Vol.1 No.29 19 September 2003
We live in a constantly changing world that continues to be shaped and mediated by the new information and communication technologies. Speed, instantaneity, flexibility, mobility, experimentation and change are some of the hallmarks, not only of Web literacy practices, but also of real-life social and cultural practices. Increasingly, these characteristics are described as part of a new communication order.
The new communication order is part of the technological revolution reshaping the material bases of society. New technologies have made massive incursions into all facets of life, albeit unevenly in different parts of the world: from the shape and structure of our communities to the organisation and content of education; from the structure of the family to the status of art and entertainment. This new order also means profound changes for the lives, identities and possibilities of contemporary students.
The new communication order is embedded within a dominant political and ideological order that has its own distinctive interests and values. We are moving from the capitalist era which valued individualism, profit, competition and the market into a world of high tech and global capitalism. Its prevailing ideas promote globalisation, new technologies and an unrestrained market society, advancing the interests of the new governing elites in the global economy (Castells 1996, 1997, 1998).
Further, the new communication order is connected to what Gee, Lankshear and Hull (1996) have called 'a new work order'. Its dominant features include: more stressful and demanding work for those with good jobs; a proliferation of low-paying and temporary jobs; many people without jobs; a widening gap between the rich and poor; a world in which national borders matter less. But the world of the new work order also includes the promise of more meaningful work, the valuing of diversity, the dispersal of centralised authority and the wider distribution of knowledge across communities. The challenge of finding ways to reconcile these apparently contradictory forces is sobering to say the least.
So what does the rise of this new communication order mean for literacy practices and education?
The new communication order takes account of the literacy practices associated with screen-based technologies. It recognises that reading and writing, considered traditionally as print-based and logocentric, are only part of what people have to learn to be literate. Now, for the first time in history, the written, oral and audiovisual modalities of communication are integrated into multimodal hypertext systems, made accessible via the Internet and the World Wide Web. The new literacy practices - digital literacy practices - represent the ways in which meanings are made within these new communication systems (Snyder 2001a, 2002).
Our electronically mediated world is associated with the emergence of new types of text, new language practices and new social formations, as people find different ways of communicating with each other. We are learning to read, write, speak, listen and view in different ways as new forms of communication are made possible by technological development. We send faxes, leave messages on answering machines, use mobile phones, send SMS messages, use scanners, surf the net, use search engines, create websites, e-mail, participate in synchronous online chat and more. When we engage with these technologies, some of us use standard English, some use different varieties of English, some use other languages altogether, and some use combinations of all these possibilities.
Literacy practices in the age of the new information and communication technologies are highly complex phenomena: they are not just about deciphering texts; they are also about understanding how culturally significant information is coded. Finding the language to talk about these new practices, discerning how meanings are made with them and explaining them theoretically are some of the challenges facing literacy educators in the 21st century.
As is always the case in education when something new comes along and challenges the ways in which things have been done for a while, we have a renewed opportunity to ask the important questions: What is education for? What do we need to ensure that our students experience and have access to? What does their education require of teachers? Of institutions? What do we change? What do we preserve? How do we alleviate the tension between continuity and change? What priorities do we need to commit to in the context of a new technological regime? Are the new media to be used for creative growth or merely as new ways of organising older human systems?
Educators have moved beyond the initial embrace of the technologies as panacea. Educators recognise the need to approach the technologising of literacy, the curriculum, pedagogy and sites of education with caution, understanding and wisdom. A good education is the goal and technologies need to remain in the service of that goal: they must not be allowed to drive the agenda (Lankshear and Snyder 2000).
Education is at a crossroad. We need to think critically about the use of ICTs and to provide students with the opportunities to acquire the skills to do likewise. It is no longer tenable to dismiss ICTs simply as new tools, using them to do what earlier technologies did, only faster and more efficiently. Such a response perpetuates acceptance of a limited notion of the technologies' cultural consequences; it overlooks their material bases and the expanding global economic dependence on them.
However, when the technologies are recognised as a crucial part of the cultural and communication landscape - indeed, as part of a new communication order - we render a more realistic conception of their significance, and of our own and our students' place in an information and knowledge-based society.
Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Castells, M. (1997) The Power of Identity, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Castells, M. (1998) End of Millennium, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Gee, J. P., Hull, G. and Lankshear, C. (1996) The New Work Order: Behind the Language of the New Capitalism, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Lankshear, C. and Snyder, I. (2000) Teachers and Technoliteracy: Managing Literacy, Technology and Learning in Schools, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Snyder, I. (2001a) 'A new communication order: researching literacy practices in the network society', Language and Education: An International Journal 15 (1).
Snyder, I. (2001b) '"Hybrid vigour": reconciling the verbal and the visual in electronic communication', in A. Loveless and V. Ellis (eds.) ICT, Pedagogy and the Curriculum, London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 41-59.
Snyder, I. (2002) (ed) Silicon literacies: Communication, innovation and education in the electronic age. London: Routledge.
Street, B. (2001) (ed) Literacy and Development: Ethnographic Perspectives, London: Routledge.
Titles by Ilana Snyder
Hypertext (Melbourne University Press 1996), Page to Screen (Routledge 1998), Teachers and Technoliteracy, co-authored with Colin Lankshear (Allen & Unwin 2000), Silicon Literacies (Routledge 2002) and Doing Literacy Online, co-edited with Catherine Beavis (Hampton Press in press) explore changes to cultural practices associated with the use of new media.