The Great Equalizer?

581-student_ipad_school-213I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years thinking about literacy – digital literacy, scientific literacy, reading literacy…— and the factors that influence where someone falls on the various spectrums. If there is one theme that each form of literacy has in common, it is the myth of accessibility and I believe it behoves anyone interested in Digital Humanities – Digital anything – to give great thought to the divide between what is real and what is ideal.

As someone who grew up with black and white television and rotary telephones, who remembers the excitement of Atari and the launch of the Commodore 64, who spent hours typing code on the family’s TRS-80 (when Radio Shack was a leading driver in computer technology) just to do things like this… Let’s just say that I approach all new technology and the pronouncements that come along with them with scepticism. I appreciate each new advancement for what it is and what it has to offer, but it seems to me that we are increasingly looking to technology to solve problems that technology cannot solve, while the problems themselves spiral out of control.

As Hayles noted in “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” there is a strong move toward screen reading in place of print, and at the same time there is a decline in the reading skill level of the same populace. According to the College Board, for example, reading skill level of high school students in the US has been on a steady decline, with the average 2011 graduating student reading at a 8th grade level (see more about national trends here). But as many who study the history and practice of assessment know, the data does not always back up the assertions.

As Hayles correctly notes, “those who already read well will take classes based on close reading and benefit from them, but what about oth¬ers whose print-reading skills are not as highly developed? To reach them, we must start close to where they are, rather than where we imagine or hope they might be” (65). And that means looking at the material – not the medium. Placing Shakespeare on an iPad and handing it to a 7th grader is not going to magically help him or her understand the words in front of them. And changing the genre (e.g. replacing the original text with a game) to get the gist of the work across does no one any good. (We don’t read Shakespeare in an English classroom necessarily for the content – though the content has value. We read it to understand the genre, the form, and how the form influences the content…even if no one states that objective explicitly.)

There has been a national movement over the last half decade to bring technology into the classroom in order to make it accessible to everyone, with results being a mix of success and utter failure. Part of that failure, I believe, is because we bring in technology without truly thinking through its pedagogical use. We read Shakespeare on the tablet instead of the codex. We use a SMARTBoard instead of a Dry Erase or chalkboard, but don’t do anything new with the medium. If we are going to use education and technology to bridge gaps and equalize opportunity, then we need to start thinking more creatively about what that looks like.

Those of us who are educators should remember that our role is to help each student progress, to build their skills from where they are toward what they need to be in order to succeed economically. You cannot build a skyscraper without a solid foundation and creative engineering. The connection between literacy and productivity has been shown conclusively: Those who can fluently navigate the text and medium will be more economically productive. That connection is not obviated by technology, but technology has the potential to influence it both positively and negatively.

The move away from print and toward the digital – in humanities as well as other disciplines – opens up a world of opportunity of which we have only tasted the icing. It also opens up a world of questions to which we should be prepared to answer: Who has access to the technology? What are our expectations of the technology? How does this technology inform what we are already doing in the classroom and in our work? What does “open access” mean for scholars, laymen, creators of information, and publishers? What gets preserved and/or made available?

I don’t necessarily have answers to these questions, as yet. In fact, I would argue that the answers are situational. However, I do believe strongly that we need to be asking ourselves these questions over and over and over again as we work, and engaging with others to crowd-source solutions.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” ADE Bulletin, 150 (2010): 62-79


One thought on “The Great Equalizer?

  1. I agree with you that putting Shakespeare on a tablet and handing it to a 7th grader will no “magically help them understand the words in front of them.” A lot of this, I think, has to do with forcing the new medium (tablet) to be a mere surrogate for a book (as many of our readings have mentioned). And a tablet is, in many cases, a poor surrogate for a book – on my Kindle, at least, the highlighting system is a bit clunky; typing out notes is slow and (for me at least) much more difficult than writing in the margins.
    Of course, my tablet might not be the most up-to-date; I know there is some app out there that lets people highlight and underline text using the touchscreen and a stylus. But still, this forces the medium to behave like a book. Like you, I am not sure what a tablet that behaves differently than a book will look like. Maybe, instead of the clunky keyboard interface, we could take notes using voice features like Siri. Maybe we could markup the text as we read, literally linking one passage to another we have read before. But this platform will not behave like a codex.


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