Sunday, March 13, 2011

Guest Lecture: Professor Sue Thomas

Transliteracy: what is it and how can we measure it?

Hello everyone, it’s a pleasure to work with you this week. I’m writing from the heart of England, where I live in a small cottage about 15 miles from the city of Leicester. Spring is about to start here, so the first flowers are starting to appear and the days are getting longer. It’s great that the internet allows us to communicate so easily across the world and I’m very much looking forward to talking about transliteracy with you this week!
Transliteracy is 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. To put it another way, being transliterate involves being open to difference and prioritising what unites us rather than what divides us.
From your point of view, transliteracy is especially important in terms of your learning experiences. A recent UK article said this about my research at De Montfort University:
The media's teenage stereotype is that of a girl watching Hollyoaks on television while simultaneously discussing its plot lines on the social networking site Facebook, listening to music on MySpace and texting her friend to discuss home study. Sue Thomas is exploring the impact that transliteracy is having on higher education and pedagogy. In transliterate terms, many academics are in essence illiterate, which matters if their teaching relationship with hyper-transliterate students is breaking down because of an inability to communicate fully with each other. If academics cannot show themselves to be transliterate, will they lose the respect of their students?
It continues:
Meanwhile, a committee looking at the impact of the "Google generation" on HE (Higher Education) has found that 95% of students are members of an online social network and that more than 50% have a blog or website. These transliterate students arrive at university with a set of assumptions about how they will use these skills in their education, and have difficulty if such assumptions are questioned.
Should tutors be expecting, even demanding, that students communicate with each other electronically? Communication tools such as Second Life, the web-based virtual world, involve creating alternative identities. Should students be expected or required to generate these for themselves? Professor Thomas believes that as transliteracy travels up the HE agenda, academics will be obliged to add new forms of communication to their portfolio of teaching methods. There is a debate to be had with applicants. The evidence is that students still want face-to-face contact, and value that. Some do not see new technology as the core of learning, even though they may spend two or three hours a day on the web. What do they expect? What do they want? What are they prepared for? A transliterate study style incorporates a range of learning modes, combining traditional face-to-face lectures, seminars and tutorials with online classes via the web and mobile media. [ from ‘Getting In Getting On! A Guide to getting into Higher Education’ by Rob Brown & Mike Chant 2010)
Do you agree with their conclusion that young people of today are transliterate? Do you consider yourself to be transliterate? This week I’d like to look at various different approaches to transliteracy and invite you think about how you might measure transliteracy in yourself and others.
I have some reading for you, some videos, and a task. I advise you do them in the following order but feel free to pick and mix if that suits you better.
Reading and Watching
1.     Watch my Transliteracy lecture
2.     Dip into the Transliteracy Research Group blog
3.     Librarians are very excited about transliteracy. Find out why from Bobbi Newman’s slideshow Libraries and Transliteracy
4.     Bobbi’s work inspired librarian Brian Hulsey to make an amusing video about making a blueberry smoothie the transliterate way
5.     Transliteracy also inspired one of my former students, Mary King, an English journalist living in Japan, to make this very meditative film: Transliteracy - The Spirit of Kanji
6.     This journal article sums up much of what I say in the video lecture: Transliteracy: Crossing Divides by Sue Thomas, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Mills, Simon Perril, and Kate Pullinger, First Monday, Volume 12 Number 12 - 3 December 2007
7.     And you should check out the #transliteracy tag on Twitter!/saved-search/transliteracy
Imagine that you have been asked to measure the transliteracy levels of students and teachers at your school. How would you do this? Post your suggestions and we’ll discuss them. I look forward to seeing your ideas.


  1. Thanks for sharing this information. Looks like some comments regarding this post were also in the comment section at this post:

    Measuring transliteracy would not only include a survey of the actual tools, media and platforms a person uses, but also an individual’s 'lifeworld'.

    The first thing I would do is survey individuals to understand what literacy tools they use, how often they use it, their comfort with it and how they value it.

    The second part, uncovering an individuals lifeworld, would be required to give a more balanced understanding of their transliteracy. A person could use instant messaging, for example, all the time at work, but how do they view and understand the tool? How does their past experience influence what tools they like to use? A persons subjective experience would be difficult to measure since their experience with the communication tools, personal beliefs and past experiences would need to be assessed.

    I can use my own transliteracy as an example. I understand how to use the University’s Blackboard tool to interact with students, get lecture notes and check grades. But I prefer to use Twitter to ask questions only because I have had horrible experiences using the Blackboard tool. So if I were to be surveyed, it would be revealed that I know how to use the Blackboard tool, but how I choose my communication methods (when I have a school related question) does not get uncovered.

  2. On behalf of Professor Sue Thomas:

    Thanks for your responses so far. The comments themselves are an exercise in transliteracy since they range across at least two posts (Thanks to Sunil for pointing that out!) plus two new posts from Paul. I propose to keep all my remarks in this comment thread to provide - hopefully - a single linear conversation.

    If you want to know more about lifeworlds, you might visit the library and look at the writings of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. It is a concept which seems on the one hand simple and obvious, and on the other, highly complex. There are also some useful links here, though not all are still working

    In terms of the task, I like Sunil's point that 'The second part, uncovering an individuals lifeworld, would be required to give a more balanced understanding of their transliteracy. A person could use instant messaging, for example, all the time at work, but how do they view and understand the tool? How does their past experience influence what tools they like to use?' Sunil, can you take this a step further and outline a few questions for your imaginary survey which would give supply some data that you can compare and analyse?

    Carolyn, you make a very good observation that transliteracy is 'very much about context, societal, cultural and individual.' I enjoyed reading your activity list and was struck by the term 'I Blackberry my children,'. That's the first time I've seen 'Blackberry' used as a verb. Maybe this is a Canadian thing? Or maybe it's just that most people I know use iPhones! Having said that though, I've never seen 'iPhone' used as a verb. I've seen 'Facebook' used in that way though e.g. 'This is such a great photo, I think I'll Facebook it'. These are examples of ways in which technology is progressing faster than the ability of common language to keep up with it, so we are inventing new function words based on new functionalities. I find that fascinating. My question to you would be whether your children and their friends have developed even more terms which do that, and how you might measure that in a survey.

    Sunil's comment in that thread about a friend sending info which was interpreted in different ways is a good example of a misunderstanding that most likely would not happen in a face-to-face situation or, if it did, would be rapidly corrected. The speed of expression and understanding that we have in physical situations still often supersedes email, because no matter how fast we can transmit information, comprehension often requires an added extra.

    Paul, thank you for your two posts. I too have seen the TED video you posted, and was amazed at how quickly the babies learned to recognise language sounds. I hope we will get some responses to your question 'Is this just literacy or transliteracy?'. Your post about winter vocabulary is intriguing and your driving on ice story very salutary. It reinforces the fact that knowledge is as much cultural as it is factual. And I'm sure you've found that transliteracy often lies within the unspoken knowledge that nobody bothers to mention because 'everyone' knows it. Which country did you come from? How might you measure the impact on transliteracy of cultural difference?

  3. Thanks for posting my reply Jess. I don't know why but blogger wouldn't let me post it myself. I wonder if it will let me post this one..??

  4. Thanks for sharing the link.

    In terms of actual questions, I would need some time to assess who I’m talking to and what exactly the purpose of finding this information is. Each organization is different, and employee attitudes towards certain tools may not be supported by management. This may lead to inaccurate data and information.

    Instead of questioning, I think I would analyze available data about the individual. For example, what sites do they refer to throughout the day. What have they used in the past. I would inquire about their comfort with smartphones and what are their attitudes towards the applications available. How do they describe using their tools (ie. Using tools as adjectives, “facebooking” each other) would also be helpful to understand their lifeworld.

    I have to say when I reflect on this topic and write about it, I think of the first assignment we had to do where we discussed our digital literacy. Almost as if Jess intended to uncover our lifeworlds. :P

  5. Sunil, I like your idea of analyzing individual lifeworlds. Would it be possible to ask people to describe them, do you think? Or is media use so personal and ingrained that it needs an external observer to make sense of it?

  6. Ideally, I could measure a person's level of transliteracy by observing them for a day: watching how they use their computers, what social networking applications they use, what IM technologies they use, etc. Of course, I would have to see what actual information was being conveyed in these applications and the features being used.

    This, of course, is impractical. It would be interesting, however, to ask students to link their Facebook profiles to the course blog. If they weren't comfortable doing this, they could create a new profile just for the course. In looking at a Facebook profile, one could see if the individual links to other applications like Twitter, flickr, YouTube etc. It would also be informative to look at how the individual uses status updates (i.e. are they just personal, or do the discuss world events or other matters)and how they comment on others' status updates. It would also be useful to examine what types of information are shared with friends (text, photos, video, etc.) Facebook seems to be a central gathering point for many other platforms and applications, and I think much could be learned by observing how a person uses this site.

  7. Ok - first to express my frustration on something that has happened a few times on this site. Going to post a comment or preview a comment and the Blog isn't functioning properly and loses all of the thoughts and comments and having to redo it.I would recommend saving everything to a word document before posting or previewing your posts.
    To respond to a comment of Jess's earlier in the week. Yes my daughters, their friends and myself use "BB" ( Blackberry) as a verb. Examples would be " BB me when you get home" or " BB me when you're outside", " BB me later". I think that our language (or jargon) may change quickly to reflect new technology. If a different IM technology comes out that is more convenient then " BB" may not last that long and will be replaced by the next technology.
    Sue's comment that a person may not recognize their use of media in their lifeworld is interesting. I think a combination of observation first and interview second would provide some really useful insights. The observation may document what media is being used but an interview would help understand the contexual drivers behind that individuals choice of media.
    Examples - were they exposed to books and music as a child, what technologies were available in the home, the school, the work environments. Is the choice of media driven by work expectations, family, the fact there are children in the home? are the children driving the use of new technologies, what is the socioeconomics of the individual and the family, what is the national culture?
    I think that the transliteracy of the students and teachers at a school would first need to evaluated on the social and cultural norms of that school as well. Is the school in a neighborhood where the demographics would provide the expectation that the children would have and be exposed to books, education, new technologies? Does the school provide access to the teachers to teach with new technologies? What is the socioecononmic status and what is the cultural population of the children/students that attend the school?

  8. Carolyn! Thanks for your patience and re-posting. Let's take it as a compliment that the class blog is getting so much traffic that there are bound to be time-outs... :)

    Good idea to jot down the comment in Word (or notepad as there's no formatting which is good for blog posts) so it's recuperable.

  9. Here is a suggestion to measure students and teachers transliterarcy levels:
    1. Ensure the students and teachers are aware of what "transliteracy" is prior to moving forward. For example the definition cited in Transliteracy: Crossing Divides, "transliteracy is an inclusive concept which bridges and connects past, present and, hopefully, future modalities", could be used for an information session. Also using the campfire example would be an effective way for people to grasp the concept.
    2. Design a survey to understand students and teachers awareness level. This could be a muliple choice survey that asks "What social media tools do you currently use, What are other tools do you rely on for information, What tools are you aware of but don't currently use, Why are you not using the above mentioned tools?". The results will show the awareness level and could be used to target individuals and/or groups for specific training.
    3. Test students and teachers. The test would be a "hands-on" test demonstrating the practical application of various tools. Examples are writing a blog, tweeting, using the internet to research a topic, etc. The downside is staff and financial burdens. Consultants will be required to administer, tally results, and present recommendations. This would be the step which would present the highest percentage of accuracy due to the hands-on testing. A student can say they know how to blog on a piece of paper but when tested, they may not know the practical application of it.

  10. Denise, I agree that to more accurately *test* one's transliteracy skills a practical project would be required. I wonder though then if we start to create levels of we have functional literacy - people can read a menu or a stop sign but perhaps not have a deeper literacy?

    And, perhaps rather than a paper multiple choice survey (I know you don't specify paper Denise), an online poll or iclicker session would be a transliterate step:

  11. Sue, I think it would be more beneficial to have an external observer since media is, exactly what you said, ingrained within an individual. Personally, I only learned of my own transliteracy when I read about it and completed our first assignment.

    Glenn made an interesting comment during our online chat this morning of how his son, at 14, who is highly transliterate, has no idea of his capabilities. The tools available become so natural to us that it becomes difficult to describe it when prompted.

  12. Moose, apologies, I missed your post of 17th. Sorry for the delay in replying. Did you find any volunteers for your Facebook experiment? I certainly agree with you that Facebook data must provide a great deal of information towards a transliteracy profile, although the one problem is that you would only get data about their online behaviour. You'd need to run it alongside some offline observations to get a sense of the rounded person.

  13. Carolyn, re loss of a post - yes, frustrating isn't it? But also an interesting lesson in transliteracy in relation to coping with deletion. At the moment I am reading 'Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age' by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger which is all about the problem of not being able to delete the tracks we leave on the web and in other digital records. As far as I have got in the book, he has not mentioned the accidental delete, and probably it's not relevant to his argument, but the experience is certainly difficult and often very intense.

    I totally agree with your proposal to study a person's history and background in relation their personal transliteracies. It would be good to see such a study in action.

  14. Denise, I'd suggest using the default definition for transliteracy so as not to confuse. The survey question is a good one and would immediately show up just what a huge array of tools are at our disposal, both online and offline. I like the question about why certain tools are not used and agree that people tend to over-rate their own competencies so observation tests are important.

    Long before I developed the concept of transliteacy I devised a couple of similar surveys and See also . You may find them interesting.

  15. Jess, I think that there are many educators and employers who would welcome a graded transliteracy test but it would of course give rise to all kinds of exclusions too. On the other hand, it may surprise us in lots of interesting ways.

  16. Sunil, I'm curious. Has the class considered self-assessing its level of transliteracy, both as individuals and as a group? At the start of the class, midway, and at the end? Could be illuminating. Glenn's son is a very good example of how embedded many of our literacy skills become.

  17. Sue - you're right about creating exclusions with a *graded* transliteracy test...but then again companies (and others) employ personality tests, IQ tests, EQ tests the future, a transliteracy test might be part of the job interview.

    Thanks so much Sue for taking the time to share with us your current thinking about transliteracy.

  18. Sue (and Sunil): for the next instantiation of this course, that might be something to consider. A kind of before and after assessment of transliteracy. Interesting idea....