November 2013Reviews

Book Review: Language and Learning in the Digital Age by Gee & Hayes

Deborah E. Cooke
Deborah E. Cooke, Instructional Designer, CASLS, University of Oregon.

Linda B. Forrest
Linda B. Forrest, Research Director, CASLS, University of Oregon.

Julie Sykes
Julie Sykes, PhD. CASLS Director and Courtesy Assistant Professor, Romance Languages.

Linguist James Paul Gee and educator Elisabeth Hayes team up to provide a solid introduction to the issues raised by the proliferation of digital media, both inside and outside traditional educational contexts. This shift is radically transforming the ways in which we acquire new knowledge. As with all significant cultural shifts, the changes bring novel benefits, as well as losses of traditional methods and institutions. This book-length treatment of the relevant issues is non-technical and will be accessible to anyone interested in exploring this ongoing paradigm shift. Furthermore, a comprehensive list of references will provide a starting point for those seeking more detail.

Chapter 1 frames the key concepts of the volume. Gee and Hayes argue that just as written language ‘powered up’ or enhanced the powers of oral language, digital media ‘power up’ or enhance the powers of language, both oral and written. While oral language has always been interactive and written language has always been more permanent, digital media combine both these properties. Digital spaces provide a new delivery system for language, which offers expanded opportunity for equality by allowing everyone to easily consume and produce language.

Chapter 2 addresses the important question of what language is. The discussion will be familiar to those who have background in linguistic study, but, for those with less experience, will give critical background information. Central to the authors’ discussion is the idea that oral language is the original and primary form of language. The authors suggest other modes of communication were developed to deliver oral language further and, with more permanence, than is possible with the human voice or hand gestures alone.

Chapter 3 extends the discussion to the exact nature of literacy, suggesting digital media levels the playing field of public language expression and consumption. They utilize examples to discuss ways in which our understanding of literacy is currently in flux.

Chapter 4 examines the nature of interaction in digital contexts making the point that language always involves a social interaction which varies along a continuum from informal/bonding to formal/distancing. The authors examine this continuum, with examples of interactions at different points. They point out ways talk can also be used to express social solidarity and bonding across physical boundaries. Chapter 5 continues this discussion by examining how digital media are transforming social relationships and complicating our inactions with strangers, possibly even changing the concept of ‘stranger’. Together, these chapters present a unique perspective on communication as related to digital and non-digital contexts.

Chapter 6 explores the interpretation of meaning in text as well as the source and authentication of knowledge. Largely unmodifiable dissemination of written text has led to the rise of experts who have been endorsed by society’s institutions as valid interpreters of texts. However, the authors point out ways in which the proliferation of digital media is challenging the wisdom of the expert. In the new digital world, where everyone’s point of view is on display, learners must be able to evaluate resources to determine their validity and usefulness. The authors argue that this crisis of experts and institutions impacts both science and religion, and digital media is both contributing to the crisis and offering some ways out of it. This is an especially compelling chapter of the book with a number of thought provoking points. This idea is further explored in Chapter 9.

In Chapter 7, Gee and Hayes challenge the traditional school paradigm, suggesting that much of current school knowledge is being taught for its own sake, not because it leads to solutions for real world problems. They suggest current school models will become relics in the face of the growth of out-of-school learning systems. They continue to explore these challenges in Chapter 8, where they contrast the content learned in traditional schools with out-of-school “passionate affinity-based” learning. Although passionate affinity-based learning is not new, it has been highly influenced by digital media. Now amateur scientists and others who possess deep and specialized knowledge can produce knowledge at the same rate they consume it.  The authors argue that the negotiation of these passionate affinity spaces fosters 21st century learning skills.

Chapter 9 focuses on how digital media change our conception of what it means to be an expert. Digital media deliver knowledge and language, more widely, easily, and in a way that allows rapid modification and wider participation. The authors point to ways video games have utility for purposes other than entertainment: immersion, interactivity, problem solving, and highlight ways in which digital contexts require the same skills needed in cross-functional teams in the workplace.  Chapter 10 goes on to present several examples of how digital media have a unique ability to pool the knowledge of many individuals from across a country or the globe to achieve audiences, interactions, and influence of a size they never could have before.  New knowledge is gained and new skills develop.  Today people can organize learning, knowledge production and social interaction on any topic with distant others.

Chapters 11 and 12 demonstrate other ways in which digital media is shaping social practice. In Chapter 11, they explore how digital media facilitates amateurs’ creation of networks of influence. Within these networks, people are evaluated by what they do and create, without credentials or formal institutions.  As a result, social networks become important spaces for learning about language and culture.  Chapter 12 discusses how society, culture and social interaction ensure that all people have many similar or related experiences in terms of how they understand words.  When a person has images, actions, goals and dialogue to attach to words, they have an embodied and situated understanding of the words. With digital media, the texts are multimodal and people must be able to read both the words and images to understand the meaning, adding complexity to the experience.

Chapter 13 recaps the nature of the three social formations: oral, literary, and digital. Digital media allow people to use written language in ways that people use face-to face language and bring flexible, dialogic, interactive interpretation to written language in a quite widespread and pervasive way. The authors highlight ways digital media shake up the powerful hold of institutions and give rise to a new public sphere.  Gee and Hayes point out that on one hand, digital media mitigate the homogenization of culture; on the other, digital media make it increasingly difficult to know who is a valuable person to pay attention to.

Chapter 14 presents the claim that digital media are not killing reading and writing, but simply changing them. In fact, most digital media require both skills. They also encourage multitasking, an old skill now being used in a new context.  The authors conclude by noting that digital social formation can give rise to great diversity of interests and potential lack of the ability to come together and create a unified point of view.  Yet the digital world also offers hope, where digital networks can organize civic action for community causes and emergencies.

Overall, the volume is a concise compilation of much of the authors’ previous work and may not be of significant value for those familiar with the concepts.  However, it will be an extremely helpful resource for those just entering the field or looking for a good summary text of the main issues. Both undergraduate and beginning graduate students will find the text especially helpful as a starting point for discussion of many of the issues.  While the ideas are compelling, lacking are practical suggestions for implementation in traditional school settings. A section of practical suggestions related to the ideas in each of the chapters would be a positive addition and expand the audience of the text.  Nevertheless, the book is an excellent resource for those interested in the big picture and challenging ideas about the transformation of social and educational practices related to digital media.


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