This is a very long post.

What do we need to talk about?

  1. Memory is unreliable and we can and do make it up as we go.
  2. Because of this we can help people who have been in great trauma . . . We can also worry about how this might otherwise be used.
  3. When we talk about memory and moral decision making, it is important that we have community that reinforces dialog and other perspectives.
  4. How this relates to schools and education
  5. Community takes time, patience, openness, dedicated space, and a willingness to move beyond the superficial– a willingness to understand before one seeks to be understood.
  6. Popular culture can be easily dismissed, as well as the young people who participate in it, but we are missing out on a chance to broaden and deepen and share our values when we withdraw and demonize.
  7. These all lead to your task to inductively form a view.
  8. You will find mine at the end.

So here we go.

What if games, or even a drug can change your memory of a situation?

With games, or virtual reality in this post, they are used with a qualified physician to treat PTSD, but many kids play games and participate in violent media with no oversight.

But first things first, games can be used for relief of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

According to the DSM IV:

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (DSM-4) is caused by traumatic events that are outside the range of usual human experiences such as military combat, violent personal assault, being kidnapped or taken hostage, terrorist attack, torture, incarceration as a prisoner of war, natural or man-made disasters, automobile accidents, or being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

According to the NIMH (National Institutes on Mental Health), PTSD  is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.  More about PTSD »

Signs & Symptoms

People with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to. They may experience sleep problems, feel detached or numb, or be easily startled. More about Signs & Symptoms »

Oddly, many, and I might say a lot of,  video games have violent content where you are directly in the fray–that is if you have suspended disbelief,  and really begun to invest cognitive and affective focus into the game and the outcomes.

Maybe it is ironical– yes I did say ironical and spell check said it was a word–that games can be used in this way.


Games have been used for phobias and other psychological treatments like arachnophobia and there are papers on this if you search. Here is one.

Memory is plastic and malleable like silly putty,

and oddly silly putty is the same color as your brain.

The idea that we slowly reacquaint and work through the trauma makes a bit of sense with some of the research that has been going on since Loftus investigated false memories. In a classic 1978 study led by Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist then at the University of Washington, researchers showed college students a series of color photographs depicting an accident in which a red Datsun car knocks down a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The students answered various questions, some of which were intentionally misleading. For instance, even though the photographs had shown the Datsun at a stop sign, the researchers asked some of the students, “Did another car pass the red Datsun while it was stopped at the yield sign?”

Later the researchers asked all the students what they had seen—a stop sign or yield sign? Students who’d been asked a misleading question were more likely to give an incorrect answer than the other students.

One of the scientists who has done the most to illuminate the way memory works on the microscopic scale is Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York City. In five decades of research, Kandel has shown how short-term memories—those lasting a few minutes—involve relatively quick and simple chemical changes to the synapse that make it work more efficiently. Kandel, who won a share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, found that to build a memory that lasts hours, days or years, neurons must manufacture new proteins and expand the docks, as it were, to make the neurotransmitter traffic run more efficiently. Long-term memories must literally be built into the brain’s synapses. Kandel and other neuroscientists have generally assumed that once a memory is constructed, it is stable and can’t easily be undone. Or, as they put it, the memory is “consolidated.”

According to this view, the brain’s memory system works something like a pen and notebook. For a brief time before the ink dries, it’s possible to smudge what’s written. But after the memory is consolidated, it changes very little. Sure, memories may fade over the years like an old letter (or even go up in flames if Alzheimer’s disease strikes), but under ordinary circumstances the content of the memory stays the same, no matter how many times it’s taken out and read. Nader would challenge this idea.

In what turned out to be a defining moment in his early career, Nader attended a lecture that Kandel gave at New York University about how memories are recorded. Nader got to wondering about what happens when a memory is recalled. Work with rodents dating back to the 1960s didn’t jibe with the consolidation theory. Researchers had found that a memory could be weakened if they gave an animal an electric shock or a drug that interferes with a particular neurotransmitter just after they prompted the animal to recall the memory. This suggested that memories were vulnerable to disruption even after they had been consolidated.

To think of it another way, the work suggested that filing an old memory away for long-term storage after it had been recalled was surprisingly similar to creating it the first time. Both building a new memory and tucking away an old one presumably involved building proteins at the synapse. The researchers had named that process “reconsolidation.” But others, including some prominent memory experts, had trouble replicating those findings in their own laboratories, so the idea wasn’t pursued.

So how about talk therapy, and how about exposure in multimodal settings that call up these memories? How about this idea of Virtual Reality for PSTD?

In a way it scares me what technology like this can do now that we may be getting a sense of how memory, even long-term memory, may be more plastic than we want –Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, or Bladerunner anybody?

I know, Nader is talking about traumatic situations, but what happens when we water-board confessions and use institutional pressures on kids and families?


Then again, according to the liberally quoted Smithsonian article here, editing might be another way to learn from experience. If fond memories of an early love weren’t tempered by the knowledge of a disastrous breakup, or if recollections of difficult times weren’t offset by knowledge that things worked out in the end, we might not reap the benefits of these hard-earned life lessons. Perhaps it’s better if we can rewrite our memories every time we recall them. Nader suggests that reconsolidation may be the brain’s mechanism for recasting old memories in the light of everything that has happened since. In other words, it just might be what keeps us from living in the past– a survival mechanism.

But what if we can reshape memory and reduce trauma that has symptoms like:

  • persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal
  • feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to.
  • They may experience sleep problems, feel detached or numb, or be easily startled.

The idea seems appealing, but it scares me to think what may be coming out of Pandora’s X Box here.

I am all for relieving people of PTSD, but I am fascinated,  and maybe a bit disturbed,  by the potential other uses of this technology and science.

The research on memory just described begins to explain to some degree how a virtual environment can be used to MAKE UP SOMEONES MIND.

The following bit of text describes a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder using a virtual environment.

Developed by Virtually Better, with funding from the Naval Research Office, “Virtual Iraq” VR environment suitable for therapy of anxiety disorders resulting from the high-stress environment. The treatment involves exposing the patient to a virtual environment containing the feared situation rather than taking the patient into the actual environment or having the patient imagine the stimulus. The virtual environment is controlled by the therapist through a computer keyboard ensuring full control of the exposure to the programmed situations.

The system designed to treat military veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Using components from the popular game Full Spectrum Warrior, psychologist Skip Rizzo and his colleagues introduce the patient to a virtual world simulating the sources of combat stress. The treatment objective is to help veterans come to terms with what they’ve experienced in places like Iraq and Afghanistan by immersing vets in the sights and sounds of those theaters of battle, including visual and sound effects of of gunshots. Virtual reality exposure treatment allows the therapist to manipulate situations to best suit the individual patient during a standard therapy hour (usually 45-50 minutes) and within the confines of the therapist’s office. By gradually re-introducing the patients to the experiences that triggered the trauma, the memory becomes tolerable. Early results from trials suggest virtual reality therapy is uniquely suited to a generation raised on video games.

According to Veterans Today:

During testimony on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other personality disorders affecting U.S. military veterans before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs way back on July 25, 2007, Dr. Sally Satel of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) noted that VA disability determinations for PTSD needed to be tightened up to a take the emphasis off monetary compensation, in the same breath, she promoted ‘virtual reality war simulations’ mentioning Virtual Iraq, as state of the art treatment for PTSD. That was 2007 during the Bush administration, and in just three years during the Obama administration the Pentagon is now promoting it as state of the art treatment for PTSD!

Her intent was commendable, for she promotes catching PTSD in its early stages while still on active duty could prevent Veterans from a lifetime of dependency on VA compensation for PTSD. She also noted that, “A point worth raising here is the importance of qualified staffing at VA mental health facilities. Anecdotal reports suggest that many [VA] facilities do not have adequate numbers of clinicians who can perform cognitive-behavioral therapies. This is a deficit that must be addressed.”


Footnote 12 in her testimony to Congress on the treatment of PTSD was that “A specific form of exposure-desensitization therapy under development is called “Virtual Iraq.” Studies are in progress. The therapy was developed with funding from the Naval Research Office and is considered promising. The veteran [really active duty Soldier or Marine] wears a virtual-reality helmet and goggles and headphones. A therapist manipulates virtual situations via a keyboard to best suit the individual patient during 45-50 minute sessions. By gradually re-introducing the patients to the experiences that triggered the trauma, the memory becomes tolerable and feelings of panic no longer accompany once-feared situations (such a driving on city streets, being in crowds)., accessed July 21, 2007.

Veterans Today expressed concern about this method because of the implied cost savings that might be inherent in having soldiers participate in a virtual world rather than have a qualified, interested person to help. Having the new tool should not replace human interaction, but rather provide a medium that extends and facilitates. For those for whom talk therapy is not as effective because they have difficulty visualizing or using imagination, this virtual environment can be tremendously useful and alleviate suffering.

But the technology should not be a prescription without human community. It is evidently very effective.

Veterans Today Editorial Revision: Of note I have spoken to a young Air Force Mental Health Clinician who has told me that at least for him the treatment has had a positive impact. He was a ground troop in the Army in Iraq prior to getting his commission as a Psychologist in the Air Force. We have discussed his situation as being traumatized when he returned by feelings of panic as he drove the streets back home fearing IEDs. He once avoided being in a crowd for fear of suicide bombers. His experience with Virtual Iraq took away some of his feelings of anxiety and panic. Thus, we are not totally ignoring the positive effect virtual reality may be for a few of our troops coming forth to admit PTSD. This approach does have the positive aspect of trying to break down the stigma associated with going to the Mental Health clinics on Army and Marine base.

According to  USC’s Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, the founder of ‘Virtual Iraq’ presented his study on psychotherapy and stroke rehabilitation using video games and related technologies, such as virtual reality (VR). Dr. Rizzo presented three therapeutic areas he was working in at the time as part of the Games For Health day held at the University of Southern California [USC] on May 9th,  Serious Games promoting an entertainment video game convention called Games For Health 2006: Addressing PTSD, Psychotherapy & Stroke Rehabilitation with Games & Game Technologies.

Expose, Distract, and Motivate

The three main strategies Dr. Rizzo was using, he abbreviated as Expose, Distract and Motivate. To develop the therapeutic Virtual Reality (VR) systems he talked about, Dr. Rizzo worked with a host of other collaborators from different departments at USC, including among others Computer Science, Neuroscience, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, Department of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, Department of Occupational Sciences, USC Keck School of Medicine, Department of Psychology, School of Gerontology & Neurology, Department of Cell and Neurobiology and also the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

According to Veteran’s Today;

The therapeutic approach Dr. Rizzo’s project took used gradual exposure to trauma in a manageable way, which eventually led to habituation and extinction of the PTSD syndrome. Does this mean that Dr. Rizzo has stumbled upon a cure for PTSD?

Normally, about 75% of soldiers will begin to display PTSD symptoms within about six months. With traditional [VIETNAM ERA] therapy, this is reduced to about 67%. But with exposure therapy, this can be reduced to only 27%.

“We normally rely on a patient’s imagination – what is called ‘imaginal therapy’, but we know we can provide the exposure to them through game environments,” said Rizzo. Problems with imaginal therapy include patients being unwilling or unable to visualize effectively or avoidance of the reminders of the trauma. When a patient can’t emotionally engage through imagination, it is unlikely that imaginal therapy will be effective.

Dr. Rizzo then mentioned several virtual tools, such as Virtual Vietnam from Emory University, as well as several others including a World Trade Center simulation from Cornell. Showing images from the Virtual Vietnam simulation, which depicts realistic scenes typical of that conflict; Dr. Rizzo cited a 1998 study that found, even 20 years after the events, that symptoms of sufferers of PTSD were reduced by 34 percent, while patients engaged in self-assessment though their symptoms saw reductions of 45 percent.

These are powerful outcomes, and also speak to concerns that I have as a parent, educator, and cognitive researcher — with the huge numbers of people playing games and having this gradual and in-depth exposure, who is there to model, guide, and share the experience with young people as they play games that are not meant for them. This does provide some leverage to those who say that games can lead to desensitization. There are groups, and have been, like the defunct Media and the Family, who believe that violent games need to be banned.

According to, Anti-violent-video-game activists believe the Virginia Tech massacre is proof that we need to ban violent video games.

In the article they say,

But let’s not forget that most of the horrific events in world history were committed before there ever were video games. Millions of kids play violent video games every day, but random school shootings are extremely rare. If anything, Cho killed not because he played fantasy video games, but because he was inspired by the real-life Columbine shooting. Real life events are far more influential motivators of human behavior than imaginary ones. Cho obviously knew an awful lot about Columbine and felt justified committing a similar action. He probably planned the attack for the Columbine anniversary, April 20, but for whatever reasons, couldn’t wait another few days. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebald, the Columbine killers, killed because they knew about Hitler, whose birthday – April 20 – was the day they staged their massacre. Similarly, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombers, killed because they knew about the actions of Hitler. Their bombing took place one day shy of Hitler’s birthday. If we are to get rid of violent video games as a way of reducing violence, we should get rid of all violent news and history as well. Or perhaps we should delete the month of April from the calendar.

I agree with this take, but I am not so free and breezy.

With media and life experience, people need fellowship to talk about and make sense of their experience, and maybe even bounce ideas off of each other. That is part of the virtual reality intervention.

Where is the community and fellowship?

The folks involved in many violent actions against unsuspecting victims have often saturated their experience with inundations of bad behavior and justification for the violent act they are about to commit. The young men who directed the attack on the World Trade Center had evidently immersed themselves in the kind of lifestyles, pornography etc., that might have made their actions seem justified; as a moral act ridding the world of degenerative  American liberties.  The MYTH of  America as Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboim.  These cities names have become synonymous with impenitent sin, and their fall with a proverbial manifestation of God’s wrath. Cf.Jude 1:7, Qur’an(S15)Al-Hijr:72-73.  were destroyed by “brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”[Gen 19:24-25]. With the available choice for immorality, we allow for immorality, but hope that no one get’s hurt even if we don’t approve. That is the paradox of liberty–maybe?

But also, these terrorists, let’s not call them misunderstood, were also told that their acts would forgive them for their debauchery and actions–but again, was there any community to question these, their acts of debauchery leading up to their demise? Did their act lead to ascension and the fulfillment of receiving 72 virgins–although, nothing in the Koran specifically states that the faithful are allotted 72 virgins apiece. For this elaboration we turn to the hadith, traditional sayings traced with varying degrees of credibility to Muhammad. Hadith number 2,562 in the collection known as the Sunan al-Tirmidhi says, “The least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby.”

Now more than ever, community is important.

In a recent post by blogger, the Shifted Librarian, Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gad­get was reviewed and a few key issues about how technology is locking us down. One of Lanier’s con­cerns is how deci­sions made in the design of our dig­i­tal tools lock us in to behav­iors that reduce — and even remove — our human­ity.

The context of the blog post I am drawing from was not meant to support the argument that floats as a sub-text in this post–that we may be getting closer to understanding the way we make moral decisions and judgment from prior experience, memory, and my own concern:

that somehow science and technology are going to somehow fill the gap for parenting, friendship, guidance in human relations, health care, business management decisions,  and education.

Isn’t this kind of the same promise Hadith number 2,562 makes to the terrorist?

When we remove ourselves from humanity, it makes it easier to generate stereotype, assign blame, and be less troubled with really understanding that there might be a real problem we could address and solve.

It seems the further away the decision maker is from the point of implementation, the less likely they are to understand the real implications of the reduction of one-to-one, or one-to-many, face-to-face, interactions that are not locked down by the constraints of the medium through which those people are attempting to experience.

I am an advocate for games, and I am also an advocate for spending more time with your children and friends who play them –that is spending time away from the game system to talk about the values they hold, the experiences they had in the game, and the realities and importance of life in community where people gather in public spaces.

To do that, the adults in our community must be willing to spend that time with children and neighbors and talk about the experience.

TIME folks, shared time.

In one example, I was speaking in front of group of over 300 people (at a university) on how games would make the University Obsolete (provocative on purpose).

A hand went up and a professor I personally knew told me with disgust,

“I will not expose my son to this shit!” referring to video games.

I asked her, do you tell your son he is not allowed to play video games?

She said yes.

I asked if his friends played games.

She said yes.

I asked if he ever went to their houses.

She said yes.

I asked her, do you want to give up your opportunity to share experience with your son with media he is interested in, and share values?

She sat down.

By making this completely forbidden, she had taken herself out of the conversation about values and the content in the games.

We cannot do that as community members, because as the research is showing, reconsolidating experience as memory changes memory.

Who do you want “making up your kids minds?”

I think this is also what we call parenting and raising young–talking and sharing values through shared experience.

This does not show up on a test score by the way.

I understand the need to protect young people from inappropriate media and content — I did not let M-rated games in my classroom–but I was familiar with many of them and could talk about them with the students.

I want to know what they are doing and who they are–and good teachers, friends, and parents do this.

In the first games project we engaged with in 2004, I had placed 3 young women in a randomized cooperative group in my classroom with a young man who had brought Mortal Combat.

This game, one of the reasons the ESRB was established:

” One of the reasons the ESRB was founded was due to violent content found in video games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, and Doom, as well as other controversial video games portraying overly violent or intense sexual situations at the time.”

The girls were really turned off, even though this was a Teen game for 13+, and I had High School Seniors at the time (seventeen-eighteen).

But what was interesting was the report they gave on how women were portrayed in the game when I encouraged them to do a Feminist analysis:

  • Few women
  • Not dressed for battle, but for the libido of young men
  • smaller weapons
  • could not hit as hard for damage
  • could hit more and had greater dexterity

Great you say? So what. . .

But this led into a constructed controversy activity where we questioned whether representation of women in this form influences the way we see women in society, and the way young women see themselves and come to build perceptions of self-worth.

Half the class believed that media representation of women did actually influence how young women see themselves, and the other half said that it was just a game.

I asked them to prepare 10 talking-points to support their positions for debate, when they were done, I asked them to project and list 10 talking-points for what they thought the opposing side would list as their positions.

Then I flung them a twist, I made them argue for the opposite side.

Kids said that this was one of the best activities that they had been part of during all their years at Roosevelt– I took that as a great compliment because there were some really great teachers there.

We can structure engagement, and young people really do want to talk about these things and they really are interested in education — relevant education and issues.

(you can read this to get principles for designing a classroom to do what I did, and this to understand how I used games for language arts curriculum)

Public Engagement in Digital Spaces

I am not sure that we can have a real public engagement in a digital space. We can try through communities like WoW etc., but what makes that whole argument silly has been my own experience watching groups who have played WoW for extended periods of time make an effort to actually meet other players in their guilds and interact person to person. I make sure to introduce myself to Facebook friends at conferences even though we may have an online history, I find it more satisfying to shake hands and share a moment.

Last year at the Games in Education Conference, a number of WoW players got together who had hours and hours of time shared in digital space, but they still made a trip to New York from Oregon, Pennsylvania, etc.

It was fun to share with them and participate in the interaction knowing this back-story at dinner.

Only Connect —

E. M. Forrester said:

” Only connect! … Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

I think we do connect online, but not in the same way–at least not until computers can distribute pheromones and people post their real pictures at online dating portals!

No, I do not think the digital games offer the degrees of freedom that actual contact and real play (maybe throwing a Frisbee) does.

Plato discusses public spaces in the Republic as the foundation for democracy and meritocracies–but maybe this is not enough.

I say this because Jim Gee makes a case for this with Affinity Groups and games as the ultimate meritocracy are based upon skills and activity, and this is why people gather, and this is easily achieved in these online environments.

But skills aren’t what it is all about. In the words of Napolean Dynamite,

“You know, like nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.”

People acquire skills to build connections to other people.

I know that Jim (if you are reading this Jim, feel free to straighten me out here) does not believe that WoW is a replacement for actual interpersonal interaction, and that we cannot always be in competition for merit and entitlement.

That approach is contrary to his position especially as it relates to the overemphasis in schools with the ridiculous focus on assessment.

Even Diane Ravitch, who advocated for the emphasis on testing has changed directions based on evidence showing that,

knowing that their students would be tested and that the results would be used to evaluate which schools would be rewarded, educators began teaching to the tests, at the expense of sound curriculum. But educational testing, Ravitch shows, is inexact, roughly the way public opinion polling is. Far from holding schools accountable, testing resulted in massive cynicism. Meanwhile the level of education received by many students remained “disastrously low.” Ravitch points to a 2009 study sponsored by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago showing that the increases in the performance of the city’s eighth graders in math and reading were due mostly to changes in testing procedures, and that in any case such gains evaporated by the time those students reached high school.

Ravitch advocates for a national curriculum — maybe this is a good idea AS LONG AS WE ARE TALKING ABOUT METHODS, and not content — Hello Texas School Board.

To extricate this whole issue of community and MAKING UP OUR MINDS

Hannah Arendtsays that we must move beyond “the state of appearance” we often share in public.

There are three features of the public sphere and of the sphere of politics in general that are central to Arendt’s conception of citizenship. These are, first, its artificial or constructed quality; second, its spatial quality; and, third, the distinction between public and private interests.

The following is excerpted from Plato online:

As regards the first feature, Arendt always stressed the artificiality of public life and of political activities in general, the fact that they are man-made and constructed rather than natural or given. She regarded this artificiality as something to be celebrated rather than deplored. Politics for her was not the result of some natural predisposition, or the realization of the inherent traits of human nature. Rather, it was a cultural achievement of the first order, enabling individuals to transcend the necessities of life and to fashion a world within which free political action and discourse could flourish.

The stress on the artificiality of politics has a number of important consequences. For example, Arendt emphasized that the principle of political equality does not rest on a theory of natural rights or on some natural condition that precedes the constitution of the political realm. Rather, it is an attribute of citizenship which individuals acquire upon entering the public realm and which can secured only by democratic political institutions.

Another consequence of Arendt’s stress on the artificiality of political life is evident in her rejection of all neo-romantic appeals to the volk and to ethnic identity as the basis for political community. She maintained that one’s ethnic, religious, or racial identity was irrelevant to one’s identity as a citizen, and that it should never be made the basis of membership in a political community.

Arendt’s emphasis on the formal qualities of citizenship made her position rather distant from those advocates of participation in the 1960’s who saw it in terms of recapturing a sense of intimacy, of warmth and authenticity. For Arendt political participation was important because it permitted the establishment of relations of civility and solidarity among citizens. She claimed that the ties of intimacy and warmth can never become political since they represent psychological substitutes for the loss of the common world. The only truly political ties are those of civic friendship and solidarity, since they make political demands and preserve reference to the world. For Arendt, therefore, the danger of trying to recapture the sense of intimacy and warmth, of authenticity and communal feelings is that one loses the public values of impartiality, civic friendship, and solidarity.

The second feature stressed by Arendt has to do with the spatial quality of public life, with the fact that political activities are located in a public space where citizens are able to meet one another, exchange their opinions and debate their differences, and search for some collective solution to their problems. Politics, for Arendt, is a matter of people sharing a common world and a common space of appearance so that public concerns can emerge and be articulated from different perspectives. In her view, it is not enough to have a collection of private individuals voting separately and anonymously according to their private opinions. Rather, these individuals must be able to see and talk to one another in public, to meet in a public-political space, so that their differences as well as their commonalities can emerge and become the subject of democratic debate.

This notion of a common public space helps us to understand how political opinions can be formed which are neither reducible to private, idiosyncratic preferences, on the one hand, nor to a unanimous collective opinion, on the other. Arendt herself distrusted the term “public opinion,” since it suggested the mindless unanimity of mass society. In her view representative opinions could arise only when citizens actually confronted one another in a public space, so that they could examine an issue from a number of different perspectives, modify their views, and enlarge their standpoint to incorporate that of others. Political opinions, she claimed, can never be formed in private; rather, they are formed, tested, and enlarged only within a public context of argumentation and debate.

Another implication of Arendt’s stress on the spatial quality of politics has to do with the question of how a collection of distinct individuals can be united to form a political community. For Arendt the unity that may be achieved in a political community is neither the result of religious or ethnic affinity, not the expression of some common value system. Rather, the unity in question can be attained by sharing a public space and a set of political institutions, and engaging in the practices and activities which are characteristic of that space and those institutions.

A further implication of Arendt’s conception of the spatial quality of politics is that since politics is a public activity, one cannot be part of it without in some sense being present in a public space. To be engaged in politics means actively participating in the various public forums where the decisions affecting one’s community are taken. Arendt’s insistence on the importance of direct participation in politics is thus based on the idea that, since politics is something that needs a worldly location and can only happen in a public space, then if one is not present in such a space one is simply not engaged in politics.

This public or world-centered conception of politics lies also at the basis of the third feature stressed by Arendt, the distinction between public and private interests. According to Arendt, political activity is not a means to an end, but an end in itself; one does not engage in political action to promote one’s welfare, but to realize the principles intrinsic to political life, such as freedom, equality, justice, and solidarity. In a late essay entitled “Public Rights and Private Interests” (PRPI) Arendt discusses the difference between one’s life as an individual and one’s life as a citizen, between the life spent on one’s own and the life spent in common with others. She argues that our public interest as citizens is quite distinct from our private interest as individuals. The public interest is not the sum of private interests, nor their highest common denominator, nor even the total of enlightened self-interests. In fact, it has little to do with our private interests, since it concerns the world that lies beyond the self, that was there before our birth and that will be there after our death, a world that finds embodiment in activities and institutions with their own intrinsic purposes which might often be at odds with our short-term and private interests. The public interest refers, therefore, to the interests of a public world which we share as citizens and which we can pursue and enjoy only by going beyond our private self-interest

I taught with games in public schools beginning in 2004, and found that young people gather together to talk about them and it is a form of social capital.

Kids who don’t have experience with games are often outcast, or hopefully have some other activity that they can socialize around.

Games and media are important to kids, just like guys talk sports, or outboard motors, and women talk shopping–sorry to stereotype–kids talk about the activities they value and build identities and social groups around them.

My fear is that adults, educators, and members of the community will, or have  withdrawn from learning and experiencing these games and popular culture dismissing it as lowbrow and simpleton.

But I dare you Dostoevskians to play Bio Shock. These games are not easy, and oddly enough they are in many cases transmedial extensions of classical narratives.

I had a student tell me that Sonic the Hedgehog was like Odysseus, ” He was just trying to get home.”

I loved that one!

Through the act of diminishing the role that these games have in people’s lives, we lose the ability to share and transfer our values.

What right do we have in judging the new media and activities, when we ourselves, have withdrawn with disdain and contempt?

The new groups surrounding  these media do not know you are gone first off, and we are missing out in stretching our own values.

Back to memory

What if evidence of what we thought we saw, believed to be true, and often fight for,  might be a memory that we hoped really happened?

We have always really known this, Lenin once said

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.

What do we keep telling ourselves in isolation?

Perhaps it should be obvious, but the kids who played games with their parents, in my studies, were better at the games, had a greater range of strategy and ability in decision making, had advanced help-seeking behaviors, and had clearly been parented.

They were also what I would call, more grounded. Unflappable, less likely to be set off, and less needy seeming.

These kids also did better in adjusting to conflict, making and keeping friends, and scoring in academics in general.

Those who had game systems, but did not show the characteristics mentioned above tended towards very simple games that were more about aiming, shooting, driving, and timing.

Most did not describe much parental involvement in their lives.

They also had difficulty with reading and decision making, and had been removed from class for disruption, in some cases.

A game system, like a television, radio, or any cultural artifact needs to be talked about and shared–how about a family activity?

Given all of this, the simple message should be ~ we need to talk about this.

What do we need to talk about?

  1. Memory is unreliable and we can make it up as we go
  2. Because of this we can help people who have been in great trauma . . . We can also worry about how this might otherwise be used.
  3. When we talk about memory and moral decision making, it is important that we have community.
  4. Community takes time, dedicated space, and a willingness to move beyond the superficial.
  5. Popular culture can be easily dismissed, as well as the young people who participate in it, but we are missing out on a chance to broaden and deepen and share our values when we withdraw and demonize.

The American Heart Association has teamed up with Nintendo of America to promote physically active play as part of a healthy lifestyle. They believe that  active-play video games are a great option for the entire family to incorporate more exercise into their day and spend quality time together.  I have to agree that active play is great for getting the blood pumping, but let’s get serious about which games are going to get the heart really pumping!

At least it will get people together, maybe get them to stand up like many of the advertisements show — I am sorry to be so cynical here, but hey, I was part of a research program that gave away 30 X Boxes with DDR pads and software,  only to find that the kids were happy to play Halo and other games that had nothing to do with the high impact activities like jumping to increase bone density and reduce their teen obesity, in fact exacerbating the problem.

Yes, there are an abundance of obese tweens, ages 8-14 years, and during this time,  it is a special period of growth where bone density growth is exponential. Read Dance Dance Education to learn more about this– or just consider 8-10 minutes of jumping a day.

What happened in the bone density study was that many of the kids really wanted to have the reputation of being gamers, but did not follow through.

Most kids say they are gamers, but they are not.

Read the article Reading Comprehension as a Submedial Trait, and you may find like I did, that most kids are not very good at games. They can learn on the fly, like we all can with casual games like the Wii and easy stuff like party games, but most could not figure out a complex game–only one student in 12 was able to get in the airlock in the game Metroid Prime in an after school games club, even though these kids said they were avid gamers (Dubbels, 2008).

That whole idea of kids are natural gamers and digital natives is hooey. Without a support network, interest, and reinforcement, which is pointed out in the Dance Dance Education article, most kids just use the social capital of knowledge to make friendships and cool groups, and hardly ever have to prove anything but a desire and enjoyment of playing– few ever really get their immigration papers to digital nation.

But I digress, the Wii is just the sort of system that allows for the kind of casual video game play that does not place high cognitive demand on decision making or knowledge seeking behaviors. It might get people out of their chairs and at least interacting with a thing like virtual tennis or bowling (which is quite fun) and maybe even Snow Boarding — which is a blast.

This would be a great step forward as compared to flipping and settling on a rerun of Law and Order. I know, I know, cynical again, but after teaching with games in the classroom for 7 years, you might be too. Games just do not do much teaching beyond the simple mechanics that move the player forward in the game unless the individual is playing a great variety of games and is participating in the secondary knowledge market of games like guides, play groups, fan fiction, and franchised narratives and accessories with lots of modeling from more experienced problem solvers. We have always known this about learning, that is why kids learn from what they see us do, not from what we tell them to do.

And please don’t think games don’t have potential. They have lot’s of potential–much more than books in many  respects, but books will not and should not be replaced by games in the classroom, and teachers will not be either (obvious subtext). I know everyone wants to get on the games bandwagon and proclaim them the great potential classroom tools they are, just like they did the radio in the 20’s, the film in the 50’s, etc. (Cuban, 1994).

Challenging complex games create challenge and opportunity for complex thinking.

But without the correct pedagogy, games are just entertainment that may inspire learning, but may not create any meaningful transfer to skills and decision making that improve the quality of life.

I have used many simple games to do this, but the game will not do it alone — parents need to model behavior, just like I had to create inquiry frameworks to create cognitive growth when we studied games at school. It is the same with this endorsement of the Wii by the American Heart Association. Do not expect to get a work out playing Mario Galaxy, as great a game as it is.

The American Heart Association recommends that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Children and adolescents should do 60 minutes or more per day of aerobic physical activity. Nearly 70 percent of Americans are not reaching these goals. Buying a video game will not change poor lifestyle choices like deep fried pork rinds washed down with a coke for a pre-dinner snack and an evening of couch coma kung fu with a Wii a nun chuk.

I’m just sayin’

For immediate release Contact:  Chuck Weber

(847) 705-1802,

News from American Pain Society’s 29th Annual Scientific Conference

Video Games and Virtual Reality Experiences Prove Helpful as Pain Relievers in Children and Adults

BALTIMORE, MD, May 6, 2010 – When children and adults with acute and chronic pain become immersed in video game action, they receive some analgesic benefit, and pain researchers presenting at the American Pain Society’s ( annual scientific meeting here today reported that virtual reality is proving to be effective in reducing anxiety and acute pain caused by painful medical procedures and could be useful for treating chronic pain.

“Virtual reality produces a modulating effect that is endogenous, so the analgesic influence is not simply a result of distraction but may also impact how the brain responds to painful stimuli,” said Jeffrey I. Gold, Ph.D., associate professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California and director of the Pediatric Pain Management Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. “The focus is drawn to the game not the pain or the medical procedure, while the virtual reality experience engages visual and other senses.”

While moderating a symposium entitled “Virtual Reality and Pain Management,” Dr. Gold noted that the exact mechanistic/neurobiological basis responsible for the VR analgesic effect of video games is unknown, but a likely explanation is the immersive, attention-grabbing, multi-sensory and gaming nature of VR.  These aspects of VR may produce an endogenous modulatory effect, which involves a network of higher cortical (e.g., anterior cingulate cortex) and subcortical (e.g., the amygdale, hypothalamus) regions known to be associated with attention, distraction and emotion.  Studies measuring the benefit of virtual reality pain management, therefore, have employed experimental pain stimuli, such as thermal pain and cold pressure tests, to turn pain responses on and off as subjects participate in virtual reality experiences.

“In my current NIH-funded study, I am using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the effects of VR on experimental pain,” Dr. Gold explained.  “The objective is to measure the cortical regions of interest involved in VR, while exposing the participant to video racing games with and without experimental pain stimuli.”

Lynnda M. Dahlquist, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, reviewed her most recent laboratory research studies

examining the use of virtual reality and other computer/videogame technologies to provide distraction-based acute pain management.

The use of video games and virtual reality distraction (VRD) technology for procedural pain management in both pre-schoolers and elementary to middle school children, reported Dr. Dahlquist, yielded promising results in increasing pain tolerance “with potentially significant future clinical applications for more effective pain reduction techniques for youth with chronic and acute pain.  However, more research is needed to know for certain if there is real world VRD application in such pain-generating procedures as cleansing wounds, cancer treatment, immunization, injections and burn care.”

Children interacting with a virtual environment by watching video games demonstrated a small pain tolerance improvement during exposure to ice cold water stimulation, according to Dr. Dahlquist, but she recorded significantly greater pain tolerance for kids wearing specially-equipped video helmets when they actually interacted with the virtual environment.

“Our aim is to know what about VRD makes it effective in pain tolerance lab studies with children and what are the best ways to use it for optimum results,” explained Dr. Dahlquist, noting that any distraction is better than none at all in pain minimization.  “Is it just the amazing graphics in the video games or is it because youngsters are truly more distracted through their direct interaction with the virtual environment?”

VRD’s impact on pain tolerance levels varied by children’s ages, indicating that age may influence how effective video game interaction will be.  “We must better understand at what ages VRD provides the greatest benefit in moderating acute pain and at what age, if any, that it can be too much or be limiting.”

In one study using video helmets for virtual environment interactivity, the special equipment had little positive impact with children ages six to ten, but for those over ten years of age, “there was a much longer tolerance of the pain of the cold water exposure, leading us to further study to determine what aspect or aspects of cognitive development and neurological function account for this difference among youth.

“Having dealt clinically for more than 15 years with children with acute and chronic illness,” Dr. Dahlquist summed up, “my genuine hope is that virtual reality activity can alleviate the anxiety of approaching pain and the pain experience itself.”

About the American Pain Society

Based in Glenview, Ill., the American Pain Society (APS) is a multidisciplinary community that brings together a diverse group of scientists, clinicians and other professionals to increase the knowledge of pain and transform public policy and clinical practice to reduce pain-related suffering.  APS was founded in 1978 with 510 charter members.  From the outset, the group was conceived as a multidisciplinary organization.  APS has enjoyed solid growth since its early days and today has approximately 3,200 members.  The Board of Directors includes physicians, nurses, psychologists, basic scientists, pharmacists, policy analysts and more.

# # #

Technology and Literacy

Current and Emerging Practices with Student 2.0 and Beyond

David G. O’Brien Brock Dubbels

as pdf

From Literacy Instruction for Adolescents: Research-Based Practice.
Edited by Karen D. Wood and William E. Blanton.
Copyright 2009 by The Guilford Press.
All rights reserved.

Guiding Questions

  1. What technology tools and Web 2.0 applications are important for literacy learning
  2. What are the best practices involving technology and literacies
  3. How can instruction in the classroom and curriculum be enhanced by using new and  evolving technologies that support digital literacy practices?

This chapter provides an overview of evolving research and theoretical frameworks on technologies and literacy, particularly digital technologies, with implications for adolescents’ literacy engagement. We suggest future directions for engaging students with technology and provide resources that support sound practices.

Evolving Research on Digital Technologies:
From Frameworks to Best Practice

When Kamil, Intrator, and Kim (2000) tackled a synthesis of research on technologies and literacy, they termed the task a conundrum. Given the rapidly evolving landscape of various technologies, that review, now dated (as this chapter soon will be), is still insightful both in reviewing a diversity of topics and the evolving importance of each. For example, at the turn of the decade, these researchers gave us historical footing in matters such as how computers and software may be used to improve reading and writing (Kamil, 1982), and to motivate learners (Hague & Mason, 1986). They noted the rising significance  of hypertext and hypermedia, and foreshadowed the explosion of interest in the intersection of traditional literacies and digital media, which, at the turn of the decade, comprised a new program of inquiry (Reinking, McKenna, Labbo, & Kieffer, 1998). Finally, they also highlighted the social and collaborative importance of students working on stand-alone computers or in collaborative network environments, cited the paucity of research overall
on technologies and literacy, and expressed optimism about the future of computers as instructional tools.

In the same volume that featured the synthesis by as Kamil, Intrator, and Kim, Leu (2000) used the phrase “literacy as technological deixis” (p. 745) to refer to the constantly changing nature of literacy due to rapidly morphing technologies. Leu’s characterization is crucial, because he posits that these literacies are moving targets, evolving too rapidly to be adequately studied. If best practices rest on a solid research foundation, then, in the case of technologies and literacy we haven’t even begun to know what best practices are. Nevertheless, even in the midst of a shallow bed of “empirical” studies—that is, studies of specific effects, over time, with statistical power, or studies of carefully described and documented, contextualized practices—compelling frameworks have emerged, with implications for how technologies enable new literacy practices. Best practices, if based on solid frameworks rather than a carefully focused research program, can be extrapolated from the frameworks and be the basis for sound instruction and curriculum planning. In this chapter we bridge some of these frameworks with instructional practice.

The relatively brief evolution of technologies and literacy has led us from computers and software as self-contained instructional platforms to a networked virtual world that computers enable. In the past 10 years or so, we have moved from viewing the Web as primarily a source of information and as a sort of dynamic hypertext with increasingly sophisticated search engines, to Web 2.0. Albeit a fuzzy term that has accrued definitions ranging from simply a new attitude about the old Web to a host of perspectives about a completely new Web, Web 2.0 presents exciting possibilities for enhancing instruction and learning. This new Web is an open environment with virtual applications; it is more dependent on people than on hardware; it more participatory than a one-sided flow of information (e.g., blogging, wikis, social networks); it is more responsive to our needs (e.g., mapping a route to a previously unknown destination). Perhaps most important, Web 2.0 is more open to sharing of ideas, media, and even computer code (Miller, 2005). The presence of Web 2.0 is about the World Wide Web (WWW) as a platform for production. Software that users would normally purchase and install from a disk or download is now hosted on the Internet. In a sense, Web 2.0 affords anyone access to the largest stage yet conceived. Educationally, it has the potential to diminish the broadcast mode of information transmission that has reduced individual interests and engagement. Instead, learners can now have at their disposal studio-quality tools that enhance production, appreciation, recognition, and performance, and above all, provide access to a worldwide audience.

Whereas research on computers and reading and writing has remained sparse, research on the myriad literacy practices involved in the Web 2.0 phenomenon is sparse but growing rapidly and is informed by many theoretical frames and fields, most of which overlap—for example, multiliteracies (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; New London Group, 1996), new literacies and new literacy studies (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2008; Kist, 2005; Knobel & Lankshear, 2007), media studies and new media studies (Hobbs, 2007; Kress, 2003), and critical media literacy and popular culture (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Beach & O’Brien, 2008), to name a few.

Each of these frameworks has its own dynamics for describing and studying literacy practices, and each is inextricably intertwined with other frameworks. In the rapidly emerging research base, most of the designs are highly contextualized and theoretically tantalizing, but few studies are gauged to identify specific generalizable practices. For example, the studies designed around some of the aforementioned frameworks vary in terms of methodology (spanning the full range of human and cognitive sciences); they vary in terms of which data are collected, which settings (physical and virtual) are studied, and how learners are defined (e.g., as information processors, real selves, virtual selves, identity constructors). Hence, we can present here only a small sampling and complement the descriptions with some “best practice” exemplars, reminding readers of the caveat that “research-based” practices represent glimpses or snapshots taken along the rapidly moving field.

Reader and Writer 2.0: New Literates and New Literacies

What is important about technologies and literacies, especially when considering adolescents? What should we cull from the myriad evolving frameworks and perspectives to be able to present something useful for teachers and learners at this point in time given this rapidly changing texture. First, we want to present the adolescent learner, the person we call Student 2.0, starting with a vignette.

High school students in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis,posted photos on Facebook revealing themselves partying with alcohol, in violation of school rules. Following an investigation by school officials, disciplinary action was taken against 13 students. Students who believed that that the administration went too far walked out of school in protest; some of the parents threatened legal action (Xiong & Relerford, 2008). Scholars of digitally mediated popular culture challenged theadults, parents and school officials alike, to evaluate more critically what had happened: High school students felt a compelling need to express themselves as digital authors and document a relatively common practice, partying with alcohol. And issuing sanctions assumes that the practice had not been widespread before it was expressed publicly on Facebook. Prosecution of the rule offenders would only serve to remind the documentors to be more careful. The new media scholars also reminded the youth as authors to consider more carefully their audience in the future. When you post on Facebook, you create for everyone, including school administrators and parents. Some students who were interviewed on television reacted to the disciplinary measures by saying that their rights to free speech were violated, that the school administrators had no jurisdiction, because the activities happened off of school grounds. Others went back to Facebook to start a new group page to defend their actions.

The Eden Prairie incident, albeit intriguing as a local interest piece about controversial legal and ethical issues regarding the Web 2.0, illustrates the trend of online content creation among youth. Rather than just use the Web to locate information, students are involved in content creation, that continues to grow, with 64% of online “teenagers” ages 12 to 17 engaging in at least one type of content creation, up from 57% of online teens in 2004 (Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith, 2007). In this national survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 55% of online teens ages 12–17 say that they have
created a profile on a social networking site, such as Facebook or MySpace, and 47% of online teens claim to have uploaded photos where others can see them. Even though those students posting online photos sometimes restrict access, they expect feedback. Nearly 9 out of 10 teens who post photos online (89%) say that people comment on their postings at least some of the time. The number of teen bloggers nearly doubled from 2004 to 2006, with girls leading boys in blogging, and the younger, upcoming girls more likely to outblog The important issue for teachers is that these student authors are composing in a visual mode and reading comments printed in response; their peer readers (who are also most likely composers) are increasingly “reading” images and composing text responses or print messages in blogs and expecting critical responses. In short, students increasingly seem to engage in the
types of reading and writing they either don’t engage in, or don’t prefer, at school.

Experienced teachers can remember when stand-alone computers were going to revolutionize education; they can recall when the Internet was a cumbersome, text-based environment rather than an engaging graphical environment called the WWW. Those of us who, as literacy educators, have spent our careers studying how young people interact with printed texts are now faced with a new landscape that renders many of our theoretical models, instructional frameworks, and “best” practices based on these print models inadequate or even obsolete. Print text remains important but, as noted, expression is increasingly multimodal (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001). Reading and writing youth are increasingly likely to express ideas using different semiotic modes, including print, visual, and audio modes, and to create hybrid texts that defy typical associations between modes and what they traditionally represent.

When David worked with struggling readers in a high school Literacy Lab, the students, many of whom did not choose to read and write using print, wrote complex multimodal texts on a range of topics. They were very articulate about the affordances of various modes, and how those affordances influenced their choices in composition. For example, one group of students working a project exploring the impact of violence in the medion in adolescents, decided when to use images instead of print to communicate their ideas more effectively and passionately. They carefully planned how to juxtapose images and print to convey meaning. What would traditionally have been termed a “report” was instead a mul- timedia project, which they presented to parents and others at the school Open House evening. Brock has created a game studies unit, in which students study the qualities of their video games and create a technical document called a Walk- through using blogs, a wiki, video, and an animated slide show embedded into the blog. Students could read, compare, and evaluate other students’ work. Brock used an RSS feed (really simple syndication, a feed link to syndicated content) and had the blogs collected with bloglines, a way to both aggregate the student work and provide social networking through the WWW-based platforms and the comment sections for students.

From these two examples, you can see that the reading and composition enabled by these digital technologies is spatial rather than linear. Linearity has been replaced by reading and writing in virtual textual space—where a hot link lures the reader away from one page and on to the next, and from print to images and video, deeper and deeper into one’s unique textual experience, and writers can post, broadcast, and receive responses. Scholars are already starting to look at the new spatial and temporal dimensions of digital literacies, as well as the compatibilities and incompatibilities of these dimensions
with traditional spatial and temporal dimensions of schools (Leander, 2007). Researchers are also studying new literacy environments such as web pages using research paradigms derived from reading print on paper—for example, Coiro and Dobler’s (2007) work extending traditional comprehension theories to study online reading comprehension. Coiro and Dobler argue that although we know a lot about the reading strategies that skilled readers use to understand print in linear formats, we know little about the proficiencies needed to comprehend text in “electronic” environments. McEneaney (2006) cogently argues that the traditional theoretical frameworks, including so-called “interactive theories” (from cognitive or transactional perspectives) are too strongly based in a traditional notion of print to be useful. With what are the new literates interacting? McEneaney contends that the text can “act on” the environment: The text can create the reader, just as the reader through the dynamics of online environments, can create or change the text.

But the new literates also encounter new challenges. The new textual spatiality lacks the kinesthetic texture of books; readers lose their “places” and even the ability to feel the touch of the page as they do when they flip paper pages back, then reorient themselves on the page (Evans & Po, 2007). The feel of the text is replaced by the feel of a finger on a mouse or a key. The imaging that helps a reader maintain and access the previous page might be replaced by multiple mental images of more rapidly changing texts, or mental images replaced by actual images. What Evans and Po call the fluidity of the digital or electronic texts invites readers to alter the text more readily, more easily. We come full circle with a tension faced by readers of the digital texts. On the one hand, this text fluidity begs readers to alter texts, to pick alternative texts, and to mix and match texts; on the other hand, this new textuality, with texts unfolding at every mouse click, places the text itself more in the control of the reader. The text the reader creates, often unwittingly via a series of clicks or cuts and pastes, may address the reader/writer in unexpected ways. One of the most exciting prospects for educators is the unlimited range of texts, from traditional print modes to various hybrids, including print texts, visual texts, audio texts, and even various types of performance texts that students can now create, as they themselves are “created” or changed by those texts. The new literates can navigate through a collage of print, images, videos, and sounds, choosing and juxtaposing modalities, and bending old spatial and temporal constraints to communicate to peers and to others throughout the world.

Beach and O’Brien (2008), in drawing from both the philosophy of mind and neuroscience (e.g., Clark, 2003; Restak, 2003) propose that the students of the “digital generation” have more digitally adept brains; they read and write differently than youth from even 10 years ago, because their existence
in the mediasphere, the barrage of multimodal information they encounter daily, the constant availability of multiple tech tools at their fingertips, and the convergence enabling immediate use and production of media have changed the way they process multimedially. Prensky (2001) has posited a similar scenario. The Beach and O’Brien proposal (2008), in response to a Kaiser Family Foundation study (Foehr, 2006) of young people ages 8–18 and widely disseminated in the popular press, shows that even though the total amount of time devoted to media use remains about the same as 5 years ago (6.5
hours a day), the amount of time devoted to multitasking, using multiple forms of media concurrently (e.g., surfing the Web while listening to an MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (MP3) and checking text messages), is on the rise. Beach and O’Brien (2008) contend that multitasking is not accurate, because it implies the ability to engage in several activities at the same time or, more accurately,to switch attention rapidly among activities to gain efficiency in completing work. They instead characterized this often seamless juggling as multimediating (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003), because it more accurately involves not only multimodal attention shifts but also seems to include a new facility and flexibility in processing and producing multimodal texts. The missing piece in characterizing the new literates is that we continue to appraise them using outdated models of reading, text processing, and learning. Instead, we need
to think of them as more adept at using technologies to read, compose, and “socialize.”

Texts 2.0: From the Page to the Screen

Let us revisit the question posed in the last section—What is important about technologies and literacies?—and this time consider the evolving kinds of texts that youth are reading and writing. Again, we have to choose among compelling frameworks and perspectives. One salient issue surrounding the
evolving technologies is how the notion of “text” is changing. We are “moving from the page to the screen” (Kress, 2003). Kress notes that the screen privileges images. He also makes a case for the ambiguity of images and the necessity of print text for helping the viewer understand context and make a
directed interpretation of images. As educators, we have to concede that texts are increasingly multimodal (Jewitt & Kress, 2003). In multimodal reading and composing, ideas and concepts are represented with print texts, visual texts (photographs, video, animations), audio texts (music, audio narration, sound effects), and even dramatic or other artistic performances (drama, dance, spoken-word) (O’Brien & Scharber, 2008).

A second change is the increasing popularity of hybrid texts that are unlike most of the longer, connected discourse with which many of us grew up. For example, textoids are on the rise. These texts were originally defined as specially created research texts that lacked the coherence and structure of naturally occurring texts from typical genres (Graesser, Millis, & Zwaan, 1997) or contrived instructional texts (Pearson, 2004). Ironically, these once- contrived texts are ubiquitous in online environments. The term textoids now refers to fleeting texts that are transported from one place to another and are constantly changing (e.g., Wikipedia entries, pasted into a student’s report and edited to fit into the new textual context); they are also textual bursts of information sent to cell phones as text messages. Short textoids or text bursts are displacing longer discourse as readers expect more choices in accessing information and entertainment faster in quick clicks. At the same time, the sheer number and range of genres of these textoids, the juxtaposition of textoids with other media, and the retention of the more traditional, longer discourse, makes reading in online text environments more challenging than reading in traditional print environments.

The typical ways of describing and distinguishing texts from one another, such as using text structure, no longer apply (McEneaney, 2006). Electronic texts defy such classification, because they may be short and contrived to produce a targeted burst to get attention (the textoids); they are not linear but
spatial (hypertexts, hypermedia). Single textoids or pages or articles are linear, but they exist in virtual space, with a multitude of other possible texts. In short, the texts have virtual structure that is much more dynamic than static structures assigned to single print texts.

Present Technology Tools and Web 2.0 Applications

As we noted, Web 2.0 tools are about production, and they are hosted on the Web to enable a range of activities. As the access to bandwidth increases, and computers are equipped with greater image/video processing capacity, these tools will become invaluable in engaging youth. Young people will use these tools not only to develop literacy and numeracy skills but also to continue to hone their technological skills in the production, communication networking, data mining, and problem solving that are increasingly valued in the global economy. In the past, many of the tools now available as Web-based tools were expensive, limited to single machines, and difficult to use. These same tools, such as word processing, multimedia production, and network communications tools are now free, shareable, collaborative, and perceived as both meaningful and enjoyable by young people. Moreover, the tools are
part of young people’s daily lives. In addition, the personal electronics that many young people carry in their pockets, backpacks, and purses are more powerful than the computers that inhabited labs not even 5 years ago. With the advent of new applications and relatively cheap storage on the Web, these portable devices neither perform the bulk of processing nor store the outputs of processing; they are access devices—Web portals, with small screens and keyboards or other ways to input data. For example if you want to work with pictures, you can access a portal such as Flickr to view and manage pictures; if you want to create a document of just about any stripe, you can go to Google Docs and make slide shows; engage in word processing; construct spreadsheets; and store, share, and collaborate with writing partners.

Teachers can use many of these tools to extend and to enhance the learning experience of their students. The tools present challenges in developing best practices because they are neither repositories of content nor self- contained curricula. Rather, they can be used by creative teachers who are
able to draw from existing content domains, themes, and conceptual frameworks as they work within the applications; the tools can provide supportive environments for producing content, sharing and collaborating around content, and hosting public displays of users’ productions. Hence, the tools are not useful without the context of a larger unit or lesson plan, and instructional and learning frameworks that support activities and literate practices enabled by the tools. Teachers must understand clearly their instructional and learning objectives and goals, and students must know how the tools can help them meet those goals. Otherwise, the tools, which students sometimesknow well and can use for entertainment, revert to users’ tools for pleasure and interests, easily circumventing instructional or learning practices desired by teachers. Next, we review some Web 2.0 tools that enable these practices, and describe the features of each, presenting examples of how we have used them with students.


We start with the nemesis of most computer classrooms and labs. For example, Brock was observing another teacher’s students during a drafting class. The students were working in a lab with high-end three-dimensional drafting software. During downtime between instructions that were broadcast over the
public address system, students often checked their MySpace pages. Although the site was blocked in the district, many students easily overcame the obstacle by searching for a proxy server that granted them access. A proxy server is a website that has a name accepted by the firewall, so it is allowed—it is kind of like using a fake ID. Although students may not know how it works, they have learned how to do it. And no matter how savvy the information technology (IT) department, the almost infinite supply of new proxy servers and webpages, with directions targeting youth who want to jump the school restrictions, makes sites deemed objectionable by school districts difficult to block.

On the one hand, to the digital immigrants and the inhabitants of the Institution of Old Learning (O’Brien & Bauer, 2005), MySpace represents an uncontrolled virtual space that distracts students from work and enables socializing and forms of expression incompatible with the organization and temporal control of school. On the other hand, for digital natives, “assimilated” digital immigrants, and new literacies advocates, MySpace is a dynamic forum of multimodal expression. It is also a place where young people socialize with peers around the world, put pictures up, write in slang, stream music and video, and engage in instant messaging. They are able to blog, to embed flash animations—in short, to engage in almost limitless expression using a range of multimodal literacies. It is really an example of students expressing themselves in the same way they dress, decorate their rooms, or draw in their notebooks.

This does not mean that the space is benign. Although you can connect with friends and family, you can also get solicitations from unwanted characters. Most young people are aware of whom to talk to, and how they expect others to speak to them. Users know that others mask their true identities through the computer, which has led young people to be more savvy as well. The Kaiser Family Foundation Generation M report (Roberts, Rideout, & Foehr, 2005) notes that when kids come across inappropriate sites and solicitations, they move past them. For digital natives, experienced in social networking, these are just another distraction in the way of what they went to the site to do. MySpace sites can also be locked to persons other than those invited by the owner.

We don’t expect sites like MySpace to be imported into the school curriculum. However, in the spirit of being more assimilated into Generation M’s world, it makes sense for teachers to join MySpace, set up a page, and even let students know that you have done so. As teachers, we interact regularly with our students via MySpace. Through it, we are more in tune with their social worlds, their interests, and their creativity. You might also want to bridge media production in school with the sharing features of such social networking sites, so that students may use tools like MySpace as a way to share and to get feedback on their productions.


You already know a bit about Facebook from the Eden Prairie vignette. It is a place where you can post your profile and surround yourself with friends, their activities (including photos of parties!) and favorite sites, and connect the dots to all of your websites. Brock has links to SlideShare, mogulus television station, Facebook social networking groups, and various blogs. Facebook also includes tons of little games, multiple ways you can communicate with others, and things you can share. Brock is a member of many groups, and when the mood catches him, he starts another group: How about people who have read this chapter and want to continue the discussion about literacies involved in applications for Student 2.0? It really is that easy, and he really did start that group.

In Facebook you can choose to keep up with friends you don’t see often, as well as friends and acquaintances with similar interests and affinities. You can take surveys of movies and compare them to your friends; you can see what kind of German or French philosopher you are. You can share music,
keep up to date with friends through instant messaging, and be alerted to activities of groups to which you belong. Facebook, like MySpace, is blocked in many school districts, although most of adolescents we know seem to prefer MySpace. As with MySpace, we encourage teachers to set up a Facebook account to see what it provides. Although it might be tricky if the site is officially blocked in school, we also encourage teachers to use it to network with both colleagues and students. One of the great revelations, if you are included as a “friend” to students classified as “struggling” in reading and writing, is the quality, the range of genres, and the passion with which these students compose and engage in reading others’ compositions on social networking sites. It is possible that these same students, who have negative perceptions about their abilities and avoid reading and writing in school, might invite teachers to read what they have written online.


Unfortunately, YouTube is much maligned in schools, not just because of the content, but also because streaming media consume bandwidth. This is the most complete compendium of online searchable video ever. Like any compendium, including the billions of webpages outer there, there are some videos
that teachers may find either objectionable or a waste of time, just as there are thousands of interesting and informative videos. There are really many opportunities for using Web-based video in the classroom. Here are several ways that we have used it:

1. To show a video.
2. To host a video we have produced.
3. To engage in social networking.
4. To enhance engagement among students.
5. To provide content for a Web-based, TV-like network with Mogulus.    (now Livestream)

The real value of video is its impact due to availability of narrative, and the power of performing and presenting to the world—something that local and even national networks cannot do. YouTube not only hosts videos created by your students but also provides access to videos created by novices and professionals from all over the world. YouTube should be a part of classroom instruction designed to teach appropriate use of media and media savvy to young people. With YouTube you can embed video in your blog and your website, as well as upload your own creations—even from your cellular phone. We have observed that when students create for performance and presentation to an audience other than their teachers and immediate peers, they put forth much more effort and are much more creative and engaged, and the learning experience lasts long after the week-and-a-half extinction point of most test- driven curricula. Students can create, post, and share. In addition, teachers can create groups and utilize social networking to perform and to respond. The most powerful benefit is that this social networking and broadcasting function extends and deepens the possibility of participating in high-traffic media networks, where millions of people may view your work and send out links to invite their friends to see what you have done. With the right topic and a bit of luck, a cell phone with video capture and a good idea can start a person’s career in video media. This prospect can be motivating, and the idea that students have done something that everyone can see leads them to some real street “media cred.”


This photo sharing website, web services suite, and online community platform was one of the earliest Web 2.0 applications. In addition to being a popular website for sharing personal photographs, the service is widely used by bloggers as a photo repository. Flickr’s popularity has been fueled by its innovative online community tools that allow photos to be tagged and browsed by folksonomic means, a social/collaborative way to create and manage tags for content, in contrast to traditional subject indexing, in which content is fit to subjects predetermined by experts (Vander Wal, 2007). In Flickr, metadata are generated by not only experts but also creators and consumers of the content. Folksonomies became popular on the Web around 2004, with social software applications such as social bookmarking or annotating photographs. Typically, folksonomies are Internet-based, although they are also used in other contexts. Folksonomic tagging is intended to make a body of information increasingly easy to search, discover, and navigate over time.

As folksonomies develop in Internet-mediated social environments, users can discover who created a given folksonomy tag, and see the other tags that this person created. In this way, a folksonomy user may discover the tag sets of another user who similarly interprets and tags content. The result is often an immediate and rewarding gain in the user’s capacity to find related content (a practice known as pivot browsing). Part of the appeal of folksonomy is its inherent subversiveness: Compared to the choice of the search tools that websites provide, folksonomies can be seen as a rejection of the search engine status quo in favor of tools that are created by the community. Obviously, in addition to being a place to share photos, Flickr is a great source of media form students’ multimedia productions.


Brock has used this one, putting his class blog (www.5th-teacher. up on the screen, with images, examples, links to other resources, related news events, goings on in the class, his teaching manifesto, and global descriptions of assignments, as well as breakdowns of daily work. He also embeds his slide shows in the blog, along with video. This provides a resource for students to use both in class and outside of class. Because students have learned the format, and how to use pictures and other media from the Web, they have become proficient at creating reflective work and high-quality
multimedia productions. Blogger gets a bad rap by some, but you can limit the audience of student blogs by closing them off from the world feature and selecting viewers by inviting specific people. This also allows the teacher to access the blog if there is questionable content for classroom blogs “gone rogue.”


This Web application is great for getting students to see the opportunities of creating active multimedia products. Brock’s students created slide shows in PowerPoint, using images, text, and animation and transition effects, then uploaded them to SlideShare. This allowed the class to create their own group (Washburn Introduction to Engineering Design [IED]) where they could see and comment on each others’ slides, as well as use the chat function. Students also use SlideCast, in which they enter and synchronize an MP3 with their presentation, so that both teachers and students can create music videos or even do voice-over narration for telling stories and performance (dramatic) readings. SlideShare also lets you one-click to Blogger, so that students may embed their slide show in their blog. A cool feature is the ability to link this into Facebook.

Google Suite

Google provides a nice suite of tools for educators and students. Often your students have computers with Internet access at home but lack productivity software, such as Microsoft Office, or free tools such as OpenOffice. Students can use the Google Suite to create word processing, slide shows, and spreadsheets. The impressive feature is that this suite is available online, so students with an Internet connection can work at home on the document they created at school. And as with other Web 2.0 applications, students may invite others to cowrite and produce documents here. This allows groups to work on the same paper, and it also tracks each person’s contributions as the document is created. We used Google Documents to collaborate on this chapter. In addition, Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google SketchUp, a three-dimensional modeling program, are other tools in the Google suite that deserve extra emphasis. Reading and writing practices are more engaging to students when tied to the creation of the places, people, and activities. Brock had students create scenes from the play A Raisin in the Sun using this tool. The class explored the role of place and lived space, and the way space influences how people feel, speak, and act. This high-tech diorama was reminiscent of the shoebox versions we sometimes made for fun or for school projects.


Zotero, an easy-to-use yet powerful research tool, helps researchers gather, organize, and analyze sources (citations, full texts, webpages, images, andother objects), and share research results in a variety of ways. An extension of the popular open-source Web browser Firefox, Zotero includes the best parts
of older reference manager software (like EndNote)—the ability to store author, title, and publication fields, and to export that information as formatted references—and the best parts of modern software and Web applications (like iTunes and, such as the ability to interact, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero integrates tightly with online resources; it can sense when users are viewing a book, article, or other object on the Web, and—on many major research and library sites—find and automatically save the full reference information for the item in the correct fields. Since it lives in the
Web browser, it can effortlessly transmit information to, and receive information from, other Web services and applications; because it runs on one’s personal computer, it can also communicate with software running there (e.g., Microsoft Word). It can also be used offline (e.g., on a plane, in an archive without Wi-Fi).


This document-sharing community and self-publishing platform enables anyone to publish easily, distribute, share, and discover documents of all kinds. You can submit, search for, and comment on e-books, presentations, essays, academic papers, newsletters, photo albums, school work, and sheet music. A powerful feature of this tool is that you can upload documents in many different formats, including Microsoft Word, Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF), plain text, hypertext markup language (HTML), PowerPoint, Excel, OpenOffice, Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG), and many other formats. Once your documents are uploaded, you can embed them in a blog, Facebook profile, or other external websites, with your fonts, images, and formatting fully intact. Each document hosted at Scribd has its own unique uniform resource locator (URL), and you have unlimited storage, so you can
upload as many documents as you like. Once these are up, they are also available for fast indexing by Google and other major search engines, so that your content can be found in simple searches. You can keep certain documents private or share with a limited number of friends, and you can automatically convert published content into PDF, Word, and plain text. What is engaging for young writers is that not only can they publish widely but they also can see how many people have viewed their documents by location. Through Google you find documents similar to your own, as well as connect with a community of writers working in the same content area, enabling feedback and dialogue about your documents yet allowing you to retain full copyright under Creative Commons licenses.

Other Web 2.0 Resources

Space limits preclude a more elaborate listing of the multitude of other Web 2.0 sites. We recommend that readers of this chapter peruse the following briefly annotated list of other sites promoting multimodal literacies:

• Digg. A community-based, popular news article website, where news  stories and websites are submitted by users, then promoted to the front page through a user-based ranking system.
• An online brainstorming tool that students and teachers can use to create colorful mind maps online, share maps and collaborate with friends, embed mind maps in blogs or websites, e-mail and print maps, and  save maps as images.
• A tool that makes using Flickr a lot more interesting  by capitalizing on the site’s existing functionality. Dozens of toys, games, and utilities allow you, for example, to create a magazine cover from a selected Flickr photo, create a motivational poster, and access huge amounts of user      data (FlickrDNA).
• Photoshop Express. An application providing two gigabytes of storage to which you can link in your blogs or websites. You can edit images on the fly without having to up/download them each time or move from computer to  computer, and you are just a login away from your library of photos.
• SoundJunction. A site where users can take music apart and find out  how it works, create music, find out how other people make and perform music, learn about musical instruments, and look at the backgrounds of different musical styles.
• (pronounced like the word delicious). A social bookmarking Web service for storing and sharing data with more than 3 million users and 100 million bookmarked URLs.
• Ning. A site that enables the creation of one’s own social network, designed to compete with sites like MySpace and Facebook, by appealing to  users who want to create networks around specific interests, or who have limited technical skills.
• VoiceThread. A versatile online media album that can hold essentially any type of media (images, documents, and videos) and allow people to  make comments in five different ways—using voice (with a microphone or telephone), text, audio file, or video (with a webcam)—and share them with  anyone they wish.
• Many Eyes. A tool for the visual representation of data that makes sharing data creative and fun, while tuning students into the relation between information presentation and interpretation.
• Scratch. A designing tool with a language that makes it easy to create  interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art.

Classroom Vignettes of Practices with Technologies and Literacy

Junior High “Intervention” Class

We have studied our reading/writing intervention class in a suburban community of the Twin Cities for 3 years (O’Brien, Beach, & Scharber, 2007). The class uses a Literacy Lab setting with a reduced enrollment target of 15 students, previously assessed as struggling in reading, and mentored by two
teachers, both of whom hold K–12 reading licenses. The class meets once a day in a block scheduling format, with 93-minute class periods. The curriculum juxtaposes traditional engagement activities with “new literacies” activities. For example, on the side of more traditional interventions, students use
the Scholastic READ 180 program, read and discuss young adult novels as a group, and dramatize the texts and a range of activities to integrate reading and writing. They also engage in strategies instruction, such as the use of mind mapping and various activities designed specifically to help students achieve competence on state language arts standards and high-stakes assessments. On the new literacies side, using various technology tools, the students engage in writing activities, such as producing stories, comic books (using Comic Life), wikis (in Moodle) and poetry writing. They write journal responses to their reading and construct PowerPoint presentations about topics, such as their favorite video games or young adult novels, and share their poetry or story writing. They plan, design, and perform radio plays (using GarageBand for background tracks and sound effects). Recently, students completed placebased projects in which they used VoiceThread to publish photos of important places in their school, complete with audio or print commentaries. They publish their writing in the school district Moodle site. Some of the students also participate in afterschool computer gaming sessions. In the new literacies realm, the teachers include practices in which students engage to explore ideas, construct a classroom community, and develop agency in meeting personally relevant goals.

Media Class Rhythm and Flow Unit

This was the first unit that Brock created after transitioning from a language arts teacher to a media specialist. He found that the units he taught as a language arts teacher were still very applicable to the standards and benchmarks in media technologies when it came to teaching media or print texts, or the many opportunities that arise as a result of having access to computers. As a media specialist, Brock tried to link the media and technology activities to improvement in reading and writing. For example, he included Reading Friday, in which students had to create a music business persona/image, describe their style of music, and choose lyrics that they would perform and record into Garage Band. GarageBand is one option. Students could also use one of the Web-based products we have discussed. So the students took print texts—poems, paragraphs, dialogue, and lyrics they liked—and recorded themselves reading as a track on the music software. They also recorded outtakes, or descriptions of the experiences, and rated their oral interpretation performances. After students had shared their tracks with Brock, they began to practice putting a beat and music behind the tracks. This enabled a thorough interpretation and exploration of voice and oral expression. Students who had never really thought about the qualities of the voices in the narratives (e.g., the tone, theme, pitch, volume, emphasis in elongation and breaks) could better hear and understand dramatic pauses, tone and volume changes, diction and word choices, as well as format, organization, and punctuation. This activity began to make a difference in students’ understanding of these concepts. As students began exploring pauses work, changing and emphasizing words, assonance, and resonance in rhyme structures, they were really looking at oral reading and fluency, and reading in general, in a much deeper and more playful way. Students then took photos and made their CD covers, using image manipulation software; they made their own liner notes and wrote their own copy for advertising; they conceptualized a MySpace design (because they were not permitted access to MySpace) and created tours, clothing, and so on. It turned into a game about being in the music business. This unit, which had originally been intended as a week-long reward for the kids, so engaged students as they performed their lyrics and created their music careers that Brock extended it for 2 weeks.

What are “best practices” in these scenarios? First, students engage in activities, using technologies that support both the local curriculum and state standards. Rather than considering technologies and innovation as replacements for more traditional instructional and learning, the technologies provide
more effective ways to engage students. Second, best practices dictate that the technologies enhance teaching and learning by providing access to media and enabling students to use various modalities to explore and publish ideas. Third, although we can already see a future in which digital literacies replace traditional print literacies, for now, given the realities of standards, print-centric assessments, and, particularly the predominately print-based curricula, best practices explore ways to bridge print and digital literacies effectively. Fourth, the notion of best practices, which we typically associate with teaching or facilitating learning, should be extended to include practices related to supporting infrastructures and increasing funding for technologies that do enhance teaching and learning.

Future Directions and Best Practices for Engaging Students in Literacy with Technology

Clearly, the future will bring a wider range of more accessible digital tools. What started as the Web 2.0 phenomenon will continue at a rapid rate as the analog television bandwidth is purchased by Web Portals, such as Google, to provide faster access to more and more data from small personal communication devices—things that we used to call “phones.” As shown by current studies from the Pew Internet and American Life project, youth will continue to use more media and engage in more media multitasking or multimediating. As more young people have access to these tools, the digital divide will persist but not be as defined. As educators, we will slowly but surely start to redefine learners based on the experiences these young people have daily in the mediasphere, and the way their brains are changing as result. Similarly, we will start to redefine literacy more in line with the new literacies practices in which youth engage outside of school, and to think of better ways to connect out-of- school and in-school experiences with technologies and literacy.

Given the frameworks briefly described in this chapter for understanding technology-enabled or enhanced texts and new literacies practices, what are some possible practices that will not only produce more engaged and better readers and writers, as traditionally defined, but also facilitate practices
that improve intertextual, intermedial, and multimodal understanding? We briefly outline some of these realizing that practices, they are morphing as we write, and that new ones will have emerged even before this chapter is published. We offer these not so much as static examples but as ways of thinking about best practices in the milieu of new and emerging technologies, and new literacies and literates. We want fellow educators to think in novel ways about how these new technologies may improve literacy practices, not because of their technical features, but because they are engaging. Although it is over simplistic to state that technologies are worthwhile simply because they are motivating, we might cautiously state that technologies are engaging because they often incorporate aspects of play, are pleasurable, and are associated with leisure time outside of school. We also argue that good technology can guide and extend students’ knowledge of the world and their relationship to it, and that the software and appliances it inhabits are means for guidance, creativity, and production. Here are some recommended practices as we to end this decade and head into the next.

Engaging Readers and Writers

Young people should have access to curricula and learning opportunities in which reading and writing strategies instruction is not always the focus; rather the focus is to provide high-interest engaging activities that allow young people to accomplish goals using a range literacy tools and practices, many of them enabled by technology. Young people can become very strategic about what tools they use and how they use them to engage in practices that produce personally relevant outcomes. Learners need to be strategic, but they do not always benefit most from being taught strategies. And, as we noted, it is quite possible that the learners we are trying to engage are harder to engage because of their experiences in the mediashpere. In Brock’s teaching, texts aren’t necessarily print texts; rather, they are multimodal messages (Dubbels, 2008). For example, Brock has even used allegorical paintings and text as movement activities and multimodal analogues to decoding and propositional levels of comprehension.

Connecting with Out-of-School Literacies

As educators, we should make a more concerted effort to connect school instructional practices and curricula to out-of-school practices. Literate practices involved in activities such as instant messaging, creating and reading images, authoring webpages, and participating in social networks are ignored, devalued, or even feared in schools. In contrast, students engagement in strategies instruction, skills instruction, and reading textbooks and answering questions is common. Although these traditional activities and assessments are important, and more directly tied to valued outcomes, such as performance on high-stakes tests, they are increasingly disconnected from the new literacies skills, knowledge, and abilities that youth use the most, and they are simply not as engaging as many of the digital literacies practiced outside of school. The digital tools, and the practices they support, some of
which we present shortly, are not intended to turn youth completely away from traditional academic reading and learning; rather, they are intended to engage them in novel ways with important content and learning tasks. The goal, as we noted, is to engage students in these practices, to improve their
learning, and to connect the learning to personally relevant goals.

Taking Advantage of Multimodality

Traditional print materials, such as textbooks, have changed little over the last 150 years, and they have performed admirably as the staple of the curriculum. But given the range of teaching and learning tools enabled by new and emerging technologies, print materials alone are increasingly inadequate, not
to mention uninteresting, to young people. Students are increasingly able to use a range of tools to compose and to understand complex ideas, to convey beliefs and emotions, and to share their creations in print, visual, aural, and even tactile and kinesthetic forms. The most straightforward practice to capitalize on the multimodality of digital texts is simply to make the tools available (e.g., computers, digital cams and audio recorders, multimedia authoring tools, Web authoring tools, Web 2.0 tools) and provide practice in using them. A more involved approach is to think systematically of multimodal
options for existing tasks and assignments (e.g., a media inquiry project in place of a report; a blog in place of a term paper), and to provide for students a choice in the modalities and tools they use. David and his colleagues did just this in the Literacy Lab at Jeff High School (O’Brien, 2006; O’Brien, Springs, & Stith, 2001) when they reconstructed an entire literacy curriculum to take advantage of a multimedia lab they set up.

Examining Stances toward Technology

Ideally, to construct digitally enabled curricula, youth need educators who are either capable of using the technologies or open to learning them (often with support of students!) and connecting the technology tools to literacy practices. Taking new stances requires new attitudes and familiarity with the frameworks we have briefly overviewed (e.g., frameworks in which texts are multimodal representations rather than just print, and reading and writing are socially and culturally embedded practices that can be enabled with digital tools). Prensky’s (2001) characterization of digital natives (the students) and digital immigrants (teachers who did not grow up with the technologies that students use adeptly) is a useful, albeit forced, binary that speaks to stance. Digital immigrants need to be willing to jump into the fray and start to use the technologies that their students know. The practical side of this

immersion is that teachers who use the technologies can understand how these tools enable teaching and learning; the more affective dimension is that the actualizing digital immigrants see the value of the tools and feel good about their own competence in using them.


Further Reading

Beach, R. (2006). A resource guide to links and activities. New
York: Teachers College Press. Available online at
Burn, A., & Durran, J. (2007). Media literacy in schools: Practice, production and progres-
sion. London: Paul Chapman.
Coiro, J., Knobel, M., Lankshear, C., & Leu, D. J. (Eds.). (2008). The handbook of research
in new literacies. New York: Erlbaum.
Kist, W. (2005). New literacies in action: Teaching and learning in multiple media. New
York: Teachers College Press.


—Editlib. The EdITLib Digital
Library is a repository of peer-reviewed and published articles and papers on the
latest research, developments, and applications related to all aspects of educa-
tional technology and e-learning.

—The Assembly on Computers in English is a long-standing
assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English and is a nonprofit orga-
nization of English language arts teachers and teacher-educators dedicated to
intelligent technology integration into the English language arts.

—IRA Focus on Technology: IRA
Programs and Resources is a link to resources of the International Reading
Association site, designed to help educators support students in the new litera-
cies of information and communication technologies, as well as to help teachers
who want to become more proficient in using the technologies. The resources
include publications, online resources, and meetings and events that support
the use of technologies and literacy.


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Reading-to-Learn:  From Print to New Digital Media and New Literacies

Prepared for National Central Regional Educational Laboratory

Learning Point Associates

Submitted February 2003

Evidence for the use of digital media

for traditional academic competencies

David O’Brien

Brock Dubbels

Reading-to-Learn:  From Print to New Digital Media and New Literacies

Prepared for National Central Regional Educational Laboratory

Learning Point Associates

Submitted February 2003

Evidence for the use of digital media

for traditional academic competencies

David O’Brien

Brock Dubbels

Full text in pdf

With the current emphasis on accountability and high stakes testing at the elementary level, districts all over the US have an increased awareness of the immediate need to raise reading achievement at all levels. The No Child Left Behind law of 2001 has formally defined the expectations for students and teachers of students in grades K-3 in raising achievement and provided financial assistance in carrying out the provisions of the law (e.g. Reading First provision; see the law at  (    However, secondary teachers work daily with adolescents who have already “been left behind”–students who are unmotivated, disengaged, and lack the skills and strategies needed in dealing with increasingly difficult content area texts.  Secondary teachers, unlike their elementary counterparts, have few resources for dealing with these students, even though this need has been well documented (Alvermann, 2001; Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999).

To complicate matters, as the field of content area reading has given way to the broader, more dynamic fields of content area literacy, and adolescent literacy (Bean, 2001) much of the university supported work in long-term staff development focusing on reading has tapered off or is in transformation (Stewart & O’Brien, 2002, 2003).  Before the increased national focus on reading, secondary teachers were under some pressure to teach reading in support of students’ learning content, and learning content area reading assessment and instruction, including strategies, was one way to improve their teaching of content.

With the new focus on school-wide and district-wide reading performance secondary teachers, in whose classes students spend most of their time, are now under increasing pressure to improve students reading performance, sometimes irrespective of content.  Our ongoing work with urban and suburban districts in the Twin Cities area confirms this.  In essence, the content reading focus of the past three decades has partially shifted from teaching reading to help students learn content to teaching content to help raise reading achievement.

We, and others in the field of content reading have documented the problems associated with putting the responsibility of teaching reading on the shoulders of content area teachers who feel ill-equipped in their professional educations and lacking in time and other resources to take on what they believe is another burden (O’Brien, Moje, & Stewart, 2001).  Content teachers are justified in this concern.

To this point, we have outlined what we believe is a considerable problem for secondary teachers and administrators.  But this is only the part of the problem tied to national policy that has shifted to states and districts.  The other problem is reflected in the increasing disconnect between this policy and adolescents’ changing literacy practices and needs.  Primary among these is adolescents’ shifting preference from print text to digital media texts.  In the remainder of the paper, we will outline what the shift entails and make the case that teachers can actually capitalize on the shift to improve their students facility with print literacy and digital literacy while learning content in the emerging field of New Literacies (Lankshear & Noble, 2003).

From Print to Digital Media

At present, print text still predominates in school classrooms and single textbooks are still the most popular form of organizing and presenting curricula.  But reading in school is more unlike the reading students are doing outside of school than at any point in recent academic history of secondary schools.   And high stakes, print-based assessments are tapping skills and strategies that are increasing unlike those that adolescents (and their younger peers, for that matter) use from day to day.  For example, students are turning more and more toward the internet as their primary “textbook” (Lenhart, Simon, & Graziano, 2001, available at In the Lenhart et al. study, funded by the Pew Internet and American Life Project , 71% of students claimed that the Internet is their primary source of information for completing school assignments.  This study reported that the majority of adolescents, 78% between the ages of 12 and 17, regularly go online.  The number is likely increasing daily.

The Kaiser Family Foundation sponsored study, Kids & Media @ The New Millennium, sampled more than 3,000 children and adolescents ranging from 2-18 years old, including more than 600 participants who completed detailed media use diaries. Among other compelling findings, the researchers found that American youth spend more time with media than with any single activity other than sleeping (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999, available at:

This research should not be interpreted to mean that children and adolescents are becoming alliterate.  That is, contrary to reports in the popular press, they are not reading less even though they have the ability to read.  Rather, they are actually reading more, including reading more related to school work.  However, they are reading differently. They are reading digital texts, digital media, and using the internet to access information (O’Brien, 2003c).   There are positive reasons for capitalizing on students’ shift to digital literacies–ways that address the print domination of public policy that privileges print-based reading as well as addressing what appears to be the decreasing motivation and engagement of students confronted with school-based texts.

The Advantages of Using Digital Media

Over the last 7 or 8 years, our school-based colleagues have posed numerous questions about this apparent shift to digital literacies.  We have synthesized the questions for purposes of this discussion:  (a) What are legitimate digital media texts, constructed or imported into school? (b)  How do these texts help learners construct meaning and understand concepts better than print text alone? (c) Do the motivational and engaging qualities of work with digital media texts improve adolescents’ performance with print literacy?

To begin the discussion of these issues we will refer to a six-year project that David was involved in with “at-risk” high school students.  Those who want to read about this project in more depth can refer to print sources (O’Brien, 1998; O’Brien, Springs, & Stith, 2001) and online sources (O’Brien, 2001 available at: ; 2003, available at:

Digital Literacies in Action:  The Jeff High School Literacy Lab Project

Over the period of six years, David worked with colleagues Rebecca Springs and Dave Stith, both reading teachers at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana, to plan and implement an innovative literacy program using digital media. The primary goal of the three educators was to engage the most unmotivated, disengaged students in the high school while significantly improving their reading achievement.

The students they worked with were students who struggled the most with reading in the school of 2300 students—students representing about the lowest 10% of performance on the state-mandated standardized reading subtests.  After studying research and reading testimonials about innovative programs nationwide for “at-risk” or struggllng learners over the summer before they started with their first group of students, the team summarized the existing research and constructed some tenets on which to base the innovative instruction they were interested in.

From reviewing the research and reading about successful programs they concluded the following:  (a) effective programs include less skills instruction, which actually detracts from the time students spend reading and improving their ability and more opportunities to read; (b) traditional print materials specifically designed for reading classes such as “high interest, low vocabulary” paperbacks, skill series,  and other leveled collections are actually unmotivating because these have been tagged early by students as uninteresting and irrelevant; and (c) the most significantly neglected aspect of working with struggling adolescent readers is reinstating their feelings of confidence and self-efficacy, not just working on skills and strategies.

Based on the review of research and successful programs, the Jeff high team formulated some specific goals for the students.  They wanted a program that would maximize the amount of reading and writing the students did while motivating them and sustaining their interest.  They also wanted the students to have a wide range of activities to choose from and to ground their reading and writing in their lives outside of school and in their popular culture.

David, Dave, and Rebecca turned to digital media tools and a curriculum that was organized around inquiry projects in which student selected topics within broad guidelines.  The students were required to engage in inquiry using both print and other media.  They had to plan a way to represent their inquiry projects using print and other media, for example in multimedia presentations or web sites.  Most importantly, they had to formulate personally relevant goals in which they accomplished something they deemed important other than merely showing their facility in using the inquiry process and learning the technology tools.   To demonstrate how this worked we will discuss briefly one inquiry project discussed in more detail in the sources cites above.

The Violence Project

In this inquiry project, students chose a topic to explore how violence in the media impacts adolescents.  The violence project arose out of a national concern in the early to mid 90s that media producers and companies were not responsibly policing themselves and that violence in the media portrayed and condoned activities and attitudes that were detrimental to children and adolescents.  At the time the project was constructed, there were a number of core pieces in the media about the need for the popular entertainment industry to better monitor the potentially detrimental effects of its productions.

The violence project showed the clear advantages of bridging traditional print literacies and digital media (O’Brien, Springs, & Stith, 2001).  The students were required to use media to show how media defined, portrayed, and amplified violence that impacted adolescents.  In essence, it was a critical media literacy project (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Alvermann & Hagood, 2002) in which media in its multiple content and distribution forms, was used by the students to critique itself.  The media texts the students drew from in the projects were among the most immediate and relevant in their lives.  Hence, the students were engagement because of choice of topics and relevance—the violence in the media was something that the students lived daily and the media they critiqued were familiar.

For example, one group of students was interested in film.  They went to the library and on the internet to do research and found a USA Today article entitled, “Taking Aim at TV Violence–Lawmakers tell Industry:  Clean up act” (October, 1993).  In the piece, Janet Reno, commented on the Touchstone film, The Program, that included a scene in which intoxicated teens in the film lay down in the middle of a highway and traffic passed harmlessly over him.  When teens in Pennsylvania mimicked the film and tried a similar tactic, one was killed and the other injured. Touchstone edited that scene out of the film.  In the article, Reno also noted an episode of Beavis and Butt-head in which they start a fire and the scene is subsequently blamed in an incident in which a five-year-old copied the episode and started a fire that killed his sister.

The group of Literacy Lab students read the newspaper piece for critical information about the broad media project; they had a discussion about the piece and split off into pairs who decided on different foci.  One pair focused on the The Program segment; two other pairs focused on Beavis and Butt-Head–one on the fire episode, another constructed a classification rubric from another piece they reviewed a variety of episodes and classified different types of violence displayed in the series.

The group that chose to work on the film idea decided that they wanted to depend more on visual “text” than print.  They storyboarded an idea in which they scanned juxtaposed images of Michael Shingledecker, the high school student from Pennsylvania who was killed.  First, they scanned an image from the newpaper article of his high school yearbook photo.  They discussed what they wanted to show–a young student with his future ahead of him, smiling with optimism.  Then they scanned an image of some of grieving friends–the stark, cold, contrast of this hopeful life taken away.  The simple, descriptive text they wrote attributed the powerful feelings conjured from the pictures to the film that Michael watched, mimicked, and allegedly as a result, died.  Their goal was to show a young life wasted by capitalizing on visual media.

One of the pairs who chose violence types in Beavis and Butt-Head set up a screening station and viewed repeatedly segments of videotape that they and their peers brought into the Literacy Lab.  They discussed what they were seeing and jotted down descriptions of the segments.  They tabulated different types of violence in a table and digitized the video segments that represented those categories.  They wrote descriptions to accompany the video clips.  The other Beavis and Butt-Head group found more information about the fire that was allegedly connected to kids watching an episode of series.

What we Learned From the Literacy Lab?

In the six years of continuing to modify the program as we worked with struggling learners, we found that adolescents who have been disengaged for years were coming to class, working enthusiastically, and improving in reading.  The students who engaged the most in inquiry projects—that is, students who attended the lab and met the goals they set for themselves in their individual contracts, improved the most on both standardized subtests (the ISTEP state mandated tests and the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Tests) as well as in informal inventories and other authentic assessments we constructed.  They also had more positive perceptions about themselves as readers and learned about a range of topics.

Although there is little systematic data collected in depth nationally to support the value of using digital media to improve print literacy, we are confident in responding the questions posed earlier based on the study with reference to the Jeff Literacy Lab project.

(a) What are legitimate digital media texts, constructed or imported into school? We learned that in order to engage today’s adolescents, most of whom are inundated with sophisticated approaches to get and hold their attention (King and O’Brien, 2002; Lankshear & Knobel, 2002, 2003), they need opportunities to engage with media that they enjoy and topics that are important to them.  As teachers, we need to develop a new tolerance for the media that kids enjoy; we also need to participate more in the media experiences our students enjoy in order to learn about what they find interesting and to share some common interests with them in the same media texts.  This includes music, videos, and video games.  Right now, as we work with high school students and  teachers who work with them, we listen to the music adolescents enjoy, watch films they recommend, and we play the video games that appeal to them.  We strongly encourage their teachers to do the same.

(b)  How do these texts help learners construct meaning and understand concepts better than print text alone.  The texts that often engage adolescents the most are digital media texts in which print may be one component—at times, a minor component.  A phenomenon we observed and confirmed with systematic data collection in the literacy lab is that visual media are often serve as the hook that gets students engaged in topics of study in the first place.  Once engaged, it is easier to get them to read and write as part of a larger media project.   For example, one student, Dan, who appears in most of what we have written about the Jeff Literacy Lab, scanned in album covers and watched video clips of Ozzie Osbourne, the Heavy Metal artist now popular in his co-starring role on an MTV “reality” show about his family.  Through systematically looking at the scanned album covers, arranged in chronological order, and watching video clips of Ozzie’s music and interviews, Dan came up with topic for a documentary in which he wrote a narrative that he read into an audio file that accompanied still digital photos and video clips.  Without the visual media, it would have been much more challenging to ever engage Dan in reading and writing involving print text.

(c) Do the motivational and engaging qualities of work with digital media texts improve adolescents’ performance with print literacy? First, we learned that working with computers and related technologies is a given with today’s adolescents; they do it regularly, proficiently, and automatically and it is not a novel experience.  Working with computers and related technologies is not, in and of itself, particularly engaging or motivating.  More than ten years ago, that may have been the case, but not now.  We discovered that what was motivating about work with digital media was the fact that it was a conduit to the students’ lives in the mediasphere (O’Brien 2001, Rushkoff, 1996)—life in the familiar and comfortable world of popular media outside of school in which so much of kids’ identity is constructed.  A second draw was that it allowed them to attain proficiency using media production tools that even their academic placement peers did not have or could use no better than they.  The Literacy Lab students gained confidence and competence in an academic setting for the first time in years.  Finally, because they formulated relevant goals related to inquiry projects, they engaged daily in something in which they realized progress, saw creations unfold, and looked forward to continuing the work.  This engagement, accompanied by relevant goals, self-efficacy, and attribution of their efforts to tangible outcomes, led to more confidence and perseverance and more reading and writing over time, which, we believe, led to proficiency in print literacy.  Quite simply, engaging in digital media projects–topics chosen by the students who were excited about using new tools and seeing projects unfold, spurred the purposes and motivation and engagement that caused them to read and write more; and, as result of this new commitment and practice over time, they improved.   In addition to our more local evidence, there are research syntheses and emerging research paradigms that point to the advantages of using digital media in content area instruction?  Some of these show direct improvements in student achievement and motivation.   

For example, Hobbs and Frost (2003) investigated whether teaching with and about multimedia would improve student reading and writing (available at: They conducted a study of  an 11th grade English/Media class wherein the curriculum emphasized the analysis of media messages within broader social and cultural contexts and issues about the role of the media in society and the lives of individuals.

The researchers studied whether students’ reading and writing performance improved after taking part in the year-long program.  They designed the curriculum with accompanying assessments that tapped not only improvements in reading and writing skills but looked at whether the student’s abilities to critically analyze media messages improved as compared to a carefully selected matched control group.  The researchers found that students who took part in the media literacy curriculum, when assessed on ability to identify main ideas in written, audio, and visual media, showed statistically significant improvement in comparison to the control group in writing quality and quantity, and an improvement in text analysis skills like identification of purpose, point of view, construction techniques, and the ability to identify omitted information.

Similarly, The Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology, (CARET) (available at: posted a response to this question:  How can technology be used to improve basicreading skills?  In responding with a synthesis from work by Xin & Rieth, (2001), they concluded that multimedia and video technologies can improve reading comprehension and vocabulary for diverse learners in a variety of settings.

The reviews at CARET also support the notion that using multimedia  and internet communication technology in the classroom with appropriate pedagogy and teacher preparation in authentic inquiry improves motivation, attitude, and interest when students used applications to produce, demonstrate, and share their work with peers, teachers, and parents (See Bracewell et al. at; Means et al., 1997, available at ).

The exciting implication of our work in the Literacy Lab and related work is that it should be generalizable across the content areas.  And, it has the potential to improve digital literacies, print literacies, and content learning at the same time.  As we reflect on this work, three issues come to mind in comparing it with the older pedagogy in teaching and teacher education in the print-only era of content area reading.

First, digital media texts not only provide broader representations of ideas that have been limited by the linear structure of print, they represent limitless, creative ways of connecting the forms of representation  (e.g., print with video, audio narration with pictures or video, print with accompanying audio narration and 360 degree virtual photos) (Calvert, 2001).  As the Literacy Lab project clearly showed, many, if not most of the texts with the most appeal to adolescent learners are digital media texts rooted in popular culture, and the adolescents who read these texts are seldom duped by them and the marketing behind them.  Rather, they are critical, intelligent consumers who also help to shape the media culture and the media that are directed at them (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Alvermann & Hagood, 2002).

Second, in the era of print-only content area reading, textbooks and other printed media were the focus of attention.  The new focus on adolescent literacy , as part of literacy in “New Times” (Luke & Elkins, 1998) makes a stronger case for focusing more on learners,  It means paying attention to who adolescents are, (Moje, 2002) and to what engages them (O’Brien, 2003a).  Content teachers must now attend to how their students learn in both real and virtual spaces as they go from textbooks to the internet and back (O’Brien, 2003b).

Third, the field of content area reading was constructed largely around cognitive processing perspectives on comprehension of print text and models of information processing and characteristics of texts (e.g., Pearson & Barr, 1984; Singer & Ruddell, 1976, 1985).  Instructional frameworks and accompanying strategies based on these theoretical perspectives and models remain popular but are inadequate in addressing adolescents’ digital literacies (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003).

What are Some Instructional Implications for Content Area Teachers?

The terms media, multimedia or hypermedia usually refer to using various ways to extend how we have typically conveyed meaning with print.  The use of these media forms such as images, video and audio clips and web pages, allows for more dynamic representation of, and navigation through, information than possible with print text only. Since children and adolescents are learning and practicing digital literacy tools on their own, or within family contexts (Sefton-Green & Buckingham, 1998) it is incumbent upon educators to get up to speed and facilitate students’ experiences with digital media in school.

The literacy practices necessary to read and write digital media present new challenges and almost endless opportunities.  However, as of yet, these practices are little understood and they are constantly emerging and changing (Leu, 2000, 2002; Livingstone, 2002).  It is not practical to wait to start an instructional agenda using digital media texts until they reach some stable, measurable form and solid research base because they will continue change.  Clearly we are in a transitional period, and we need to capitalize on emerging practices and see how instruction emerges and evolves with these practices.

We hope that new technologies will transform learning—indeed, we write frequently about a multitude of teaching and learning innovations based on emerging technologies.  However, as educators, we fear that the same technologies will undermine our authority and control over content.  In the case of schools, the fear and moral panic that Livingstone (2002) discusses often win out over innovation.  Educators often fear their students’ attraction to popular media texts, texts that are central to adolescents’ identity construction, because these texts exploit generational differences to promote values that often contradict those of teachers and schools.

For example, a colleague and I facilitated a middle school staff development program on reading and writing in the content areas in which we used the Violence Project discussed earlier as an example of how to engage struggling adolescents in reading and writing.  The particular example we used was the project in which the students catalogued and described different types of violence in Beavis and Butt-Head.  In spite of our enthusiasm about how the inquiry project had dramatically improved the kids’ literacy engagement and achievement, one of the staff members attending the session said, “Well that’s, great, but if kids brought that Beavis and Butthead stuff into my class, I would puke!”

The generational and professional disdain for the two TV characters, who are rude and defy authority, including the authority of teachers, illustrates what we don’t like about the popular media that kids like.  We fail to exploit the engaging power of popular media in school because of our dislike for what the media embody, in spite of how the media can engage kids in reading and writing across the disciplines.

Two aspects of digital media are instructionally compelling.  First, digital media give you the flexibility to use multiple forms for representing complex concepts and to juxtapose them in multiple ways.  The sophisticated tools that enable multimedia production make it an increasingly easier task. You may choose written directions with an accompanying graphic; you might choose a graphic with an audio explanation of its parts; you might choose a video clip demonstrating something with print text to label components or to explain what the audience is seeing.  The combinations of these are endless.

Second, with very high quality video and audio, in addition to print, the notion of text, until recently, synonymous with print, can now be easily expanded to include a range of media texts.   Print is only one form of text—the “older” conception predominant before the New Literacies and media texts are more powerful and versatile than print alone (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003).

The high school students David worked with on the Beavis and Butt-Head project knew every episode of the series, frame by frame; they could recite each character’s lines, they spent hours discussing episodes that they liked but didn’t include in the project.  These struggling readers were engaged.  Think of how much adolescents know about and interact with peers about popular media texts like film, video games, television shows and ads and music artists; talk to them about what they watch on TV and DvDs, or which X-Box© or PlayStation© games they like. Compare their interest and engagement with these visual media with their engagement in school texts (Gee, 2003).

In this transitional period, print remains an important component of the emerging intertextual learning community.  The transition means moving from print-only pedagogy to pedagogy involving print plus other media with many of the instructional advantages and tenets and print-dependent pedagogy intact or adapted and refashioned (Myers & Beach, 2001; Leu 2000).

Understanding New Readers and Digital Media Texts in the Content Areas

If we acknowledge that the Internet is the new textbook, we need to dramatically rethink the role of text as defined in traditional content reading instruction.  Within the realm of print literacy, content reading specialists have worked with teachers in various content areas to define the characteristics that made each subject area text genre unique and challenging.  The key question was, What is particularly crucial to helping kids read their social studies book, their literature anthologies, and their math texts?  That question has been typically answered by helping teachers understand text structures, facilitating how they connected students’ background knowledge to the topic under study, and teaching vocabulary important to understanding the text. Content area reading instruction has also involved teaching students how to use embedded text aids and features (table of contents, glossary, marginal gloss, in-text vocabulary keys).  In short, content area reading has required instruction from responsive teachers who could help kids cope with their content area textbooks.

Since the New Text is neither a single text nor a print text, much of the time-tested print literacy frameworks prominent in the fields of content area reading and content literacy no longer apply.  The new text is not “found” in one place like a textbook.  Rather it is constructed by the New Readers as they search for information and link information.  In short, the New Readers of the New Text are all creating different texts as they do assignments because no two readers, among the masses of learners free to roam the sometimes millions of web pages on a topic, construct the same text in the end.

To give another example, in an inquiry project, middle school students under the direction of a social studies teacher and a literacy teacher who collaboratively constructed a curriculum, did research on an urban neighborhood.  The students did research on the web, they visited the neighborhood, taking digital photos, mapping blocks, and interviewing residents and business people who work in the neighborhood.  The students, within their community of inquiry (Beach & Myers, Beach & Bruce, 2002; Bruce & Bishop, 2002) jointly constructed the inquiry text which is represented on web sites, in PowerPoint presentations, and in a special fair held at the school gym in poster sessions in which all of these media were used to showcase the work to the rest of the school and the community (O’Brien & Beach, 2003).  The New Readers in the digital world are honing skills with print.  Contrary to some fears expressed by people in the campaign against “alliteracy” kids are reading more, not less, when it comes to schoolwork—as we noted above, they are just reading differently (O’Brien, 2003c).

Digital Literacy in the Content Areas:  Current and Possible Practices

In this section, we present some literacy practices with implications for content learning that students are already engaged in, with or without instructional support.  We also present some ideas that have already captured the interest of teachers across the disciplines.   Finally, we suggest some existing technologies that are, as of yet, little used I schools but have great potential.

1. Searching the web for information: Depending on the level of sophistication at using search engines, kids enter terms that they believe will net information.  In the thousands of pages that come up, they may decide how to read them critically to see if they contain information they need, or if they are authored by credible sources; in this skimming for quality, they may go back to refine the search terms.  The converse of this critical process, usually in response to assignments where they have limited interest or few personally relevant goals, is that students quickly download whatever they get and paste it into their homework assignments.

Without clear purposes, strategies for critical evaluation, or guidance and structure in assignments, adolescent learners may get lost in virtual text space by following links from the pages that are listed in the search until they forget which pages came up originally.  For an interesting, current look at successfully using search engines, including those specifically designed for kids, see the May 27 2003 issue of PC magazine (available at:,4149,1046311,00.asp

2. Participating in a collaborative project online.  Via instant messaging (IM), users have instant, live, text-based discussions with multiple peers. A group of students can work together to synthesize information for a report.  While each is reading the same homework text, working on the same assignment, students “talk” to each other about what they have found, evaluate the importance of the information, share interpretations about what it means and, ultimately, decide what to put in the final synthesis.  For example, AOL’s Instant Messenger (AIM), an IM platform popular with adolescents, provides a live onscreen chat window showing participating members.  Each user can enable single or multiple sessions and the IM operates in the background while students work on a project.  Many students already use IM while doing homework (McCampbell, 2001).

The use of IM contributes to cooperative learning communities outside of school.  The relatively new literacy practice, a sort of hopping or toggling from window to window, allows New Readers to rapidly read multiple texts, in different genres, change to conversation about what they are reading, transforming oral text into IM code to abbreviate their messages. As teaches, we often discourage IM because we view it as a distraction.  Instead, we need to use it, see how it works, understand how kids use it, and figure out ways to incorporate it into assignments.

  1. Engaging in inquiry projects using multimedia authoring tools and producing multimedia texts.  The classic “report” format of a printed project is being quickly replaced by multimedia forms of the types discussed already in which students choose topics and select ways to best represent the topics.  This emerging writing competency not only redefines writing space but engages students in writing with a more complex sense of who the audience is (e.g., see the discussion of Blogs later), how they react to various media, and what they might choose in a hypertext environment with links to optional routes of inquiry.  A good source for exploring the inquiry process, constructing inquiry units, looking at examples of existing inquiry projects, and engaging in conversations about inquiry can be found at the Inquiry Page web site hosted by the Inquiry Group at the University of Illinois  ( .  A compelling argument for using hyperlinks and hypermedia authoring to extend response to print texts, is Jamie Myers’s web page showing the value of using hyperlinks and hypermedia in presenting a critical argument, or providing an interpretation, providing a visual or audio file, or linking to other texts and websites where related ideas can be connected. Myers’s page is at
  2. Digital video production.  Many students are already proficient with tools like iMovie©.  The creation of imovies can be a powerful method to bring together ideas of inquiry, analysis, and production so that students begin to gain insights into the ways that the “reality” of the screen can be generated and ways in which digital media texts can augment or surpass print texts in representing ideas. Some good links include an introduction to the mechanics of production at Making iMovies Awsome:,, and the Cyber Film School site: .
  3. WebQuests. A WebQuest, according to the developers, Bernie Dodge and Tom March, ( is an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web.  WebQuests are an excellent way to bring together, reading, writing, critical thinking, technology, and presentation skills.  A web site that provides an historical overview of how the approach started in 1995 and some links to excellent resources on organizing and faciltting webquests, including a webquest on webquests at various grade levels, can be found at . WebQuests are designed to use learners’ time well, to focus on using information rather than looking for it, and to support learners’ thinking at the levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Some examples are in the area of language arts are posted at , An extensive list of webquests at various developmental level across content disciplines and be found at the Curry School of Education at  the University of Virgina at
  4. Web Logs or “Blogs” are online journals that can be used for posting ideas and getting feedback from the world, or even just a select few from a classroom group. Blogs can turn anyone into a published author who explores a wide range of topics with a range of readers and critics.  As in the case of our own and colleagues’ work with media authoring, we can attest that students writing via Blogs or other digital forms is often more engaging reading for their peers than commercially produced textbooks or other texts.   Resources for what Blogs are and how to get started Blogging can be found at,,  and
  1. MOOS: Originally an online home for the Dungeons and Dragons game, developed for multi-users on the Internet, MOOs are now popular in education.  There are hundreds of these virtual spaces, and they extend beyond simple Chat, which many students are familiar with. Many MOOs are adaptable to the needs of a specific group (e.g., a class) to allow for such virtual reality features as blackboards, slide projectors, and discussions.  In moving beyond simple text-based Internet Relay Chat (IRT) they provide much more flexible, rich environments in which students can write, play, and experiment.  One of the educational advantages is that they allow the creation of online communities of students from across geographical areas in real time.  Hence, MOOS are particularly important to engagement in literacy practices like reading and writing since they are text-based.  And they are compelling in their capacity to engage students who may be reluctant to engage in local texts in classrooms but enjoy being part of broader virtual community of peers.  In a typical example of a MOO, a student enters and is presented with a scenario with which they need to respond. The scenario is generally a text description where the player navigates through possible worlds. For more information on MOOs see and .  We also encourage you to view a wonderful virtual environment based on the novel Brave New World: . A popular MOOs resource for teachers who want to create virtual classrooms is Tapped In, at .
  1. Video games.   As most teachers of adolescents know, video games are engaging to a range of learners. Many game producers offer free demonstrations of their games, many of which are available for free download off of the web.  Although the downloads are not complete versions of the games, they provide versions of the game that enable one to examine each game’s design structure, goals and graphics.  One resource for free game demonstration downloads is

Video games have quickly become the most popular form of media in the world, and as we noted, games have features that capture the attention of the most easily distracted adolescents for long periods of time. As we stated earlier, teachers who want to capitalizing on the design features of video games that may be used in classrooms should play them.  One way to approach the task is to critically evaluate them as one would a movie, profession, cultural issue, or practice. There are many that have been created based on novels: Alice, from Alice in Wonderland; Harry Potter, from the popular series from J.K. Rowling; the Lord of the Rings has also inspired a video game. One might ask how the book is represented as a virtual environment, and what assumptions were made when the designers created these interactive virtual environments.

Further, there are many other games that target issues like the social dynamics of how societies are created: the Civilization series is a good example, and worth playing. There are also games that look at science like the forensic science game based on the popular televison series, CSI;  the Sims series has a wide range of creative applications across disciplines. A nice resource for investigating the possibilities of using games in education can be found at the Education Arcade,

  1. [BRD1] Digital audio tools for supporting reading of struggling or disengaged learners.  For years, we have recommended to teachers who must use difficult print texts that are inaccessible by struggling students that they incorporate audio-taped recordings of the texts struggling students are required to read.  For those who haven’t tried it, it is still very practical and effective to have more competent readers make audio-taped recordings that can be used by less competent peers who are reading those texts. One step toward digitization of the audio is to use the digital recording option on most computers, some of which even have built in microphones.  The digital audio texts can be organized and stored in accessible folders by book, chapters within books, or topics of study. 

The next step is to use the most current digital technologies involving highly compressed audio files.  For example, we use digital recorders that produce a format called .dss that is very clear and is 12 times smaller than comparable .mp3 files, the standard format for listening to digital music.   This means that large amounts of audio data, supporting the print text versions studied by students in various disciplines, can be stored, managed by database mangers, and called up by students who require or like another medium to help them read difficult text.  A physical tape library that used to take up a large section of shelf space, and used tapes that had to be rewound, and painstakenly forwarded or repeatedly rewound to find certain sections of audio, is replaced by a much more powerful digital system stored on drives or other media.  With a .dss library, the player software can be added to any computer free (for example see .dss player lite produced by Olympus at ). Additionally using these audio tools, students can create a digital audio file that they can use to add into other projects, for example, a PowerPoint presentation that allows for the telling of a story or voice-over narration.  What we like about the compressed audio formats is that they play on Mp3 players, or Mp3-like devices or PDAs that kids consider be cool tools—this means less stigma attached to using audio text support.  And listening to the oral reading of a competent reader helps less competent readers follow a the text in a way that may bolster understanding (Garner and Bochna, 2001).  Another exciting development is that more and more commercially produced print texts are available in audio form such as standard cassette, audio CDs and even mp3.  One of the most sophisticated technologies is a format produced by ( ) which includes an ever- growing library of popular fiction, nonfiction, newspapers, even other periodicals and NPR programs in a highly compressed audio format that plays on some mp3 players, PDAs, Apple iPods.  The market for these audio files is the growing number of people with hectic schedules who “read” while commuting and exercising.  But, for teachers who want to explore digital media for the popular text trade as an alternative to, or in support of print text, this is a promising technology.

Digital Literacy Practices Sponsored by Professional Organizations in Content Areas

These are some exemplars among thousands I use to show how professional organizations are evolving to make better use of digital literacies. I recommend that you explore the links in the professional organizations Web sites and search for classroom sites that exemplify some practices that might hold merit in your own classrooms.

Social studies. The National Council for the Social Studies

Sponsors described as a “humanistic learning community” website with an online schoolbook called Guide to the Past. Once users log on they can comment on the texts with a discussion forum that can be opened for each section and the forum encourages critique.  Such online communities, organized around a primary text, introduce the option for extending the text through a myriad of voices from the community. The new text is the discourse community—not a single printed text but a dynamic text structured by the members who engage in constant reconstruction of the text over time.  This model, which serves a professional development tool for teachers, is a good one to use with students who have the opportunity in these learning communities to read and write critically, practices they don’t typically engage in with single textbooks in class.

Sciences.    The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Teacher Resources section offers one example of the new online “textbook” which they describe as Videodiscovery, a “comprehensive multimedia database that includes material supporting geology and earth science.  One section called Understanding Earth, the organization notes, “offers thousands of images, nearly an hour of full-motion video, and lesson plans covering all the subjects addressed in a yearlong course.”  You can log on and use it if you are a current member of NSTA.  This is good example of a text in this transitional period—instead of print on paper, it is digital, visually oriented, and online—and, ironically, at this time when kids are navigating to synthesize their own online texts, the Videodiscovery database, which includes pictures, computer animations, and videos, is for teachers rather than students. It is transitional because it relies on digital media to enrich representation concepts but it still content within the control of teacher.

Math.  The National Council of Teacher of Mathematics (NCTM)’s Illuminations site

includes “i-Math Investigations” which are online, interactive, multimedia math investigations.  These investigations explain concepts and show “hands-on” examples that are virtual manipulatives.  As transitional texts, these online investigations combine print exposition with dynamic visuals that enable learning by trying out possible solutions.


The evidence of Internet use and habits indicates that New Readers view the New Text, the Internet and the multimedia texts they construct, as more engaging and interesting than their school texts, but their interest and engagement in digital media is mediated by their interest and choice in constructing texts that are interesting to them.

It is imperative in exploring new digital literacy frameworks for content learning that we capitalize on aspects of the New Textbook that kids already find engaging when we structure assignments for them.  A negative example would be to assign reading online instead of using the class textbook.  The implied purpose is that students read primarily to be accountable and the content might be on the test.  These purposes for reading textbook pages transposed to online reading will not produce more engagement.

Another negative instructional frame is to define an inquiry topic in a restricted way and tell students to find out more about it by using the Internet.  In this case, students will simply use the Internet as a more efficient way of getting information, downloading it, and turning it in (Roger Stewart, personal communication, May 6, 2003).  Before the Internet, if students were not invested in an inquiry topic, they copied text from print reference tools like encyclopedias to get done.  Now they have a tool to more quickly dispose of uninteresting assignments.  It is more crucial than every that assignments be personally relevant and engaging.

New instructional frameworks for digital literacy in the content areas must rely more on students’ curiosity, choice in topics and tasks, and critical exploration of sources.  For example, an inquiry project in which kids narrow topics from a broadly defined area, selection of print and media sources using some critical analysis of the quality of the sources, and the final selection of multiple ways to represent what one has learned (media reports, web pages, electronic presentations) will result in much more engagement.  The key question that, as of yet, remains unanswered in this relatively new area of inquiry is what sorts of skill and strategies are required for the new Readers to be successful?  We are all learning as we venture forth, but it is imperative that we do venture forth to think about the digital literacy practices that kids are already engaged in so that we may bridge the digital disconnect between their practices and the work we assign them in school.


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Thank you for agreeing to participate in this experiment.

Only students from Richfield Middle School may enter from here.

Now that you are on this page, you have gone through the consent and assent process by signing the forms and are ready to take the survey and play the memory game.

Survey on Media Preference and Prior Knowledge on Skateboarding

Memory Game — make sure you have a sticky note to write down your code from the  end of your game play. It will look like this.Write down the numbers circled in yellow– in this case, “y6” and “y4”.  These numbers will be entered into the first question of your survey!

Initial Survey in the lab

Final Survey

Let’s get ready for some fun