New Texts and New Skills for a New Age

Have you watched TV today? Listened to the radio? Read a newspaper or surfed through your favorite Web sites? When you start counting them, we head to an amazing assortment of places in a day for entertainment and information.

A quick look at these places also reveals a lot about how the number of common forms of communication has increased in our society. While in the past print texts were the leading (and often the only) source of information and entertainment, this is no longer true today. Television, the Internet, radio, newspapers, magazines, and novels are all intertwined, often referencing each other, and calling on each other for further information. So this raises the question: why are we still placing print texts on a pedestal in schools, giving them primacy of place and a seeming hegemony on information?

Language Changes

Language changes constantly around us. I challenge you to pick up your copy of Chaucer from college and place it against an Email written by one of your students. Anything look familiar? Lack of punctuation? Strange words? Obscure references? Language is constantly evolving to meet the needs of its users. I would argue that many of the texts we experience online (instant messages, fictional hypertexts) are genuinely new uses of language. They are not just forms from elsewhere placed into the electronic medium, they are a new direction in our language that is defined by certain characteristics.

These changes are forcing texts to become very visual, based upon icons and symbols, with animations, audio, and video becoming as common as alphabetic forms of communication. Continuing this thought is the fact that electronic text documents are often composed of everything other than text. Animations, spreadsheets, slide presentations, video and audio files often are combined in a single space to form a document. This causes "readers" to quickly move between that role and that of "watcher," "listener," and "information analyzer" among others. In this new language colour, style, and layout have become vital. Producing a text has moved towards the realm of design and is not only about writing anymore. This new form of language is also very impermanent and open to quick revision. Most news sites are updated every ten minutes and it is often difficult after several weeks to track down information posted previously; it quickly disappears into cyber black holes.

Electronic Texts

This is the discourse of electronic texts. These texts are very visually based, with written text, video, audio, and animation commonly found in the same space. These spaces are as much about design as content, and are very impermanent.

Over a weeklong period, adults are often called upon to use a variety of texts based in a number of different symbol systems. Print texts such as manuals, letters, newspapers, reports, memos, etc. all float through our work lives. As well, many people spend a large amount of time over a week answering Email, surfing for either information or pleasure, and winding their way through convoluted hypertext documents. Add to this the large number of hours that North Americans tend to spend in front of the television soaking in information, being entertained, and being an audience for advertisers, and we begin to properly place print texts as just one symbol system among many commonly used by adults.

Ignoring Reality

The same is certainly true for our students. Email, music, video, animations, instant messages, and games continuously float through their computers. Television, magazines, and the telephone are a constant media presence in their lives. This is not new and it is not news. I just wonder why our schools still try to ignore this reality? Why do we still force students to interact with print texts to a much larger degree then any other type of document? Why are formal, written essays still the cornerstone of many programs? This is not to say that students should not be interacting with print texts. In fact, I believe, now more then ever, students need a steady diet of high quality print content. But I also believe they need the proper skills to be critical and creative consumers and producers of texts based in any symbol system in common use.

The characteristics of many of these new texts change the skills we should be teaching in our classrooms. Students require reading and writing skills more advanced than in the past to simply understand the issues that are facing our society. Strong reading comprehension and writing skills need to figure prominently in the base of any classroom program.

As consumers of electronic content, our students need to be taught the discourse of this language. For example, have you ever been "lost" online? Seems like we need to be teaching the skills to navigate across broad, poorly charted spaces as well as many of the skills we are used to. If they are able to locate what they are searching for, students need to learn how to "read" electronic text in all its forms. They must be able to quickly move back and forth between information presented in different symbol systems, and be comfortable working with multi-modal texts.

Student Skills

What about the skills needed to collect data? If our students are only working with books, they only need to know how to take notes. But what if they are accessing a series of radio interviews online, or an original documentary film piece? Or an electronic print text with animations used to illustrate a complex process? Will students know what to do with each type of information they find? Will they see the value in each? Are we teaching them that they should be using multiple types of information and that they are all legitimate, but that different skill sets are required for each?

What about the skills required to produce various types of electronic texts? Students need to be able to go far beyond word processing. Mastery of an office suite including presentation, spreadsheet, and database software should be a must for students completing middle school. Beyond this, our students need to be able to produce informative, well-designed web pages with links to outside sources of information. As well, students should be able to use animation software such as Macromedia Flash, image manipulation software such as Adobe Photoshop, and be able to complete basic video editing tasks in order that they understand how to design and present information in multiple forms. We taught students to write formal and persuasive essays in the past; but now that a large amount of information is moving into different symbol systems, should we not be teaching them the basics of these forms of discourse as well?

A recent quote by educator and designer Mark Prensky has stated that students in this age are "digital citizens," who have been constantly surrounded by this medium, while adults are "digital immigrants" who have had to learn these skills and are still often amazed by the ability to casually chat or play a game online with someone from half way around the globe. This is true. Most students, especially those who have steady access to electronic texts at school and at home, will see many of these things as the natural direction that language is heading in society. But we, as the adults who have been entrusted with their education, need to ensure that we fully understand the evolution of our language and its implications so that we ensure our practices reflect the reality seen around us.

Email: Clarence Fisher