Alexander on Multiple Literacies

Alexander, Bryan. 2008. “Web 2.0 and Emergent Multiliteracies.” Theory Into Practice.  47, no. 2:150-160. ISSN 00405841.

Although it already seems dated (was 2008 really that long ago?), this article presents a solid overview of the many ways in which students write and create online – their “multiple literacies” as the title suggests. In the epigraph, Alexander refers to one of my favorite Kathy Yancy points; “Note that no one is making anyone do any of this writing” (from Yancy, K. B. (2004). “Made not only in in words: Composition in a new key.” CCCC, 56, 297-328). Despite the trend of using online composing in schools (where you can argue someone is making them write), the truth remains that people of all ages are composing text messages, facebook posts, tweets, and blog posts everyday outside o
f any institutional framework. This is important for instructors who work in institutions where many students claim to have never written an essay or read a book previous to college (my CC composition students frequently write this in diagnostic essays – I realize this does not mean teachers have not assigned these tasks…).

In explicating how to integrate these multiple literacies in the classroom, Alexander does an  excellent job defining terms from both a historical technical and perspective. For instance, in “What is Web 2.0?” Alexander reminds us that the term originally appeared in Tim O’Reilly’s 2005 post of the same name, and that to qualify as Web 2.0 (versus 1.0) “projects must abide by a fairly coherent set of digital strategies,” which include social software or social networking and microcontent in conjunction with openness and social filtering. To further define the first of these terms Alexander conjures Licklider’s “dream of using networked computing to connect people and boost their knowledge and ability to learn” as well as a long list of now obsolescent social networks. I also find Alexander’s definition of microcontent to be useful in that it is about small posts, not entire pages, but I am not sure I agree that they are small in terms of user effort. For social networking sites Alexander refers to such as Flickr or Facebook, the effort is indeed minimal. However, while you don’t need to “build a page layout, design menus” to blog, most bloggers do design their blog space – and as is true for this blog – many posts involve a considerable amount of intellectual labor as well. (Alexander 152)

Perhaps most useful to me is Alexander’s discussion of social filtering : “Drawing on the wisdom of the crowds, users contribute content to the work of others, leading to multiple-authored works, whose authorship grows over time” (153). This “digital strategy” includes commenting on, tagging, and distributing microcontent. In building commenting and tagging features into my course blogs and my digital project the Writing Studies Tree, I hope to harness this exact notion – collective wisdom. Within these very different digital spaces my expectations of social filtering is also different: in the context of a undergraduate course blog, I want the students to learn from each other by commenting on each other’s drafts and discussion posts, and tagging exists to show patterns between texts (both the course material and student work), whereas on the Writing Studies Tree, I hope to increase searchability and enhance the filtering on my visualizations by encouraging a folksonomy, and commenting primarily exists to gather information that cannot be represented visually. In both cases the interactivity generates new knowledge. I am very interested in studying the results of that knowledge creation process (visa-vi the process itself). As the title of this article alludes, I think the ability to create and understand these new forms of writing within digital spaces is a vital skill, one that needs to be addressed in our system of education.

Note on future uses of this article:

For my research project on the Writing Studies Tree tagging feature, I will use Alexander’s distinction that “folksonomies consist of single words (FOOTNOTE in my case this could be titles or phrases) that users choose and apply to microcontent. In contrast, traditional metadata is usually hierarchical (topics nested within topics), structured (traditional library sanctioned standards such as Dublin Core), and predetermined by content authorities (bibliographers, catalogers)” (153-4). An important distinction because I am looking to the contributors as the experts in the field whose knowledge will become apparent through the use of the site.

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