Educational Opportunities and Challenges

What are the educational opportunities and challenges related to multiliteracies?

Literacy involves gaining the skills and knowledge to read and interpret varying texts and artifacts, and to successfully navigate and negotiate their challenges, conflicts and crises. To the domains of reading, writing, and traditional print literacies, one could argue that in an era of technological revolution, educators must develop robust forms of media literacy, computer literacy, and multimedia literacies, thus cultivating “multiple literacies.”

-Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share, “Media Literacy in the US”

We are in the midst of a transformative movement – globalization is occurring at a rapid rate and it is no longer acceptable to only be literate in the traditional sense. Due to the swift evolution of international relationships, global education, trade and commerce, and media presentation, it has become imperative that citizens gain training in multiliteracies and prove their competency through a wide array of means. As Douglas Kellner noted in his article Mutliple Literacies and Critical Pedagogy in a Multicultural Society, “Whereas modern pedagogy tended to be specialized, fragmented, and differentiated, and was focused on print culture, a postmodern pedagogy involves developing multiple literacies and critically analyzing, dissecting, and engaging a multiplicity of cultural forms, some of which are the products of new technologies and require developing new literacies to engage the new cultural forms and media” (1998). With this notion of the new pedagogy incorporating multiliteracies, it is essential that one assess the opportunities and challenges associated with such a powerful cognitive approach.

Through the cultivation of multiliteracies, individuals create a new language which suits the current post-Fordist worker who will come into contact with workers from other cultures, backgrounds, countries, and situations (New London Group, 1996). A multiliterate approach may incorporate traditional text, visual design, documentary film, blog postings, semiotic representations, or myriad other options which are used to convey meaning and information to the viewer/reader/participant. Although multiliteracies in no way replace the traditional text format (which has become increasingly important with the various textual elements of the internet and computers), it is a recognized fact that individuals must be competent and confident with multiliteracies in order to keep up with academic, corporate, and cultural demands, as well as the basic demands of living in a globalized world. Ideally, with the variety of multimedia tools available to show understanding, pre-workforce students would have an equalized opportunity for success, and would carry with them an understanding of multiliteracy applications. Due to inequality, access issues, and global shifts, however, not all students have the ability to benefit from multiliteracies, and therefore, may find that they are not able to survive in the multi-faceted world of multiliteracies.

The first challenge associated with multiliteracies is access. Students who have access to an education which exposes them to multiliteracies are at a distinct advantage over their peers who do not have access to a pedagogical approach which draws upon multiple literacies. Kellner comments that an individual who self-confident in their knowledge of multiliteracies “is able to select and evaluate ideas, values, form of behavior, cultural forms, institutions, and social practices in a critical and discriminatory mode, to make them her or his own, and to engage in a process of self-discovery and self-development” (1998). Needless to say, with multiliteracies in education, students are able to establish a stronger sense of self and become more adept at making individualized decisions, handling social/cultural challenges, and producing meaningful products. Youth without access to multiliteracies, however, will not be as socially, culturally, academically, or individually fluent. They will not be able to engage with the content and material presented to them in the same way as their peers who are multiliterate.

One aspect of the benefits of multiliteracy is seen through the observations of Diane Carson and Lester Friedman in their book Shared Differences: Multicultural Media and Practical Pedagogy when it is noted that multiliteracies and media literacy can be used to positively teach cultural understanding and diversity. Through multiliteracies, multiculturalism can be taught and brought into the classrooms ofAmerica
(and the world) in a very real manner. Rather than simply focus lessons on traditional texts and classical curriculum, multiliteracies allow students to gain exposure to the depth and breath of global cultures without leaving their classroom. Additionally, the New London Group corroborated this notion in A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures: “...We decided to use the term 'multiliteracies' as a way to focus on the realities of increasing local diversity and global connectedness...Effective citizenship and productive work now require that we interact effectively using multiple languages, multiple Englishes, and communication patterns that more frequently cross cultural, community and national boundaries” (1996). Through these arguments, it becomes increasingly clear that students with exposure to varied media forms will have a deeper understanding of global practices, traditions and norms (as well as a greater adeptness at working with and between social borders) than those who are denied the opportunity to glimpse life in another land through engagement in multiliteracies. This is only one aspect of the problems and benefits that are inextricably linked to the rise and development of multiliteracies.

Recognition, reproduction and reflection literacy are three of the most common multiliteracies. Recognition literacy implies that an individual can recognize, process and understand a given piece of information in whatever form they choose to focus on. They do not need to take it to a higher level thinking skill, and can instead focus on simply learning the information. Reproduction literacy implies that an individual not only recognizes terms, meaning and information, but also is able to take the information and work with it in such a way that it actually has been reproduced to be carried over in a different construct. This is a higher level thinking skill than recognition, and thus, requires more interaction with the information (regardless of the medium through which it is conveyed). Reflection literacy is the most powerful of the three because it also builds on the other two and adds new, unique elements. Reflection literacy mandates that an individual not only process, comprehend and connect with the content, but must also interact with it in a personal level so that they make meaning for themselves, others, or the global community at large. It is impossible to be reflectively literate without an understanding of how the information that is being gained can impact society at large. Because it is difficult to instruct students in these methods, it is not always easy to apply them to the traditional classroom practice. Teachers who do integrate them into their classrooms are working hard to "move away from limiting debates over basic skills and commodified methods into a much broader debate about literacy education as a sustainable and powerful curriculum practice" (Luke & Carrington, 2007). With this in mind, it is clear that students who are in an environment which supports multiliteracy and encourages higher level thinking skills will be at a distinct advantage over those who are not offered involvement in the same globalized practices. It is not sufficient, however, to simply have exposure to multiliteracies – students who engage in varied forms of media literacy on a regular basis and practice their awareness of critical literacy, semiotic (symbol) knowledge, or another form of multiliteracy will prove their strength as they interact with their world on a daily basis.

Critical literacy proves another element in the challenges and opportunities associated with multiliteracies. Critical literacy implies that an individual may look at a “text” and use their abilities to decipher, interpret and apply the knowledge within in a critical analysis context. For example, a student watching a film about sustainability in a small Midwest community may interpret the information, analyze it in context and then connect their understanding of that “text” to their own experiences or the experiences of their community at large which would certainly be dramatically different than the observations, experiences, and understandings of a student in Brooklyn, New York. Although many would view this as a wonderful tendency, for some, it is a challenge. How does one successfully teach critical literacy to students? Is it possible to instill in individuals a means of relating content to the community at large and thus derive more meaning from the text? Despite the daunting nature of the task, it is something which must be done, for reasons which Douglas Kellner points out: “There are ever more implosions between media and computer culture as audio and video material becomes part of the Internet, as CD-Rom and multimedia develop, and as new technologies become part and parcel of the home, school, and workplace” (1998). Because there are so many overlapping contexts, it is essential that students gain the multiliteracy background so that they may fully understand the world around them.

Critical literacy as an aspect of multiliteracy is undoubtedly a higher order thinking skill, and teaching it should not be a one-sided conversation. In the 2005 article, Media Literacy in the US, Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share note that :teaching critical media literacy should be a participatory, collaborative project. Watching television shows or films together could promote productive discussions between teachers and students (or parents and children), with emphasis on eliciting student views, producing a variety of interpretations of media texts and teaching basic principles of hermeneutics and criticism” (2005). Much like recognition, reproduction and reflection, critical literacy requires a basic understanding of multiliteracy in order for an individual to see the larger picture and truly engage with the content in a critical manner. Students who have limited exposure to multiliteracies – either because they have a teacher who is uncomfortable with the concept of multiliteracy or because they do not have adequate access – will certainly fall behind their peers who have unfettered access to media, digital, audio literacies among other forms. Thus, just as the digital divide separates individuals into categories of the haves and the have-nots, it also proves an obstacle in the realm of critical literacy. A student who does not have sufficient background with multimedia analysis will not have an opportunity to engage critically with online videos, documentary films, web-posted blogs or internet pod-casts. Furthermore, a student who does have access to multimedia/multiliterate instruction, but is gaining this insight from a teacher who does not fully understand the technology, concept, or medium may prove just as detrimental as a teacher who does not incorporate multiliteracies at all. Teacher training and professional development has not always been strong, and as we become more dependent on multiliterary techniques, it may be necessary to do some backpedaling and train teachers on content and approaches that so many students are already familiar with in a casual way. With 47.8? of all American teachers aged 45 or older, support and district restructuring will be necessary to make American students fully proficient with multiliteracies – few of these teachers will have the skills and experience to prepare their students for the onslaught of multiliterate messages without formal training (PBS, n.d.). Currently, however, the best approach for fully bringing multiliteracies into the classroom is to engage students in discussion, critical analysis, debate, and promote a regular questioning format which allows students to bring up topics and respond to their peers in turn (Kellner and Share, 2005). This will prove to be one of the strongest and most collaborative approaches to multiliteracy education, and ultimately will be more effective than avoiding multiliteracies simply because of a lack of training or experience.
When used correctly, critical literacy can serve as a significant advantage and bring out humanitarian aspects of individuals allowing them to see their community and come to an understanding of the role they can play based on the text and their engagement with it. When not used or used incorrectly, individuals may fail to fully engage in a critical context and they may see the material in a purely objective sense – it is simply a means to provide information – or may be caught up in the presentation of the content and fail to see the content itself. Regardless of which path critical literacy takes as a challenge, it is certainly one of the most difficult aspects of multiliteracy to teach and one of the most important to understand.

Another element which is both a challenge and an opportunity is the nature of multiliteracies. Inherently, the presentation of mulitmedia content is more intriguing, interactive, and engaging than traditional text-based content. Youtube, facebook, blogs, asynchronous spaces, and other mutliliterate means of delivering information are all appealing to students, but it can be difficult to remove their preconceived notions and practices with these mediums when transferring them to the classroom environment. Teachers may shy away from the use of multiliterate sources (with visually appealing graphs, videos, interactive menus, and webquests) simply because they provide the opportunity for students to get lost in another “world”. On the other hand, it is important that teachers recognize the value of multilitrate students and identify what is so engaging about these different means of conveying information to weigh the cost-benefit for their curriculum and their student body. Because many students are far more comfortable with the technology and format that their teachers, multimedia approaches serve as a springboard, allowing teachers to introduce formerly difficult topics into the classroom in a relatively easy manner – students will not shy away from a youtube video explaining symbolism or meiosis, but may be wary of reading several pages to garner the same information. With this in mind, it is crucial that teachers use multiliteracies in the classroom to further engage students; even if student may be more tempted to use the format for fun instead of learning, they will already be familiar with the approach, so it is not an unreasonable expectation.

One of the primary reasons for introducing students to multiliteracies and encouraging them to engage with the content at a relatively early age is that it provides new career opportunities and ideally opens doors for them in the global market. Students who fail to translate the meaning of signs and symbols in their own community will undoubtedly falter when forced to interpret such content in a global community. Students who are trained (and possibly excel) at transferring disconnected multimedia content into their own worlds will prove to have skills that will be required of them in the worldwide economic community. Once again, the disparity of access comes into play. Limited exposure to multiliteracies leads to limited understanding. In 1999, the Department of Labor put out a report entitled Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century. The authors, Robert Lerman and Stefanie Schmidt, emphasize the changing workforce, shifting expectations and the movement in jobs that will drive the economy: “Shifts in the ethnic composition of the workforce will continue the patterns of recent decades. Immigrants will account for as much as half of net population growth over the next decades” (1999). Clearly, without a background in audio, visual, computer, symbolic and additional (potentially undeveloped) forms of literacy, as well as a sensitive global awareness, future American workers will fall behind the immigrant competition who are multifaceted and multiliterate. Not only will the American students without access to a consistent multiliterate background lack essential skills, but they will lack cultural understanding and global dialogue techniques. It is necessary that we note “The ability for students to see how diverse people can interpret the same message differently is important for multicultural education since understanding differences means more than merely tolerating one another” (Kellner and Share, 2005).

Certainly this does not only impact the current youth in their educational paths, but also individuals who are currently in the global world. “Labor markets are generating jobs with higher skill requirements, but taking advantage of these opportunities requires expanded training opportunities, especially among older workers trying to avoid the effects of obsolescence” (Lerman, 1999). Those who do not have exposure to multiliteracies in their working world may find that they are not competitive within the changing future-force. Not only does the shifting marketplace demand that individuals prepare for the immediate needs of their job – technical savvy, symbolic awareness, etc. – as well as the future predictions of where their corporation may venture. As companies expand across the globe, multiliteracies take on practical applications for all age groups – how can one accurately “read” other cultural customs and practices in order to achieve a more complete communication between parties?

On the other side of the coin, however, multiliteracies may prove to be of significant benefit to those who are familiar with them. Douglas Kellner notes that students who are familiar with multiple literacies will be more in tune with the changing workforce and globalized marketplace: “There is expanding recognition that media representations help construct our images and understanding of the world and that education must meet the dual challenges of teaching media literacy in a multicultural society and sensitizing students and publics to the inequities and injustices of [society]” (1998). Kellner advocates that if teachers successful emphasize what he terms media literacy, students will learn about other cultures, customs, and their future colleagues while also becoming multiliterate. Therby, multiliteracies, if implemented successfully can be a wonderful opportunity for future workers and current students to learn more about the diverse workforce to which they will belong.

Ultimately, however, multiliteracies extend far beyond each and every one of the aforementioned aspects. Yes, multiliteracies will allow teachers to extend their traditional instructional practices, and yes, multiliteracies will benefit students who have access by providing them insight into their communities, culture, academics, and themselves. It is no longer practical to rely solely on customary texts in the classroom, and teachers must make certain that they are preparing future generations for the demands of everyday life – multiliteracies can help achieve this level of understanding through the use of varied forms of knowledge, understanding, and reality. Perhaps Kellner summed up the concept of multiliteracy best when commenting on how essential it is for students today:

Critical media literacy not only teaches students to learn from media, to resist media manipulation, and to empower themselves vis-a-vis the media, but it is concerned with developing skills that will empower citizens and that will make them more motivated and competent participants in social life. Critical media literacy is thus tied to the project of radical democracy and concerned to develop skills that will enhance democratization and participation. Critical media literacy takes a comprehensive approach that would teach critical skills and how to use media as instruments of social change. The technologies of communication are becoming more and more accessible to young people and average citizens, and they should be used to promote education, democratic self expression, and social progress (1998).

As the many aspects of multiliteracies develop and become more omnipresent in society, American teachers, students, and workers need to become more fluent in multi-layered communication. Despite the challenges which must be overcome, multiliteracies are everywhere and will be vital in the future for global workplaces, academic institutions, and international communication. Even though there are developments, adjustments and recreations of multiliterate content on a regular basis, society is moving in the right direction. As students type on blogs, watch youtube, listen to audiobooks, or read magazines, they engage in varied forms of literacy and make gains in their critical literacy abilities. In spite of the fact that multiliteracy may require training, and it may be difficult to model or teach, it is a necessary approach to comprehending information, and will certainly be a life-skill for future generations.

Kellner, Douglas. (1998). Multiple Literacies and Critical Pedagogy in a Multicultural Society. [Electronic version].
Http:// (Retrieved June 3, 2009).

Kellner, Douglas, and Jeff Share. (2005). Media Literacy in the US. [Electronic version]. Http:// (Retrieved June 3, 2009).

Lerman, Robert, and Stefanie Schmidt. (1999). Futurework: An Overview of Economic, Social, and Demographic Trends Affecting the US Labor Market. [Electronic version]. (Retrieved June 1, 2009).

Luke, Allan, and Victoria Carrington. (2005). Globalization, Literacy, and Curriculum Practice. Retrieved June 12, 2009 from

New London Group (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review. 66 (1). 1-30.

PBS (n.d.). Only A Teacher: Closeup – America's Teachers. Retrieved June 27, 2009 from