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Multiliteracies for Collaborative Learning Environments

Week 3: Sept 26-Oct 2, 2005

Event Cycle 5

Functional literacy

Thursday, Sept 29 to Oct 1, 2005
Tiny URL for EC5:

Selber writes that "Given the intellectual and human dislocation that technology can produce, computers may even be counterproductive in many educational settings" (p.5). Citing what he presumes to be a typical case of Florida State University, which has a computer competency requirement, Selber says the program promotes practical skills but "fails to offer perspectives needed for making rhetorical judgments." In listing some aspects of competence that "the requirement neglects ..." Selber, (p. 20) suggests that multiliterate persons are able to, for example ...

  1. develop file-naming schemes that can be searched meaningfully
  2. write effective email messages
  3. participate appropriately in asynchronous discussion
  4. analyze currency, authority, and reliability of website content
  5. generate visual images that represent data relationships accurately and convincingly
  6. situate technology in social, political, and economic contexts

To address these issues Selber (p. 25) presents in chart form: The conceptual landscape of a computer multiliteracies program

Category Metaphor Subject Position Objective
Functional Literacy computers as tools students as users of technology effective employment
Critical Literacy computers as cultural artifacts students as questioners of technology informal critique
Rhetorical Literacy computers as hypertextual media students as producers of technology reflective praxis

On p. 24 he makes what he says is the "one sweeping statement I am prepared to make. Students who are not adequately exposed to all three literacy categories will find it difficult to participate fully and meaningfully in technological activities." The rest of the book addresses each component in turn and in comprehensive detail.

Functional Literacy

Selber starts this chapter (p.30) citing studies indicating that students are often left to figure out technology on their own, and this is a persistent source of frustration for them. On the other hand, students need to be taught heuristics to enable them resolve certain issues with technology for themselves. To achieve this end, "peer tutoring and other informal methods of computer instruction" might be used. In suggesting what form systematic implementation of such schemes might take, Selber divides this chapter into three sections: (1) He gives "some good reasons for helping students confront the complexities of computer use," (2) he examines the tool metaphor to shed light on what "can be positive and not so positive about functional approaches," and (3) he outlines 5 parameters to make functional approaches to computer literacy 'more productive." (p.31)

Competing visions of functional literacy

Selber begins by saying that conceptualizations of functional literacy that dwell on software, hardware, and operating systems (programming no longer considered necessary) are potentially 'harmful' and 'damaging' and often become "a blunt tool with which ruling classes create minimally skilled workers." (p. 33)

"For teachers of writing and communication, constructing a workable functional literacy is crucial for several reasons." (p. 35) Students must ...

  1. attain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to learn to control technological resources in order to achieve goals particular to educational settings
  2. "be able to understand the ways in which writing an communication activities are organized in an online environment" in order to evaluate their efficacy
  3. demonstrate tech proficiency in order to compete for "rewarding work in the digital age"
  4. "have access to the language of the powerful, including the discourse of technology" in order to "enact change"

Computers as tools

Selber devotes almost ten page to examining this metaphor, which is unique to the literature considering that the computer as a tool has been widely accepted as a workable metaphor for its use for decades; e.g. Taylor, R.P. (Ed.). (1980) The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee, New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University. I also characterized the computer as a tool and, related that to its use by teachers posing as skilled workers who needed to know how to use those tools, in a plenary address I gave in Cyprus in 2001: (particularly the part of the talk where I get into Tool based environments and Serendipitous outcomes in the workshop.

Selber says that "a tool metaphor invariably influences how users think about and work with computers." (p. 35, my emphasis). This has both negative and positive ramifications:



From Selber (2004) p. 45: Parameters of a functional approach to computer literacy

Parameters Qualities of a functionally literate student
A functionally literate student ...
Educational goals uses computers effectively in achieving educational goals
Social conventions understands the social conventions that help determine computer use
Specialized discourse makes use of the specialized discourses associated with computers
Management activities effectively manages his or her online world
Technological impasses resolves technological impasses confidently and strategically

Selber's book is addressed at addressing what ought to be the components of courses on computer literacy in tertiary education. However, the importance of these literacies is not limited to students at these institutions. Therefore I am taking the liberty below of using the term 'user' where Selber (as in the chart above) refers to 'student.' Keeping this in mind and taking these parameters one by one ...

A functionally literate user uses computers effectively in achieving educational goals

Either Selber is referencing the world of computer literates (and not dealing with 'illiterates' who don't actively use computers) or he is assuming that we have reached a stage where those with no prior computer use do not appear on college campuses in the USA. Therefore he distinguishes only two levels of computer user:

Empowerment comes from controlling a computer, or having "the ability to harness technology in a seemingly systematic way." (p.46) Empowered users are trained to:

  1. understand what computers are good at, BUT that they are NOT good at solving ill-defined problems. Selber uses the example of a grammar checker. Grammar checkers can:
  2. utilize advanced features in software that are generally ignored. To illustrate this, Selber asks why "many students today still operate the computer like a glorified typewriter?" Because teachers ...
  3. customize interfaces - default settings help beginners over learning curves but do not meet particular needs; entails use of

This last skill segues into the next aspect of functional literacy, and that is going from the personal to the shared, or social. Here users must broaden the audience for their work and pay attention to navigation and transparency, according to social conventions particular to the networld addresses.

A functionally literate user understands the social conventions that help determine computer use

This section starts with an examination of some of the factors that shape discourse in email and newsgroups, as well as in online discussions in college writing classes. College literacy courses teach proper 'netiquette.' Although "each particular networld has its own culture and norms," (p. 54, a quote from Harasim) one study identifies seven violating behaviors:

  1. incorrect or novice (newbie) use of technology
  2. waste of bandwidth
  3. violation of network conventions
  4. violation of newsgroup-specific convention
  5. ethical violation
  6. inappropriate language
  7. factual error

A functionally literate user makes use of the specialized discourses associated with computers

Typically, the language of computer discourse has been considered to be the vocabulary of its parts and what goes on inside a computer. But ... "Cultural privileges accrue through effective discourse practices. That is, one must effectively appropriate the language of a community in order to have a voice within it." (p.55) Nowadays, the discourse necessary to submit proposals and give presentations and to otherwise communicate in a digital age is broadening. This made me chuckle: "To date, the language of computer networks has captured a great deal of attention because teachers have confronted it repeatedly under urgent circumstances." (p. 56) Troubleshooters need specific descriptions of problems in order to repair them, and "students also need access to the discourses that constitute online environments." (p. 57)

Selber gives examples of how these discourses have broadened to include technical terms from the print and publishing, broadcast, and motion picture industries as well as that of computing. He points out how in English composition classes "students are often actively discouraged from seeing, for example, the discourses of typography or graphic design as important ... Nonetheless, multimedia texts depend upon this discourse, which pervades the software programs used to create them." (p. 58) Selber gives many examples; for example,

Therefore, (p.61) knowledge of specialized discourses can

A functionally literate user effectively manages his or her online world

"Because computers help students organize their work on a meaningful level, housekeeping cannot be the only management issue given due consideration. To some extent, how students handle work influences the elements that comprise the mosaic of thoughts associated with a writing or communication project." (p.61) Information can now be harvested with little effort and cost. However, there is a consequence. Users have changed their reading strategies, tend to regard what can be collected and saved as the totality of the online experience, and use Internet searches as their research tool while ignoring libraries.

Selber considers a few information management systems systems from file and directory desktops to applications that help manage information and meta-systems that handle large-scale searches on the Internet. "A functionally literate student takes advantage of software attributes that automate management activities in ways that are helpful," (p.63) such as email filters, listserv commands, personalized home pages with favorites and automatically updated content, bookmark utilities, data repair, recovery, and backup tools. Noting that teachers tend not to cover such tools, Selber suspects this is because they are considered the domain of the IT departments. He cites the example of teledemocracy to suggest that tech fixes to resource management cannot entirely succeed because there is always a social dimension to information gathering (in the case of democracy, the social dimension is vitality of issues). The result of teledemocracy is a glut of information that defies management to the extent that it obscures the issues.

"An important step for students is to be able to size up the management activities that can be successfully turned over to a machine." (p.64) Often this involves policies set by an institution (constraints on downloads on a network, size of personal LAN folders, management software available on the network). They also "unite technology and literacy in ways that require social judgements" (p.65) as illustrated in contrasting the management of an email attachments folder and an inbox. The former involves manipulating file formats, extensions, and directories; whereas the latter entails less straightforward priorities, relationships, and collaborative arrangements. In this context, Selber's students soon realize that to filter assignments and emails concerning collaborative activities, consistency of subject line is essential (a social dimension). The reason that users tend to NOT use filters is that "setting them up is a commitment to supporting long-term managerial structures" as opposed to the short-term convenience of sorting manually. (p.66) Selber describes how he has students filter course email in such a way that the inbox ceases to be the "sole focal point of their asynchronous communication" (p.67) a step which requires again a social change on the part of the students.

A functionally literate user resolves technological impasses confidently and strategically

The frustration of technological impasses is familiar to most computer users, and how these are dealt with is an indicator of our functional literacy. Symptoms of impasse include stalled projects and asymmetrical communications during collaborative projects. Two types of technological impasse are identified:

Determinants of unproductive reactions to tech impasses include:

Selber looks at systematic responses to user breakdowns (after King and McNeese)

  1. Assessment
    Involves developing/using instruments, such as psychological anxiety measures, or attitudes surveys (Selber feels the former are not particularly useful to educators)
  2. Treatment
    Desensitizing methods linked to muscle relaxation techniques (which Selber says would be 'unworkable' in educational settings)
  3. Adaptive computing systems
    Interfaces that adjust to emotional and psychological state of user (again too expensive and experimental per Selber)
  4. Collaborative support systems
    Selber feels that for educators, this "holds the most promise. Collaborative support systems supply a structure that enables users to share their fears and difficulties when it comes to computers. On a basic level, one can imagine the utility of an e-mail list where a community of engaged and generous students answer questions related to technological impasses." (p.69) This is exactly what Webheads do - Vance

    Teachers tend not to exploit such measures partly because "they are embarrassed to that they might not have all of the answers. Indirect attempts to provide support schemes are invaluable and should be carried on. That is, teachers should continue to" (p.70)
    1. take advantage of campus-wide resources
    2. invest in documentation
    3. prepare students as technical consultants
    4. set up help notebooks in which students record problems and solutions, and
    5. provide electronic environments that foster useful interchanges about technological impasses
    6. embed more formal discussions that help students reason systematically about breakdowns

If you substitute 'peers' for the word 'students' above, then again in points 3, 5, and 6 above, you can realize what role Webheads plays in helping teachers achieve their professional goals.

Systematic responses to user breakdowns (after Ben Schneiderman) <Click here for an illustrative example>

Selber ends this chapter on a cautionary note: "But because the tool metaphor tends to conceal the political aspects of computers, the peril of functional literacy is serious and real and should not be discounted. The instrumental lenses associated with the tool metaphor do not prod students to focus on biases and implications nor on what is happening with them and to them in technological environments. So although functionally literate students may be equipped for effective computer-based work, such work will remain obsequious and underdeveloped without the richly textured insights that critical perspectives can provide." (p.73)

Resolving technical impasses: Semantic vs. Syntactic solutions compared

Impasse: Where is the syllabus? I know you posted it more than once but I am having trouble locating it. I get to work on this class in bits and pieces during the day and need to bookmark it if you will only post the link one more time. Sorry!!!!!

Semantic Solutions Syntactic Solutions

Sorry you're having trouble, and let me provide you with a heuristic for resolving this particular technological impasse. Visualize this: there are three front door entrances to our course plus a back door to our session syllabus.

The three front doors are:

  1. Our Homestead portal page at
  2. Our YahooGroups page at:
  3. Our Desire to Learn portal at

There's also a back door. Visit my site at Vance Stevens dot com and follow the link to my papers and publications at . Here you can find all my projects listed in chronological order, including our session with its URLs.

How can you reach the front doors?

  • Front Door #1 - This is easy: I just now typed 'tesol multiliteracy vance' into Google. There was only one hit, our portal. There's a link on the portal page to the syllabus.
  • Front Door #2 - The most rememberable entrance is probably via YahooGroups. Most people can remember the URL: .
    If you're not a Yahoo member, you can also use this portal.
  • The link to the Desire to Learn portal at is not easy to memorize (it's one of the syntactic solutions, right column), but if you want to get there semantically you can reach it through links at the top of Front Door #1 or Front Door #2. Once you've logged on to the site you'll find a link to the syllabus on the course home page.

So to get to our course info through the front doors, in case you are away from your bookmarks, the easiest to remember is probably to go at it through Google, next easiest is and then find MULTILIT under My Groups. Or you can type that URL in a browser and then add group/multilit to the end of it. The other two front doors are through the Homestead portal and the D2L one, but the URLs are not easy to remember.

Still another heuristic for creating short cuts to long URLs, make a tiny one. Visit and paste the long URL into the engine. It spits out ... . If you use this method you only have to remember the Tiny URL (easy) plus the key combination: 3k7we, which will let you in to one of the front doors.

Memorize this URL:


Memorize the URL to our Our Desire to Learn portal at and link to the syllabus from there.

Bookmarks from Bee:

I was reading your sum up on Selber's Functional Literacy ... I would like to complement this with some content from links I read here and there,

How does Bee keep track of all this stuff? She says: "The best way to organize your favourite bookmarks so that you can have access to them wherever you are is to use Backflip. "

Bee Barbara Dieu Lycée Pasteur, Sao Paulo, Brazil

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Last updated: September 30, 2005

©opyright 2005 by Vance Stevens