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"The C's of Change": An Extended Interview with Members of the New Literacies Research Lab - Previous Revision

Extended Interview with Lisa Zawilinski, Donald Leu, and Members of the New Literacies Research Lab Team

1. What are the main differences between 20th century and 21st century education?

It is an unfortunate fact that there are only minimal differences in classrooms today, compared to classrooms of the previous century. Students continue to be asked to master basic, factual knowledge in the classroom and then are assessed on this knowledge. This, despite the fact that a number of profound differences between the two centuries should have redefined the nature of classroom learning: localization vs. globalization; labor as capital vs. intelligence as capital; information as knowledge to be mastered vs. information as a tool with which to develop new knowledge; and, most importantly, the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs). (Donald Leu)

2. How is the definition of literacies changing and why?

The Internet is this generation's defining technology for literacy and learning. Over 1.4 billion individuals (more than 1/6 of the world's population) now use the Internet to read, write, and communicate online ( The Internet also requires additional, new literacies of online reading comprehension to locate, critically evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information (Leu, et. al, 2007).

Other new literacies also come with these new territories for literacy. New social practices, new visual literacies, new video literacies, new communication literacies, and many other new literacies are all essential to fully exploit the potential of the Internet and other ICTs to generate new knowledge, improve individual lives, and make the world a better, more thoughtful, place. (Donald Leu)

3. What corresponding changes are needed in teaching practices and are those taking place?

First and foremost, the Internet must become a dominant instructional text within today's classroom. Students cannot build 21st Century Literacies in classrooms that revolve around textbooks. After all, a single well-vetted source does not afford students with the opportunity to challenge the author or combine multiple streams of information.

Other steps teachers can take involve creating complex learning environments (Bransford et al., 1999) and experiences that apply skills in authentic contexts, creating an open and democratic classroom which allows for exploration of student opinion (Houtz, 1990) and engages students in high quality discussion.

One method to creating these pedagogies in the classroom is through inquiry learning. For example, students could choose to investigate a problem they would like to improve and then research this problem online. Finally, students could create video podcasts to share student-created public service announcements. (Greg McVerry)

4. What obstacles do teachers and administrators face in implementing these types of changes?

Teachers continue to face many similar challenges that have always limited technology integration. For too long technology was viewed as a set of discreet skills and not connected to the curriculum. This could be changing.

According to teachers, as reported in a variety of surveys and government reports, the following challenges exist: technology fluency, concerns over Internet safety, lack of time to integrate technology, need for professional development, pressure to focus on basic skills, training in software application instead of teaching 21st century literacies. (Greg McVerry)

5. What are the specific skills needed for 21st century literacies?

Many groups from the private sector and national content organizations have tried to identify 21st Century skills. Some commonalities emerge when you view the following reports: Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework (2007); enGauge 21st Century Skills (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2000); ISTE NET-S Standards (2007); AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner  (2007); the NCTE policy statement Towards a Definition of 21st Century Literacies (2008); Are They Really Ready to Work? (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006). We often refer to these as navigating the "C's of change." Across all the new standards and reports, students must now build their creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, self-control, and comprehension skills.

As literacy educators, we most often focus on the comprehension and communication skills. It is important to understand, however, that these skills have evolved with the Internet. For example, comprehension of nonlinear text for problem solving and inquiry can often be more challenging than comprehending a linear text. These require the new literacies of online reading comprehension.

Communication has also changed. No matter the career path students choose, they will be asked to make meaning with, and create, documents that combine visual, auditory, and textual modalities (Takayoshi & Selfe, 2007). Learners need to know when a technology is appropriate and how best to frame communications for a particular audience (Leu et al., 2007).

As literacy educators engage students in new 21st century literacies, it is important that they also focus on the other 21st century skills. One way to build comprehension and communication skills is through collaborative Internet inquiry projects. (Greg McVerry)


Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework (2007)

enGauge 21st Century Skills (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory,

ISTE NET-S Standards (2007)

AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner (2007)

The NCTE policy statement Towards a Definition of 21st Century Literacies (2008)  [need new URL when web launches]

Are They Really Ready to Work? (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006)

6. What can teachers and administrators do to help keep the focus on teaching meaningful skills rather than on the tools & technologies? (In other words, how can teachers balance learning to use the tools with using the tools to learn?)

Balance needs to occur in creating meaningful lessons within authentic contexts for the students to benefit and buy in to what is being taught. If the tools and technologies are being rolled out for the sake of having tools and technologies, then the system will fail. Teachers and administrators need common planning time to look at the standards and frameworks and determine where the best place would be to start infusing the good work already happening with the power that the tools and technologies can lend.

The best bet from the teacher's perspective is to take a lesson or unit that they already teach and that they have taught with success in the past. They know that the lesson works and that the students will value the work. Then planning time can be invested in finding the right tools to use and authentic places to implement the technologies. (Ian O'Byrne)

Two specific teacher dispositions will help both teachers and administrators balance learning the tools and learning the skills through the tools. First, teachers must attend closely to their own searches and communications on the Internet. For example, when using a search engine to locate information on the Internet, teachers should note how they change search terms to find the answers to their questions. Are they adding terms, using quotations, specifying the types of pages to search within? They might ask themselves, how am I determining the reliability of the information I find? When crafting an email to a colleague, what are they doing to be sure the recipient understands their message? Are they referring to previous conversations? Are they writing more formally with greetings and salutations appropriate for the audience? These skills are important across any type of writing. Noting the skills in action will help to know what to teach students.

The next teacher disposition necessary is a comfort with sharing the responsibility for teaching. The classroom teacher alone is not as efficient when teaching with these technologies and skills. Teachers must develop a comfort with students becoming teachers. Students have much to share with their classmates and teachers and should contribute that knowledge. I can't tell you how much I have learned from my students. Sharing the teaching with them has been a remarkable, life-changing experience for me. Not only are we learning much more, the classroom culture has changed. Students understand that a number of "experts" exist outside of the teacher. They go to each other for help. I can't go back to being the only one doing the teaching. So, pay close attention to your own internet use, noticing what you are thinking and doing step by step, and share your teaching responsibility with your students. These two dispositions will serve you well on this journey. (Lisa Zawilinski)

7. How can teachers help students dig deeper when using new tools?

The skill and habit of digging deeper needs to occur on a daily basis in all subjects. The advent of these "new tools" just highlights the need more than ever. As a teacher, my district would always talk about "academic rigor" and having students fully understand the essential questions involved in everything that happened in the classroom. The belief was that any student in any classroom could be asked what they were learning at that specific instant and they would be able to accurately respond as to what and why they were learning. As educators we need to focus on the depths to which our students understand what we're teaching, and why we're teaching it. This mindset of deep understanding can be reinforced regularly, not just in the context of new tools and technologies. When the tools and technologies come into the classroom, they'll just be an extension of the good learning already happening. (Ian O'Byrne)

8. How can teachers teach 21st century skills in a way that makes learning relevant and truly engages students?

The focus on authentic learning can take place, and should take place in all disciplines, regardless of whether or not the technological tools are there. The benefit of the technology, when integrated into a great lesson, is that the tools are embedded seamlessly. The new frontiers brought about by technological tools don't seem foisted onto the classroom as a whole. If the tools and environments brought about by Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are thoughtfully integrated into a lesson, the extension will not seem so distant.
    For example, instead of having students read The Adventures of Huck Finn and write an essay about freedom of speech and the novel, or giving a speech about censorship and the book being banned, ICTs offer new avenues to research and respond. Students can search for background information about the Bill of Rights and why the book has been banned around the globe. Students can read the blogs and newspaper articles written by and about these book bannings. The students in your class can email individuals from other schools to determine how severe the case of censorship was at their specific school. Your students could then present their findings and research with students from other schools via their own blog or email. The type of authentic learning then moves away from classroom interactions and dynamics and closer to the global learning and lifelong skills that some frameworks and standards like to envision. (Ian O'Byrne)

9. Is it important that students see their electronic text composition as "real" writing? If so, how can teachers facilitate this?

If you talk to anyone over thirty the first thing they lament is the destruction of spelling because of instant messaging (IM). Yet, this reality does not play out in the research. Students, according to the recent Pew Internet American Life study on writing, understand the difference between communication and comprehension. Students view texting and IMing and micro-blogging on Facebook as more of communication than composition. They can also address and switch audiences. Therefore, when writing to a teacher or an adult, they may not use the same "voice" they do with their friends.

What is important to educators to engage students in composition using new technologies that allow students to explore their sense of voice and identity? This does not mean equating Facebook with Faust, but that the tool can be used in the classroom to facilitate writing. For example, teachers could set up a social network in Ning and have students interact "in character." Teachers can also draw on technologies that students view more as "real" composition over those of "real" communication. (Greg McVerry)

Collaborative projects provide students with authentic audiences and purposes for writing. As Greg mentioned above, using a Ning, a mini social network (that can be password protected and only viewed by those invited) can be set up between classrooms studying the same content or reading the same texts. Teachers can start a dialogue and require students to collaborate across classrooms. This collaboration makes explicit multiple interpretations and points of view--real writing using Internet tools for authentic purposes. (Lisa Zawilinski)

10. Do you think out-of-school activities students may engage in, such as Facebooking or writing fanfiction, contribute to literacy?

Of course. If you recognize literacy as a social practice then how students use language and symbols to make meaning counts as literacy. Often, skeptics (i.e. the National Endowment of the Arts) segregate students' out of school literacies as a subset of skills that could never equate to reading great "literature." Yet who gets to define literature? Who gets to define great? The story lines and complexities of the narratives in today's video games can have as many twists as any Chekov plays.

Fanfiction and other explorations of popular culture also count as literature. You hear classroom teachers moaning all the time that students do not know how to write or peer edit with groups. If you look at these vast online writing communities, however, you will find adolescents have created their own literary world. Sure, some characters may be contrived or plots unrealistic (these are emerging writers) and there may be some grammatical errors (many students write in a second language), but to say that these events do not count as literature because the stories can not hold their own against the classics is absurd. (Greg McVerry)

11. How are today's teachers weaving together 21st century reading and writing activities in their classrooms?

Many teachers are working to expand their expertise with new technologies and the skills required when reading on the Internet. Maintaining classroom home pages and blogging are two common ways teachers are expanding their repertoire and weaving in 21st century literacy skills. They are beginning to blog with their students. Instead of featuring student writing on the classroom bulletin board, many teachers are posting student writing to blogs, providing a broader audience for the work. The posting of reader responses and book reviews to blogs is becoming more common. Teachers are also maintaining classroom webpages containing links to rich curricular resources for students, parents, and other teachers.

Additional ways that teachers are weaving in 21st century reading and writing activities are through Internet Projects and email "pen-pal" exchanges. Instead of traditional pen pals, students are exchanging email with partner classrooms across the world. There is little time lag between exchanges, and students are practicing important communication skills within the email tool.  Additionally, some classrooms are participating in Internet Projects. These projects are collaborative and span a variety of content areas (see "Internet Project: Preparing Students for New Literacies in a Global Village" at for a detailed explanation). These activities provide both teachers and students important practice using the new skills required for understanding and sharing information on the Internet. (Lisa Zawilinski)

Donald Leu, Greg McVerry, Lisa Zawilinski, and Ian O'Byrne are members of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut. Learn more about their work at


Bransford, J., Pellegrino, J. W., & Donovan, S. (1999). How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice: National Academy Press.

Houtz, J. C. & Krug, D. (1995). Assessment of creativity: resolving a mid-life crisis. Educational Psychology Review, 7, 269-299.

Leu, D. J., Zawilinski, L., Castek, J., Banerjee, M., Housand, B., Liu, Y., & O'Neil. M. (2007). What is new about the new literacies of online reading comprehension? In A. Berger, L. Rush & J. Eakle (Eds.), Secondary school reading and writing: What research reveals for classroom practices. Chicago, IL: National Council of Teachers of English/National Conference of Research on Language and Literacy.

Takayoshi, P & Selfe, C. (2007). Thinking about multimodality. In C. Selfe (ed). Multimodal composition: Resources for teachers.Creskill, NJ: Hampton. Press.

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