Literacy in a Digital World (Book Review)

Book by Kathleen Tyner is First to Outline Media Literacy in U.S. Educational Context

Flipping back through the pages of Kathleen Tyner's new book, Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information, I am amazed at how many of the pages are filled with my underlining, marginal notes and stars marking significant paragraphs. Reading it was like engaging in a rich and fluent conversation with one of the U.S. media literacy movement's finest thinkers. I learned a lot from the hours I spent in her literary spell.

The book is really two books in one. The first half explores the history of literacy, (primarily, of course, print literacy) back to medieval times. Although there are many insights and fascinating historical twists and turns, it comes close to erring through excess by giving us more than we want, or need, to know.

But don't be put off. When you get to the heart of the book (chapters 7 - 10), the historical review justifies itself and clearly provides a firm foundation on which to evaluate current attempts in the 1990s to establish and integrate a new vision of literacy – across the curriculum in schools throughout the U.S. Indeed, until now, the only theoretical books about the field have come from England or Europe. Literacy in a Digital World is the first book to deal comprehensively with the struggle to establish media literacy in the unique context of the U.S. educational scene.

And Tyner articulates this struggle brilliantly, exploring and teasing out many of the issues the rest of us so often gloss over in our efforts to describe the obvious-to-us importance of media literacy education.

Patiently, but with a firm hand, she starts in chapter six to distinguish between "tool literacies" (computer, network and technology) and "literacies of representation" (information, visual and media), noting that the latter "have the potential to build on an already familiar alphabetic literacy foundation in schooling. Whereas educators may need special training to use new technologies, they are secure in their ability to explicate texts with students." (p. 92)

"I'm grateful to the author for giving me a whole new vocabulary to describe the kind of hands-on, learning-centered, interdisciplinary and collaborative learning opportunities that I have long recognized as the only way to encourage students to think for themselves."

HOW this is done in the classroom provides the opportunity to discuss U.S. efforts compared to media education in Canada, England and other countries. In chapter seven, which she titles, "Treading Water: Media Education in the U.S.," she makes a critical observation: "In typical determinist fashion, U.S. media education has focused on the MEDIA of media education . . . in contrast, the emphasis of international educators is on the EDUCATION component."

Thus Tyner establishes the ground for a critical and valuable discussion of the "deficit" model of media education (in which media experience – especially by children – is seen primarily as problematic, even harmful) versus an "acquisitive" model, which focuses on the positive aspects of information acquisition for teaching and learning. Those who are active in media literacy will recognize this as another way to frame the debate between "protectionism" against "offensive" media and an inquiry-based education which leads to the critical autonomy so cogently described by Len Masterman in his seminal Teaching the Media (1985).

"Living in a Digital World contains concrete examples of media teaching, interviews with practitioners, cutting-edge uses of technology in education, and practical solution to the challenges of new media and its uses in a culturally diverse society."

Despite Tyner's challenge that the U.S. is just "treading water," the remaining three chapters are, I believe, full of hope and promise. Chapter 8 – "Moving Toward an Acquisition Model of Media Education" and Chapter 9 – "Representing Diversity – Media Analysis in Practice" are filled with creative models of effective teaching and learning including arts-based approaches and what is now called "constructivist" learning or "cognitive apprenticeships." As the author explains: "Constructivist education recognizes that meaning is not fixed, but that people produce their own meaning from a wide range of contexts, a form of knowledge construction." (p. 198)

These terms are new one even for me and I'm grateful to the author for giving me a whole new vocabulary to describe the kind of hands-on, learning-centered, interdisciplinary and collaborative learning opportunities that I have long recognized as the only way to encourage students to think for themselves.

But there's even more good news in Chapter 10 – "Toward an Interactive Education." Indeed this chapter alone justifies a copy of the book on every educator's shelf. Here, at last, is a comprehensive 16-page summary of the acclaimed "Viewing and Representing Strands of the K-12 Language Arts Essential Knowledge and Skills" from the state of Texas, plus the shorter "Information Media and Technology" standards from the Minneapolis public schools. These exemplary models of media education, both many years in development, are quickly establishing a vision of media education that represents the BEST of what the field has to offer young people growing up in today's media culture. "Teaching and learning in an age of information can be at its most liberating when literacy, technology and pedagogy are aligned toward a common purpose: a democratic education that improves the life chances of all children." (p. 196)

"As someone who has labored in the media literacy vineyard for over 20 years, I believe the very publication of this book is proof positive that a U.S. movement exists and that it is alive and well."

In many private and public conversations with the author, I have heard her challenge the assertion that there is a media literacy "movement" in the U.S. Of course it all depends on what one means by "movement" but as someone who has labored in the media literacy vineyard for over 20 years, I believe the very publication of this book is proof positive that a U.S. movement exists and that it is alive and well. Admittedly, media education has only penetrated perhaps five percent of U.S. classrooms but compared to 10 years ago when the phrase "media literacy" drew blank stares, the field is coming along.

Two things are required to propel any social/educational movement forward: a critical mass of professional practitioners who turn the wheels day after day and a vigorous engine of discourse and analysis that links theory and practice. With the publication of Literacy in a Digital World, Kathleen Tyner has given us not just a critique of the past but a vision of the future. Together they provide an invaluable bridge over which we can all travel to the next millenium.

From the book's back cover description:

"Kathleen Tyner examines the tenets of literacy through an historical lens to demonstrate how new communication technologies are resisted and accepted over time. She also examines the juncture between educational technology and media education, two broad movements that aim at improving education.

 
Author:

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).