Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Computer programming and the acquisition of critical literacy

I present the following argument for the authoring of interactive or programmable multimedia as an important meta-literacy skill. Though I am not fully decided on this proposition or the role of critical literacy in schools, I think the issue is significant and worthy of consideration.

In summary:

  • Critical literacy is an important skill

  • Literacy is not just about text and can apply to a range of non-text media

  • Non text media are becoming increasingly important means of communication

  • Despite their apparent skill with the new media, students still need help developing critical literacy in new media

  • Media authoring skills are necessary for developing critical literacy

  • Media are increasingly becoming interactive

  • Hence authoring skills of interactive or programmable media are an important literacy skill

Meta literacy or critical literacy

Critical analysis is an important literacy skill. When applied to traditional media, it means not just comprehending the words on a page but assessing the truth and reliability of the writing and understanding the motives and biases of the writer.

Critical literacy is the defining aspect of meta-literacy. The literate person examines texts to determine the currency, accuracy, bias, and comprehensiveness of the information. It means taking our thinking to a deeper level with critical questions.” (Doiron 2005)

Edgar Dale, well known among a earlier generation of educators and researchers for his work related to literacy, discussed the need for critical reading, listening, and observing in contending with the new literacies implied by audiovisual media of the 1940s.

The new literacies of the Internet and other ICTs include the skills, strategies, and dispositions necessary to successfully use and adapt to the rapidly changing information and communication technologies and contexts that continuously emerge in our world and influence all areas of our personal and professional lives. These new literacies allow us to use the Internet and other ICTs to identify important questions, locate information, critically evaluate the usefulness of that information, synthesize information to answer those questions, and then communicate the answers to others.” (Leu et. al.)

New literacies

Literacy is not, and never was, just about written text. Literacy is about conveying meaning through the use of symbols, these symbols are most commonly text but not always. Even early manuscripts were illustrated and diagrams are an important part of technical texts (Lemke).

Nor is text literacy just about the literal meaning of words. Poetry and drama are used to convey nuances of meaning that prose cannot convey. Understandings of literacy have changed over time, the novel is only about 400 years old and was controversial when first introduced.

Other media greatly enhance the meaning of text, they don't just add to it. “Meanings in multimedia are not fixed and additive (the word-meaning plus the picture-meaning), but multiplicative (word-meaning modified by image-context, image-meaning modified by textual context), making a whole far greater than the simple sum of its parts “ (Lemke)

Nor is prose that simple, meanings can be modified by tone of voice, orthography and calligraphy. Text can be communicated in sign language.

programmable multimedia in Turtle Art

Typological and topological

Lemke draws the distinction between typological and topological symbol systems. Typological systems (language) work more through classification into mutually exclusive categories whereas topological systems including maths and visual media work at the level of variation and relationship. Critical literacy is required with typological and topological media.


The word electracy has been coined to describe the 'kind of 'literacy' or skill and facility necessary to exploit the full communicative potential of new electronic media such as multimedia, hypermedia, social software, and virtual worlds.” (Wikipedia)

Social media

Blogs, wikis. Myspace, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Skype, Ventrilo, SMS, IM, listservers, Secondlife, etc. are interactive rather than broadcast media. They are increasingly becoming the media through which citizens inform themselves. They are also increasingly channels for business communication.

For example, the most up to date news of the 2004 Tsunami was provided not by the mainstream media but by blog sites.

Social media also played an important role in the 2009 Australian bushfires. “As the worst bushfires in Australia's history raged across Victoria, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook lit up with condolences and horrific first-hand accounts, while many used innovative online mapping tools to assess the risk of the fires reaching their own homes. Mainstream news outlets, battling to provide comprehensive coverage of the tragedy, have incorporated accounts published on the social networking sites extensively in their reports.” The Age February 9 2009,

Political parties are using Youtube and blogs to communicate their messages.

Digital Natives

Digital natives grew up in the age of computers. It is often said that they are much more proficient in digital media than their teachers. How then can they be taught about digital media? Livingstone, among others, questions how deep their apparent proficiency is, quoting Scanlon he says “education ought to be based on assessing students’ individual strengths and weaknesses rather than making glib generalisations that mistake using Facebook for technological savvy

Leu outlines a role for teachers, “Teachers will increasingly need to orchestrate complex contexts for literacy and learning rather than simply dispense literacy skills, since they will no longer always be the most literate person in the classroom.

Authoring skills

Authoring is an important part of literacy. If this is true for text, would it not also be true for multimedia?

Literacies cannot be understood as passive receptivities. Making sense with a printed text is a complex and active process of meaning-making not so different from writing the original of that text “ (Lemke)

The generic literacies of the Information Age will certainly include: multimedia authoring skills, multimedia critical analysis, cyberspace exploration strategies, and cyberspace navigation skills. (Lemke)

Jamie Myers and colleagues described in 1998 how involving students in creating multimedia hypertexts about literacy and historical figures such as Pocahantas led to a critical stance toward various sources of information”(StateUniversity.com)

"Our proposal for a multimedia literacy that gives the ability to participate freely in the society of the third millennium, and ultimately to transform it, stems from students and teachers authoring multimedia." (Gutiérrez Martin)

Interactive media, simulations and games

Increasingly, interactive media including games are used to inform and persuade. Critical literacy skills also apply to this medium. Some examples of “serious games” include:

Americas Army, “America's Army (also known as AA or Army Game Project) is a series of video games and other media developed by the United States Army and released as a global public relations initiative to help with recruitment”. (Wikipedia)

Food Force is an Educational game published by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)

Darfur is Dying is a viral video game for change that provides a window into the experience of the 2.5 million refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan

Ayiti: The Cost of Life , produced through Global Kids and supported by Microsoft's Partners in Learning Mid-Tier Initiative, which “seeks to identify and encourage "pockets of innovation" for increasing digital literacy and career readiness”.

Virtual Worlds

Virtual worlds include Secondlife, World of Warcraft and Quest Atlantis. Virtual worlds are inhabited by the avatars of large numbers of real people, there is a lot of interaction and a lot of communication, some of it language based and some not. It is likely that we will be spending increasing time in virtual worlds for work and play and that a critical literacy will be desirable.

Secondlife is not a game, but it is a game-like virtual world. deWinter and Vie have written on using Second Life to teach critical media literacy.

The multiplayer game and virtual world, World of Warcraft now has over 10 million subscribers making it larger than many countries. “World of Warcraft is rich in new literacy practices as there are so many other players online around the world at the same time” writes a teacher . Beavis discusses how a World of Warcraft trailer was critically analysed by a class of year 8 students.

Quest Atlantis is a learning and teaching project that uses a 3D multi-user environment to immerse children, ages 9-15, in educational tasks. The literacy aspects of this virtual world are many and obvious.

Visual programming languages

Multimedia is becoming increasingly interactive. The media experience changes depending on consumer choices. The webpages we view change their content based on tracking cookies. The authoring of web pages is computer programming. We regularly interact with web aplets, games and simulations. Even entering phone numbers and ring tones to our phones is programming, when we change our computer wallpaper we are programming. When we set up a spreadsheet or word processor template we are programming.

The ability to write computer programs is an important authoring skill and as has been argued above, requires a critical literacy.

Multimedia authoring tools are increasingly interactive and programmable whilst programming languages are increasingly accessible to younger learners and allow the embedding of multimedia: images, video and sound.

For example, Powerpoint, which is primarily a slideshow authoring tool can be used for games and animations. And game programming tools can be used to author presentations.

For students to learn to author interactive media and multimedia, they don't necessarily have to do all that with one package, they could use one package to author multimedia and another for interactive media, but it does seem like a good idea if they can blend both in one package.

Multimedia in a Turtle Art program

The desirable features of an authoring system in which students can develop multimedia critical literacy are

  • can present a range of multimedia, sound, images and video,

  • can create interactive media

  • low entry ( easy for beginners )

  • high ceiling* ( no restrictions for high level tasks )

  • free**, if students are given authentic and relevant challenges they will spend many hours working at home for each class contact hour

* closely related to high ceiling is the concept of wide walls, that is that students are unrestricted in the breadth of their project as well as being unrestricted in top end complexity

** related to zero cost is software freedom, open source software can be modified or remixed by teachers and students, aside from the question of whether schools should lead by example or reflect the realities of commercial software, there is a case that the ability to inspect and modify is part of developing multimedia authoring skills.

The characteristics of some popular programmable authoring environments are shown below

Low Entry

High Ceiling

Open Source



Turtle Art












Game Maker




Y (lite version)





Open source closed development















Agent sheets









Alfonso Gutiérrez Martín PhD. Multimedia authoring as a fundamental principle of literacy and teacher training in the information age University of Valladolid (Spain) edu.of.ru/attach/17/1382.doc

Lemke, J.L. Metamedia Literacy: transforming meanings and media, in Literacy for the 21st Century: Technological Transformation in a Post-typographic World, D. Reinking et al. (Eds.), Erlbaum.

Ray Doiron and Jessie Lees It Takes a Village to Raise a Reader: Building Literacy Across Generations http://www.nald.ca/library/research/village/report.pdf September 2005

Dale, quoted in Literacy - Multimedia Literacy http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2186/Literacy-MULTIMEDIA-LITERACY.html

Donald J. Leu, Jr. Charles K. Kinzer Julie L. Coiro Dana W. Cammack Toward a Theory of New Literacies Emerging From the Internet and Other Information and Communication Technologies http://www.readingonline.org/newliteracies/leu/

MMOGCHART.COM “Charting the future of the MMOG industry.” http://www.mmogchart.com/Chart1.html

Jennifer deWinter and Stephanie Vie Press Enter to “Say”: Using Second Life to Teach Critical Media Literacy

Beavis Paying attention to texts http://www.aate.org.au/files/documents/English%20in%20Australia/Beavis%20EinA%2043-1.pdf

Kahootz3 at forefront of research http://www.une.edu.au/creme/uploadedfiles/kahootz_newsletter.pdf

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Blogger Bert said...

Thanks, great post!

You made Game Maker sound interesting (as the only software with both low entry and high ceiling). Unfortunately I can't try, it appears to be available for Windows only.

IMHO that's another very important factor, possibly even more so than being free or open-source (though with open-source software it's more likely to be available across platforms, e.g. both Scratch and Etoys work not only on Windows, but on Macs and Linux, too).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 1:02:00 AM  
Blogger Tony Forster said...

Thanks Bert
Good point, I forgot cross platform

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 7:42:00 AM  
Anonymous rbb said...

interesting post ...and nice series of posts on turtle!

my thinking on this is similar to your argument that critical literacy in the new media requires authoring ability, which requires some technical skill

i'd phrase it 'absence of technical phonics creates technological illiteracy - masked by partial competence'

i think education has taken a turn away from ICT as programmable media ... and aims more directly at 'using it for learning' etc

this is a bit like not mastering the difficult task of learning to read and write

for example, when my son was learning to read he could pick up any of about 10 to 15 books, and 'read' the pages - but all from memory, cued from from both pictures and the remembered flow of the narrative - and he knew some simple words and sounds to help
(if you like, a 'whole language' strategy that had not yet married the full phonic skills of decoding and processing and the greater word recognition that flows from here) ...nothing wrong with that, but an incomplete stage

i beginning to think a lot of teachers are like this ... ok in 10 or 15 software applications or tasks that they might use .... but need to be helped if they venture out of that ... like learning a new story - need support (read it to me) until they can find their way around a bit.

Again nothing wrong with that but is there is a more efficient and self directed way to learn .. but requires a deeper grasp of technical skills - marrying the 'whole language' use of examples (read it to me first, train me first) - with the 'phonics' etc of technology (i can decode it myself)

(this more efficient use still draws on other resources and examples - eg a help file or email discussion - but does not need it 'read to them' first (sit right here and show me from a to z) for it to be cued up in memory

your turtle multimedia examples, are obviously supported by a programming mindset, which enable them to go much further, than those who are limited to noble goals 'ict should support higher order thinking' and need constant support 'now i'm off to another training session'

it might take years to learn this technical 'phonic' (learning to read and write can be difficult) - but then it truly supports higher order approaches to ICT

and without the greater tech skills, which have fallen out of favour, we will never get enough training delivered to get the bulk of teachers to make this difference at the creative, authoring level of ICT usage

we are stuck at mimetic and disfluent level of reading - and the acid test is the capacity to write - to create using this literacy - is patchy

... so any number of curriculum documents and discussions position ICT as transforming curricula - enabling higher order thinking, supporting self directed learning etc - but these noble goals also seem to go along side a discussion of 'teachers need more time, more training' - which are like adding one more book to my son's 'reading list' when he was coping like that

my feeling is that we (education systems) make this worse, by dismissing the technical skills (boring old programming etc) .. they're difficult to cultivate, but go much further in the end ... like learning musical skills, rather than music appreciation

(i need to qualify this, since ict creation is typically divided into 'design' and 'technical' - and i'm arguing for the latter - and many do well with the former - graphics skills etc are another kettle of fish i don't know much about - but maybe there is a similar technical apprenticeship that is needed before the nice artwork flows off the computer)

anyway ... nice post!

Friday, December 18, 2009 11:05:00 AM  
Anonymous rob said...

PS do you think etoys is high entry?

maybe not as streamlined as some but there are simple getting started tutorials ... and my year 7s didn't find it too bad when i tried them out, when i knew about 2 hours more than they did

Friday, December 18, 2009 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Daniel Livingstone said...

Good piece Tony - and very current with some discussions I've been having with some of my university colleagues.

There is also a very recent article in CACM on Scratch in which Mitch Resnick makes some similar arguments - that without the ability to design and create novel content, students cannot be considered truly digitally literate.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009 9:58:00 PM  
Anonymous computer programming said...

Awesome information!! Thanks

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 9:38:00 PM  
Blogger Tony Forster said...

Thanks to those who commented and to whom I haven't yet replied.

Here's another link:

Coding the classroom: Technology and the practice of language by Claudia Herbst

The technology of the Information Age depends on programming languages for functionality. Because programming languages ultimately affect the production of language digitally, programming languages will inevitably demonstrate a lasting effect on the process of writing. Hence it is important to recognize the impact of programming languages on the production of language. It may well be the necessary first step in understanding technology’s reverberating presence in the classroom.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger Tony Forster said...

Changing minds, computers learning and literacy, diSessa

Tuesday, February 02, 2010 10:05:00 PM  
Blogger Tony Forster said...

Cognition and Literacy in Massively Multiplayer Online Games
Constance A. Steinkuehler
University of Wisconsin–Madison

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