Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Multiliteracies and Curriculum

The computer-culture in the UAE, where I teach Arab-national first- and second-year college students, tends to be high relative to other countries in the region. Still, with developments in the field racing ahead in the year 2007, teachers as well as students are challenged to keep up with concepts driving the emerging literacies. There is an opportunity in the courses I teach now to revise the literacy aspects of our curriculum to help learners understand some of the ramifications of evolving uses of the latest technologies.

Basic premises

In the materials I'm involved with, the focus is to raise learner awareness of changes to the social structure of software. I don’t intend to call it exactly that at this introductory level, but perhaps a good starting point, one directed at a wider sophisticated audience, is Time's declaration of YOU as its person of the year.

In recognizing all of us as people of the year, Time has acknowledged that there has been a dramatic shift in alignment of control over the power structures traditionally used to convey and arbitrate media. One aspect of this shift is that software (and publishing and other social orders impacted by that software) have moved from the enterprise model into a more user-centric one where normal people and smaller, even individual, entities and groupings have increasing power over software and the Internet, and over content provided in both domains. This shift has important ramifications for the way people can now work both individually and collaboratively with software running either on their PC's and/or over the Internet.


I look at software as falling into these main categories: Enterprise, Open Source, Web 2.0

Enterprise software can be characterised by companies like Microsoft, which create software for sale and profit and guard its code, revealing only what is necessary to allow others to design products that will work with it, in such a way that the company retains control over the process and retains its dominance over aspiring competitors. One result, apart from satisfaction of the shareholders in the company, is software that sometimes gets 'published' without adequate testing, so that users are vulnerable, and the company, as in the case of Microsoft, is constantly having to supply patches, since the real testing of the software occurs only after it has been purchased and shipped.

Many software developers have responded with their support of an alternative Open Source model of software development. In contrast to the enterprise model, the software is developed by interested parties seeking not profit, but mainly to enhance their standing within a community of developers by being associated with the creation of the best possible software for a given task. The code is not guarded at all. It's made publically available in the hope that others in the community will create improvements to it. The result is generally software that gets thoroughly tested during the development process, so there are rarely unanticipated surprises for end-users (and if there are, the community learns about it quickly and moves together to correct the problem). Open source software is not created for profit, but business models are emerging whereby money can be made developing refinements and specific implementations of open source resources for companies whose profits rely on using that software effectively.

Open source software is by definition freely downloadable, but where it has to be set up on a server, this might be inconvenient for some users. Again the community has tended to share resources, so that server-based services are sometimes made available to all users. The concept has broadened into what has come to be known as Web 2.0, or the read-write Web. Lawrence Lessig has gone so far as to characterize the 20th century as the read-only century and the present one as the read-write century. Lessig's point is that whereas the enterprise model dominated media distribution until only recently, we are rapidly entering an era where this is no longer the case. It is important that this development be better understood by its beneficiaries (all of us) as the impacts are far-reaching in the way we organize ourselves productively through our understanding of what it means to be 'literate'.

I don't intend to include all that follows in the course, but as background and illustration of how these models apply in the real world, we can draw from the following cases:

Thomas Freedman in his influential book The World is Flat discusses how IBM gave up developing its own enterprise rival to Apache server and instead contributed its best engineers to the Apache community in order to be able to resume a business model on which the deliverables would be enhancements to the Apache kernel. That’s just one example of the power of community to produce a superior product (for free) compared to a commercial, patented, closed-source one.

Another good example is characterized in the Blackboard vs. Moodle approaches to development of learning management systems (background information regarding this controversy abounds on the Internet; here is a link to a Feb 2007 article in the well-respected T.H.E. Journal).

My own perception is that Blackboard is becoming regarded in the Open Source community as an old-school Goliath who’s made waves and rocked boats by taking out patents on certain aspects of LMS’s that other developers consider open source and unpatentable. On the day its patents were granted Blackboard brought suit against one of its competitors, Desire to Learn, for royalties owed under the new patents. This has sent shivers down the rest of the open source CMS community in case Blackboard were to use its fait accompli at the patent office to go after users of Moodle and others, including end users, for not paying royalties to the patent holder. But now we see this being reversed one slingshot at a time. Blackboard is seen to be undermining its own potential customer base at the cost of its reputation in the educational community, and more recently there are moves afoot to have the patent decisions reversed.

While this is going on, Sakai, another white horse open source project, is reaching fruition. If you agree that Moodle, arguably the strongest open source rival to Blackboard to date, scales well to enterprise settings despite its lesser polish, then seemingly the only real argument for paying licensing fees to Blackboard is that it might be worth the costs (to some customers) for an LMS solution that appears more crisply enterprise in a Web browser. Sakai apparently looks the part, slick and groomed for enterprise, yet has been developed for free distribution as an open source project by educational entities each taking responsibility for developing different parts of it. It seems that this could be a rather large nail destined for the coffin of closed-source enterprise ventures.

I find this of great interest in my own work context, but I see these two examples appearing, if at all, as text boxes in the materials I envisage , whose purpose would be to make the point that open source is on its way to significantly augmenting if not replacing the enterprise model of software development.

So to continue with a course outline, I am thinking ...

  1. Enterprise and Open Source software
  2. An overview of Web 2.0 tools
  3. Social Networking
  4. Implications for classroom (i.e. project) management


Example software products following the first three models of development and implemention are:

MS Office –-> Open Office –->



There are many hooks for a wider understanding and use of Web 2.0 tools in modern curriculum settings. Collaborative Google spreadsheets might be used in portfolio/project work for example. I’m not sure if you can format in Google docs to the extent you can in MS Word, but the potential is certainly worth exploring.

The two most salient Web 2.0 tools with application for our students are blogs and their close cousins podcasts and wikis, though there are many more -- online collaborative calendars, for example. I hope to list a few more here eventually; meanwhile:



The concept with greatest implication for collaborative and project work in education (and beyond, in the real world of collaboration and project management in the workplace) is that blogs and wikis can be aggregated.

I have an explanation of how this is accomplished at This document explains how blogs for a class can be aggregated via an aggregator (e.g. Bloglines) in such a way that they can be efficiently read/followed by the teacher and others in the class, or by manager and co-workers in an enterprise project venture.


Blogs can be tagged, and tags also can be aggregated. One device for doing that is . Jon Pederson has developed a good explanation of how can be used to good effect by educators:

The concepts of tagging and aggregation lie at the heart of social networking. For example, my son posts family photos at his Facebook acct and tags the ones of me DAD. I then get an email that tagged photos are available. I get the URLs of only my photos but the whole albums are available as long as the owner has indicated that s/he trusts me with them. I don’t think we need to introduce our students to Facebook here in the Middle East, but participation in social networking sites like Facebook illustrate how the concepts work in a social context.


Podcasting is one highly productive example of how these concepts can be focused on two important literacy goals:

  1. achieving appropriate levels of digital competence in a changing world
  2. and staying abreast through lifelong learning.

In order to access podcasts, one needs to have a working knowledge of using an aggregator such as iTunes or Juice (a level of knowledge akin to knowing how to drive as opposed to knowing how to build or repair a car).

The working knowledge needed is two-fold:

  1. ability to subscribe to podcasts
  2. and to occasionally refresh subscriptions.

Internet search skills are needed to locate desired podcasts in the first place, and some multimedia and file management skills will help in downloading, storing, retrieving, and playing the files retrieved. A computer is all that is essentially needed for this, though most people like to transfer their files to an mp3 player and listen to them while away from their computer.

Although the only skill levels needed harvest podcasts are at the level of those needed while driving, higher education is pursued in order to achieve greater understanding, in the case of driving, of the mechanics and physical forces involved in converting energy to produce the torque to propel the car, etc. Similary, among the goals of a computer literacy course should be some understanding how RSS and aggregation works, and in theory how one can create one's own blogs and podcasts, and disseminate these to a wider audience through social networking skills.

Again, I have a Web document covering aspects of these issues:


Enterprise is the ‘beyond’ application of these principles. But I think that blogs and wikis could be very well worked into current curriculum in student collaborative projects and in all aspects involving reporting findings from Internet search. These techniques and concepts could become built into those modules, and enable the class to pull together while learning about team techniques based in social networking concepts.

In not only social and enterprise but also in educational project/class management contexts, I think that these concepts are important because they show the way teams are learning to work together using the latest shareable Web-based technologies once they have achieved the requisite level of computer literacy.