As described in the previous section, much of the literacy instruction in computers and composition follows the pedagogy of multiliteracies, and key to that pedagogy is the integration of digital tools into college writing classrooms. The relationship between tool use and literacy is complicated, to say the least, warranting attention in this text.
Most accounts of literacy at least touch on the problem of tool use, beginning with Plato’s concerns about the technology of writing. The question of how much our tools dictate and define our communicative abilities and our human relationships has only become more complicated as digital tools have continued to evolve. As Bruce (2003) argues, as “we see new possibilities in the emerging media of the information age, we begin to change our literacy,” but, at the same time, the “literacy practices of a community … shape the very media in which they are immersed” (337). Bruce concludes that this “coevolutionary process” means literacy is never fixed and cannot be defined as the ability to use a specific set of tools. Literacy’s relationship with tools is not new, but because our tools are evolving so rapidly, we are forced to confront the problem more directly.
Christina Haas sheds some light on how to deal with this problem in her influential text, Writing Technology (1996), where she explores two myths: the myth of technological determinism and the myth of transparent technology.
The myth of technological determinism involves the belief that new technologies are so powerful that “simply introducing them to writers will change literacy acts in the most profound ways” (35). Buckingham (2008) offers a helpful counter to this myth by arguing that the media with which we engage are cultural forms: “computers are much more than devices for information retrieval”—they enable “imaginative self-expression and play” and facilitate “intimate personal relationships” (74). Through games and social networks and platforms for distribution, computers facilitate human communication and cultural exchange. These devices cannot be regarded as neutral or decontextualized machines, then, because the tools themselves are socially situated. As Jenkins (2009) puts it, the “tools available to a culture matter, but what that culture chooses to do with those tools matters more” (8).
Derek Van Ittersum (2009) describes this phenomena in terms of the “functional systems” humans develop to distribute cognition. He conducted ten case studies of graduate students who use digital tools to facilitate research and writing. He found that the way his participants selected and engaged with digital tools was unique to each person; even if the tool (in his example, EndNote) had the same function for multiple users (assisting with academic research), the users had different goals (a place to store PDFs versus a way to generate a reference list) and this caused them to respond differently to the tool’s affordances and constraints. Van Ittersum’s point is that any given tool has different values for different users. One might interpret this finding as evidence that it is not the tool itself that is important so much as the way we use the tool to accomplish cognitive goals and literate activities.
However, Van Ittersum also found that once the tool was fully integrated into a person’s functional system, it became an inseparable and defining element in her composing process. The tool changes an individual’s literacy; as such, we cannot ignore the specific features of a tool. The tendency to do so, Haas explains, is the myth of transparent technology, where one views “technology merely as a means of textual production” such that the “essential nature” of literacy “exist[s] independently of and [is] uninfluenced by” the tools that facilitate it (34). Haas acknowledges that tool users need the tools to be transparent to some extent so they can focus on the task at hand (e.g., we need to be able to watch the road and not think about how the engine works in our cars) (25). The problem comes when this transparency seeps into the scholarship, as is the case, Haas argues, in many “theories of writing [that] implicitly claim that writing is writing is writing, regardless of the technologies used” (xii).
Van Ittersum & Ching (2013) confirm that Haas’ concerns are still valid today; most process and postprocess theories in writing studies fall victim to the transparent technology myth, with the exception of work on the materiality of writing by scholars like Jody Shipka, Paul Prior, and Anne Wysocki. To extend Prior & Shipka's (2003) work on how writers’ physical environments influence the writing process, Van Ittersum & Ching explore writers’ digital environments. Through case studies, Van Ittersum & Ching show that users of distraction-free writing software tend to feel that the multiple tool bars in word processing software like MS Word tempts writers to prematurely focus on design. The distraction-free advocates believe the first step in the writing process is to get the words finalized, and then turn to formatting and design, and they find that distraction-free software that forces plain text typing is more appropriate for this process. Van Ittersum & Ching thus offer a helpful counter to the transparent technology myth by showing that some writers spend considerable energy selecting the appropriate tools to construct a suitable environment for composing, and those tools become a critical part of their writing process.
An even more fundamental corrective to the transparent technology myth is to acknowledge that writing cannot be “writing” without the technology that enables it. Collins & Halverson (2009) demonstrate this argument when they point out that people have always been worried about the ways in which tools will change our writing practices—in 1815, they were worried about the shift from slate to paper; in 1907, it was the shift from pencil to ink pen; in 1950, it was ballpoint pens; in 1987, it was the desktop computer; and, in 2014, it is mobile devices (31). Collins & Halverson point out these continual concerns about technology to show that the system has not been destroyed by the changes in tools, but they are also demonstrating that tools have always been part of writing—we literally cannot write without them.
Ong (1982) offers a helpful explanation of the impact of tools on literacy when he shows how scribes initially translated oral speech into text, and well after printing became prevalent people still read out loud because they viewed reading “as primarily a listening process, simply set in motion by sight” (119). As print technology improved, it “produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner” (128). With silent reading came a “different relationship between the reader and the authorial voice” (120) and it “encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral” (129). The result was new modes of communication that gave more power to the individual author than to the collective community. The ideological change is undeniable, and it would not have been possible without the tools that facilitated literacy because it is impossible to separate the psychological impact of reading silently from the physical artifact of the hand-held book.
Similarly, the tools that facilitate writing influence our ideological and philosophical understandings of literacy. As Kamil et al. (2000) argue, writing on a digital device enables rewriting, revising, and reorganizing in a way that is far less cumbersome than with pen and paper, thus reinforcing the process movement and shifting our understanding about the permanence of text. Similarly, online collaborative writing tools (i.e., Google Docs, ether pad, wikis) align nicely with arguments about the collaborative nature of authorship among open source advocates. Purdy (2010) makes a similar argument about the nature of web 2.0 tools (Wikipedia, JSTOR, ARTstor, and del.icio.us) and academic research—he argues that these tools “muddy the distinction between production and consumption” (56) and thus encourage students to view research and writing as a simultaneous practice.
The point is that tools are cannot be replaceable and interchangeable mediums that facilitate communication because the nature of the tool is bound up with the way we define and understand literacy.
The answer to the problem of tool use, then, lies somewhere in between technological determinism and transparent technology. We must recognize the ways our uses of tools define their value, and also acknowledge the ways tools constrain and enable our literacy practices.
To deal with this issue practically, many scholars advocate for a dual view of digital literacy: to counter technological determinism, they focus on what Lankshear & Knobel (2008c) call conceptual literacy, the habits of mind that enable us to critically and rhetorically engage in communication. To counter transparent technology, they focus on what Lankshear & Knobel call operational literacy, the specific skills required to use tools. A classroom focused on conceptual literacy might ask students to reflect upon literacy practices without actually using digital tools to produce compositions, or it might assume students come to class with operational literacy skills (and expect students who don't come to class with such skills to acquire them on their own). A classroom focused on operational literacy might devote considerable class time to teaching students how to use a specific tool and separate the “how to” instruction from rhetorical instruction.
A classroom that successfully walks the middle ground between determinism and transparency should simultaneously teach conceptual and operational literacy. Stuart Selber (2004) makes this recommendation in his argument for simultaneous functional, critical, and rhetorical literacy instruction. Functional literacy involves how to use the tools, critical literacy involves how to evaluate your and others’ use of the tools, and rhetorical literacy involves how to communicate ideas appropriately via the tools. Importantly, these literacies necessarily coexist and overlap. Functional literacy is not merely a technical skill—through exploring the functionality of digital tools, students “construct new meaning” (33)—and critical and rhetorical practices are not only impossible without functional literacy, they are also less useful if taught in isolation. It is preferable to critique and reflect upon digital tools as one learns about their functional uses because all three literacies support and enhance one another. A good example of simultaneous functional-critical-rhetorical literacy instruction can be found in the literature on multiliteracies centers that advocates for just-in-time functional instruction as students create and reflect upon the rhetorical goals and constraints of digital compositions (Balester et al., 2012; Sheridan & Inman, 2010).
While it may be useful to theoretically distinguish between operational and conceptual definitions of literacy, or to isolate literacy practices from the tools that enable them, being “literate” requires a functional, critical, and rhetorical understanding of how tools mediate our communication. Consequently, as discussed in the Characteristics of Digital Literacy section, incorporating digital literacy as a learning outcome into college writing classrooms requires not only asking students to use digital tools to create multimodal compositions, but also asking students to critique the ways information is produced and authority is established through the process of composing.
For more information about literacy instruction, see History of Literacy Instruction and Teaching Digital Literacy. For more information on the factors that define digital literacy in our current social context (multimodal composition, information, and collaboration), see Characteristics of Digital Literacy.
Created by Mary K. Stewart (2014)