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Is Medium the Message? Digital Literacy & Technical Communication Baotong Gu Georgia State University SAMLA Conference Atlanta, November 2005 Defining Digital Literacy Computer Literacy Skills required to use the computer Digital/Electronic Literacy

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is medium the message digital literacy technical communication

Is Medium the Message? Digital Literacy & Technical Communication

Baotong Gu

Georgia State University

SAMLA Conference

Atlanta, November 2005

defining digital literacy
Defining Digital Literacy

Computer Literacy

Skills required to use the computer

Digital/Electronic Literacy

“the practices involved in reading, writing, and exchanging information in online environments as well as the values associated with such practices—social, cultural, political, educational.”

--Selfe, Cynthia and Gail E. Hawisher. (2002). "A historical look at electronic literacy: Implications for the education of technical communicators."Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 16, 3. pp. 231-276.

key aspects of digital literacy
Key Aspects of Digital Literacy
  • Technology is part of literacy.
  • Literacy exists within a complex cultural ecology of social, historical, and economic effects.
  • Race and class are important factors in acquiring digital literacy.
  • TC programs need to value and teach both emerging and fading literacy practices.
  • Technical communicators need to teach themselves emerging forms of electronic literacy.
  • Access to computers and to the acquisition and development of electronic literacy must be understood as a vital, multidimensional part of a larger cultural ecology.

--Selfe and Hawisher, 2002, pp. 260-269

evolving conceptualizations about the computer
Evolving Conceptualizations about the Computer
  • Romantic Notion 1: Computers would eliminate the drudgery of our work. (p. 345)
  • Romantic Notion 2: computer-based writing would improve the overall quality of student writing.
  • Realistic Perspective: computers don’t necessarily improve writing.
  • Potential: technology may provide a means to empower writers. Technology can be used “in our writing classrooms to produce ideological change, to value difference, and to transform oppressive power relations.” (p. 354)

--Moran, Charles. (2003). "Computers and composition 1983-2002: What we have hoped for." Computers and Composition, 20, 4. pp. 343-358.

current pedagogical practice
Current Pedagogical Practice
  • Teaching writing skills (genres, rhetorical context)
  • Teaching about the profession (current practice, industry standards, etc.)
  • Teaching software applications (desktop publishing, web design, servers, databases)
  • Teaching the rhetorical use of software applications (using software effectively to serve your purposes)
problems with pedagogical practice
Problems with Pedagogical Practice?
  • Focus on writing and writing technology
  • Confusing means with end
    • Writing and writing technology mistaken for an end rather than a means
    • Teaching software, the medium, seen as a means
    • Literacy, the real end, getting neglected
  • Little reflection on the use of technology
  • Too much focus on technical proficiency

--Hart-Davidson, Bill and Steve Krause. (2004). "The future of computers and writing: A multivocal textumentary." Computers and Composition, 21, 1. pp. 147-159.

is medium the message
Is Medium the Message?

Marshall McLuhan

  • A medium, such as the Internet, creates a new human environment.
  • An environment is both a process and an action.
  • The environment, not the technology, changes the people.
  • The pre-literate era: an aural, tribal, mythic media environment
  • The print medium: a visual culture, fragmented and isolated
  • The electronic medium: a return to the tribal culture, one of total involvement


  • Is digital medium the message?
  • “The medium is not the message. The medium and the message is the message.” (Rice in Hart-Davidson and Krause, p. 157)
what now content management as a possible solution
What Now? Content Management as a Possible Solution
  • What is content management?
    • the “process of collecting, managing, and publishing information to whatever medium you need” (Boiko 2005, p. xv).
    • how information is created, stored, represented, and accessed most effectively and efficiently within any given organization.
  • What are content management systems?
    • software that “provides a platform for managing the creation, review, filing, updating, distribution, and storage of structured and unstructured content” (White 2002, p. 20)
    • Software that allows to “datatize” text, separate form from content, and make it possible to search, sort, and repurpose information on the fly
content management approach promises and requirements
Content Management Approach:Promises and Requirements
  • Managerial capabilities
  • Collaborative relationships
  • More balanced power between technical communicators and their managers (Sauer and Warnick)
  • A shift from creation of content to its delivery
  • The need to teach students how to analyze the technological situation and then select the most appropriate technological strategies: to discover technology’s limitations, to interrogate tool availability within and without an organization, and to articulate alternative software selections (McShane)
content management approach new roles of technical communicator
Content Management Approach:New Roles of Technical Communicator
  • An epistemic perspective on technical communication
  • A re-conception of the notion of authorship and the writer/reader relationship (Erin Smith)
  • A re-conceptualization of writer’s role: from the creator of content to the manager of information
  • New roles for technical communicators: member, manager, owner, reviewer, in addition to graphic designer, code developer, content manager, and usability/accessibility expert (Kuralt and Williams)
content management approach challenges
Content Management Approach:Challenges
  • The rhetorical choice of one data structure over another (Karl Stolley)
  • Decontextualized chunks of content and challenges to the conventional rhetorical expertise of technical communicators (Rebekka Andersen)
  • New technology transfer and localization practices
  • The potential conflict between developing “content as discrete blocks of information” and developing “text as coherent, unified passages” (Gattis)