The Internet has exponentially expanded what it means to be literate at the start of the 21st century. Just two decades ago, to be literate—that is, able to fluently read and write—meant knowing the letters and a certain amount of vocabulary and the basic rules of grammar. Anyone could communicate fairly effectively if they knew these basic things. There was only so much that you could do using, say, the ink and paper medium of the past.
In contrast, the interactive capabilities of Web 2.0 technologies and applications has multiplied the possibilities for communication. It’s like jumping from a one-dimensional straight line existence to a fully immersive 3-D world.
It doesn’t take long for someone to learn how to turn a page in a book to continue reading, but a person needs to learn a much broader set of skills in order to be able to comfortably navigate the Web. Books and papers are linear—you finish a page and then you turn the page to read the next one. A Web 2.0 website is often not linear, and the ability to follow multiple levels of links and branches and know where you’ve been is important for anyone hoping to gain what they need from a website. Does anyone else remember those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that were popular in the 1980’s? I used to keep a finger at each page where the story branched, so that when the branch that I followed ended I could quickly return and take the other path.
But with these challenges comes a radical increase in the potentials for communication. In the pre-Web 2.0 world, relatively few people outside of authors, journalists, and others working in the media business could communicate to a larger audience. But those who are fluent in Web 2.0 technologies can much more readily expand their communication reach, as the Read/Write Web can make a media producer out of anyone. Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and simple to use web page creation tools can give everyone the means to get their message out.
The one constant on the Web is that it will continue to change, and this is what gives educators the greatest challenge. It is not enough just to teach students how to be good at one particular app or how to use one specific technology. In just a short amount of time that technology may be obsolete. I like the word “malleable” that Will Richardson highlights in his blog entry on “21st Century Literacies.” He writes that “these literacies must now be adaptable and bendable to meet whatever comes down the pike.” The critical thing is the ability to change and adapt to the changing environment. A malleable metal can be shaped into different forms, but perhaps an even more suitable analogy is that we need to teach students to be like viscous fluids, able to fill and take the shape of and embrace whatever new tools and technologies might come along.
We can’t teach students how to do something that is yet to come. But what we can do is teach them how to learn things for themselves, so that when the next big thing comes they will quickly be able to master it, and whatever may come next.
Web 2.0 Cloud image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Web_2.0_Map.svg