Day after day as I try to keep up with developments in integrating new technologies into classrooms, (thanks to such tireless edubloggers as Will Richardson and Anne Davis as well as Roland Tanglao and Cyprien Lomas who roam the world, it seems, in search of the best tools and applications thereof) I see how conferences, periodicals and edublogs are being flooded with presentations, articles and notices about the impact of new technologies on classrooms, and about how writing is a major player in the technology-rich educational setting. What concerns me is that all too many of the reports (especially high profile ones that reach mainstream media outlets) are NOT considering how blogging and other emerging forms of computer-mediated expression as continuous, collaborative, multi-media authoring are not the equivalent of writing with a new tool that for all intents and purposes is pretty much the same as quill, pen or typewriter, just faster and networked.

Kairos News and Edutopia both have September issues focusing on media literacy in light of a workworld that increasingly demands its inhabitants to be skilled users of the new technologies. (Of course, one question this brings up has to do with the disorientation of older workers who must adapt to a world speaking a language not their native tongue, but one they must learn as adults—think about how difficult it is for adult immigrants to learn the language of their new homeland, for example—but that’s another story for another post for another day.) And yet, the focus is still on writing as separate from graphics, from web design principles, from color theory–from sound principles. Students need more writing instruction, concludes one national report. (What else is new– reports state what teachers already know…)

If we consider writing in isolation, though, we miss the point of new technologies as well as the realities of the world we live in. James Duderstadt, Howard Rheingold, and Héctor Vila, among others, have been articulating the need for a new-media literacy curriculum for years, something George Lucas has recently expressed in Edutopia, arguing for us to understand that an entirely new means of writing—of expression—is emerging around us, and that we, as teachers, need to help our students “to understand [this] new language of expression…We must teach communication comprehensively, in all its forms…We live and work in a visually sophisticated world, so we must be sophisticated in using all forms of communication, not just the written word…If students aren’t taught the language of sound and images, shouldn’t they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write? …We must accept the fact that learning how to communicate with graphics, with music, with cinema, is just as important as communicating with words. Understanding these rules is as important as learning how to make a sentence work,” AND— “we need to take art and music out of “the arts class” and put it into the English class.”

Yes, indeed. Now we’re cooking. And it’s just what some of us are trying to do– what Héctor was scolding me about back a few posts until I broke through to some interesting realizations in my own blogging, and what he is up to right now with his first-year seminar as they move into digital stories—it’s clear that the kids intuitively feel the power of the image and sound, but haven’t looked closely at the grammar, at the impact of sounds, image amd text influencing and intersecting with one another. And there’s even more to be gained from multi-media authoring in our classrooms. The process itself, at least as we’re developing it in our Middlebury classrooms, requires collaboration—and therefore the very making of the digital stories fosters the creation of a strong, effective community of learners while teaching valuable skills in this new language and deepening critical thinking. All three elements are crucial to becoming an engaged, effective citizen of a complex society.

Our students, on their own are naturally moving towards multi-media authoring — my students are about to take up their first multi-media piece in artswriting, and yet ahead of schedule, four students this week opted to bring in tangible image-based elements as part of their second writing assignment (Bold work to be handed in on the third day of class, even without having our darn blog up and running—see the previous post for my classroom blogging woes)—they are feeling the urge to break through the “tyranny” of the flat page and play with object and image (not sound, yet, interestingly enough, perhaps because it is more time-consuming to capture and store?). The assignment asked them to write about a color or a musical note from multiple perspectives, using multiple forms. Katie brought in an actual orange on which she wrote her riff about the color orange. That’s a first step. Alex, writing about the color blue, handed in an envelope of photos and a plastic bag filled with blue-hair clippings. She, too, feels the need to move beyond language to explore the color and yet she has the tangibles outside the writing, in envelopes, not yet fully presented. John handed in a children’s book, written by him and illustrated by a friend as part of his exploration of the color blue. He not only has pushed past language but has moved into collaboration, all on his own. Julina colored her paper with tints of green to write about green. So, if four out of thirteen students venture out into a multi-media exploration in the second week of class, without any instruction as to how how such a step might help them achieve the emotional impact they are seeking, imagine what the group will come up with once they have examined the potential outcomes of the interaction of sound, image and word.

The kids are halfway there. Now they need us to provide the opportunity, the setting and the questions to learn how to speak this new language effectively and elegantly. And we need to figure out how to integrate this work into our already overloaded courses. This work takes time in the class and out–other things have to be jettisoned or recrafted to fit in with the multi-media work.

I’ll be looking to my blogging colleagues and cohorts to keep pointing to promising developments in their own classrooms and the wider world as we travel further into the language of new media. What is working for others–how might we collaborate?

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