Internet creates ‘new literacy’

Knight Ridder Newspapers

AKRON, Ohio – It’s easy to define literate as “able to read and write.”

What happens, however, if the recognized tools for literacy such as books, pencils and paper give way to Internet chats with streaming video?

What if, in the age of text messaging and 250 TV channels, youths grow increasingly disconnected from the printed word and find other ways to process information and communicate?

Once upon a time, hieroglyphics were a standard for literacy. Now, the modifier for that standard is usually “ancient.”

A concept being discussed in some quarters, and taught and implemented in others, is called New Literacy.

Dr. William Kist, a professor at Kent State University’s Stark Campus, is a proponent of it, has researched it extensively, written papers and an upcoming book on the subject, and teaches it to his students.

New Literacy has several definitions, but one theme stands out: The ability to process information and apply knowledge is as important, if not more vital, than the traditional teachings of reading, writing and math.

“I would say, in a nutshell, the theory is that we human beings are going to read in a different manner in the 21st century than we did in the 20th century,” Kist said.

“We are going to spend more time in front of a screen than we spent in front of a page.

“Now that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to need to have to know how to read print. That’s absolutely imperative,” Kist said. “However, this theory … is saying that the way we read and write is going to be different. It’s going to be nonlinear.”

Nonlinear reading? New Literacy? Are these simply esoteric terms with vague meanings?

If you use the Internet regularly, at work or at home, the answer is no. If you play video games online, where you interact with other players using created characters, you’re already doing it.

Consider: You go online to look up the score from your favorite team’s last game. While browsing, you check a link detailing Britney Spears’ latest exploits, which leads you to a link about lifestyles, which prompts you to plan your next vacation using a travel-based Web site.

Oh, wait. Why did you get on the Internet in the first place?

That is an example of nonlinear reading, where the path of the information search is determined by the seeker.

“Do you remember those books, ‘Choose Your Own Adventures’?” Kist said. “That’s what reading is going to be more like. When you read a book, most people are reading from left to right, start to finish.

“Whereas if you hit on a Web site, every person’s experience with a Web site is going to be different. No one is going to click on the same links in exactly the same order.”

A 2002 summit held in Berlin set out to define basic tenets for the 21st century, using New Literacy. There were five types of literacies promoted: technology, information, media creativity, global, and literacy with responsibility.

In essence, the contention was that reading and writing needed to be taught in conjunction with these new concepts, because the ability to find and then understand information-as well as being able to sift through and discard any unneeded excess-will begin to define how youths learn in the future.

But how will those students be taught, and by whom?

Kist lectures people who are majoring in education about traditional methods of teaching, the kind based on required reading, homework and quizzes, where standardized testing can be used as an indicator of achievement.

However, Kist also explains to the prospective teachers how to use alternative methods of reaching students. Some of Kist’s students are already trying some of these methods, using digital media such as MP3 files, the Internet, art and film to enhance learning.

“The paper-pencil assessment will always be around,” said Tracy Knisely, a 33-year-old education major from North Canton, Ohio. “But that doesn’t mean other things can’t be used, that methods won’t evolve.”

“It’s not about being new school or old school,” said Suffield Township, Ohio’s Michael Manholt, 22. “It’s just another way of teaching, a tool. Maybe it’s not something you use in every lesson. But you’re just trying to reach the kids.”

A group of Kist’s adult students agreed that children exposed to alternative methods of learning tended to be enthusiastic, as well, since not every youngster enjoys reading.

Those are the students that New Literacy doesn’t want to leave behind, because everyone learns at different rates and speeds.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said Christine Ostapack of Jackson Township, Ohio, another education major, citing an example of how learning can be different.

“Writing a report from an encyclopedia doesn’t guarantee you learned something, either.”