Electronic Literacies: Language, Culture, and Power in Online Education
reviewed by Michael L. Kamil - 2002
Title: Electronic Literacies: Language, Culture, and Power in Online Education
Author(s): Mark Warschauer
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, NJ
ISBN: 0805831193, Pages: , Year: 2000
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In Electronic Literacies, Mark Warschauer presents four case studies of educational settings where electronic means of communicating were implemented. These include two ESL classes, a Hawaiian language class, and an English composition class. The social, linguistic and cultural aspects of the environments, electronic communication, and learning are presented.
Compared to the national attention focussed on the role of computer technology in schools and education, there is only a very small body of research on the effects of computer technology on literacy. Kamil and Intrator (1998) have shown that the rates of publication of such research have remained low, and relatively constant, over more than a decade from 1985 to 1996. Kamil, Intrator and Kim (2000) reaffirm the state of affairs. Because of the small quantity of published research, Electronic Literacies is a welcome addition to the literature on the effects of computer technologies on literacy, culture, and language.
It is particularly interesting to view this work as a "bookend" to Sherry Turkle's volumes on the psychological aspects of online communication. Warschauer explores the social and cultural aspects of education when it is, in part, mediated by computer communication. However, the focus of Electronic Literacies does not allow for comparison of perspectives and we are left with little psychological analysis in the work.
One of the great difficulties in doing research involving technology is that the technology chosen for study at any given time is destined to be out of date nearly immediately. While there are no full descriptions of the technology and the aspects of it that were used, some of it can be inferred. For example, Warschauer mentions a problem in using fonts for different languages in email programs. Most contemporary programs can provide both text and graphical data, making such a problem non-existent today. Technologies have moved on. The question is whether Warschauer's findings can be used as lessons for current (and future) uses of computer technology. This is complicated by the fact that there is little attempt to map the various aspects of technology students used in a systematic manner. At the conclusion of the work, a question remains: Would these case studies appear different with the newest of current technologies?
Several questions arise as one read the book. What counts as literacy? While the cases are illuminating about some aspects of literacy, the reader may wonder what else is involved in literacy and becoming literate. Some of what seem to be the most important developments in literacy related to "electronic literacies" but are not treated in depth. Foremost among these is hypertext--mentioned on only a handful of pages, in what seems almost an afterthought. In the summary, Warschauer does deal with the critical issue of hypertext and writing, but continues to ignore the reading issues.
Throughout the work I was left with the feeling that I simply had no idea whether the learning in these four settings was "better" (or richer or deeper or even different) from that in traditional settings. Other than some general assurances that, for example, the projects were more sophisticated, we have little or no evidence on this point.
What is missing is a more general synthesis. For example, Warschauer does an excellent job of connecting writing to oral language, but neglects any of the potential effects of reading on the same issues. Similarly, issues of the reading-writing relationship are absent in the discussions. Are there lessons across these four contexts that could be more generally applicable to other learning contexts? How would we be able to combine the social and cultural findings with those from a psychological perspective?
Researchers and authors such as Turkle have handled the psychological dimensions of computer-mediated communication in non-academic situations. Warschauer has provided us with a tentative description of some of the social and cultural dimensions in academic contexts. With additional work we may yet approach a comprehensive description of the factors that go into successful uses of electronic literacies in educational settings. Given the increasing importance of computer mediated communication and the role of computer technology in literacy, this comprehensive description is long overdue.
Turkle, S. (1984). The second self: computers and the human spirit. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kamil, M. L., & Intrator, S. (1998). Quantitative Trends in Publication of Research on Technology and Reading, Writing, and Literacy. In T. Shanahan & F. Rodriguez-Brown (Eds.). National Reading Conference Yearbook 47, pp. 385-396. Chicago: The National Reading Conference.
Kamil, M. L., Intrator, S., & Kim, H. S. (2000). Effects Of Old And New Technologies On Literacy And Literacy Learning. In M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R Barr, (Eds.). Handbook of Reading Research, Volume III. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (pp. 771-790).