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Author: Julie L. Holcomb
Title: Kathleen Tyner's Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 1999

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Source: Kathleen Tyner's Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information
Julie L. Holcomb

vol. 2, no. 3, November 1999
Article Type: Book Review

Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information

Kathleen Tyner, Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998).

In November 1998 the Library Journal published the first in a series of articles aimed at helping students choose a library science program. [1] As a potential graduate student in library science, I was concerned by a number of comments from students who believed their programs were too focused on information technology, that is on the tools of information, at the expense of traditional library education. The author of the article John Berry, editor of the Library Journal, argues that two clear groups have emerged in the debates over the education of librarians. The first group seeks to integrate new technologies into the context of the institution of the library: "Its adherents endorse teaching the new technology but not without the institutional connections of the library and the political and social context in which technology and information work." (Berry, 37) The second group "at its extreme, preaches a new millennium in which computers, web, net, and new telecommunications advances replace most of the older technologies and institutions that are engaged in the exchange of information." (37) The former group sees information as an "economic public good, not just as a marketplace commodity"; the latter group, however, sees information as strictly a commodity and therefore the mode of information exchange is determined by technological change and free market forces. (37) The debate over the education of librarians is illustrative of discussions over the uses of technology in K-12 education as described by Kathleen Tyner in Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information. Furthermore changes in library education, particularly the education of school librarians, will have a direct impact on K-12 classrooms if library education shifts toward a commodity/pre-packaged view of information.

Teachers and parents are frequently reminded that children's success or failure in life "hinge[s] on the [student's] grasp of new technologies. Beyond simple decoding and keyboarding, the educational uses of new communication technologies has yet to be framed as a set of literacy skills. But the public is often reminded that computers are powerful tools and it is implied that with their use, personal power can accrue." (Tyner 3) While "history does show a fluctuating connection between new literacy tools and power, in that success comes to those who can understand and manipulate at least one of two main domains of information technologies: (a) the technical information infrastructure [the physical tools of technology]. . . and (b) the information itself, or more precisely the discursive style that is peculiar to each medium and that shapes its content," accomplishing such control is "no mean task." (3) Still technology is often touted as the panacea to conflicting visions of school reform. (197) But when there is little improvement in student achievement, educators "find out very quickly that the problem is not with the equipment, or lack thereof. Meeting contemporary challenges to teaching and learning involves much more than tinkering with technology. A retooling of the whole system is in order. At the heart of the failure to integrate technology in the classroom is a stunted vision of both literacy and education." (197)

The solution, as Tyner sees it, is a third "use of literacy as a source of social power:" one that calls for an ability to not only "read the world," but an ability to "write the world." Literacy practices that teach students how to successfully "decode information in a variety of formats analogous to the reading of print" and also "manipulate and understand the processes to create messages and distribute them" are "literacy practices [that] accrue maximum benefit to the individual." (4) Tyner believes media education, and not simply the tools of technology, to be the means to achieve this task.

Throughout her book Tyner unabashedly privileges the term media education, "but with the implicit understanding that it is a transitional concept." As she explains further, "Media education expands literacy to include reading and writing through the use of new and emerging communication tools. It is learning that demands the critical, independent, and creative use of information. It is learning that speaks to the social contexts of literacy and encourages a range of discourse. It holds the promise of an expansive, diverse, and efficient education. Media education is intended as a strategy to accommodate a world marked by both the challenges and the promise of technology." (Tyner 196) Much of the trouble with incorporating the new technologies into education in the U.S. has been a focus on "the media of media education. . . .in contrast the emphasis of international educators is on the education component of media education." (131) In the U.S. we are so caught up in teaching students how to use the tools of technology—or to protect them from those tools (i.e. inappropriate Internet content)—that we fail to teach students how to be competent and critical users of that technology long past their final exams. As Tyner effectively argues, "How mediated information might contribute to the social good, or what people actually do with all the information when they receive it, are questions that intrude on the rah-rah promotion of technology like uninvited guests at the party." (17-18)

In her expanded view of literacy, Tyner sees librarians as the natural partners of teachers in the integration of technology into the classroom. "Because of their grounding in information literacy, information resource specialists [i.e. school librarians] have expertise and interest in the free access to information and the ability for information users to organize, analyze, and evaluate information. Although they have traditionally focused more on the dissemination of information, they are beginning to also explore ways to facilitate the creation of information by students. Librarians are teachers first. Like their colleagues in the classroom, they understand that the power of information cannot be fully tapped without a human interface." (159) Furthermore, librarians can help their colleagues use primary documents in place of the "canned" curriculum of textbooks as a way to get the "most learning potential out of information used in the classroom." (87)

The partnership of librarians and educators in teaching students how to be competent and critical users of technology, and therefore lifelong learners, is a powerful vision of literacy. However, to create those future lifelong learners requires a similar concept of media education for college students as well. I am fortunate that my graduate classes so far have chosen a more integrated view of technology; papers and projects require an ability to "write the world" as well as "read the world." But I am cautious about promoting my graduate school over another because the issue is not yet settled and media education in the U.S., as Tyner's book illustrates, moves in fits and starts. According to Elizabeth Thoman, founder and president of the Center for Media Literacy, media education has reached only about five percent of U.S. classrooms, but even that is an improvement when you stop to consider that ten years ago the phrase media literacy drew only blank stares. Tyner's book will give media education and media literacy a powerful push into the 21st century.

1. John Berry, "Choosing a Library School," Library Journal 123 (Nov. 15, 1998).

Review by Julie L. Holcomb