The Web as a Literacy Issue- A text and tool NOT a tech issue


Moving to Web Literacy Map 2.0

I have been following  and contributing to the work of Doug Belshaw and the #teachtheweb project to develop a web literacy map. The project, supported by the Mozilla Foundation, is currently revising version 1.0 to launch 2.0 A discussion has emerged  around naming the strands of web literacy.

In the first version of the web literacy map the competencies were organized under three strands: exploring, building, and collaborating. One of the first questions Doug asks when soliciting feedback is, “Should we use reading. writing, and participating?”

There seems to be general agreement around moving from collaborating to participating. The community is split on moving  from exploring to reading and building to writing. The majority favor sticking with exploring and building.

I support the latter approach. The web is a literacy issue.

What is web literacy?

We spend time debating what is web literacy, but I have been pondering if we need to first get at what do we mean by literacy?

The word “literacy” is   a poor substitute for knowledge. At a recent session at Literacy Research Association a paper was presented showing literacy being modified by 52 separate nouns acting as adjectives. The crowd favorite was vegetable literacy.

When we discuss literacy we must mean the act of encoding and decoding meaning on the world. At its core the web is simply a lot of texts linked together. If you lift up the hood and recognize and can decode the structure you can read web pages.

So it isn’t exploring and building it is reading and writing. As Belshaw noted in a blogpost 1/14)

Literacy, on the other hand, is reasonably well-defined as the skills and competencies required to read, write and participate effectively online.

Supporters of sticking with exploring and  building note  that the web is different. They also note that many other attempts at standards drew from media literacy or informational literacy . Once again  they note the web is different.

The detractors are right. The web is different. No tool for literacy has spread with such scope and speed. The web simultaneously  relies upon  and adds additional complexities and affordances to our existing sign systems. The web isn’t an informational literacy issue. The web isn’t a media literacy issue. The web is a literacy issue. Thus I define it as:

Web literacy is the participatory act of encoding and decoding meaning in networked spaces.

Defining web literacy as exploring and building casts the issue more as a tech issue. We need to see it as text and tool issue.

Defining Texts

Texts are now boundless. They are built and published in real time as we select the links to  follow. They are also written by the folks who publish the posts, websites, or updates.

It may in fact be better to adopt a semiotic viewpoint. Where we  speak not so much in  in terms as texts and writing but more in modes and sign making. -Modes are resources for making meaning. These can include images, writing, peaking, etc.  Each of these modes just like tools they can have  affordances.

Defining Tools

Throughout history of meaning making we often  discussed the affordances of the modes. We never thought about literacy as both a text and tool issue. Yes the pencil and voice both brought different affordances. They did different work, but the tool did not shape the message as much as it does today. We spent our literary history analyzing the mode.

Yet literacy tools today are unique. The web is different. New tools emerge every day and these new tools for meaning making, co-exist. They do not make older less efficient tools obsolete. Furthermore sign making occurs with a variety of modes and tools that cut across different social spaces. Transmedia is not possible without tool switching.

We must consider the web not as a tech issue but as text and tool issue. A literacy issue. A reading, writing, participating issue.  Both the text and the tools now help to constrain the meaning and affordances of web based text.

The web as a literacy issue

Defining web literacy using reading and writing makes the most sense because it accounts for the underlying structure of the web while recognizing the web has fundamentally shifted the meaning making process. HTML and CSS are symbol systems used by sign makers to constrain meaning based on available affordances just the same as a phonetic alphabet.

When we use the web we are reading and writing. This participatory act now just cuts across the texts, tools, and modes available. These three bring affordances to  meaning making, and the way we use text, tools, and modes are constantly shifting. Yet they are all united by the fact that someone has to encode and decode the meaning. We are reading and writing

I do not think the web has changed our brains or the ways in which we learn to write. The brain has evolved over millions of years and the web has evolved over decades.  What has changed are the social practices and discourses that are favored in network economies.

Defining Discourses

I do recognize that the web is different and there are very unique competencies required for higher level existence. This made me wonder if maybe we need a fourth element. Maybe the map should consider keeping building.

I would delineate building for writing when you are coding more for infrastructure rather than for meaning. I know I started off by saying we can no longer separate the tool and the text with web literacy. I can see how even the most complicated of code is simply a set of verbs asking to either give or get something. Yet when you look at the web literacy map something different happens as the competencies grow. You move from using the web for reading ad writing to making a web for reading and writing.

Basically I think we start to get more into the Discourses of the larger web community of tinkerers, hackers, and makers. There is a higher level of web literacy among this crowd. These are the people who can understand GitHub, who will draw virtual blades during markdown debates, and use specialized vocabulary (client-side and server-side scripting) and strange lingo (like Grok).

In the literacy we community we call this the disciplinary literacies. I wonder is this the same in web literacy. Do you reach a specific level of specialized knowledge, and ways of talking that signify membership in very specific groups? Is there a clear distinction in the general competencies the public needs to know and the more specialized discourses of the field?

Concluding Thoughts

  • After sitting on this draft I am questioning my premise. Do we need new metaphors for web literacy?
  • Should a new strand be added so it is now reading on the web, writing for the web, participating in the web, AND building the web?
  • I can understand building as a metaphor for writing but exploring as a metaphor for reading just does not sit well.
  • Where do traditional literacy skills (phonics, vocabulary, comprehension) collide with web literacy? Have we reached a critical point where this is a false dichotomy?

1 response on “The Web as a Literacy Issue- A text and tool NOT a tech issue”


  • INTERTEXTrEVOLUTION | Web Literacy Map-Slow Your Roll-Reflections on 12/14 Call

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