What Is This Buzz Word “Transliteracy”? A Q&A with Ryan Nadel

Filed in: Media Literacy

By Josh Karp


Image by Bobbi Newman.

10.25.10 | If you Google “transliteracy,” the definition is nearly unanimous from Wikipedia on down: the ability to read, write and interact on a range of platforms, tools and media. But, behind the definition, according to Ryan Nadel is a simpler concept that’s as old as the theory of evolution.

“The most fundamental notion of transliteracy is the ability to adapt,” says Nadel, founder of 8 Leaf Digital Productions and an instructor at the Vancouver Film School. “It’s creating a literacy and fluidity between mediums that’s not tied to space or modality.”

Nadel is one of the authors of a white paper, “Digital Literacy in Canada: From Inclusion to Transformation” calling for federal leadership in creating a national digital literacy strategy to ensure that all Canadians have the necessary skills to use digital technologies to their fullest potential.

Nadel talked with Spotlight about how transliteracy and new media technologies are altering our lives.

Spotlight: Is the internet changing the way we think?

Ryan Nadel: Definitely. I see it in myself and my friends. The power isn’t in knowing facts anymore, but in accessing information. Being really smart used to mean “how much do you know,” and “how much can you memorize.” Now it’s, “how good are you at finding information and contextualizing it.” There needs to be a greater emphasis on the difference between information and knowledge. It’s a huge shift in how we think and the nature of knowledge.

Spotlight: If technology is changing the way we think, does that mean it’s also changing the way we read?

RN:  Every time there’s a new medium, everyone says the old one will disappear. There was a famous New York Times editorial about the invention of the phone and how people would never leave their homes again. It did the opposite. It facilitated more human interaction.

Every time there’s a new medium, everyone says the old one will disappear.

– Ryan Nadel

The written word as a medium of delivery won’t lose its primary place because it’s so good at delivering information. It represents so much data. But, the written word online is still a somewhat different thing because there are so many distractions out there, for better and for worse. It creates different issues, like how do you manage information? How do you navigate a page? How do you know when to click the link on that New York Times article or when to keep reading?

Spotlight: What does it mean to be effectively transliterate?

RN: Kids are transliterate. They are naturally using so many mediums. If you watch them interact, especially socially, they talk, they’re on their phones and on their laptops.

But, are they effectively transliterate? Do they connect all of those spaces in meaningful ways? How do you go from friending someone on Facebook to meeting them at the corner store and sending them a text when you leave? So their transmedia education is not about how to use email, but the ability to adapt to using new literacies. You will learn how to use an iPad or a Kindle, but is there an understanding between the iPad, the classroom and the playground? We need to create experiences that speak to that.

Parents and teachers see kids using Facebook, texting and using other technology so fast, and it’s such a huge part of their lives, that on the other side of the digital divide we ask, “What do we have to teach them? It’s their medium. It’s their social ecosystem.” But what’s missing is how does one medium translates to the next. It’s about connecting all of these chains of communication.

Spotlight: How does that – and technology in general – impact what we do in the classroom?

RN: In the 1980s and 1990s, they tried to throw the VHS into the classrooms. There was a misconception that education was about throwing information to students. But education is the shared experience of information. The good type of education is very hands-on, especially in dealing with digital content. Simply taking your textbooks and making a .pdf doesn’t change a thing. That’s just a different way of delivering information. But creating an online collaboration space that allows people to engage with that information in new ways – that’s how you create knowledge.

Spotlight: Books have always been considered a primary source of knowledge, and there is the fear that the internet will make them obsolete. Do you see that happening?

RN: The greatest analogy is to the candle. When electricity was invented, people said no one will use candles anymore. And now there are more candles being made than in the history of the world. They offer ambience and experience, not functionality. I hope the same thing will happen with the book. Its purpose and nature will change.

Since the dawn of modern education, the connotation of the word “literacy” has been very mechanical. This is how you read. The notion of deeper understanding comes in different forms. Take an English class analyzing poetry. You don’t call it literacy. So as the range of media becomes broader—with ebooks, texting, the internet and games—the notion of literacy goes beyond the mechanical interaction and the ability to consume the material.

We are tearing literacy away from its original association with the medium of written text and applying it as a term that can refer to any kind of medium. There will be a unifying ecology of not just media, but of all literacies relevant to reading, writing, interaction and culture, both past and present.

You are no longer teaching to one experience. Teaching how to read is teaching how to read. If you want to learn how to paint, it’s a very different thing. You take a painting class. But when it comes to the digital experience, everything is so connected that to just learn how to use a word processing program and just learn how to navigate a 3-D space, and to use Photoshop as isolated and independent tools, you lose a lot of the power of the whole digital sphere, which is connecting all of those things. It’s how do you make a mockup in Illustrator, put it in a document layout program, share it collaboratively and play around with prototypes.

So when we’re teaching digital literacy, it needs to be a transliterate approach. It’s not about one experience, but how all of these things interrelate.





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