Literacy in the Cyberage
reviewed by Gary Brown - 2002
This book identifies literacy in the Cyberage as an aggregation of multiple literacies, including media, civil, discourse, personal, community, visual, global, evaluative, and pedagogical. Each receives a chapter of explanation, complete with an instructional strategy and examples for promoting it. All are essentially rooted in current composition theory and practice, even, for the most part, the chapter on visual literacy. As a result, there is a nagging unease as we stand on the brink of wireless, broadband, high definition, multipoint audio and video. "Composing ourselves online," the subtitle of this volume, ticks like a time bomb in this digital, literal, and soon to be virtual holographic light. Burniske’s contention that "students must learn to create an online persona through the words, expressions, and ideas they put forth" is an incipient artifact of this quickly passing age (Already Moore’s law is obsolete). The connotations of composure that share roots with "compose" will sooner rather than later eclipse the textual in composition. That even the current emphasis on writing nonetheless reflects good constructivist pedagogy well ahead of our educational institutions’ ability to embrace it defines the challenge of this book. Burniske knows it. He asks in his discussion of pedagogical literacy, "How many students—or teachers—are prepared for . . . global discourse, particularly in schools where provincial curricula still prevail" (p. 161)? The question presages the real point Burniske makes even as he laments the need for it still to be spoken: "Telecomputing is not about computers. It’s about educating our students, serving our communities, and improving our societies" (p. 223).
It follows, Burniske notes, that introducing computers into schools "is not merely a political or educational issue. It is a moral, philosophical, and cultural issue as well." Reminding us of Eisner’s arguments about the power of unspoken curricula, Burniske says, "To proceed with this experiment as if it merely alters a school’s explicit curriculum without affecting the implicit and null curricula belies either a cavalier attitude or epistemological ignorance" (p. 13). "Students who create ‘documents’ to be saved in ‘folders’ and placed on a ‘desktop’ are learning how to speak a corporate language" (p. 14). After all, Burniske asserts by evoking Postman (1993), "Technologies create the ways in which people perceive reality, and that such ways are the key to understanding diverse forms of social and mental life" (In Burniske, p. 21).
How should educators respond to this multi-faceted challenge? Well, at least for now Burniske’s approaches are reasonable. "Words are actions" (p. 72). The responsible response is to assert our individuality, or "compose ourselves," online. Burniske shows us how. He provides step-by-step lessons that embody principles of good pedagogy and clear, concrete guidelines, all the while remaining mindful of the high stakes in this perpetually morphing age. He does so by underscoring that education should be approached as an ongoing process, a process designed to foster a lifestyle—not just another consumable product.
For instance, in the chapter on Civil Literacy, Burniske provides us with strategies for exploring the moral and ethical dimensions of communicating online. On the subject of Personal Literacy, Burniske provides ways to help students recognize how others read and perceive the selves we construct online and, in the process, examine the social forces that shape our individual identities. The discussion transitions into the chapter on Discourse Literacy—the ability to read, understand, and abide by norms that govern the discursive practices of a particular social group. These lessons help us examine what it means to participate in society online. And yet, there remains a tether to the logistics of schooling in a very fundamental way. In each of these explorations, Burniske provides carefully sequenced assignments and samples of student work. He guides us through an analysis of that work, underscoring the critical role of the teacher for setting tone, mediating behaviors, and, when necessary, for confronting inappropriate student behaviors.
Burniske addresses the careful balance between the discrete lessons that fit our current conceptualizations of curricula with the need to adapt and move toward ever more progressive and authentic approaches to teaching and learning. He provides strategies for synthesizing the specific content we teach with mindfulness toward technology as a subject itself. The discussion of that balance brings us to the final chapters on Evaluative and Pedagogical Literacies. If we are to help our students understand the distinctions between mediocrity and excellence, if we are to help them, in other words, to move beyond mediocrity, we must move ourselves from a focus solely on what we want students to learn toward one that attends to how they learn it.
"We need to think of professionalism in new terms, encouraging teachers to experiment with pedagogical strategies, deviate from rigid curricula, and challenge their students intellectually without stifling personality -- either their own or their students" (p. 215).
Though this book inevitably fails to take us as far as the preface and introduction promise—to a comprehensive understanding of what being literate will mean in the coming age—the exploration is nonetheless fruitful. The book begins to bridge educators brought through a system with a predominant focus on text with students raised in a culture saturated with media. In the process, Burniske examines literacy both as a set of specific technical skills as well as the broader skills that make up one’s "ability to read and understand a communications medium by looking through the processes it enables, interpreting its signs and symbols, while also looking at the mediums’ impact on an author, audience, and message" (p. 16). He situates this literacy in the nexus between an educational and global context by reminding us that we need to help the "best students retain the intellectual courage and curiosity of childhood, daring to think in unconventional terms while asking difficult questions." In order to live and think critically and collectively in a global society where literacy is not about manners but about what matters, Burniske summons, finally, the reminder that it won’t matter where we go if we don’t develop the abilities to know when we get there. Toward this end, this book is a good start.
Postman, Neil. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Cultural to Technology. New York: Vintage.