems to me that these statements (1-he's "illiterate" and 2-he accesses the Internet at least once a week) can't both be 100% accurate. Probably Senator McCain feels tech illiterate compared to his tech savvy family and staff, but probably isn't actually so out of touch as the phrase "computer illiterate" would lead people to believe.

Which leads me to think about other senior citizens in our tech saturated world. How many actually know a lot more than they think they know? How many are intimidated by computer technology and feel stupid when comparing themselves to peers they believe are more sophisticated and tech savvy then they? How many lack the confidence to even try to get on the Internet?

It seems to me that Senator McCain has stumbled upon a great teachable moment. He has now, with the media focused on this issue, the opportunity to speak to other American seniors and say, "Look, I didn't grow up with this technology either. It's new and intimidating for me, too. But I'm learning, I'm benefiting from it, and you can too." He has the chance to inspire seniors to learn and grow and take the plunge into the Internet world.

Senator? The class is yours....

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wordle for Fun

The enigmatic title "wordsmith" popped up in my Google reader page today, and intrigued I popped in at Litearcies Cafe to see what they were blogging about. Turns out they were highlighting this fun little tool called Wordle that creates a word cloud from any text you enter.

I pasted the link to my blog and was treated to this "visual interpretation" of my blogging. I have no idea how this might apply to adult literacy programs, but it was fun and took about 3 minutes... so why not?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Will Wikis Take Hold in Adult Literacy Programs?

I, for one, sure hope so. I admit that I'm a geek, but honestly, I love wikis.

My infatuation with wikis is a relatively young love, however. The first time I tried out a wiki, to be honest I really didn't get it. I had no idea how I could apply the technology. I understood the idea of Wikipedia (an encylopedia that anyone can contribute to), but I didn't feel that I had any particular area of expertise to use as the basis of building my own wiki. This line of thinking shows that I had failed to grasp the true essence of wikis: that they are collaborative documents. My problem with understanding wikis was that I kept thinking of starting my wiki. But a wiki is not the product of any one person. It belongs to a group. Of course I had trouble thinking of how to apply the technology--wikis come about because they are useful tools for groups, and I didn't have a group.

But the seed idea of wikis was planted, and it lay dormant in my brain until groups came along that could make use of wikis. Here's a good example: a group of people working on a volunteer outreach project who needed to brainstorm a list of questions for conducting interviews. The group members had trouble getting together in one time and place, but the questions were needed pronto. Solution: a wiki! Each group member could edit the list of questions on the wiki, building on, improving/revising, and adding to the ideas of others. Rather than each person working in isolation, creating a list and emailing it to someone to compile, the group worked collaboratively to create a single product. This system eliminated redundancy, saved time, and ultimately produced a better result than would have been created by people working in isolation.

How do I see wikis working in adult literacy programs? First off, they are a great tool for committees of any kind that need to produce a collaborative work (a curriculum development project, a set of standards, an evaluation rubric, a policy draft, etc.). Secondly, they could be used for teachers to collaborate on lesson planning. As community Web spaces, wikis could be created for teachers working at the same level, where they could upload worksheets and share activity ideas. Lastly, wikis could be created by teachers for their classes, where students could share their ideas and creative work. Do you want your class to create a group project, such as a cookbook or program brochure? Why not use a wiki? Do you want students to read and respond to each other's writing? Build a student writing wiki.

It's important to note that wikis can be either public or private. You might want your students' work to be public, but you might not. Your curriculum development project might need to be private, but perhaps your worksheet/activity sharing space could go public.

How can you get started with wikis? Here are several wiki hosting services that are easy to use, free or low-cost, and produce an attractive, functional site with a minimal amount of effort:




Why not start a wiki with your group and see where it leads you!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

25 Ways to Blog?

Are there really that many different ways to blog? I was unconvinced until I viewed an excellent slide show on http://www.slideshare.net/ called "The 25 Basic Styles of Blogging... and When to Use Each One." Suddenly, my own blogging efforts seem, well... kind of lacking in inspiration. I've got an idea but I'm not sure if I can pull it off: to blog once in each of the 25 styles between now and September 1st. That's 25 posts in about 6 weeks (about 4-5 posts a week). Right now I'm not blogging anywhere near that much. It seems like a good challenge to set for myself, though, so I'm going to give it a shot.

For those of you interested in learning more about different ways to use your blog, take a peek at the slide show!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Learn English with YouTube?

Now I know that many large ABE/ESL programs are part of school districts that block YouTube and other streaming video sites, but what if--bear with me a second here--what if YouTube could actually be educationally useful? I know, I know, schools have all sorts of issues with YouTube--mainly that it eats up bandwidth and contains inappropriate content--but are those issues holding teachers and students back from accessing a potentially powerful learning tool?

The reason I bring this subject up is that I was recently introduced to a website called ESLVideo.com which uses YouTube videos to teach English as a Second Language. Teachers who use the site can choose videos and embed them in interactive quizzes that test students on their comprehension of the video.

Here's an example from the ESLVideos website:

So... YouTube videos for English learners... pretty powerful stuff, no?

But many ABE/ESL teachers won't be able to use this in their classrooms or computer labs, because of school district policies that block streaming video.

As more and more audio, video and photographic media are distributed via the Web, is it possible that ABE/ESL programs are contributing to, rather than working to erode, the digital divide between middle-class mainstream society and more marginalized ABE/ESL students? When we block Facebook, YouTube, chatrooms, etc. (and yes, I know they are blocked for good reasons) in our schools, are we in effect saying "these new technologies are not for you"... since many students only have Web access at school?

It's not a question I have an answer for, but it's one that I think deserves discussion. "Open access" vs. "educational use only" issues have haunted the field of educational technology as long as there has been an educational technology field! But the stakes get higher and higher as our society becomes ever more reliant on technology for meeting everyday needs. Give it some thought and post your answer in a comment!