Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An EdTech View on Literacy and Harry Potter

A dog's age ago, Margaret Wente published a column in the Globe and Mail about the demise of books, entitled, "Need more bad news? Try schools without books", on November 22, 2001. In brief, Wente argued that schools were diverting money from teacher-librarians and libraries to fund more computers in schools; she worried that this shift in priorities would result in children reading fewer books and, therefore, developing fewer literacy skills.

In response to the column, I sent Margaret a letter in which I presented an alternate, educational technology view on literacy and books. She didn't respond, but I came across this letter the other day and believe that many of the points are still relevant and worth sharing almost seven years later.

To Margaret,

In your recent column, "Need more bad news? Try schools without books", you make some good points, albeit, sensationalized a bit to get people's blood running. I need to ask: Have you paid attention to the Harry Potter trend? A good majority of children in Canada, and many many adults, have read all four of these books and cannot wait for the author to write the next one. Children and adults are lining up to buy... books. In our multi-media age, children and adults are also trooping off to the theatre to see the movie, looking up Harry Potter information and movie trailers on the web, posting comments on fan sites, and sending each other email about their favorite wizard.

It is unfortunate that you only present one perspective effectively in this article. Most of your arguments are presented with the barest of facts and tend to polarize debate as an "either/or" dichotomy. The "grim news" is not that schools are buying less books (because parents are buying more books) and that computers have come to the classroom; the bad news is that some booksellers are seeing parts of their market share dropping, and like the luddites of past technological shifts, are resorting to fear tactics as an attempt to hold on to the past version of their industry . Playing on people's fears, rather than presenting honest and well reasoned arguments, is both inaccurate and immoral.

The truth is that books AND computers are today's literacy and authoring tools. Via and, and other online sellers, people now have more access to better, cheaper and more beautiful books that ever before. You likely used a word processor to write your article in the Globe and Mail -- it is also published on the web. The only reason I knew about your article was because a colleague forwarded the link -- I didn't need the paper version to access your argument.

You end the article with: "Yet books, not computers, create the common ground for literacy and love of reading. Is anyone listening?" Well, I am listening, but I simply do not agree with most of what you say. I agree that books are very important in our culture; however, books are not the only way to create a common ground for literacy and love of reading. To be literate means more than just being able to read books. Literacy includes a critical reading of texts of all kinds (books, newspapers, websites, cultural norms, facial expressions, and so on), from authors with a range of perspectives; literacy includes writing and expressing oneself using multiple media and forms; literacy includes counting and numeracy, and yes, computing - Andrea diSessa (2000) makes a well-reasoned argument for the growth of computational literacies -- you should read his, yes, book!

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the dominant communication medium has been the printed page, whether it be a newspaper, an essay or a novel. And people not only consumed; they authored. Children read novels in school, and they write letters, essays and poetry. Other dominant mediums in the past 50 years have been radio and television - and people consumed, but rarely had a chance to author unless they were in specialized fields and media occupations. The dominant media of today are interactive and social; today's interactive media includes international networks, digital video and hypermedia. Unlike the predominantly broadcast media of the past, digital technologies and the Internet enable both adults AND children to author, publish and exchange their stories, their narratives using text, graphics, animation, sound and video on public web servers.

One of our most important jobs as educators is to help children to read the many texts and media forms in their world. We must also teach our children to author using the media of their time… It is not enough to teach children in the ways we were taught - because they live in a different age. Yes, stories and information shared in books AND via computers and networks can create a common ground for literacy, and promote a love of reading, writing and communicating with the world.

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