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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy)
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?