Digital literacy: Reading for meaning-making, problem-solving and participation in the internet age

An assignment for URI Seminar in Digital Literacy | EDC 532

One of the things that has changed the most in today’s connected society is the concept of reading. Or rather, the concept of what constitutes a text. From printed letters on a page that took a while to write and distribute — to ones and zeros that travel everywhere, instantaneously. These little bits of data carry a lot of information to us, very fast. Information that reaches us wherever we are, through small screens on our inseparable devices or large screens on the side of buildings. And so we read. By many accounts we are reading more nowadays, not less. We read books, news. We read tweets, facebook posts, blogs, memes, videos, messages. Content is brought to us in the form of games, videos and ads. And we read differently now, taking in many things simultaneously. We interact with images, maps and infographics as we’re reading the news. We read ads as we’re interacting with our friends. Sometimes we click away from what we’re reading and end up immersed in a completely different subject. Or we can be virtually transported to the stories we read. In this fast-paced environment, information comes at us from many sources. In the days of print and TV, journalists, editors, broadcasters, authors and publishers had the authority and the means to convey information to us. Today, as anyone can compose and publish information, the authorship and intent is often unclear. We often read things without really knowing who sent them, and with what purpose. The question is: are we really reading as we’re being constantly bombarded with information through all our senses? What does it even mean to read nowadays? And, more importantly, how do we go from information to knowledge?

Image Adobe Stock

I wrote the passage above in 2019 for a video called Read, write, think , my final project for the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy that year. As I explore several readings on digital literacy and online reading comprehension, most of which were written between 2003 and 2013, I can’t help but think of the ways in which the literacy challenges brought forward by these scholars have only been amplified in the last ten years as a result of enormous technological changes that affect the basic elements of online reading comprehension as defined by Hartman, Morsink & Zheng (2010): namely how the multiple dimensions and manifestations of texts, authors, readers, contexts, tasks and technologies interact.

While in her 2003 study of online reading comprehension professor Coiro was anticipating a time when mobile devices would bring anytime internet access to every classroom, nowadays digital media has become an intrinsic part of our social and cultural fabric — in schools and even more so in society at large. Digital literacy — being able to find, interact with, evaluate and extract meaning from a wide variety of text types online, as well as produce and publish new knowledge while engaging in a series of social interactions in digital spaces (Coiro, 2013 and Coiro, 2015), addresses key skills that impact our ability to read a fast-changing world. I would argue that they are also key to true social inclusion, as digital texts and interactions now mediate almost every aspect of our social, professional and even civic life.

The hyperabundance of content on the internet has forced us to rethink long-established assumptions about teaching and learning in every content area, and this problem is at the core of our work at EducaMídia. If information is everywhere, how (and why) do we teach? If information is abundant, but not always reliable, how do we learn? Preparing students to be lifelong learners requires abandoning the exposure of information in favor of autonomous inquiry. In fact, online reading comprehension involves a process of self-directed text construction (Coiro & Dobler, 2007) “that occurs as readers navigate their own paths through an infinite informational space to construct their own versions of the online texts they read” (Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman, 2015). Creating a good inquiry question, locating, evaluating and synthesizing information (Coiro, 2013) continue to be the key steps in online reading, even as the nature of texts change; but, in this vast universe, teachers’ guidance becomes even more necessary — and the most effective online reading comprehension teaching practices, such as Internet Reciprocal Teaching, focus more on the process of locating and evaluating information than on the text itself (Coiro 2003).

Traditional print comprehension strategies based on cognitive theories, as well as monocultural assumptions about the dominance of “school-appropriate” print texts with a fixed meaning (Hammerberg, 2004), are no longer enough. The internet has expanded the definitions of reading, writing and participating, sometimes in ways that challenge our ability to build knowledge confidently. New types of text demand non-linear, immersive or interactive reading, and various forms of non-textual messages require visual or data literacy; writing has become collaborative with memes and remixes, and formats such as fanfics or citizen journalism blur the line between authors and readers. Trustworthiness becomes harder to establish with influencer marketing, conspiracy theories, and post-truth, and systemic injustices get crystallized in biased texts, prejudiced or stereotyped representations. And then there are the design elements of the digital spaces themselves, which use algorithmic personalisation to keep us engaged and direct our searches, and can polarize debates, amplify hate speech or encourage the spread of misinformation. Even artificial intelligences are not neutral, and can reinforce existing inequalities.

Inquiry-based learning places the student at the center of their own process of discovery and meaning-making, with a bias to critical interventions. Images Adobe Stock (left) and Mariana Ochs (right).

If definitions of texts and authors have become pliable and multidimensional, the same can be said of readers. Out-of-school and autonomous learning play an important role in developing reading and comprehension skills. No longer the content receptors of the TV generation, or dependent on teacher-led activities and teacher-selected texts to develop comprehension skills and strategies, in the internet age children and young people are eager for self-expression and discovery, and are driven by their own interests to explore a variety of non-typographical texts. They are learning on their own, from each other, on YouTube or through interacting on social platforms.

In a sense, the idea of literacy as a socio-cultural practice has taken new dimensions as the internet has multiplied our opportunities to engage in dialogue and knowledge construction with different communities around the world. The main shift in the ontological definition of “new literacy” is one of ethos, that is, in relationship to societal roles and interactions (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008). The educational potential of these social connections is recognized in Mimi Ito’s work around connected learning (Ito et al, 2018), which is openly networked, peer-based and organized around a shared purpose, leveraging our ability to produce content to impact a real audience and solve authentic problems.

Along with social practices, critical literacies are also central to online reading comprehension (Coiro, 2013). The spread of participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006) and the opportunities afforded by the social nature of the internet allow us to address the “why” of reading comprehension with a bias to action, in ways that resonate with our learners in different cultural contexts (Hammemberg, 2004). By curating culturally relevant texts and valuing students’ unique insights and interpretations, we not only help them understand their place in the world and examine it critically, but also encourage them to see the possibility of questioning texts — or what Hammemberg calls “literacy for social change.”

The internet is no longer just a tool. When we think of technology as language, and the online space as territory, it is easy to see digital and media literacy as a basis for equity, and the need to address it as an everyday, cross-curricular practice. Online literacy pedagogies that are concerned with equity and inclusion must not only encourage critical media consumption, creation and distribution, but also encourage critical and creative questioning of the ways in which the technology itself affects our our abilities to read, write and participate ethically and confidently in a connected society (Morrell & Filipiak, 2018); ultimately, young people can and should be encouraged to challenge the design and the assumptions behind existing technologies, reinventing digital spaces and forms of participation to address systemic inequities.

Coiro (2003). Expanding our understanding of reading comprehension to encompass new literacies. The Reading Teacher.

Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman (2015). Research on Instruction and Assessment in the New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension.

Coiro, Julie (2013). Online reading comprehension challenges. Retrieved June 19th 2022, from YouTube website: https://youtu.be/wsWDEr2fKxA

Hammerberg, D. (2004). Comprehension instruction for sociocultural diverse classrooms: A review of what we know. The Reading Teacher, 57(7), 648–656.

Ito, M., Martin, C., Pfister, R., Rafalow, M., Salem, K. and Wortman, A., 2018. Affinity online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning. NYU Press.

Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushatma, R., Robison, A., and Weigel, M. (2007). Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MacArthur Foundation.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). From ‘reading’ to ‘new literacy’ studies. In C. Lankshear & M. Knobel, New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning. Berkshire, England: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.

Leu, D. J., Kinzer, C., Coiro, J., Castek, J., & Henry, L. A. (2013). New Literacies: A dual level theory of the changing nature of literacy, instruction, and assessment. In N. Unrau & D. Alvermann (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th ed., pp. 1150–1181). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Mirra N, Morrell, E. & Filipiak, D. (2018). Digital Consumption to Digital Invention: Toward a New Critical Theory and Practice of Multiliteracies, Theory Into Practice, 57:1, 12–19.

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Mariana Ochs

Designer, educator, Google Innovator. Coordinator of EducaMídia. Exploring design, media and technology in education, and empowering youth in the digital age.