The Changing
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The Changing Face of Literacy

By Nicole Long

The definition of literacy has undergone amazing changes throughout history.  In the middle ages, it would have been defined as being able to interpret Biblical scripture and as late as twenty years ago, it was defined as being able to read and write.  Today, the definition has expanded even further.  It is the ability to communicate by identifying, comprehending, interpreting, and creating, not only written text but images, computer languages and a multitude of other forms of interaction.

Imagine the different forms of literacy that people now engage in everyday.  Where we once woke with the rising of the sun and the crowing of the rooster, we now read digital alarm clocks and struggle to find the miniature icon that allows us to sleep for ten more minutes.  As we prepare for the day, we interpret dozens of graphic images on kitchen appliances and encounter even more in our cars.  They seamlessly provide us with information to operate complex machines and make our lives easier. 

At the office, a cup of coffee starts the work day along with a quick skim of an online newspaper where we can scroll past headlines in our RSS feeds, letting the curser linger over hypertext links to get pop-up definitions.  If we are not inclined to read the news, there are the numerous photos, podcasts and video casts all ready to inform us of the world events. 

Now that we have had a chance to wake up, we might get to our morning correspondence which has been altered dramatically in the last two decades.  Asynchronous communication through email and synchronous communication through instant messaging has changed the way we write and the speed in which we can work together.  If email and chat are not expedient enough, short message service (SMS) can be used to contact the cell phone of that elusive sales manager

How often do you use your computer for entertainment, communication or information?

that just won’t stay in the office. We now correspond in high speed with maximum efficiency.

It is the afternoon now and as we enter the conference room, it is easy to see that the chairman’s speech has been replaced with a PowerPoint© presentation, complete with diagrams, charts and flashy images.  We might take notes on our handheld devices or laptops and at the end of the meeting the project manager explains that he’ll be setting up a wiki for group collaboration so that the next project can get underway. All of these forms of communication require that we understand, not only their technology but also the language that they have created out of images, icons and text.

Finally, the work day is over and we’re back at home but our exposure to new literacies is not done yet.  In today’s hectic world, there is a good chance we will be upgrading our skills so we might log on to an online course and spend some time reading and answering discussion forum questions.  This could be followed up with a quick tune in to a favorite blog or podcast to end our day.

There is no question that technology has changed how we communicate and convey information.  It has also altered the skills required for these complex forms of communication.  This issue of Literacy Today will examine how our world is changing and how we are meeting the challenges of new literacy