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Digital rhetorics: Literacies and technologies in classrooms - current practices and future directions

Colin Lankshear
School of Language and Literacy Education
Queensland University of Technology[1]

The Digital Rhetorics project[2] investigated links between literacy and technology in learning, with particular emphasis on the use of new information and communications technologies in classrooms. The study was undertaken between September 1995 and December 1997 and had three main components:

Succinct individual sets of recommendations were made to each of four main policy making groups:


The project implications for the National Plan (DEETYA, 1998) pertain mainly to enriching the agreed literacy goal by informing the idea of 'reading and writing at an appropriate level' and providing guidelines for benchmarking.

The National Plan is properly concerned with literacy (and numeracy) in relation to young people's present and future participation in society and the workforce as well as in education. It is vital, therefore, that children's literacy needs, and school-based activities directed at meeting them, be duly informed by influential trends and developments within community, social and workforce settings. Two points are especially important here.

First, the increasing shift from print to digital electronics calls for new views of literacy and new approaches to literacy pedagogy. Our study maintains that conventional views of literacy based on text - especially the model of literary text - are no longer adequate. To be able to read and write at an appropriate level, therefore, implies levels of performance and understanding appropriate for literacy practices in the digital-electronic/information age. In other words, consideration of 'levels' must also take into account matters of 'scope'. In particular:

In the 'electronic age', educators' understandings of literacy and their pedagogical approaches should include at least the following dimensions of technological/electronic literacies: Second, it is clear that literacy which is equal to the demands of the information age and an increasingly competitive global economy has three integral dimensions: operational, cultural and critical.

The operational dimension involves being able to read and write within a range of contexts in an adequate and appropriate manner employing conventional print and electronic media. Teaching mechanical skills of reading, writing, spelling, keyboarding, etc., should be relatively direct, insistent and demanding, but grounded as far as possible in everyday purposes and pursuits familiar to learners.

The cultural dimension involves understanding texts and information in relation to the contexts - real life practices - in which they are produced, received and used. Without the cultural dimension, language users are unable to understand what makes particular ways of reading and writing appropriate or inappropriate, adequate or inadequate, within a given situation or setting.

The critical dimension involves being able to innovate, transform, improve, and add value to social practices and the literacies associated with them. It makes the difference between merely being socialised into sets of skills, values, beliefs and procedures, and being able to make judgments about them from a perspective which identifies them for what they are (and are not) and recognises alternative possibilities (see Green 1988; Lankshear, Bigum et al., 1997, vol. 1, ch. 2).

This means that practices of benchmarking need, at the very least, to be developed in ways that recognise the 'digital-electronic' character of much contemporary literacy, and that engage information as well as text. Moreover, benchmarks must address the cultural and critical dimensions of literacy as well as the operational, and do so in properly contextualised ways - not simply as decontextualised 'tests' of encoding and decoding.


The project has numerous implications for professional development priorities, contingent upon accepting the theoretical and conceptual position developed in the report. Professional development must be seen as beginning in the preservice teacher education phase, with literacy education programs being overhauled as necessary, and in the light of an intensive review.

First, teachers - and teachers in training - need access to professional development which enables them to understand and address the operational, cultural and critical dimensions of literacy competently. While this includes a sound grounding in 'direct, insistent, and demanding' approaches to teaching the mechanics - basics - of reading and writing, teachers need much more than this alone. Indeed, in the light of research undertaken here and abroad on children's funds of knowledge that are relevant to literacy, it is important for teachers to know how to work from the cultural dimension of literacy to develop operational and critical dimensions effectively (Hill e t al., 1998; Moll, 1992).

Second, teachers need professional development which enables them to deal with learning in the information age. Information needs to be assessed, evaluated, and actively applied, not merely 'grabbed'. Teachers and learners are often out of touch here, albeit in different ways. Many learners think educational tasks merely call for grabbing information, and that information technologies are unquestionably the best means for this. Teachers, on the other hand, often adhere to 'old' notions of authority and 'truth' with which students are unfamiliar or unsympathetic - and which are often based every bit as much in a 'content' view of learning as are the students' views. The need is for well developed ideas of how to assess data, locate a range of information sources and views, weigh competing information/data, utilise and apply information in culturally and critically appropriate ways, structure arguments, and so on.

Third, teachers need professional development that will enable them to deal appropriately with new technologies as learning media. In terms of the Digital Rhetorics project, this implies professional development which equips teachers to handle the 'complexity' and 'fragility' aspects of introducing new technologies. It also implies professional development which enables teachers to handle issues of 'complementarity', 'workability', and 'equity' in relation to using new technologies in classroom contexts.

Fourth, in recent work some members of the project team have addressed issues of 'mind sets' relevant to literacy education within newly technologised settings (Lankshear & Bigum, 1998). To date this work, which draws on a crude but fruitful distinction between 'immigrant' and 'native' mind sets (Barlow, in Tunbridge, 1995), is more suggestive than substantive. Certainly, the option exists for developing alternative taxonomies of 'mind sets'. The important matter, however, so far as professional development is concerned is that teachers need to be able to find ways of understanding 'native' perspectives, capacities, and skills, and to know how to harness these to learning (Lankshear & Bigum, 1998).

Fifth, professional development should familiarise teachers with cultural apprenticeship types of models of teaching and learning along lines developed by people like Barbara Rogoff (1990, 1995), Jean Lave (1991) Shirley Brice Heath and Milbrey McLaughlin (1994), and others. These models provide principles and examples that are valuable for enhancing the authenticity of classroom learning at two important levels. First, they emphasise the significance of real life practices for school-based learning. Second, they explain why it is important for classroom learning to get as close as possible to modes by which humans learn effectively in the world outside the classroom. This is very important for learning in the areas of literacy and technology.


The project suggests several research priorities. First, there is a pressing need to investigate the nature and adequacy of preservice and inservice teacher education programs across the spectrum of Australian universities to assess the quality of literacy education provision in terms of the operational, cultural, and critical dimensions of literacy. This research should analyse strengths and weaknesses of existing offerings and on this basis frame improved programs for trialing in selected teacher education programs (that is, programs staffed by personnel equal to the task of high quality 'three dimensional literacy education'; this is by no means any or every university school or department of literacy education!). Ongoing performance of new and existing teachers trained within these programs should be monitored for comparison with sample populations from other programs. Where trial programs produce superior results they should provide a basis for wider reform of teacher education offerings.

Second, the quality of preservice and inservice teacher education programs in respect of preparing teachers for using new technologies effectively in classroom-based literacy education on the operational, cultural, and critical dimensions should be investigated. A parallel regime of trialing new programs, monitoring the classroom performance of graduates, etc. (as above) should be undertaken. Once again, as the Digital Rhetorics report shows, it cannot be assumed that all teacher education faculties are on top of this challenge.

Third, longitudinal research studies with strong quantitative designs should be undertaken to monitor the medium and long term literacy achievements of learners who have undergone specialist intervention programs (for example, Reading Recovery) to provide a sound data base for evaluating the cost effectiveness of such programs.

Fourth, research which builds on the findings of local and international studies of children's funds of literacy-related knowledge should be undertaken to develop literacy pedagogies that harness these funds of knowledge to effective literacy acquisition. This research should actively be related to the first and second research suggestions noted above, with strategies based on reliable findings factored into teacher education.

Fifth, a research program of studies into the efficacy of cultural apprenticeship approaches to literacy pedagogy should be supported.


The National Plan is a highly succinct and formal statement. Like all policy it demands interpretation. It identifies emphases rather than trading in detail. At the same time, it is possible to read the National Plan as comprising a very narrow and hopelessly outdated statement in the worst tradition of 'back to basics' approaches.

Granted that this is not the intent of the National Plan, it is extremely important for the Plan to be interpreted and implemented in a manner befitting the actual literacy demands of the times. Any interpretation which reduces literacy to the mechanics of encoding and decoding print text during the early - let alone middle or later - years would amount to a conspiracy against the proper intellectual development of learners.

The National Plan needs to be interpreted and implemented in the light of the changing nature of literacy and the everyday literacy demands of the digital-electronic/information age. It needs to be informed by a conception of literacy as having operational, cultural and critical dimensions. And it needs to take account of the fact that the funds of literacy knowledge and the 'mind sets' that many young people bring with them to the classroom may well be much stronger indicators of the present and future than those of teachers, teacher educators, policy makers, administrators and politicians.

Appropriate interpretation and implementation of the National Plan has far-reaching implications for professional development and current educational performance, including that within teacher education. Although we are mindful that calls for more research are often calls to 'delay the evil day', there are foci and forms of further research that need to go on in conjunction with tough-minded action and accountability at the chalkface. Five key research emphases have been identified here for consideration.


DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools. Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Green, B. (1988). Subject-specific literacy and school learning: A focus on writing. Australian Journal of Education, 32(2), 156-179.

Heath, S.B. & McLaughlin, M. (1994). Learning for anything everyday. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 26(5), 471-489.

Hill, S., Comber, B., Louden, W., Rivalland, J. & Reid, J. (1998). 100 children go to school: Connection and disconnections in li teracy development in the year prior to school and the first year of school. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1998_100children.html

Lankshear, C. & Bigum, C. (1998). Literacies and technologies in school settings: Findings from the field. In Proceedings of ALEA AATE Joint National Conference. Canberra: ALEA.

Lankshear, C., Bigum, C., Durrant, C., Green, B., Honan, E., Murray, J., Morgan, W., Snyder, I. & Wild, M. (1997). Digital rhetorics: Literacies and technologies in classrooms (current practices and future directions). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_rhetorics.html

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moll, L. (1992). Literacy research in communities and classrooms: A sociocultural approach. In R. Beach et al. (Eds), Multidisciplinary perspectives on literacy research. Urbana: NCRE/NCTE.

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rogoff, B. (1995). Observing sociocultural activity on three planes: participatory appropriation, guided participation, apprenticeship. In J. Wertsch, P. del Rio & A. Alvarez (Eds). Sociocultural studies of mind (pp. 139-164). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tunbridge, N. (1995). The cyberspace cowboy. Australian Personal Computer (September).


  1. Now Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Education and Creative Arts, Central Queensland University, residing in Mexico City.

  2. Lankshear, C., Bigum, C., Durrant, C., Green, B., Honan, E., Morgan, W., Murray, J., Snyder, I. & Wild, M. (1997). Digital rhetorics: Literacies and technologies in education - current practices and future directions. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1997_rhetorics.html

Contact details: Adjunct Professor Colin Lankshear
Faculty of Education and Creative Arts
Central Queensland University
Rockhampton, QLD 4702.
Email: c.lankshear@cqu.edu.au

Please cite as: Lankshear, C. (1999). Digital rhetorics: Literacies and technologies in classrooms - current practices and future directions. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 141-148. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/lankshear.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 6 Jan 2005. Last revision: 7 Feb 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/lankshear.html