Year of Learning

The Future of Reading and Writing in the Age of Digital Media

May 24, 2016

The Future of Reading and Writing in the Age of Digital Media


Photo by Marc Franklin

The Year of Learning’s final event examines how the changing technologies with which we read and write are altering our notions of literacy — and of how we teach it 

The final event in Stanford’s Year of Learning, the wide-ranging discussion series that has examined the future of teaching and learning at Stanford and beyond, took as its subject one of the most ancient concerns of education — reading and writing — and yet couldn’t have been more up-to-date.  

While reading and writing both remain essential proficiencies, the technologies with which we can now undertake them are shifting what it means to be literate. So how, in a world of texting, blogs, and social media, do we prepare young people to be excellent readers and writers, and how do we help their teachers impart those skills? 

Offering answers to an audience of students, teachers, administrators, and parents at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) earlier this week were four experts on literacy and text production among youth and their communities. Each shared ideas about how we can help young people read and write about the changing world around them in ways that are both powerful and relevant to their own lives.  

The event, co-sponsored by the office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, was also the penultimate seminar in a nine week Graduate School of Education series entitled “Education’s Digital Future: Equity by Design,” which aims to “define key issues at the intersection of equity, technology, and learning, and catalyze new forms of collaboration and ideas for innovation.” 

Educator and author Catlin Tucker got things started with a lightning talk on how technology is creating growing divide between the classroom and life beyond. In many schools, she said, “learning isn’t personalized for individual students, yet the minute they walk outside the classroom door they can access limitless amounts of information and can customize their own learning.” In addition, Tucker noted, most classrooms offer limited technology options and rarely share students’ work, even as young people are routinely sharing ideas and images online. But technology can also help bridge these gaps, she suggested. 

Electronic books, for example, can expand the materials available for children of differing abilities, as can online literacy tools that adjust texts to appropriate levels of complexity. Similarly, said Tucker, teachers can embrace online tools like Diigo and Google Docs in ways that encourage deeper reading and let teachers respond to student writing as it is being created. And given appropriate support, students can also be trusted to share more of their work in public. “I’ve seen kids who struggle to find their voice in the classroom thrive online,” she observed. 

The evening’s first featured speaker was Lissa Soep, research director and senior producer at Youth Radio, the Oakland-based, youth-driven media production company. Soep, who is also a Stanford education PhD, offered the perspective of both a producer who works with young people and as a member of the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, which aims to help young people use new media to find both a voice and agency in the public sphere.

One development Soep highlighted was that young people are now using digital tools to investigate issues that concern them in real time. As an example, she described an app called “West Side Stories,” designed and built by students to tell stories about gentrification in Oakland. The app is able to accommodate feedback as it occurs, placing young people in editorial control and generating valuable community conversations. 

Soep outlined four opportunities for learning that arise from the development and widespread adoption digital media. Teachers can: deploy coding for positive social outcomes (rather than to simply learn a skill); help students navigate the “digital afterlife” of the work they share; encourage students to investigate topics through public engagement projects; and empower students to move from finding their public voice to having a civic impact.

While Soep works mostly with high school students, Adam Banks, professor of Education and director of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, works with college-age students ranging from freshmen undergrads to PhD candidates writing their dissertations. Writing programs need to be constructed based on an understanding of the social and political contexts in which they work, Banks argued. “The future of writing is here,” he said, “but we’re not caught up to it because we’re not listening to and learning from the right people.” 

We also need to acknowledge that writing is central, rather than tangential, to intellectual inquiry, professional success, and democratic life, Banks said. It’s therefore not enough to encourage diversity. “We have to decolonize writing instruction . . . and how we conceive of the richness of writing and the instruction of writing has to be worthy of the students we bring here.” And we can look to marginalized forms of literacy, often online and practiced with greatest success by the young, to rethink our ideas about what kind of expertise we value.

Technological change will challenge us in other ways, Banks added, as we stop using keyboards to input information, spend more time in immersive environments, and face growing disparities in access to technology. But we can also find both hope and answers through engaging with these challenges, he argued. 

The final speaker, Cherise McBride, is a PhD student in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, and a teacher of digital pedagogy in the school’s Multicultural Urban Secondary English Masters program. In the light of the digital transformations outlined by the other speakers, she asked, “how are we going to train teachers for the future of reading and writing?”

One answer is to think of literacy in more than the alphabetic sense, said McBride. It needs to include the skill of reading images and also elements of design, and take into account the cultural and linguistic diversity of today’s students. Add technology, she suggested, and you have “literacies that are plural, dynamic, and malleable.” 

That reality asks more of teachers of reading and writing, McBride acknowledged, and went on to share three ways in which teacher education can help ready them for the task. Firstly, they can be given space to develop their own technological skills, which can include working with peers who have greater experience with technology. They can also be exposed to the best available research about teaching with technology, and should be encouraged to use technology in a way that foregrounds its potential as a tool for advocacy. “Inequity is not going to change on its own,” said McBride, “unless we have people who are willing to advocate and model the kinds of shifts that need to occur.”

The event ended with a panel discussion moderated by Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Director of Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning for the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and the Year of Learning’s coordinator. Dierkes-Thrun first asked the panel to talk more about the public aspect of the digital communication that students now engage in. That can be valuable for both student and teacher communities, said McBride, although teachers often find it harder to share their work online than their students. Soep saw issues with young people, too. Most she noted, “already have a certain persona that is who they are to their various communities and what they produce in the sphere of journalism might not be at all consistent with the impression they make with their existing social media feeds.” 

The panel next discussed the importance of not underestimating students – with panelists sharing examples of how they have helped students navigate the consequences of pushing their ideas into the world instead of protecting them from having those interactions – and how technology can help build (as well as hinder) reading skills among students.

Further questions from the floor had the speakers thinking more about how digital technologies can offer students choices in their reading, and how non-textual forms of literacy — like listening, speaking, music, and movement — will both impact and be impacted by ongoing technological change.