Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

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Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, by Stuart A Selber, proposes a three-part digital pedagogy as a solution to the overemphasis on functionality currently pervasive in higher education’s approach to computer literacy. It argues that the responsibility for carrying out such a pedagogy lies firmly within the domain of the Humanities, as otherwise we risk allowing critical thinking to be severed from computer literacy.


[edit] Overview

Selber posits that the tendency in higher education to view functional computer literacy as an adequate and equalizing outcome of computer education programs is naïve and shortsighted, and privileges corporate values over those of the Humanities. Computers in of themselves do not make people more equal or more productive; for that to be possible, Selber argues, people must be armed with more than just functional technological literacy. To that end, the central project of the book is to present a framework for conceptualizing computer literacy that brings the previously dominant functional approach into balance by placing equal emphasis on critical and rhetorical inquiry – thereby creating the digital multiliteracy of the title. In doing so, Selber also calls direct attention to the significance of digital literacy for the Humanities and challenges those in the field to take responsibility for conceptualizing and putting into practice an approach to computer literacy that is “both useful and professionally responsible” (7).

Selber identifies his approach to technology as “postcritical,” citing the influence of Stanley Aronowitz’s work on how computers have impacted professional lives as well as that of Patrick Sullivan and James Porter on critical research practices. He advocates the advantages – almost necessity – of such a stance, emphasizing in particular the importance of rejecting ideas of technology as a “self-determining agent” that can create educational change on its own (7); additionally, he argues that by taking a postcritical view, teachers (and their students) are more likely to be aware of their own potential to contribute to such dangerous misconceptions through careless practices, and thereby more on their guard against doing so.

In addition to undergirding the book’s multiliterate framework, this idea of a postcritical position on technology is also central to the book’s other central claim – that it is the responsibility of the Humanities to provide students with the means to develop effective digital literacy. Selber posits that unless those of us within the Humanities begin actively championing the importance of critical thinking and human agency in effective and socially responsible computer use, technology education is likely to be left as the domain of more scientific disciplines – creating a potential threat to the disciplinary values of the humanities. Drawing on the work of David Orr and Alan Kay, he weaves a cautionary tale of digital education as left to the sciences: computer use isolated entirely from the social and political issues of our time making critical reflection on their influence all but impossible, and a function-only focus that (intentially or not) places corporate needs over critical ones. Selber argues that the responsibility for instilling responsible digital literacy belongs to us not only because it is generally the Humanities’ job to engage students in well-rounded critical engagement with their world, but also simply because if we don’t do it, it may not be done at all.

[edit] Chapter Summary

[edit] Chapter One

The first chapter lays out Selber’s proposed framework of multiliteracies as a necessary response to the overly functional approach to computer literacy currently he perceives as currently dominant in higher education. Using excepts from Florida State’s computer competency exam as an illustration of the tendency to privilege functional proficiency over critical, Selber analyzes the potential danger of such policies for the students they serve and for the Humanities disciplines whose values they are displacing. Selber proposes a tri-literate approach to computer literacy as a means of counteracting this - one that privileges not only function but critical and rhetorical engagement as well.

[edit] Chapter Two

Chapter two explores the first of the three "multiliteracies": functional literacy. Using the work of Kenneth Levine and Colin Lankshear, Selber posits that functional literacy should “reflect the needs and motivations of the groups served,” and should emphasize the ability to construct new meaning independently. As such, his conception of inquiry points such as computer management are not limited to operational functions (such as program installation or deletion), but instead sees them as distinctly individual practices that “almost always unite technology and literacy in ways that require social judgments” (65).

[edit] Chapter Three

Chapter three, devoted to critical literacy, defines its approach as “one which recognizes and then challenges the values of the status quo” (81) – unlike functional approaches, which tend to reproduce existing social or political orders. In place of the tool metaphor used in the previous chapter, he suggests an artifact metaphor as a useful way of considering critical computer literacy; both are alike, he says, in being “physical products [that] must be studied, yet [whose] social backdrop should not be overlooked” (92). Digital pedagogy needs to engage students in reflection on how seemingly harmless or unrelated forces can have serious social, cultural and political effects. The chapter strongly advocates heuristics as a means of facilitating such a perspective in the classroom, arguing that their use is the most ready means of giving students access to the oppositional discourses necessary to challenge dominant views.

[edit] Chapter Four

Chapter four deals with the final of Selber’s multiliteracies - rhetorical literacy. It probes the new rhetorical considerations brought about by technology and the corresponding need to craft pedagogical approaches to digital writing that account for such changes. Selber argues that as the point where humans and machines meet and interact, digital interfaces are poised to become central to our means of communication in the not-too-distant future, making rhetorical awareness of their capabilities and design crucial because “there is so much as stake in the representations of literacy online” – for society in general and the Humanists in particular.

[edit] Chapter Five

Chapter five, “Systemic Requirements for Change,” lays down a plan of action for instituting the approach detailed in the three preceding chapters. Selber cautions that instituting such a program requires a difficult and slow series of changes, as well as continual support from motivated administrators and faculty; as such, he is explicit about the importance of establishing regular evaluation of digital literacy initiatives. English departments, he says, need to “craft multilevel curricular approaches in order to organize meaningful instructional experiences for students” (223) He then proceeds to divide the necessary changes into pedagogical, curricular and institutional challenges, discussing each in turn.

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