Literature in Digital Environments – First Reflections

Emerging technologies

“If we employ emerging technologies in education, we should also be prepared to experiment with different lenses through which to view the world and with different ways to explore such ideas and practises as knowledge, scholarship and collaboration.” (Gros, Kinshuk & Maina, 2016)


These explorations of Literature in Digital environments are framed by professional circumstances where I am involved in the fast and furious business of educating students whose knowledge, as described by Darnton (2009), does not come packaged between hard covers but online and where the internet is the defining technology for literacy and learning (Leu, et al, 2011). This M.Ed course of study, therefore, gives me the opportunity to think deeply about the types of literature that we bring to the attention of our students to read, discuss and analyse, plus the types of analysis we demand they master. Therefore, throughout this subject, I won’t be just reflecting on the types of literature that my students are exposed to but also the types of literacies that we expect them to develop so as to engage with digital literature in meaningful ways. Of course, I also need to reflect on any necessary changes in how we design and support learning in digital learning environments that are inherently connected to evolving contexts of a networked, knowledge society.

The digital learning environment that I work in, is supported by solid infrastructure and where students BYO laptops to each lesson. Very curiously, my current student cohort engages with regular ‘Book Club’ sessions where each student chooses, from a curated list, a hardcopy novel to read. Students are not permitted to read digital literature during these sessions. Students are encouraged to read their chosen novel at home whilst also being supported with very regular reading sessions at school. This approach is a curious one considering that, as discussed in this course, embedding technology in the modern school curriculum, enables schools to remain relevant and engaging to students and make use of digital or transmedia literature in the classroom. Today’s readers expect to be immersed in multimodal resources that combine a variety of modes and media. Today’s readers want information that they can see and hear and to be immersed in a variety of modes and media (Lamb, 2011). Should such expectations impact on how we engage our students in ‘reading’?

What is Digital Literature?

One definition is that electronic literatures are those works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer (Rettberg, 2012). Maureen Walsh (2013) unpacks digital literature for us by discussing three significant trends – for the purposes of classroom applications for studying literature:

  1. Traditional Literature re-presented in digital forms.
  2. Digital narratives created solely in digital form.
  3. The future: Hybrid texts and genres.

(Walsh, 2013).

The rather broad definition of digital literature offered by Rettberg (2012) brings together different literary modes such as text, hypertext, video, game, data, photos and images while that offered by Walsh (2011) demonstrates a continuum between traditional books reproduced on screens and new forms – and a continuum in relation to the degree of multimodality of digital text. These definitions also allow for the exploration of transmedia storytelling (where the story is told using multiple delivery channels) along with the multimodal features that our students enjoy when using the social web.

It is important to note that my current students, whilst engaging with traditional books are also encouraged to publish their own work in multimodal forms using online editing tools such as TACKK or Shorthand Social. As educators, we are asking these students to engage with very traditional forms of literature whilst simultaneously producing narratives in a multimodal format that rely on various affordances of the internet. In fact, the student’s written responses to their books is a digitally produced book trailer.  Two further examples of multimodal approaches are given below. The first is is an exemplar narrative that I built with a teaching colleague, whilst the second example is a  TACKK presentation created by one of my students.

Teacher authored historical narrative:
Student authored historical narrative:

Both of the above presentations attempt to be multimodal in form while driving students forward in writing and publishing in a digital format. The above pedagogical approaches acknowledge that literature in a digital environment encompasses both literature as a resource and literature as a student production (Fitzgerald, 2016). However, I suggest that we have systems in place that demand we ‘teach’ our students how to analyse ‘books’ whilst at the same time tinkering with constructivist, experiential approaches that encourage students to experiment with new literacies. As 21st century educators we know that we should be allowing our students to explore hybrid forms and genres or literature but should realise that it is no longer realistic to talk about ‘reading’ or ‘writing’ as discrete skills required for future work (Walsh, 2008).

Our classrooms desperately need to move on from ‘teaching’ to ‘learning’…including teachers.

And yet, we (schools in general) hesitate to engage our students in literature in a digital form. One can immediately question what assumptions about literacy pedagogy direct classroom practises and tool use in digital literature environments and a “learning and communication paradigm where students are encouraged to be interactive and participatory” (Walsh, 2008 p.101).

Should this student be harshly reminded to “Get off your iPad.” or gently reminded to “Don’t read for too long, it’s getting later”?

How exciting would it be to have students engage with and even produce hybrid forms and digital narratives as described by Walsh (2011) that are able to provide a rich reading experience. But we don’t, yet. Perhaps the hesitation here represents a mix of anxiety about the new and nostalgia for the old (Sadokierski, 2013). In fact, I would like to suggest that the “Book Club” I have discussed above is a bow to an old paradigm where students are isolated from each other whilst reading and interpreting their books, consuming content whereas reading is now a more social event (Serafini & Youngs, 2013). These students are taught how to interpret and analyse these novels and yet do we need new ways of evaluating texts (Walsh, 2011) other than via traditional criteria such as characterisation, setting, themes and style? Certainly, independent silent reading is a time-honored educational tool…bit is it still relevant in the 21st century. I am thinking not.

I am intrigued by the idea that literacy is deictic (Leu et al, 2011). The nature of literacy and its meaning continuously changes depending on the context. Thus, within the context of 21st century education where the internet is the defining technology for literacy and learning in the 21st century (Leu et al, 2011) what is the meaning of literacy?

My interest is also piqued by the idea of the Guttenberg Parenthesis during which the mediation of texts through time and across space was dominated by letters, print, pages and books. However, as mentioned by Thomas Petit in the YouTube video “The Gutenberg Parenthesis” the digital age is a challenge to this dominance of print and the book and reading. The video asks if our emerging digital culture is partly a return to practices and ways of thinking that were central to human societies before the advent of the printing press – in fact literate learning may be viewed more the anomaly than the rule. (WikiPedia) as we perhaps progress to a culture that is more oral than literate.

Elsewhere in this blog, I have pondered and come to terms with knowledge now residing in networks and the implications of this on teaching and learning. So, here I am pondering the idea that our stories now reside in networks breaking out of the confines of the broadcast medium of books. I think that is rather exciting as such thinking requires us to be aware of the constant dialogue and influence between emerging technologies and emerging pedagogies (Gros, Kinshuk & Maina, 2016).


Darnton, R. (2009). The Case for Books. New York: PublicAffairs.

Fitzgerald, J. A. (2016). Literature in digital environments [INF533_201660 Module 2]. Retrieved from Charles Sturt University website:

Gros, B., Kinshuk & Maina, M. (Eds.). (2015). The future of ubiquitous Learning. Learning designs for emerging pedagogies. New York: Springer.

Leu, D.J. et al (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1), 5-14. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.55.1.1

Rettberg, J.W. (2012). Electronic literature seen from a distance: the beginnings of a field. Retrieved from PDF Chapter Two.

Serafini, F., & Youngs, S. (2013). Reading Workshop 2.0: Children’s Literature in the Digital Age. The Reading Teacher, 66 (5), 401-404.

Sadokierski, Z. (2013, November 12). What is a book in the digital age? [Web post]. Retrieved from

Walsh, M. (2008). Worlds have collided and modes have merged: Classroom evidence of changed literacy practices. Literacy, 42(2), 101-108.

Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).

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