Kalantzis and Cope on New Media Literacies

Technology’s Impacts on Communication

More and more of the text we read or write, the recorded sound we hear or create, and the images we see or make has been created, transmitted and rendered by digital means. Learning how to be a maker of meanings in this environment, to be a person who sees and thinks and knows the world through digital media, involves skills and sensibilities that are in some respects quite different from those of traditional literacy.

In the 1930s, the great cultural theorist Walter Benjamin wrote a famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. A recent, new translation has changed the rather inert phrase ‘Mechanical Reproduction’ in earlier translations to ‘Technological Reproducibility’. This is a poignant shift because it speaks to human possibility rather than technological inevitability. In the essay, Benjamin argues that something changes about art once it can be reproduced mechanically. This is the case not only for the tangibly new manifestations of representation that emerge, such as photography and cinema, but for the nature of all art, even our ways of seeing. Painting has an aura of one-off authenticity so that copies are seen as forgeries; whereas the photographic image is designed for its reproducibility. Decades after Benjamin writes, Andy Warhol paints—an old medium—but he plays with the idea of reproduction. Photography opens new ways of seeing accessible only to the lens, things not visible to the naked eye but that can be enlarged, or things not noticed by the photographer but noticed by the viewer. Movie-making substitutes for the live theatre audience a group of specialist viewers—the executive producer, director, cinematographer, sound recordist, and so on. On the basis of their expert viewing, they may intervene in the actor’s performance at any time as they shape the viewer’s experience of the performance. Photography is like painting in some ways, and cinema is like theatre, but both also represent profound changes in the way meanings are created and received.[1]

We are in the midst of another revolution in the means of production of meaning. At the heart of this revolution are digital technologies for the fabrication, recording and communication of meaning. With the sweep of a finger, a child can reproduce symbols, sound, and colour to produce multimodal screen pages. They can connect with others who are far afield. What does this revolution mean? What are its affordances? How do the changes connect with the dynamics of identity? This is not to ask what consequences follow from the emergence of this new mode of mechanical reproduction. Rather it is to ask, what are its possibilities? What does it allow that we might mean or do with our meanings? What new possibilities for representation does it suggest? How does it reflect and impact on transformations in the nature and social functioning of identity? What are the implications for literacies pedagogy?

We want to make the case that digital media are in some respects profoundly new. Certain novel aspects of digital reproducibility have enormous implications for the ways in which we make meaning and the ways in which we learn. These are:

  1. a shift in the balance of agency;
  2. a new dynamics of difference;
  3. the pervasiveness of multimodality;
  4. the rise of a new navigational order; and
  5. the ubiquity of recording and documentation.

We will examine each of these issues in the remainder of this chapter. Before we do, however, we will begin with a critical diversion, examining two aspects of the new media that are frequently posited as new—the ‘virtual’ and the ‘hypertextual’. We want to argue that these things are in some important respects not terribly new.

The Meaning of the ‘Virtual’

We hear much talk of ‘the virtual’ as one of the characteristic features of our contemporary communications environment. Some of this is enthusiastically utopian, dwelling on the possibility of coming alluringly close to spatially remote sights, sensations, information, places and people. We can have immediate and cheap access to a whole world of meanings, presented at times in ways that are so strikingly realistic that we can feel we are virtually there. As a consequence, our horizons of interest and concern are not limited by where we are physically located. Some warn of the dangers in these developments. Substituting for communal person-to-person closeness, we now have telepresent persons and our interactions are through computer terminals. Intimacy is made remote. Meanings are divorced from context. A grey global uniformity, say those arguing this bleak case, abolishes older and more human spatial distinctions.[2]

Such, however, are the characteristic anxieties of all communication that is other-than-person to person. These have been with us since the human beginnings of visual art and writing. The significance of the virtual in representation has been multiplied a thousand times since the beginning of modernity, with the rise of the printing press and later the telegraph, the telephone, sound recording, photography, cinema, radio and television. The virtual has been an enormously significant phenomenon in our meaning-making existences since the beginning of modernity. Digitisation in and of itself adds nothing new to this dynamic, except speed and relative cheapness.

The Virtual Husband

Nor can the concept of the virtual add much to an understanding of the impact of the new media on schools. Schools have always been (peculiarly) places whose reference points are exophoric. This means that their primary knowledge reference points are outside of themselves. They can refer to anything and everything of the world, in the peculiarly ‘other-worldly’ manner that is characteristic of pedagogy. What is the classroom experience, even in its most conventional forms, other than the ‘virtual worlds’ conjured into students’ imaginations by textbooks or teacherly narrations in the form of history, geography, literature or biology? The new media can support this process, to be sure, but they won’t change it significantly.

The Meaning of ‘Hypertext’

Hypertext is another phenomenon we are often told is new in the digital communications environment, creating as it does unheralded opportunities for non-linear readings and user-designed navigation paths. What we would argue, however, is that there is nothing totally new about this.

To trace the origins of the underlying logic of hypertext, let’s examine a neglected moment in the history of modern textuality. 1450 is celebrated as the year of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, in Mainz, a city that is today in Germany. Within 50 years there were printing presses in most cities and large towns in Europe. But something of far greater significance happened by around 1500, and that is the emergence of the characteristic features of modern textual architectures. Except for the typography, Gutenberg’s 1450 Bible was in essence the same as a medieval scribal manuscript, complete with hand-illumination. It had no title page, no page numbers and no index.

The Gutenberg Bible, 1450

It was not until the end of the first phase in the development of the modern book—the period to 1500 that is called ‘the incunabula’ by historians—that the modern textual order of the printed word was established. By then, some eight million books had already been printed. It took that much bookwork to for this new textual architecture to evolve.

These were some of the features of the newly emerging intratextual regime, none of which were to be found in the Gutenberg Bible: graduated types, spatial page design, section breaks, chapter headings, subheadings, running heads, tables of contents, title pages, alphabetically ordered indexes, internal cross-referencing, managed redundancy (e.g. summaries, conclusions)—and, the most simple and revolutionary of all these textual inventions, continuously numbered pages. These devices were all designed to support non-linear readings, anticipating an endless range of user-initiated reading paths. They supported the hierarchical ordering of text into sections and subsections.

This was also the beginning of an intertextual order in which texts did not begin and end at their covers. Rather, they come with author, title and publisher identification in order to facilitate citation, bibliography, conventions of quotation, footnoting and the cataloguing practices of librarianship. By these means, any one book or any one paragraph could be deeply interconnected with the meanings of other paragraphs or books.

This new information architecture was not simply a new and more efficient textual technology. It also ushered in a new cultural order. Some dimensions of this order included establishing the sources of knowledge by distinguishing the author’s voice from other textual sources by the use of references and footnotes[3], the demarcation of private ownership rights to textual meaning through copyright[4], a new premium placed on accuracy through editing and proofreading, and the linguistic standardisation of vernacular languages as represented by the canonical literature and literacy practices of modern nation-states.[5] [See: Rose on the Idea of the Author]

For all the hype in hypertext, it mostly does what these bookish practices have always done, which is to point to connections across and outside of a particular text. It might do this faster, but the textual processes have not essentially changed. It is little wonder that the work of hypertextual reading is accompanied by some old metaphors, when, on the internet we ‘browse’ and use ‘bookmarks’, we search ‘indexes’ and we find ourselves taken to ‘pages’.

So, if there is nothing particularly new in the virtual or hypertextual, what might be new in the age of digital reproducibility of meaning, and what might be the pedagogical consequences? We want to explore five areas that, we suggest, are importantly new in the world of digital media. These have significant implications for learning literacies.

Digital Media and the Shift in the Balance of Agency

What are the conditions of life for our students in the era of the new, digital media? To return to and extend our earlier argument, as well as being vicarious viewers of movies, today’s learners also play computer games in which they are the central character and in which their actions and identities in part determine narrative outcomes. They do not just listen to the top forty songs on a play list constructed by the radio station’s play list; they create their own playlists on their personal listening devices. They are not only consumers of broadcast television, but also cruise across thousands of television channels and millions of YouTube clips; or they make their own videos and upload them to the web. And rather than reading and writing being separate activities, as often as not, they are positioned as writers at the same time that they are also readers in today’s writing experiences—in wikis, blogs, Facebook or MySpace, instant messaging, SMS or Twitter. Traditional relationships of culture, knowledge and learning are profoundly disrupted, and even the terms of the either/or differentiations we have hitherto ascribed to these relationships: creator/audience, producer/consumer, and writer/reader. These old distinctions have all become blurred. The key to these changes is an intensified cognitive and practical input on the part of previously more passive recipients of culture and knowledge, a shift in the direction of the flows of knowledge and culture, a transformation in the balance of creative and epistemic agency.

These transformations do not happen right away, as soon as digital technologies are applied to text work. Notwithstanding a shift in the method of manufacture, the textual relations of production and consumption barely change in the first phase of digitisation. The big print encyclopaedias moved from print to CDs and to the web not long after digital technologies became available. It took another decade and a half before Wikipedia put the encyclopaedia giants out of business. When this happened, it was not because it was a new technology, but because a not-so-new technology supported a new relationship of textual production. Anyone can write a page or edit a page, without distinction of social position or rank. The arbiters of quality are readers and other writers, and all can engage in dialogue about the veracity or otherwise of the content in the edit, and edit history areas, a public metacommentary on the page. The roles of writers and readers are blurred. Textual validation is an open, explicit, public and inclusive process. This represents a profound shift in the social relations of writing and reading. It ends with the all-but disappearance of the traditional, print encyclopaedia, which could never be as comprehensive or up-to-date as Wikipedia. Debates rage about Wikipedia’s strengths and weaknesses, and more generally its ‘crowdsourcing’ approach involving the voluntary participation of large numbers of people.[6] One thing we can be certain about, however, is that the social dynamics of knowledge production are fundamentally different from the traditional encyclopaedia.

An Aura of Textual Authority
Digitising the Encyclopaedia (but the structure of textual authority stays the same)
Already Existing Technologies, but New Social Relations of Text and Knowledge Production.

Today on the web, in wikis and blogs, at social media sites and through instant messaging feeds, we find many other public discussions in and around published texts during as well as after their writing. The writing can also easily be revised, prompting multiple iterations in which the public dialogue in the edit history pages is sometimes as important as the text which prompted the discussion. Reading devices are also today writing devices. Electronic book file formats and reading devices present us with books that are designed to be written in. Writing on a printed book used to be a kind of transgression, a guilty necessity for students. However, the space for writing was limited to underlining and writing in the white-space margins. The spaces for annotation in digital reading environments are limitless. The annotations sometimes sit beside the text in ways that become as important as the text itself.

Of course, there are auras of familiarity in the new, digital media. Designers and consumers alike reach for metaphors from an earlier world of textuality in order to ease products and services into the new universe of representation. If we don’t find it strange to have a ‘bookshelf’ on a ‘pad’, it is because the metaphors have worked for us; they have served to hide some of the novelty of the machine with the imagery of the familiar.

Here are some apparent textual parallels:

business card, resume


broadcast TV

interactive TV, YouTube


Google Docs



diary, newspaper opinion column



Facebook, MySpace

adventure story, puzzle

video games

broadcast radio, playlists

podcast, iPod

photo album, picture book


letter, memo




telegraph, telegram

SMS, Twitter

The auras of familiarity are, however, deceptive. If one thing is common to the new digitised media, it is a shift in the balance of agency. People are meaning-makers as much as they are meaning-receptors. They are writers in the same space that they are readers. Readers can talk back to authors and authors may or may not take heed of readers in their writing and rewriting.

To a greater degree than ever before, we are today designers of our meaning-making environments as often as we are consumers—our collections of apps, our interface configurations, the mashups we customise to meet our information needs as we ask this question, at this place, at this time. Blurring the old communication hierarchies, we are all ‘users’ now. And this, in the context of a series of epochal shifts that are much larger than digitisation alone: in new workplaces where workers are expected to contribute actively in self-managing teams and take responsibility for their outputs as measured in performance appraisals; in neoliberal democracies where citizens are supposed to take increasingly self-regulatory control over their own lives; and in the inner logic of the commodity in which ‘prosumers’ co-design specific use scenarios through alternative product applications and reconfigurable interfaces.

So what to do in schools? How do we build pedagogies appropriate to a world in which the balance of agency has changed in these ways? In Part D of this book, we will propose an understanding of the learning process centred on the notions of ‘knowledge processes’. Such an approach positions the learner, not as a recipient of knowledge, but as a knowledge actor. The learner is a maker of meaning, a designer of knowledge. This is how learners become mathematicians, historians, scientists or writers. This is how they learn.

Digital Media and the New Dynamics of Difference

One key consequence of the shift in the balance of agency is the development of a new dynamics of difference. The convenient aspirations to sameness, and the pressures to acquiesce and conform in an earlier era, suddenly become anachronistic. Mass consumer uniformity gives way to a myriad of niche markets. Nationalistic (and at times racist) identities give way to a necessary global-local cosmopolitanism. Mass broadcast media give way to constructing one’s own, invariably peculiar take on the world across an uncountable number of new media spaces. Gone are the days when we had to become the same in order to participate as workers, citizens and community members. By opening new scope for agency in spaces that were previously structured as sites of compliance, opportunities emerge for the flourishing of a wide range of ways of being and meaning. From each according to their identity and to each according to their proclivity.

The new media, in particular, provide channels for the expression of differences of style and self-ascribed identity. After an era in which there was a pervasive pressure to become homogeneous (the mass media with its one or two newspapers in every city, its half a dozen main television channels, its ‘top 40’ radio playlists), today’s society and media provide spaces for divergence (the myriad of blogs and online newspaper offerings, the thousands of television channels and millions of YouTube offerings, and the infinitely varied music playlists and app configurations). Not only does difference come to light more vividly and poignantly given the easy accessibility and useability of the new media, but differences can also auto re-create. Individuals and groups head off on their own creative and specialist knowledge tangents, and in so doing make themselves more different.

The cost of entry to the media for different ways of speaking, seeing, thinking and acting is low. You don’t need specialist trade skills or heavy duty infrastructure to be out there and speaking in your own voice—through the web, or in video, or even publishing books, one at a time, in digital print or for e-book devices. The economies of scale of cultural production have been reversed. The logic of mass production (big production TV; long print run books) has been displaced at least in part by the logic of mass customisation (tens of thousands of widely divergent messages in YouTube; digitally printed books where a print-run of one costs the same per unit as a print run of ten or ten thousand).

Here is one example: although there are only a thousand or so speakers of Yolŋu Matha, a language of Australia’s North-east Arnhem Land, language and literature materials can be made for bilingual teaching in school. Even a character created for a sound that can’t be captured in Roman Script can be taken from the universal, multilingual scripting library, Unicode, and find its way into Wikipedia and word processors. With no economies of scale of text manufacture, the maintenance of Yolŋu Matha is easier than ever, and perhaps for this reason more essential than ever.[7]

This new media environment makes it possible for discourse communities to diverge, to find and develop voices that are truer to their evolving selves—identity-speak, profession-speak, peer-speak, diaspora-speak, fad-speak, affinity-speak. New media intensify the logic of discourse divergence captured in the idea of literacies in the plural, or Multiliteracies. Knowledge and culture become more fluid, contestable and open. Discourses become less mutually intelligible, and we need to put more effort into cross-cultural dialogues in order to get things done.

In these ways, the rebalancing of agency in our epoch brings with it a shift away from the logic of uniformity in an earlier modernity, towards a logic of difference. And more: we don’t just have difference as a found object, legacies of lived experience that we can at last recognise. There is also today a tendency to divergence or to become more different. This is one of the great paradoxes of today’s era of globalisation, when we are undoubtedly becoming more closely interconnected in many respects: communications, media, trade, travel, capital flows, knowledge flows and culture flows.[8] We are also making ourselves more different. Not that these differences are always for the better, as the Internet also delivers pornography, violence, prejudice and ignorance of many an unpleasant hue. For this reason we need to learn to become discerning, ethical navigators of our new media environment, avoiding the harm to self and others that can also accompany the shift in the balance of agency to which we have been referring.

It is the scope for agency today that allows us to make ourselves more different. Because we can, we do. Take for instance the rainbow of gender identifications and expressions of sexuality in the newly plastic body; or the shades of ethnic identity and the juxtapositions of identity which challenge our inherited conceptions of neighbourhood; or the locale that highlights its peculiarities to tourists; or the bewildering range of products designed to anticipate any number of consumer identities and product reconfigurations by consumers themselves. Take also the paradoxical divergence of dialect, accent, register and social language that is now endemic to that most global of languages, English.

Digital Media and the Pervasiveness of Multimodality

When we in the New London Group coined the word ‘Multiliteracies’, we were referring to two ‘multis’, two caveats to the traditional notions of literacy as reading and writing in standard, national forms of the language. The first ‘multi’ we’ve already spoken about here—that language varies according to situation of use. These language differences reflect the active designing propensities of today’s meaning-makers, with their deeply divergent identities. Traditional literacy uses the singular established rules for a right way to mean. Multiliteracies in the plural is about navigating one’s way around a world of different meanings, purposefully and effectively. The second of our ‘multis’ is multimodality, or the increasing intertwinement of written text with modes of meaning which are also visual, spatial, gestural, audio and spoken.

At the beginnings of modernity, the modes of meaning drifted apart. For example, the printing press required different processes for the reproduction of text (the offset letterpress) and image (engraving).[9] So, if image and text were to be in the same book, for the most pragmatic of manufacturing purposes, they were best separated into different sections. In schools, we created separate disciplines for language and art and put them in different cells of the class timetable grid. At times the modes had to be forcibly separated. The radical iconoclasts of early modern Protestantism tore stained glass windows and statues out of churches in order to force upon churchgoers an unmediated relationship with the Word. In later modernity and not in a dissimilar spirit, the poststructuralist theorists of the twentieth century what is called ‘language turn’—including prominent thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Rorty and Derrida— assumed linguistic meaning was all, or at least primary.[10]

From Drawing to Writing

In our more recent modernity, the modes have been coming back together. Kress calls this a shift from word culture to image culture, as language is merged with other modes into a new grammar of multimodality.[11] This new communications environment makes this easier. As early as the mid twentieth century, photolithography put image and text conveniently back onto the same printed page. Then, since the mid 1970s, digitised communications have brought image, text and sound together into the same manufacturing processes and transmission media. Here’s another enormously significant, though oft-neglected moment in the history of modern textuality: the shift with the invention of Postscript in the 1980s, in the elementary modular unit of text manufacture, from the character (a process invented by Gutenberg in his letterpress print technology of 1450, or possibly by Li Sheng’s moveable type invented in China in 1040), to the pixel, from which both written language and image can be formed.

The simple but hugely important fact is that printed words and images are now made of the same stuff, and recorded sound as well. This means we can more easily put them together, and because it is easier, we do, in complex overlays of text, sound and image. Take the glossy print magazine or the webpage, for instance. The page of typographic text, in which tools of spatial design were once the exclusive preserve of typesetters, has now been made available to the masses. With the easy overlay of text and visuals, more text finds its way into images and near images. Digital video production, more easily than film, brings together image, gesture and sound with written-linguistic overlays. Television has much more writing ‘over it’ than was the case in its early days, for instance in the sports or business channels,.

Such a momentous shift toward multimodality suggests that, in our school literacy practices, we need to expand our representational repertoires. This is not to subtract from the legacy of literacy practices. Rather it suggests an additive process in which the grammars of particular modes, including writing of course, are integrated into a more expansive, multimodal grammar. It also suggests that we put to pedagogical use the processes of synaesthesia, or mode switching, representing designs in one mode, then another. Those seemingly elusive things, innovation and creativity, may emerge in the ‘key’ or ‘mood’ shifts from one mode of representation to another.

When children start at school, we have traditionally privileged alphabetical literacy practices even though students start with an inclination and capacity to represent themselves in drawing and icon. With phonics drilling and time, we manage to get them to turn their meanings into writing. We manage to get them to move on from ‘picture books’ to ‘chapter books’. This seems to be forcing a transition from a mode less privileged by the school to a more privileged one, even though maintaining and extending multimodality has become all the more relevant in our contemporary communications environment. Not that we shouldn’t regard alphabetical literacy as enduringly important. Indeed, in many senses, it is more important than ever because writing is now everywhere including on our viewing devices (such as our televisions) and speaking devices (such as our phones). The sites of writing are now pervasive and critical to navigating meanings in our working, public and personal lives. We need to recognise and honour the range and significance of these new sites of writing.

Synaesthesia is the process of mode shifting, re-representing something in one mode into another. You can describe a scene in words. You can picture it in an image. Moving between modes, you can say more, say it differently, and often say it more effectively. Traditional literacy pedagogy does not by and large recognise or adequately use the meaning and learning potentials inherent in synaesthesia. It tries to confine itself to the formalities of written language, as if the modality of written language could be isolated as a system unto itself—sound-letter correspondences, parts of speech and the grammar of sentences, the study of canonical literary works, and the like. In the context of today’s media, this is an unrealistically narrow agenda.

Synaesthesia, in fact, has always been integral to meaning and learning, even if often neglected. In a very ordinary, material sense, our bodily sensations are holistically integrated, even if our focus of meaning-making attentions in any particular moment might be one particular mode. Gestures may come with sound; images and text sit side by side on pages; architectural spaces are labelled with written signs. Much of our everyday experience of meaning is essentially multimodal. Indeed, some modes are intrinsically close to others, so close in fact that one easily melds into the others in the multimodal actualities of everyday meaning. Written language is closely connected to the visual in its use of spacing, layout and typography. Spoken language is closely associated with the audio mode in the use of intonation, inflection, pitch, tempo and pause. Gesture may need to be planned or rehearsed, either in inner speech (talking to oneself) or by visualisation. Children have natural synaesthetic capacities, and instead of separating the modes, we should actively encourage mode shifting and mode integration as a powerful method of learning how to mean.[12]

Digital Media and the Rise of a New Navigational Order

The new media require users to get around the world of meaning in new ways. To be a new media user requires a kind of thinking which we will call ‘conceptualisation’.

In our textual journeys through the digital media we encounter multiple ersatz or simplified identifications in the form of icons, links, menus, file names and thumbnails. We work over databases, mashups, structured text, tags, taxonomies and folksonomies in which no-one ever sees the same data presented in quite the same way. A person browsing the web or channel surfing or choosing camera angles on digital television is a meaning fabricator and machine-assisted analyst of meanings.

The new media in other words, do just not present us with a pile of discoverable information. They require more work from us than that. We users can only navigate our way through these media thickets by understanding their architectural or organisational principles and by working across layers of meaning and levels of specificity/generality. This is a new cognitive order that requires a peculiarly abstracting sensibility. It also demands a new kind of critical literacy in which stuff presented as fact needs to be evaluated carefully against other sources, and the meaning-maker’s interests interrogated.

In fact, many web spaces have these kinds of metadialogue or dialogue about dialogue, for instance, in blog comments, video reviews or wiki edit histories for instance. We need to be able to read not just the text, but the subtexts. New media writing environments work as reciprocal ecologies of knowledge validation. They are full of metadialogues about perspective and interest. Meanings and knowledge are more recognised to be matters of perspective up for negotiation—not that serious knowledge has ever been anything but carefully tentative. It’s just that this is less avoidably the case in this era of the new media.

As an aside, what passes for most literacy assessment today is heavily biased to reading (more than writing) because that is more readily assessable through discrete item ‘comprehension’ tests. These are based on ostensibly intrinsic and indisputable authorial meanings. What does the author really say? Answer a, b, c, or d. The kinds of questions that can be asked with definitive answers are often not the most important. Did the action happen on a Monday or a Wednesday? We can be clear about that. But the more important question of the characters of the protagonists in the story, this is a matter of interpretation without necessarily right or wrong answers. Reading is often a matter of interpretation, with many readings possible depending upon one’s reading position.[13] Meanwhile, writing can express different interpretations, but it is expensive to assess, requiring as it does slow, human reading. Intricate moderation processes are needed because, without these, humans are not necessarily very reliable in the application of a fair and comparable overall grade. The kind of orientation to text in multiple choice comprehension tests is an anachronism given the conditions of work, citizenship and community life in the twenty-first century. By reducing literacy to reading comprehension, we value receptive meaning capacities over productive meaning capacities, and this in an era when we value constructive team contributions over taking orders, creativity and problem solving over the compliant operationalisation of systems, and risk taking and entrepreneurship over line management and bureaucracy.

To be an effective sense-maker and communicator today, not just a viewer/reader/consumer, you need to be able to navigate complex informational and knowledge architectures. To navigate effectively, it helps if you are able to monitor your thinking about your thinking and the meanings of your meanings. This is called ‘metacognition’, or cognition about cognition.

Metacognition is the basis of the skill and logic of critical discernment in a media environment that is infinite in its extent and thus demands that we make many and frequent navigational choices, for instance, as you take one link or a different one from one website to the next. You need to plan where you are going and recap where you have been. You need to have a mental map of the social and informational networks through which you move in order to get a clearer view of their patterns of meaning. The digital media require this kind of conceptualising sensibility.

So, what do we do in schools? How do we teach reading and writing now? Part of the answer is technological: have students write in these new environments in these new ways. There is, however, a deeper, epistemological and pedagogical answer: to teach in a way which is appropriate to the new navigational order. Literacies pedagogy for today’s communications environment needs to engage learners in more powerful conceptualising and metacognising processes.

This new literacies pedagogy will also engage the learner as co-constructor of concepts—as a definer, theory maker, analyst and critic. All-too-easily, we can immerse students in time-consuming busy-work in new media spaces, and this at the expense of higher-order conceptualising and cognitive extension. Navigation of the new media requires higher-order skills of conceptualisation and abstraction, learning which engages students in and through the new media environment. Pedagogical experiences appropriate to our moment require that we address the characteristic cartographies and grammars of new media spaces.

Digital Media and the Ubiquity of Recording and Documentation

New media spaces are not just sites of communication, they are places of recording. They are not just spaces of live communication; they are spaces of multimodal representation and asynchronous communication. Much of this happens incidentally, in the form of emails, text messages, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets. This means that there is far more writing in the world than in an earlier era, not only literally in the sense of the use of written language, but the recording of meanings which was the initial function of literacy.

In this context, the synchronous, unrecorded, live communication of the conventional classroom is in some respects outdated, a hangover from an earlier information age. Some students may want to go back over things, but there is no ‘replay’. Other students may not be intellectually engaged by the communication of the moment, but there is no ‘fast forward’. While the teacher speaks, the class has to listen silently. If a student is to speak, it is one-at-a-time, following the ‘put your hand up to speak’ protocol. For these reasons, it is likely that e-learning environments will increasingly supplement the primarily oral discourse of the classroom with new, asynchronous and synchronous channels of writing. The speaking-down profession of the traditional teacher-didact may even in time evolve into a documentary read-write profession, creating learning designs which students can pick up at their own time and in their own pace, individually or in groups. The task of the teacher in this context will be to manage lateral, peer-to-peer learning ecologies.

A Shift in the Balance of Agency

… in which we tend to become users, actors and participants and not just consumers of culture that has been transmitted to us.

A New Dynamics of Difference

… in which, because we can express ourselves more, our differences become more evident and our identities more divergent.

The Pervasiveness of Multimodality

… in which recorded representations and transmitted communications cover many more modes than writing, and using the same digital media—including, as well as text, image, sound, video which captures gesture etc.

A New Navigational Order

… in which we need to conceptualise information architectures as we work our way around multimodal communications spaces.

The Ubiquity of Recording and Documentation

… in which so much of our lives is incidentally recorded, compared to the past in which just a few things were recorded in writing.

Dimensions of New Media

Towards Ubiquitous Learning

Schools have to a substantial degree thus far failed to keep up with the technologies that have transformed home, community and working life. Today, when we can learn anywhere and anytime, our heritage forms of teaching appear increasingly anachronistic. Most classrooms are still strikingly not a part of the information age even by the most basic of measures—students’ access to digital learning content and work spaces. Even when students do have access to these environments, the curriculum content and student work practices are often unimaginatively conventional (content transmission, lock-step sequencing, standardised curriculum, discrete item assessment). Much ‘e-learning’ does not innovate in ways that the new technologies allow. Student learning results are disappointing.[14] Yet, ironically, these same technologies are having a marked and transformational impact on learning and communication outside the classroom. How can this be?

Ubiquitous computing is a term which describes the pervasive presence of computers in our lives. Personal and portable computers have become an integral part of our learning, work and community lives to the point where, if you don’t have access to a computer networked with reasonable bandwidth, you can be regarded as disadvantaged, located as a ‘have not’ on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’. Meanwhile, many other devices are becoming more computer-like, or have computer power built in: mobile phones, televisions, global positioning systems, digital music players, tablet readers, video cameras, still cameras and game consoles, to name a few. These devices are everywhere. They are getting cheaper. They are becoming smaller and more portable. They are increasingly networked with each other. This is why we find them in many places in our lives and at many times in our days. The pervasive presence of these machines is the most tangible and practical way in which computing has become ubiquitous.

Ubiquitous computing lays the groundwork for what we have called ubiquitous learning.[15] Ubiquitous learning requires us to make a shift in our work as educators. Ubiquitous learning is a new educational paradigm made possible in part by the affordances of digital media. The qualifications in this statement are crucial. ‘Made possible’ means that there is no simple, one-to-one relationship between technology and social change. Digital technologies arrive and almost immediately, old pedagogical practices of didactic teaching, content delivery for student ingestion and testing for the right answers are mapped onto them and called a ‘learning management system’. Something changes when this happens, but disappointingly, it is often not as much as it seems.

And another qualifier: ‘affordance’ means you can do some things easily now, and you are more inclined to do these things than you were before simply because they are easier. You could do collaborative and inquiry learning in a traditional classroom and heritage institutional structures, but often it wasn’t easy. Computers make it easier. The new things that ubiquitous computing makes easier may not be in themselves completely new—modes of communication, forms of social relationship or ways of learning. However, just because the new technology makes them easier to do, they become more obviously worth doing than they were in the past. Desirable social practices become viable which were formerly against the grain of practicability. The technology becomes an invitation to do things better, perhaps in ways that some people have been saying that they should have been done for a long time.

To take the argument one step further, we educators could even take the lead in the development of appropriate technologies for meaning-making and learning, rather than recycle hand-me-down technologies that were originally designed for another purpose. Here’s an apocryphal technology story about the connections between technology and social relationships. PLATO, the world’s first computer learning environment was invented in 1960 in the place where we now work, at the University of Illinois. Some remarkable inventions came out of this educational laboratory. The plasma screen was invented ancillary to PLATO because learners needed a visual interface to render text and image for ease of interaction in the learning context. This was in lieu of the computer punch cards which until then adequately served the task of programming and information storage and data manipulation. The touch screen was also invented, so students could interact with the questions and information on the screen. A pioneer messaging system was created so teachers and learners could communicate with each other. This was perhaps the world’s first online community, and the beginnings of communications technologies which soon became message boards, email, online chat and instant messaging. Here we see some catalytic moments of invention, signs of what was later to become a massive increase in machine-mediated writing as a key representational and communicative mode in education, work and community life.

The first multiplayer online games were created for PLATO. The capacity to connect peripheral devices was also created, and one of the first was an early music synthesiser used in music education and research, which also had the capacity to play computer-recorded music.

The PLATO hardware and software system went through extensive research and development processes resulting in a number of iterations over several decades. It can be credited as one of the beginnings, not just of e-learning, but the machine-mediated world of human communications that we know today. These technologies were developed in order to meet the specifically communicative and representational needs of a learning environment. In this sense, the human meaning ecology of education drove the enterprise of technology development. Now that these technologies have become cheap and accessible, we find ourselves using their descendants every day of our lives. But it is salutary to know that they were invented in a moment of educational exploration, to support the endeavour of learning. Education led. The technology followed.

To make progress with ubiquitous learning, this has to happen again. We have to use our technologies of writing, now more broadly conceived as technologies of recording and documentation of human meanings, not only as the foundation for more powerful learning ecologies, but also as a site for the invention of the next generation of text technologies. Technologies are the product of social needs. When they start to work for us, their social affordances sometimes prove to be more revolutionary than their technical specifications.

Amongst the affordances for literacies in the era of ubiquitous computing is the potential to create a read-write culture in schools where students connect their own thinking into the social mind of collective intelligence. No more closed book tests. In the era of ubiquitous computing, you are what you can find out as much as what you already know. The measure of your intellect is not to recall knowledge but a capacity to find the knowledge that is at hand because you can look things up or get an instant answer when you ask others. Knowledge is not what you can remember, but your capacity to find the knowledge you need, just in time, just enough and just right.

Ubiquitous learning also invites forms of social reflexivity which can create ‘communities of practice’ to support learning.[16] Teachers can harness the lateral energies of peer-to-peer knowledge making and the power of collective intelligence, resources for learning that are barely tapped in conventional classrooms. Learners can involve people who would formerly have been regarded as outsiders or even out-of-bounds in the learning process: parents and other family members, critical friends or experts. The digital workspaces of ‘social networking’ technologies are fertile ground for this kind of innovation, at once simple and highly transparent when it comes to marking differential contributions.

Returning to the motif from Benjamin with which we began this section, digital reproducibility has the potential to change the business of learning and the work of writing. This is not to say it does, nor that it must, nor that it necessarily will. It is just to say that it can. The notion of ‘affordance’ captures possibility, no more. However, because we can, perhaps we might, or perhaps we will, change our practices of literacies learning. As we do, our identities are inevitably transformed. Changing our meaning- making practices changes ourselves.

As literacies educators, we need to be astute readers of these changes in our communications environments. Insofar as identity is so closely involved, these are also changes in our cultures and our persons. By addressing what is genuinely and profoundly new about the new media, we may be able to take steps in the direction of a rejuvenated literacies pedagogy that works to serve the practical needs of our learners more effectively, as well as building on capacities for self-realisation in their emergent identities.

Adapted from: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope. 2011. “The Work of Writing in the Age of Its Digital Reproducibility.” in Rethinking Identity and Literacy Education in the 21st Century, vol. 110: 1, edited by S. S. Abrams and J. Rowsell. New York: Teachers College Press.


[1] Benjamin, Walter. 1936 (2008). “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, edited by M. W. Jennings, B. Doherty, and T. Y. Levin. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Virilio, Paul. 1997. Open Sky. London: Verso.

[3] Grafton, Anthony. 1997. The Footnote: A Curious History. London: Faber and Faber.

[4] Rose, Mark. 1993. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

[5] Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. 1979. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformation in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Febvre, Lucien and Henri-Jean Martin. 1976. The Coming of the Book. London: Verso.

[6] Surowiecki, James. 2004. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. New York: Doubleday.

[7] See, for instance http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yolŋu_Matha_languages

[8] Steger, Manfred B. 2008. The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.

[9] Cope, Bill and Robert Black. 2001. “Print Technology in Transition.” Pp. 151-171 in Creator to Consumer in a Digital Age: Book Production in Transition, vol. 1, edited by B. Cope and D. Mason. Melbourne: Common Ground.

[10] Rorty, Richard. 1992. The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[11] Kress, Gunther. 2009. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London: Routledge.

[12] —. 1997. Before Writing: Rethinking the Paths to Literacy. London: Routledge.

[13] Barthes, R. 1976. Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana. Eco, Umberto. 1981. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. London: Hutchinson.

[14] Cuban, Larry. 2001. Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[15] Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis. 2009. “Ubiquitous Learning.” Champaign IL: University of Illinois Press.

[16] Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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