Digital texts – the actual, the good, and the purpose
In an early blog and forum post for this subject (Simon, 2018a), my top-of-the-head definition of digital literature mostly encompassed re-contextualisations of print literature (Walsh, 2013) available on various digital platforms. I personally used these mostly as a matter of convenience, according to access or price considerations. Since writing that my horizons have been greatly expanded.
I have learned that there is no agreed-upon, standard definition for digital literature (Groth, 2018). Instead definitions seem to run the continuum from any text that you can experience on an electronic device (which I would personally define as digital texts rather than as digital literature) to only works that incorporate both textual or narrative qualities of literary merit plus an inextricable link to the digital medium on which they were created to be experienced (Groth, 2018). My preference is for a definition somewhere between these extremes. At this point, my working definition would be: a work with a substantial contribution of written text with literary characteristics that is published and intended to be experienced via a digital device. This allows for a fairly wide range of examples and levels of quality.
So, what makes a work of digital literature or a digital text a “good” one? I agree with Walsh (2013) that there should ideally be a synergy between the literary textual elements and the digital features (or affordances). An effective digital text goes beyond the written words and static illustrations and, while it may be able to be printed out and experienced in that format, a printed experience would be a diminished one. I consciously used the word text, because a particularly strong example of a digital text that I came across in my explorations was a digital information text sold through iBooks by Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre (Carson, 2017). The text incorporated multimedia and interactive features in and engaging way that extended the information provided in a way that was congruent with the narrative and disciplinary content (Kao, Tsai, Liu, and Yang, 2016). It was also appropriate to the age level (K-2) in terms of interest and the variety of reading levels in that range. Unfortunately, I got stuck on the term “literature” in the assessment task description. I do not consider information texts as “literature”, no matter how high the quality of their writing.
I think digital texts serve the purpose of informing and communicating and telling stories, just as texts in other mediums have throughout time. While I think that there are shifts in the balance of the skills we harness when reading in digital environments, I think the essential core of communication skills remains relatively constant. This is somewhat contrary to the views put forward by some relatively alarmist voices in the field (Leu, et al., 2011; Wolf, 2010), as I mentioned in my response to this forum post (Simon, 2018b). Continue reading
Oceanhouse Media is the official e-book app developer for the works of Dr Suess (Dredge, 2012). Among their many offerings is the Dr. Seuss Treasury – School (Oceanhouse Media, 2016a), containing fifty-five Dr. Seuss titles, including a version of The Lorax (Seuss, 1971). That particular title was investigated for this review, which will look at the digital features of this enhanced e-book (James & De Kock, 2013) and their efficacy in educational settings (Yokota & Telae, 2014).
The app would fall under Maureen Walsh’s (2013) broad category of traditional literature re-presented in digital form, Unsworth’s (2006 as cited in Walsh, 2013, p. 182) electronically augmented literary texts, and Lamb’s (2011) interactive storybooks. This places it in what could be termed a “comfort zone” of digital literature – not particularly innovative, like transmedia or extended reality texts (Breeze, 2018), but situated in a safe, popular, and comparatively commercially competitive (Dredge, 2012) niche.
Dr. Seuss is a well-known author of children’s literature whose books meet the threshold of demonstrating quality literary elements (Walsh, 2013; Yokota & Teale, 2014). One key area to evaluate in the digital versions are what Walsh (2013) describes as the “synergy” between the literary elements and the digital features. Research findings suggest that while multimedia features can have a positive effect on story comprehension and expressive vocabulary development, interactivity, broadly speaking, does not (Takacs, Swart, & Bus, 2015). However, specific types of interactivity, when congruent with the storyline and aligned with effective reading pedagogy, can increase story comprehension and engagement (Kao, Tsai, Liu, & Yang, 2016). Continue reading
Wuwu & Co. (Step In Books, 2014-2018) tells the story of five creatures who come to seek help from the resident of a little red house in the woods during “the coldest winter in two thousand years” (p. 1). The story is told through a combination of written text and interactive scenarios that make use of a variety of the technological capabilities of iOS devices, as will be explored later in this review.
Though the information page on the app carries the Apple age rating of 4+, on the catalogue description page the developers have added “Made for Ages 6-8” (Step In Books, n.d.). The level and type of interactivity required in the app, the interest level of the material and the complexity of the language support the older age range indicated. The English language text difficulty is calculated in the range appropriate to Years 2 and 3 by the Free Lexile Analyser (MetaMetrics, Inc., 2018; Biblionasium, 2018). It is available from the Australian iOS App Store for AU$9.99.
Wuwu & Co. is a digital narrative (Walsh, 2013) created specifically for the iOS platform and cannot be effectively experienced without the use of an appropriate device. It blurs the boundaries somewhat when viewed through the lens of Annette Lamb’s (2011) five reading environments. While it can be classified as an interactive storybook app, it has qualities of non-linearity congruent with the hypertext or interactive fiction category that she describes. One of the notable elements of interactivity is the device-based virtual reality (VR) segments. VR is one of the modes of extended reality (XR) that some see as the currently expanding frontier of digital literature (Breeze, 2018). Continue reading
My Place (Wheatley & Rawlins, 1987) is an enduring work of Australian historical fiction. The book relates the personal stories of children living in one local area in Sydney for every decade from 1788 through 1988. Each child relates a short account of their family and community, giving insights into the historical period and the development of the geographical area as well as showing evidence of their connection to country. Character ages range between seven and twelve, which makes the text relatable to primary school students. The first-person narratives have the cadence of recounts told by children where details such as a new colour for the house, an older brother bringing home a girlfriend and also heading to war are related with similar weight given to them using somewhat naive, straightforward language. Historical developments presented from the perspective of the children are enhanced by Donna Rawlins’ warm illustrations created with materials common to most contemporary primary school classrooms. This is a quality piece of literature that can be used across the curriculum in a variety of key learning areas including English, History, and Geography (McMeekin, 2010; Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) & Education Services Australia (ESA), n.d.).
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) produced a television series based on the book (Chapman Pictures Pty Ltd & Matchbox Pictures, 2009-2011). Episodes have been added that widen the timeline to include “before time” and continue through to 2008 (ACTF & ESA, n.d.). The twenty to twenty-five minute episodes also present more detail than the brief illustrated recounts in the book. The high production values, historical detail, and quality cast of this production make it an excellent resource for extending engagement with this story. Full episodes are available on kanopy and sometimes on ABC iView, but selected clips are always available on the My Place for teachers website.