Towards Web-literacy and Transformative literacy

Literacy and Web-literacy

In anticipation for next week and for the discussions around literacy and web-literacy I think there are a few things I am thinking about both as a literacy teacher and an edtech person. Unfortunately this is going to roam into the realm of the academic banter on literacy. But this might be interesting to spark off some ideas for next week..

From my own experience I often remember working in the library with teenagers who had come to Australia as refugees. For them literacy was hard, it was not incredibly exciting either. They would have to sit down and learn the things that every other kid was taught as a child or just knew because of their background. They had to learn everything from the a,b,c to the meaning of a contents page in a book, how to find things in the library, how to use a dictionary, how to turn on a computer. The lot was learnt from scratch - this was because many had never been to school really at all after living for years in refugee camps for long periods of time (often as long as ten years on the Thai- Burma border).

As a teacher you could see that every day made a difference, it was slow but it made a big difference. I remember one day teaching them to use the Yellow Pages and the telephone directory. At the end of school a few of them were running home. The next day they told me that was because they had wanted to go and teach their parents, who had never learned to use these before how to find information. It is staggering to me to think how important this simple act could be. 

So the point I am going to make is that literacy is a great responsibility, it is often hard and often gets looked down on a bit and gets overlooked by the establishment but it is where great change and transformation comes about. To talk about this, it would make sense to refer to a fundamental thinker on literacy, Paulo Freire who coined the concept of conscientization or critical consciousness.

Essentially Freire developed a theory of critical pedagogy around the ability to ask questions. This was a theory which challenged "normal" forms of knowledge that were ubiquitous and deeply embedded in discourses about the social, cultural, economic, and political contexts of knowledge production and dissemination. For Friere pedagogy was about liberation from oppression, or to quote him directly: 
"The role of an educator who is pedagogically and critically radical is to avoid being indifferent, a characteristic of the facilitator who promotes a laissez-faire education. The radical educator has to be an active presence in educational practice. But, educators should never allow their active and curious presence to transform the learners' presence into a shadow of the educator's presence. Nor can educators be a shadow of their learners. The educator who dares to teach has to stimulate learners to live a critically conscious presence in the pedagogical and historical process" (1)
Freire's ideas about literacy in the 1970's in South America were also embraced for a time globally by bodies such as UNESCO in what became a big push for literacy. But in the 1980's after the USA withdrew funding, as it has also recently again to UNESCO along with pressure from bodies such as the World Bank, Freire's influence was replaced with ideas of 'functional literacy' which was essentially required for basic needs and importantly for work.

To relate his ideas to web-making and web-literacy draws me back to questioning and critically putting the norm of web-consumption and use into a context that makes it seem unfamiliar and questionable.. The role of the educator here to me seems to reach beyond but also to disrupt the norm and to draw out the space for creation and participation that allows learners this level of critical consciousness. It is to encourage learners not just to consume education and the information on the web as an essentially laissex-faire activity, but to go out and swim upstream against established experience and dogma. To do this however, also requires important tools - such as a critical and enquiring mind.

So from this perspective you can see where a bit of the punk / hacker / maker attitude to learning and web-making fits in. I think literacy does become an act of claiming a space, to have the right to say and do what you say in public forms of expression and in legitimated codes of knowledge. (often whether people like it or not )

So I think there is underneath this activity what often gets called for want of a better word - a movement of resistance. Henry Giroux, describes the importance of this in his work on critical theory:
"Theories of resistance become useful when they concretely provide ways in which to articulate knowledge to practical effects mediated by the imperatives of social justice and uphold forms of education capable of expanding the meaning of critical citizenship and the relations of democratic public life” (2)
To elaborate, web-literacy and web-making could then be seen as a way to transform undemocratic social practices and structures, and it is this energy that to some degree I think does infuse it with a degree of 'resistance' to norms. Often this gets brushed off to the side, especially in teacher training colleges where increasingly we are moving to train teachers to learn from practice and not from theory. I am just saying, it makes sense that this will come from the spaces outside and from within the structures of the web itself with the wider open movement. 

Finally literacy studies (just to round off this massive loop ) contains many theories about literacy of course and there are different ways of talking about it. In fact a continual broadening of the restricted view of literacy towards that of a modern or post-modern world has taken place. In “Literacy in the New Millenium” (Lonsdale & McCurry, 2004) the authors attribute this move to a shift from a state-controlled Fordist economy towards a ‘knowledge economy’ and a globalised and borderless world.

In the construction of the modern world the authors explain, there was: “a sharp division on the mental and manual aspects of a job…workers were interchangeable and management was both centralised and hierarchical”. They explain how literacy went from being associated with ‘being a good citizen’ in the 19th century or even before that with religion towards a deficit model assuming an association with the development of cognitive skills, where literacy is not taken for granted just as the embodiment of 'citizenship' but instead becomes associated more with schooling or "transactional literacy” and being part of the economic hierarchy between different classes and different functions.  

In contrast in a post-modern world the authors state that there are multiple cross disciplinary literacies and that diversity and plurality are more valued, workers need print and electronic literacy and ways to learn how to learn independently throughout their lives, workers need to be multi-skilled and flexible. Finally, the authors suggest that “human capital is the new currency and networks and knowledge have become a commodity”.

From this perspective it would seem that literacy has gone from structuring a state-based hierarchy and consequently benefiting the individual in certain ways  to being a capacity benefiting the group or the network enabling the individual to operate within that network.

Essentially, literacy is about power and sits in a particular relation to production and the economy but I think that on an individual human level importantly we should remember that it is a human right. Unfortunately I think it often tends to get politicized often to bear the stamp of each epoch of political thinking and the discourses of those who hold power to control knowledge. The responsibilities and rights that are elaborated within this space and the structures that govern it are what we should bring our attention to when we speak about literacy.


1. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Fall, 1995) Breaking free: The transformative power of critical pedagogy.

2. Giroux, H. (1983). Theory and resistance in education. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your banter. Good to add global notions on this topic as we begin next week. LITERACY has become a term that has grown its own life, loaded with judgements and agendas. Educators try to use it to imply that all education is a 'science' and overlay egalitarian ambitions on top of it. Whether standard print or digital media, people need to find meaning in the content. Ultimately to me, literacy is simply what the word means- ' ability to read and write' We too often focus just on the reading part.