A compelling aspect of exploring digital literature is that, at its heart, lies the appeal of good old-fashioned storytelling. Humans are storytelling creatures. We have been for thousands upon thousands of years, predating the advent of writing. Stories helped our ancestors pass on knowledge, share history, and create meaning in a world of randomness and chaos (Delistraty, 2014). A human brain responds uniquely to a good story, the cortex lighting up as if the events or descriptions in a book were really happening. Stories are a fundamental human communication method (Widrich, 2012).

What is eminently exciting is that we are living in a time where the ways to tell a good story are expanding. Authors are no longer confined to the written word, on pages, tucked away in physical books. The rapid expansion and ongoing convergence of media forms has given us the tools to tell stories in new ways: transmedia mashups of sound, word, and video, interactive reading experiences, nonlinear pathways through texts, hyperlinking, participatory and social reading experiences, and emergent narratives shaped by the user. Although many offer suggestions (Unsworth, 2006; Lamb, 2011), these digital stories are becoming increasingly hard to categorise as forms intertwine in creative and unique ways (as discussed in this reflective blog post).

Making these developments even more revolutionary is the fact that these tools of authorship and creation are available to anyone with a device or internet connection. Authorship is democratising – anyone can be a storyteller, have an authentic audience and a meaningful voice on a world stage (Richards, 2010). This is particularly useful when considering narrative creation as a teacher; putting digital authorship tools in the hands of students, letting them create rather than only consume, is a powerful pedagogical imperative (Tapscott & Williams, 2008). The value of leveraging digital storytelling in education is strong, as it allows students to explore their inner voice, create meaning for themselves, and then share their experiences and perspectives with a wider community (Rosenthal, 2015). This can be a platform for transformative, meaningful learning allowing students multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression.

It’s important for teachers and other stakeholders to understand though, that digital literature and the tools to create digital literature should not be considered as the only option – that all reading and story creation needs to be solely digital. It’s not a case of digital OR physical, it’s a case of digital AND physical. Students need a balanced mix of media and mediums, one which a skilled teacher can traverse and draw out the unique intricacies, the pros and cons, of each (Sadokierski, 2013). The role of the teacher is to manage this pedagogical mix (as discussed in this reflective blog post).

Because there are differences here. While the message remains the same (“a good story is a good story”, as I mentioned in the Module 1.2 discussion forum) the medium it comes wrapped in requires proficiency with different literacies in order to unpack the semiotic resources entangled within the artefact (Walsh, 2013). Traditional reading literacy revolved around the decoding of text, but if we expand our notions of what reading is (and should be): “Reading is the process of constructing meaning from symbols”, we can expand reading literacy to the comprehension of visual elements, layout, sound, navigation, interactive elements, participatory networks, and even gameplay design and mechanics (Leu et al, 2011; Walsh, 2013).

Many have claimed that the partial move to digital-based stories are diluting the experience of reading – that there are too many distractions and so children (in particular) lose the hermeneutic immersion required for deep reading (James & de Kock, 2013). They are not wrong. There are many examples of digital stories which are low-quality, don’t offer the opportunity for adaptation or feedback, accessibility or usability restrictions, or contain a poor “goodness of fit” between their designed elements (Roskos et al, 2014). It’s important to also consider physical issues such as eye-strain on longer stretches of screen-based reading (Huang, 2012) and the technical limitations of going digital such as battery, internet connection, licensing, purchasing, and equitable access.

These are not reasons to avoid digital literature, though. They are considerations for teachers to face, to understand the variables, and to plan and implement carefully and with a pedagogical purpose (“complexity and all”, as I mentioned in the Module 2.3 discussion forum). Quality digital literature needs to be selected and evaluated and aligned with learning outcomes. This is often tricky in the overly curated app stores and when considering budget, DRM, and licensing issues. Alternative means of sourcing digital texts exist however via public domain, creative commons, and free for personal use literature. 

In summation, literature in digital environments contains much potential – both in the reading and the creating – for students: the amplification of voice, the connection of readers to one another, sharing perspectives and opinions, creation over consumption, developing skills and transmedia literacies, and simply enjoying the eternal joy of reading a good story. Knowledgeable teachers will be able to evaluate digital literature with a “teacherly eye”, consider it’s uniqueness, and embed it within units and learning at school effectively (an example of this can be seen in this blog post).

 


References

Delistraty, C. 2014. The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-psychological-comforts-of-storytelling/381964/

Huang, H. (2012). E-reading and e-discussion: EFL learners’ perceptions of an e-book reading program. Computer assisted language learning, 26(3).

James, R. & de Kock, L. (2013). The digital David and the Gutenberg Goliath: The rise of the ‘enhanced’ e-book, English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies, 30(1).

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

Leu, D.J. et al (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1).

Richards, R. (2010). Digital citizenship and Web 2.0 tools. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(2), 516-522.

Rosenthal, S.T. (2015). Digital storytelling: What it is… and… what it is NOT. Retrieved from http://langwitches.org/blog/2015/08/18/digital-storytelling-what-it-is-and-what-it-is-not

Roskos, K., Burstein, K., Yi Shang, Gray, E. (2014). Young children’s engagement with e-books at school: Does device matter? SAGE Open, 4(1).

Sadokierski, Z. (2013, November 12). What is a book in the digital age? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/what-is-a-book-in-the-digital-age-19071

Tapscott, D., & Williams, A. D. (2008). Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. Penguin.

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).

Widrich, 7. 2012. The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains. Retrieved from http://lifehacker.com/5965703/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains

When does a book become an ebook? When does an ebook become an interactive storytelling app? When does an interactive storytelling app become a digital game? The reality is, its hard to tell a lot of the time. The ever growing confluence of media forms and literature has muddied the waters. Between every concrete example of one of the above literary categories exist a myriad vagaries: transmedia, no media, participatory, agentic, emergent, haptic. Storytelling is experiencing a revolution just as impactful as when moveable type changed the world (Cull, 2011) – a revolution reflective of the shifts evident in greater society where digital creativity is flourishing amid technological advancement, an increasingly participatory culture, and complex networks of information flow (Wheeler, 2015).

 

Are we losing something here though? There is something very calming, relaxing.. even homely, about sinking into a deep couch and reading chapter one of a Cracking Good Novel, feeling the spine under your fingers and hearing the papery wing flap of the pages turning. Scholars wonder the same thing – whether the bells and whistles of all this digital enhancement break the hermeneutic immersion necessary for deep, focused reading (James & de Kock, 2013; Gurnsey, 2011). The answer, again, is muddied. In many cases, a poorly designed ebook / interactive storytelling app without a goodness of fit between its visual, audio, and haptics will distract from the experience – but one which hits a sweet spot between those elements can indeed support the literacy learning and reading experience (Roskos et al. 2014). There are many, many examples of digital literature “out there” now, all falling somewhere on this spectrum of distracting to enhancing.

 

Kicking back with a good book...?

Kicking back with a good book…?

 

Personally, I’m very interested in comparing the experience of print literature versus that of a storytelling experience in a digital game, as I’m a big fan of both. Storytelling in games has been hit and miss over the years but in the past three of four, designers are finding their stride, understanding that when wrapped up in a rich story, games become much more engaging and appealing (Alderman, 2015). Many games available today offer “literacy experiences” (The Last of Us, Bastion, The Stanley Parable, Papers Please, Life is Strange, Mass Effect) the avant garde of which are using gameplay mechanics (control forms, decision making, customisation etc.) to tap into “the emotions of agency” of the player, deepening the connection to the story perhaps in a way that books and films cannot (Phillips, 2013). Digital games can make the player feel guilty, for example; the consequence of a poor choice. Games are also exploring the edges of emergent, reactive storytelling where decisions a player makes in game effects the story arc, the characters, and the environment around them.

 

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Comparing print and digital literacy experiences then, it seems digital storytelling, in its many forms, can indeed provide new and exciting ways to tell the stories we’ve always enjoyed. Research also indicates that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format of text (Margolin et al., 2013) – what matters is the mindset a reader deploys. What schools, teachers, and parents need to contend with then is expanding the notions of what literature and reading is. There will always be classic, good old text-based books, but it’s also much more than that now in our digital environment, such as transmedia mashups of audio, written word, video, art, music, and gameplay. These are semiotic resources (Walsh, 2013); methods that authors and designers make meaning from. Reading should be thought of as the process of constructing meaning from symbols (Lamb, 2011) – so, reading any of these new digital formats can be accomplished via unpacking its semiotic resources, just as much as novel, a movie, or a piece of art. In today’s media saturated, convergent environment it’s more important than ever that students contend with these kinds of digital literature formats, these new literacy experiences, so they become armed with the tools to make sense of the mediasphere around them (Moorefield-Lang & Gavigan, 2012).

 

To walk the talk then, I’m currently planning a series of sessions with a Grade 4 class at school who are conducting a unit of inquiry on how “the values we have influence the choices we make.” Exploring the digital game Never Alone (discussed in more detail here) with these students will, I hope, help develop understandings of this concept. Initially, we will inquire into traditional Iñupiat culture via web research and key readings with the purpose of learning about traditional Iñupiat values. Jumping into the game next and learning about the challenge facing Nuna and Fox, students will record how the story and game design reflect the values of the Iñupiat. We will gather information across the mini-documentaries embedded in the game, the story plot, thematic and symbolic elements, and game design – working to read and interpret the semiotic resources available and in doing so, increase our understanding of the key concept (and enjoy a wonderful story).

 


References

 

Alderman, N. (2015). The first great works of digital literature are already being written. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/oct/13/video-games-digital-storytelling-naomi-alderman

 

Cull, B. W. (2011). Reading revolutions: online digital text and implications for reading in academe. First Monday, 16(6). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3340/2985

 

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

 

Margolin, S.J., Driscoll, C., Toland, M.J., & Kegler, J.L. (2013). E-readers, computer screens or paper: does reading comprehension change across media platforms? Applied Cognitive Psycology, 27, 512-519.

 

Moorefield-Lang, H., & Gavigan, K. (2012). These aren’t your father’s: the new world of digital graphic novels. Knowledge Quest, 40(3), 30-35. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/knowledgequest/docs/

 

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

 

Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). https://www.csu.edu.au/division/library/ereserve/pdf/walsh-m3.pdf

 

Wheeler, S. (2015). Learning with ‘e’s. Crown House Publishing.

Many worlds collide when you interact with texts (texts used as a loose catch-all word for any kind of communication – movies, music, art) to gain meaning.

There is The World of the Writer – what experiences and contexts the writer draws upon to create meaning, for a certain purpose. Then there is The World of the Text – the authenticity of the piece; it’s ability to stand-alone and be genuine. And of course, The World of the Reader – what prior knowledge, experiences and purposes the reader brings into the fray.

These worlds jiggle and jostle together; combining and flowing into each other, creating meaning for the reader.

It’s our job as teachers to help scaffold the understanding of deep meaning by drawing attention to these different worlds. What is the author trying to convince us of? What knowledge claims is the author making? What is my own prior knowledge of this? What bias and assumptions do I bring to the reading? Why am I reading this? Am I learning anything? Is this changing me? How?

Every text has the potential to be a rich battleground of these competing worlds – one in which you can activate knowledge skills such as critiquing, creating, customising, interrogating, elaborating, remixing, and challenging what is put in front of you. Investigating the different layers of a text contributes to an understanding that the world is complex, and the more we can draw attention to that and analyse those complexities, the more students can unravel them and understand how to live more critically, fully, and actively in this world.

Ask students to share what they are thinking – they are being bombarded with texts day in and out seeking to manipulate their understandings. Advertising is a particularly pernicious one, but what meaning are kids absorbing from the 6:00 o’clock news? Cartoons? Pop songs on the radio? Magazine covers?

It’s imperative we help students become active, critical users of the world around them, not simply consumers. Examining the different worlds of context which are mushed together when interacting with a text can contribute towards a deeper, more active, critical understanding of the world in which we live.