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Scholars' work aimed at transforming literacy education

Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis
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L. Brian Stauffer

An interdisciplinary research team led by education professors Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis has developed a Web-based social media environment for writing and assessment.

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10/2/2012 | Sharita Forrest, Education and Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Today’s teachers face classrooms of students who cut their teeth using electronic communications, and two education scholars at the University of Illinois have just released both a software application and a new book that they believe will profoundly change the teaching of literacy for this technology-savvy group and generations to come.

Scholar, the software application, is a Web-based social media environment for writing and assessment developed by an interdisciplinary research team led by education professors Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, who is also the dean of the College of Education.

Developed for use by students at all levels of learning, from fourth grade to higher education, the software embeds the practice of writing in a social media environment, stimulating peer interaction and promoting complex learning. Its developers believe the software will improve student outcomes in literacy and other curricular areas by integrating formative assessment into the instructional process and by nurturing discipline-specific knowledge and understanding.

Scholar is the culmination of the educators’ 30 years of research on teaching and learning as well as three years of intensive development that included partnerships with schools in Central Illinois and New York.

Working individually or collaboratively, students use the secure online workspace to create various types of multimedia projects, such as scientific reports or persuasive essays, in which they can embed images, sound and video.

Teachers can evaluate students’ projects according to rubrics that the teachers design – or in accordance with mandated standards – and individual student's progress is measured over time and in comparison to classmates, the school or other cohorts.

Rather than waiting until the end of an activity or program, students receive continuous feedback on their work – from peers, the teacher or others – and comments can be anonymous or not, at the teacher’s discretion.

Within Scholar, teachers and students form knowledge communities for discussing, presenting and publishing projects. And teachers can use the application to share their ideas and network with other educators.

Developed by Common Ground, Cope’s startup company, in conjunction with an interdisciplinary team of experts in computer science and in education and evaluation at the university, the project was funded by four grants totaling $1 million from the U.S. Deptartment of Education.

“We built this thing totally from the ground up with new code,” said Cope, who is a professor in the department of education policy, organization and leadership. “We think in a number of ways it’s kind of a paradigm shift beyond traditional work environments. It involves a lot of peer interaction, so it’s a very social writing environment, and it integrates various modes of expression – audio, images, text and video – that allow learners to achieve the intellectual objectives of a task with more than writing.”

“The College of Education always wanted to build on the PLATO tradition,” Kalantzis said, referring to the computer-assisted instruction system developed at Illinois in the 1960s. “We see this as an example of what you can do at the university with these genius software people, and when educators, engineers and computer scientists work together to invent tools.”

In the new book, Literacies (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Cope and Kalantzis, who are married, explore the ways in which technology has transformed literacy pedagogy and provide instructional techniques that teachers can use to engage today’s “wired” students.

According to the authors, new writing spaces – such as email, text messages, Twitter and other social media – with their abbreviations, friendly informality and cryptic ‘in’ expressions are more fluid, open and in keeping with the way people make meaning today and the manner in which young children learn than are traditional writing and didactic teaching methods.

While the “old basics” of literacy instruction strove for conformity to a single standard of “educated English” with endless lists of grammar rules, the “new basics” are much broader, promoting multiple literacies – fluency in multiple modes and numerous social languages that are appropriate in different contexts, the authors wrote.

Literacy education in today’s multimedia environment offers opportunities for “transformative diversity” and for redressing the ongoing and systemic inequalities that disadvantage certain students and result in poor academic outcomes, the authors said.

“The school has to start with the students and value what the students bring into the classroom and recognize that’s another form of effective communication,” Cope said. “Conventional literacy tried to teach everyone a standard form of the language, and everything else was wrong. But what we want to say is that in different contexts, people speak in different ways. There’s a kind of a vernacular that you might want to speak or write with your friends on Facebook, and that might be appropriate, but that’s different from writing a legal letter. Language is very diverse from context to context, and part of the trick is not only learning the rules but learning how to move into a new context and perform effectively.”

Designed for education students, in-service teachers, teaching instructors and researchers, the book explores four major approaches to literacy pedagogy, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, and various modes that are available to students and teachers today for conveying meaning.

“We’ve gone through the different historical traditions so people are clear that there have been different theories, practices and then we present what we think is entirely new – a grammar for multimodality,” Kalantzis said. “We’ve always believed that teachers need to be deeply knowledgeable about the nature of language and the way that historically different theorists have tried to translate that into school practices.

“We believe that what we’ve produced is an alternative for the future,” Kalantzis added. “However, we think teachers need a repertoire, so that when they’re doing traditional grammar, they know that they’re doing it and why – because it does work for some reasons. When they want to draw on linguist Noam Chomsky, they might do it deliberately so that their choices are deliberate choices from a repertoire rather than exercises that they just keep repeating.”

An increasingly important facet of literacy pedagogy today is schooling students about multimodal communications’ potential power, as demonstrated by recent deadly uprisings that were incited by a video on YouTube that denigrated the Prophet Mohammed, Cope said.

“In fact, we’ve seen repeatedly that the visual has more power than the text,” Cope said. “We have a moral responsibility to understand this space and what it represents for meaning making.”

The book is supplemented by a website.

A video overview of the software application as well as licensing and other information is available.

Editor's note: To contact Mary Kalantzis, call 217-333-0960; email kalantzi@illinois.edu. To contact Bill Cope, email billcope@illinois.edu.

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