Digital Audiobooks, Assistive Technology and its Effects on Literacy

Posted: January 17, 2010 in audiobooks, digital culture, edushifts, reflections

Literacy is evolving.  Where literacy once meant the ability to read and write, the concept of literacy in the information age has evolved and expanded beyond that initial definition.  According to UNESCO:

Literacy is the “…ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

– Wikipedia (

The proliferation of mobile handheld devices coupled with complex assistive technology software is pushing the concept further.  Digital audiobooks and assistive technology software such and text-to-speech software is not new.  What has changed are the formats, costs and mobility of these tools.  Where once one needed a cassette player to listen to an audiobook or where once one needed a computer to use text-to speech or speech-to-text software, one can now access these audiobooks and assistive technology software on devices that one already carries around with them.  The cost?  Cheap or free.

Take, as an example, a free iPhone app that I recently installed on my phone: Dragon Dictation.  Cost: free.  Function: speech-to-text.  The Dragon Dictation app is an iPhone version of Dragon Naturally Speaking, complex and expensive assistive technology software. It allows the user to dictate into the phone and to have the dictation translated into text without the need to train the software.  Skills needed: Oral Communication and Pronunciation

Take another example: a digital audiobook.  Digital audiobooks usually cost less than their physical text versions as reproduction costs are limited and distribution costs are very low.  They can be installed on any device that plays digital audio and allows those with visual impairments or those with auditory intelligence to learn and/or enjoy a story without the need to see or read the text. An alternative take to the audiobook is the text-to-speech software that allows one to listen to the content instead of reading it.  Skills needed: Listening Skills

Consequences: What happens to Reading and Writing Skills?

Under no circumstances am I proclaiming that new technologies are eliminating the need to learn how to read and write.  What it is doing, however, is changing the skill set required in order to access information.  While reading and writing have traditionally taken precedence over other literacies (i.e. Oral and Visual Communication and Listening Skills), new technologies are transforming literacy.  The evolution is potentially explosive. Keep in mind that:

  • With so many keyboards and alternative inputting devices, the use of a pencil or pen is sure to dwindle
  • The ability to listen to content and stories brings us back to our evolutionary roots; a time when oral traditions and stories were shared from generation to generation
  • The ease of use and relative low costs of digital devices and software will surely influence a shift from text printed on paper to text on a screen

This transformation is historically significant as reading and writing text on paper has been the dominant form of sharing conceptual information for centuries.  While there surely will not be an abrupt end to the teaching and use of textual reading and writing, one has to wonder where the future lies when there are so many other alternatives that appear (to me at least) to be more in tune with our human development and evolution.  Just think:  how many schools still teach calligraphy?  How many educators are debating over the need to continue to teach handwriting?  How long will it be until keyboarding and ‘thumbing’ become part of primary school instruction and overtake the physical manipulation of a pencil?

  1. attipscast says:

    Hey Rob and readers,
    I couldn’t agree more with this post. I have two related resources to share related to audiobooks and mobile devices. One is – free, original stories for children. It is a podcast and it gets to the heart of your second bullet point. The other is episode 47 of the A.T.TIPSCAST: x2. The episode talks about the strategy of speeding up the audio for students to get through content faster. (
    Thanks and enjoy!

  2. The Wikipedia entry defines Literacy with “use printed and written materials …” I wonder if we need to extend literacy to beyond “text.” I agree that text has been the standard for centuries by which knowledge has been captured, manipulated, processed, recorded, and shared. It certainly influences our thinking processes in how we create new text and thus how we think, and requires specific skills to decode and interpret. It has also been a primary obstacle/impediment for too many, both intentionally and unintentionally, in the process of knowledge acquisition and learning. In this day, when we have so many different media to record, process, and re-present information, perhaps we need to re-think our dependence upon text as the primary. You can create/capture an awful lot with 26 letters, 10 digits, and a few other characters. But perhaps we need to ensure that we are engaging learners with far more than just text, whether it’s printed text or electronic.

    • Great point Andy. It’s that variety of ways to present information that is key in this day and age where we are attempting to reach all students and to address the various needs of all students.

  3. hannachung says:

    According to the wikipedia entry, students and adults alike need to be able to do many things in various contexts whether it is in the past or in the present. As a teacher, I find that it is equally important for students and adults to learn how to read and write and learn how to inquire skills that enable them to follow the pace of a changing society that they live in. I understand that literacy is moving in many directions, but we still need to know the basics and the foundations. I also believe that we need to be prepared and equipped with skills for a transforming world of technology and in the classrooms. How does one actually prepare themselves for this world and how do teachers know what to teach to get students ready? What do they need to know and be able to do when the world is transforming at a faster speed than we can teach?

  4. This is great I agree with you, my kids hate reading but they can listen to audio book for hours. They belong to the happy few english speaker (5% of the world population), when 95% of audio book are in English (French believe it’s a product for blind). Dragon is great, but it’s having issues with my french accent;)

    I wish that the issue of mother tongue would one day be addressed in the context of ICT for primary education…

  5. thanks for the forward movement of advanced way of life

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