The “new ethos” of writing online…what it inspires for literacy education

Lankshear and Knobel (2006) differentiate between the new “technical stuff” made of hardware and software and new “ethos stuff” (p. 93) which they define as the “the emergence of a distinctly contemporary mindset” (p. 73) which arises in conjunction with the social use of new technologies. This is the difference between the technologies themselves and how people take them up. Leu et al. (2004) describes these new ethos or mindsets as the “important new strategies and dispositions required by the Internet” (p.) Leu et al. (2008) argue for the existence of “changes in social and cultural ways of doing things, ways of being, ways of viewing the world (world views), and so on” (p. 7).

Since the Internet is a “literacy issue”, most of these new ethos have to do with reading and writing. Rhetorical approaches such as audience awareness in writing in new media environments like blogs are part of the literacy practices which comprise the new ethos. There is a dearth of research to date about how teenagers think about the creation and dissemination of online multimodal texts and specifically how they conceptualize their audience when they are writing online, although their audiences are quite different in nature and scope from those of print-based writing environments. Schools continue to teach within the framework of the ethos of print literacies alone (Gee, 2004; Lam, 2006; Sefton-Green, 2006) instead of those fostered by new media because as of yet descriptions and protocols do not exist outlining what the online writing environment and practices therein actually entail. The social context for literacy learning is changing, but not enough is known in this realm to aptly inform pedagogy.

Specifically, a focus on audience in a study of teenage bloggers writing online is important considering the characteristic of the blog and other forms of online social media to provide a real audience and thus an authentic context for writing. In traditional literacy education contexts, the writing in the classroom is decontextualized, and the only “real” audience is the teacher. The problematic aspect of this fact becomes clear in light of existing research that contends that audience is important to good writing both in terms of quality and motivation to write (cite).  Even considering that students are expected to be able to write for and expect to be evaluated by a variety of audiences in print-based approaches to literacy curriculum and teaching, audience awareness is important as a focus of research.

Another aspect of this problem of the lack of knowledge about the new mindsets or new ethos of the social use of technology is that students who use these technologies outside of school and are competent in these “new strategies and dispositions” are often deskilled when they enter the classroom. Their “ways of doing things, ways of being, and ways of viewing the world’’ (Leu et al. 2008) are not recognized. The disconnect between what is required in the way of new ethos to participate in the contemporary media environment and the kinds of literacies which are privileged by the government-sanctioned school curriculum positions these students as incompetent (Hull & Nelson, 2005; Mahiri, 2004). As Jewitt (year) purports: “pedagogic understanding of students’ mediascapes demands the adoption of strategies for engaging with the literacy worlds of students and their interests and desires. The theoretical and pedagogic focus of multimodality and multiliteracies can support teachers in engaging with the resources students bring into the classroom. This includes understanding students as sign makers, the texts they make as designs of meaning, and the meaning-making processes that they are engaged in. These can give insights into the kinds of resources that students have access to (as well as those they do not)” p. 261. The dearth of research around the new ethos of digital literacies like blogging not only hinders the literacy learning of those students who approach literacy tasks from the place of new ethos, but it also ensures that students who do not have the new ethos mindset and the concomitant strategies and dispositions will not be afforded the chance to develop them. This is problematic given assertions that these new ethos are what will be needed to be successful in our increasingly digital, networked, and globalized society (cite).
We are at an important crossroads in terms of the research being done in the realm of literacy education considering rapid and monumental changes in the semiotic and communicative landscape.  This inspires the need to develop an [adequate] theory and practice for identifying, understanding, and explaining the new of composition which includes how teenagers conceptualize their audience when they are writing online. As Reinking purports (1998): “Digital forms of expression are increasingly replacing printed forms and there is a widespread consensus, at least intuitvely, that this shift has consequences for the way we communicate and disseminate information, how we approach the task of reading and writing, and how we think about helping people to become literate” (p. xv)

Hull, G. & Nelson, (2005)

Jewitt, C.: Multimodality and Literacy, RRE 32

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006)New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning.

Leu et al. (2004)

Leu et al. (2008) H of NLR.

Mahiri, (2004).

(Gee, 2004; Lam, 2006; Sefton-Green, 2006)

Reinking (1998)


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