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It is estimated that modern humans evolved approximately 200, 000 years ago. Since that time, communication between people has continued to evolve and the rapid advancement in technology in the 21st century has had a profound impact on how humans communicate, learn and live. It is imperative, therefore, that education reflects the changing nature of an increasingly digital culture and places a priority on supporting students to develop the skills and literacies required for full and active participation in society now and in the future (Hague & Payton, 2010).
Whilst there is no universal definition of literacy, the CIA World Factbook defines it as the ability to read and write at a specified age (most commonly 15 years of age) and proceeds to state that “low levels of literacy, and education in general, can impede the economic development of a country in the current rapidly changing, technology-driven world.”
To be successful in living and learning in the 21st century, many skills are required that go beyond the traditional literacies of language development. The plethora of literacies referred to in education has given birth to another term – transliteracy (Jaeger, 2011).
Transliteracy is an overarching concept that seeks to bring together the many literacies that one must develop to confidently consume and contribute to an ever expanding world in which multiple literacies, multiple media and multiple demands on one’s attention is evident (Thomas et al., 2007). Transliteracy is required to navigate across various media and encompasses a range of literacies including, but not limited to:
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The current evolving creative environment demands a new set of literacies: transliteracy (Thomas, 2013). Research began at the Institute of Creative Technologies (IOCT) in 2005 and was presented in 2007 by Thomas et al. in their foundation article, Transliteracy: Crossing Divides. Transliteracy seeks to be a unifying term to describe what it means to be literate in the 21st century. It is defined as being “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” and opens the debate with examples from history, orality, philosophy, literature, and ethnography.”
Cooper, Lockyer & Brown (2013) highlight the need to develop multiliteracies in a technology-mediated environment. The term multiliteracies could be seen by some to have the same meaning as transliteracy as both refer to various literacies, tools, and social and cultural contexts. However, transliteracy speaks of a unifying ecology as opposed to the communication milieu within which there exists multiliteracies. Thomas et al. (2007) use the prefix ‘multi-’ many times in their discussion of transliteracy therefore much of the discussion on multiliteracy is relevant when discussing transliteracy.
Morgan (2014) questions whether or not literacy is a stable phenomenon that means the same thing at all times and in all places. Further, what does it mean to know how to read and write in different times and in different places? Brandt (1995) has argued that literacy practices “accumulate” over time. At any given moment, new forms of literacy emerge while older ones become part of the developmental past. What, he asks, is different about the literacies expected of the average 12-year old then and now?
Transliteracy in Education
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For a person to develop into a transliterate member of society, the teaching of these skills and literacies must begin in primary school and continue throughout secondary schooling and beyond. Educators must create learning experiences that promote construction of knowledge using a variety of digital tools in order to enhance student development of transliteracy. It is not enough to be exposed to a variety of media. Students, across a wide variety of platforms, must learn by making and creating rather than merely consuming content; they must have the opportunity to work with and create visual texts in a variety of media (Bamford, 2003; Brown, 2004).
Australia responded to the digital education revolution by providing laptops to secondary students, high speed broadband to all schools and support to develop information and communication technology (ICT) proficiency for teachers and students. However, transliteracy is more than digital literacy and one could argue that schools are yet to embrace the essence of transliteracy. Students need opportunities to be engaged in transliterate practices and critical thinking across disciplines where they move between media to demonstrate their understanding of content as well as competence with multiple literacies (Gogan & Marcus 2013). Whilst literacy practices are changing, and it is difficult to specify the skills that will be required into the future (Beetham & Oliver, 2010), transliteracy proposes a broader approach to literacy development where a unifying ecology of all literacies meet and mix and encompass the available tools at one’s disposal in a particular place and time; it does not privilege one above another (Thomas et al., 2007).
The digital revolution has redefined experiences of students and teachers and sees them consume, produce and communicate information in previously unimaginable ways. To meet the needs of 21st century learners, educators must engage them in diverse and creative ways that ensure they are creative problem solvers, better communicators and lifelong learners who move from being knowledgeable to knowledge-able (Wesch, 2014).
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The students in classrooms today are often referred to as digital natives or the Google generation. Whilst not wanting to discuss the merits or otherwise of these terms, it is apparent that easy access to technology has not improved the information literacy of young people (JISC, 2008). It has, in fact, masked educational problems. It is therefore necessary that educators develop the professional capacity to support students through the new research and changing digital landscapes (Brabazon, Dear, Greene & Purdy, 2009).
Education in the 21st century exists within a multimodal, multichannel and multiplatform global community (Williamson, 2013). The challenge for educators is to respond to this reality. Transliteracy is a way to think about how this may be done. Some schools have begun to take up the challenge. Transliteracy needs to be everywhere – in all subjects and classrooms, with all teachers.
A significant element of the Australian Curriculum is the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) capability in which ‘students develop ICT capability as they learn to use ICT effectively and appropriately to access, create and communicate information and ideas, solve problems and work collaboratively in all learning areas at school, and in their lives beyond school.’ It is important to note simply having access to the tools does not assume that the goals will be achieved; many students have personal access to multiple devices but their knowledge practices do not necessarily transfer to the formal classroom context (Beetham & Oliver, 2010). It is crucial that educators support learners in gaining the skills and literacies required to successfully achieve learning goals. The focus must move away from technical skills towards concepts of literacy, criticality and judgement (European Commission, 2009 ). These concepts, together with the skills referred to above, are inherent components of transliteracy.
An example of a transliterate production is referred to by Thomas et al. (2007) that highlights possibilities for new narrative forms that showcase collective authorship across multiple forms. Flight Paths is a networked work of fiction project created by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph that was created on and through the internet with contributors providing both multimedia and traditional text.
Dean Grigar’s Fallow Field: a story in two parts is a further example of online multimodality. This web fiction sees the overlapping of physical and digital as the reader encounters sounds, images, words and links.
A somewhat similar project was undertaken by students at Sydney’s St Vincent’s College under the guidance of Suzana Sukovic (2014). iTell: Transliteracy and Digital Storytelling aimed to investigate transliteracy and student engagement through the creation of digital stories based on a creative reading task.
It was concluded that the iTell project and the resulting digital stories demonstrated student engagement and transliteracy skills within a collaborative environment.
It is not just in academic circles that one hears discourse around the need to ensure that education is relevant to contemporary students whilst preparing them for their future lives in society. Malcolm Turnbull MP, Minister for Communications, recently delivered a speech in which he stated that we must ensure that we are equipping students with the skills for employment in an increasingly competitive globalised economy. The particular focus in this speech was on ICT with broader implications that our current education system needs to work towards equipping students for the jobs of tomorrow which exist in a world transformed by the internet.
In a nutshell, he stated, “we need knowledge and imagination. The former on its own is a dull resource, the latter on its own is a hallucination. Combined they will ensure an Australian future which is more exciting, more prosperous than ever before” (Turnbull, 2014).
What’s in a Name?
Whilst the idea of transliteracy is supported by many, particularly in the field of librarianship, there are some who would argue that it is an unnecessary or confusing term. Brad Czerniak (2010) finds the definition inconsistent and does not make clear which elements are tools, platforms or media nor how one is supposed to go across them (given that the prefix trans means across or between). David Rothman (2010) begins his claim that transliteracy is Commensurable Nonsense by comparing information literacy and digital literacy, the latter just being the former with computers. He continues, replacing the word ‘information’ with ‘health’, ‘media’ and ‘financial’ to illustrate the fact that they are merely subsets of information literacy. In particular, he criticises the Libraries and Transliteracy presentation by Bobbi Newman and makes many compelling arguments against the content, particularly with regard to transliteracy being a necessity for participation in society. His point is clearly made and causes one pause for thought. Perhaps the term is controversial if seen in this way. However, it could be argued that the term transliteracy is one that may be useful for assisting educators to value and respond to the various discrete literacies and not leave particular skill development to specific disciplines. This mindset is necessary if one is to understand transliteracy not as the development of particular literacies about various media but, rather, mapping meaning across different media (Ipri, 2010).
Interestingly, in her argument, Should Transliteracy Replace Language Arts? Jody Lambert (Russac & Lambert, 2013) agrees that transliteracy belongs to all educators and is vital to the development of 21st century skills. She does, however, preface this with the statement that “students must first master the ability to read and write effectively, coherently and with clarity before they can interact transliterally… we must first be literate before we can be transliterate.” This displays a lack of understanding of the term transliteracy which Thomas et al.(2007) state clearly is about all communication types across time and culture; Lambert implies that communication is only possible through the relatively recent human activity of reading and writing.
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The Australian curriculum requires students from K-10 to “develop and apply ICT knowledge, skills and appropriate social and ethical protocols and practices to investigate, create and communicate, as well as developing their ability to manage and operate ICT to meet their learning needs” (ACARA, 2015). Students, therefore, are required to be transliterate in order to accomplish this. Transliteracy, as a concept, is an attempt to label what educators are already doing – linking up traditional notions of authority with the realities of how people obtain information today.
Literacy in the 21st century means more than the ability to read and write – it is the activity of minds “capable of recognising and engaging substantive issues along with the ways that minds, sensibilities and emotions are constructed by and within communities whose members communicate through specific technologies” (Welch, 1999).
The turn of the 21st century has signalled a shift in the types of skillsets that have real, applicable value in a rapidly advancing world (NMC, 2015). To develop transliteracy is to develop the skills necessary not just to function, but to behave creatively and critically within a complex information society (Cronin, 2010)
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