This proposed study has the potential of contributing to the field of literacy education by closely examining the World Wide Web as both a discourse community and literacy site in which individual adolescents publish and participate.  Such publication and participation exceed current limitations in practice by providing both authentic function and audience for writing and providing a social setting in which adolescents use writing to communicate within a discourse community of adolescent writers.

Technology as Cultural Praxis

            Before leaping headlong into such an optimistic if not "Polyannish" view on technology's impending impact, let us take a closer look at the published research. 
While admittedly in its infancy, published research in these overlapping fields is rather sparse as shown in Kamil and Lane's (Kamil, 1998) review which found only four articles linking literacy and technology published during the last four years in the top-tier refereed journals of the field of literacy education.  At least four important issues arise from this relative obscurity.  First, such research may be appearing instead in other publications.  Second, the rapid rate of change in both hardware and software development renders current research in this area obsolete given the constraints from timelines of publication in traditional print forums such as journals and books

A third explanation for the relative obscurity of published research on literacy and technology is that, although personal computers have been increasingly a part of our daily lives for well over a decade, their integration into classrooms have critically lagged behind.  This lag can be explained in terms of both infrastructure and appropriation.  And while the infrastructure in educational settings is leaping ahead on course for "universal access," many of our technological aspirations are falling flat as the core of teachers do not seem to be getting on board.  While there are certainly numerous cases (e.g. The Kentucky Writers Project as described in The Nearness of You:  Students and Teachers Writing Online, 1996; BreadNet, as described in Electronic Networks:  Crossing Boundaries/Creating Communities,  1999) of teachers doing fabulous instruction with technology, such full integration seems to be the exception rather than the norm. Since many of the earliest entries into the educational scene were little more than endless workbooks on screen, developers have had a hard sell to teachers.  Instead classrooms have computers for occasional word processing, available for games during free time and not much else. Leu (Leu, 1998) points to a general lack of consideration of teachers or their instructional needs in both hardware and software development. 

While developers have left many of teachers' needs unmet, the research community has left many questions unanswered regarding how technology could be and why it should be an integral part of their literacy learning classrooms.  However, a quest for such specifics, particularly in the forms of hard evidence and experimental design to prove the efficacy of technology-savvy classrooms may be premature.  At this early stage of the merging of technology and literacy, exploratory and descriptive studies are crucial.  Since technology is an integral piece of the world around us already, there is little value in arguing whether technology is good or bad, or more or less effective.  This view of technology as "cultural praxis" (Leu, in press) cries out for the study of what such practice looks like and how this impacts literacy and learning.

            Finally, despite growing popularity in practice (Federal Trade Commission, 1998), this dearth of research published on technology specific to its role in literacy education may be a moot point.  Leu (Leu, in press) argues that there may be little need for such research in terms of proving its specific efficacy as a tool for promoting literacy in educational settings.  Arguing whether or not technology belongs in the lives or classrooms of our youth would be of little use since the reality is that they are already an integral part of both.  Instead, the research to be conducted may be more useful in providing thick description of what such technology means for the literacies of our charges in the educational system.

Just as policymakers have already determined that technology, and thus the World Wide Web, will be a part of modern education, so, too, have our youth declared the World Wide Web as their stomping ground.  Indeed, today’s adolescents find themselves in a unique position of often being more learned than many of their elders with software and hardware and certainly in navigating the Internet.  Again, the question at hand is not whether or not adolescents will use the World Wide Web, but how the Web is changing the literacy demands on learners, or even how might the Web be advantageous to their learning, particularly their literacy.

In Growing Up Digital:  The Rise of the Net Generation (Tapscott, 1998), the author gives credence to much of the social work that children, and especially teens, do online, almost exclusively through writing.  Rather than view youngsters use of technology as passive, this author witnesses the social and interactive nature of the Internet as critically beneficial for adolescents' developing sense of autonomy, self and values.  Indeed this quest for identity is often seen as the most important personality achievement of adolescence and pivotal in determining self-esteem (Erikson, 1950).  "The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life"  (Turkle, 1995, p.180).  Of great interest to the literacy community is the fact that this experimenting is done almost exclusively through writing.

Writing as Social Action

Despite its failure to dramatically improve student writing (Applebee, 1994) ; (Campbell, 1997) there have been many apparent benefits to practice from the process writing movement.  Power (1995) summarizes the process writing approaches key features as:

§         Encouraging student writers to take ownership of their writing;

§         Subgoaling (or breaking down) the whole writing task into recursive phases; and

§         Providing student writers with formative feedback that they can use to improve their pieces before submitting them as completed work (p. 486).

More specifically, recognizing the individual nature of the writing process specific to a given task, writer, and social situation remains critical in empowering students as writers.  Also key to such effective composition instruction is the authenticity of a given task in providing a real writing task for a real purpose and a real audience, as opposed to mere school tasks written primarily for grades and often read only by a teacher.  Finally, though clearly dependent on authenticity, is the crucial role of publishing or having one’s writing go public to be read by the intended audience and to achieve the purpose for which it was written.  In both process writing communities and more recently in genre theory, the importance of the function of writing and a conscious concept of audience has been emphasized. 

Writing process advocates (e.g. Atwell, 1998) have continually emphasized the importance of authenticity and publishing for young writers, and these notions are being further emphasized by genre theorists.  Stemming from a socio-cultural perspective, in which all learning stems from social origins (Vygotsky, 1978), genre theory views writing as a means to achieve social ends, and this social action take place within a specific discourse community.   In this line of reasoning, genre knowledge in action empowers learners to use writing to achieve social ends.  This social nature of writing tasks, dependent upon authenticity of purpose and specific to an intended audience, is a critical factor highlighted currently by genre theorists.  Such a situated context for writing should foster awareness of the critical lessons of literacy mentioned earlier:

§         writing is an act of communication for a specified audience within a specific community with its own history, expectations, and constraints; and,

§         writing can serve many functions ranging from transactional to expressive or even poetic (Britton, 1982).

In consideration of the complexities of the social, genre goes far beyond text types and taxonomies to a focus, "not on the substance or the form of the discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish (Miller, 1984, p. 151).  Contemporarily genres are described by what they try to accomplish and by the strategies that typically support that goal (Fahnestock, 1993).  Instead of static givens, genres are viewed as fluid and dynamic  "default instances among a range of choices" (Williams & Colomb, 1993, p. 261). 

Key to the current understanding of genre is a socio-cultural perspective, building on the work of Vygotsky (1962, 1978).  In Vygotsky's work, writing is seen as a higher cognitive process rooted in social context (Cazden, 1994), and learning writing is described as situated cognition.  Writing, along with other language processes, is an important tool for learning and constructing meaning within this social context.  Learning is dialogic and social in origin ideally situated in a context in which a practitioner in training is being scaffolded by a more knowledgeable other.  Ultimately such socially originating knowledge becomes internalized by the learner to be transformed in new contexts.

      Bakhtin and others have built upon this social constructivist genre framework within a larger vision of reading and writing as negotiating meaning.  Bakhtin made the important distinction between "primary" and "secondary" speech genres (1986), with writing being a secondary speech genre because it is removed from its instantiation.  Compared to conversation, writers must make the transition from natural turn-taking to turns that are extended and monologic.  According to Bakhtin, genres develop through social use as "typical forms of utterance,"  which become generic through repeated use.  This reiterates Vygotsky's notion of writing as a higher cognitive process learned as socially distributed cognition.  Gee resounds this notion of secondary discourse when describing school and workplace literacy and views genre's role as framing the topics and organizational frameworks of text.  A primary distinction of genre is its embeddedness in social context.  According to Halliday (1978), this context can best be summarized by field (what is happening), tenor (who is involved) and mode (what role language is playing).

Obviously central to a genre view of writing are the constructs of function and audience.  Although these terms were first highlighted by the process writing community, genre theorists, in emphasizing the socio-cultural view of learning, have placed the social context at the very heart of composition.  In this light, the impact of function in composition must be far more specific than the overly simplified categories of persuasion, description, explanation, and expression.  So, too, has the notion of addressivity, already shown to be key to effective composition (e.g. Flower, 1979; Langer, 1985), become more complex.  After all, "It is the speaker's anticipation of the reception which his/her discourse will receive which contributes to what is said and how"  (Freedman, 1994, p. 209). 

As exciting as this emphasis on the social nature of writing may be to literacy education, the classrooms of today may not be the ideal setting for students to learn writing in all of its above-mentioned complexities.  Not only is it difficult for classroom teachers to extend writing to include authentic purposes and for such writing to be read by its intended audience, but school itself is a severely limited social environment.  In acquiring new genres a lengthy period of immersion in the relevant contexts and enculturation are necessary conditions for learning (Berkenkotter, 1993), and schools, at best then, can only teach school writing.  "The problems we [English teachers] pose for our students as an audience are far less complex than the problems they will encounter in writing in nonacademic settings" (Beaufort, 1992, p. 9).  Whether in or out of school, "The aim of a genre-based approach to the teaching of language is for the student to start to appreciate how language works to mean" (Stainton, 1992, p. 118).  In adding to our traditional notions of schooling, membership in other discourse communities may prove key to the learning of writing.

The World Wide Web as Discourse Community

The World Wide Web adds significant complexities to the multitude of literacies (New London Group, 1996) demanded by today’s world.  Though many of these evolving genres build on earlier conventional literacies, they differ significantly by taking advantage of the World Wide Web’s interactive, global, immediate and electronic forum.  Such evolving literacies impact the social dynamics of the resulting discourse community and individuals’ use of writing as a communicative tool.

A discourse community is defined as a social network of participants who share some set of communicative purposes.  Swales (Swales, 1990), p. 24-27) has established six criteria necessary and sufficient for identifying a group of individuals as a discourse community, summarized as:

1.      A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals;

2.      A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members;

3.      A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback;

4.      A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims;

5.      In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis; and,

6.      a discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

As fluid and dynamic entities, discourse communities continually define and redefine themselves through communications among members. (Berkenkotter, 1993)

            Another view of discourse communities would be Wenger's community of practice (1998).  In his work, a community is defined by its practice with the minimal requirements of mutual engagement, joint enterprise and a shared repertoire.  First, mutual engagement, or working toward the same goal or goals is the basis of any community of practice.  Such engagement comes at a substantial cost as Wenger summarizes, "The specific coordination to do things together requires constant attention."  In this doing, there is room for conflict and diversity, as well as a reliance on relationships among people.  Secondly, the idea of such practice as joint enterprise captures the condition of continual negotiation among members of the community and  mutual accountability.  Lastly, a community of practice is defined by a shared repertoire among members which might include shared language, ways of doing, tools, concepts and other shared resources that the community has invented or adopted to achieve its goals.  In sum, a community of practice requires a group of people negotiating work and working toward a common goal using shared or common resources.

            The World Wide Web in its current state has all of the potential to be the medium of a specific discourse community.  Though one may see the World Wide Web as a whole to be its own community, Swales criteria above apply more directly to the smaller and more specific communities that exist within the Internet.  While the Internet as a whole may have its own lexis, genres, inter-communication and participatory mechanisms, it is only within smaller virtual communities that the level of members and sense of common purpose creates discourse communities of the type literacy educators wish to study.  Studies of such virtual communities include those by Hauben (1997) and Rheingold (1993).  For example, Howard Rheingold's pioneering study of WELL, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, was one of the first to document electronic discourse and he coined the term virtual communities to mean, "social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace (1993, p. 5).  This notion of virtual community is the key focus on much that has been written about the social forces of the Internet, and it is within these smaller communities made possible by the World Wide Web that writing and individuals are transformed. 

Studies in Computer Mediated Communication

Although the research on the Internet as a site for literacy is yet in its infancy, a number of studies have looked at Computer Mediated Communication (CMC).  Computer Mediated Communication, as a field of study, examines the nature and effects of communication as facilitated by computers.  Much of the published research in CMC has focused on UseNet.  A number of early studies have made great strides in describing online groups of people communicating via computers and the Internet to be true communities.  The pioneering ethnography of Usenet, Netizens (Hauben, 1997), provides an insider's view of the culture of the Internet and Usenet from its very beginnings.   Usenet is a fully text-based example of Computer Mediated Communication, and Usenet began as a medium for communication across geographic boundaries between linked computers long before the World Wide Web developed with its graphic interface, commercial bases, and worldwide accessibility for common citizens.  Hauben's work in documenting the roots and evolution of Usenet provides great insight on the founding members, groups and purposes of ARPANET, the original Usenet.  In sum, these groups originally used computers to link computers between university-based research centers and to meet government mandates to provide an alternative communication network.  The rapid development of hardware and software to support and advance such a network grew out of a cooperative group of intellectuals sharing for the furthering of the groups goals and not for profit.  These roots are key to understanding the culture of the Internet, especially Usenet and its pioneers, as its values pervade much of the grass roots Internet community today, including:

1.            An emphasis on information sharing;

2.            Software development and sharing for furthering the group, not for profit;

3.            Resistance to control by government or other outside forces; and,

4.            Access for all.

Usenet is now a global term encompassing a large spectrum of special interest groups to which anyone with Internet access can subscribe.  For example, there are groups for interests as broad as teaching ( or as specific as owners of Labradors (  For literacy educators what is most exciting is that these groups thrive solely on written communication.  Simply reading what others have posted, called Lurking, is possible on Usenet, but its real strengths come from the ability interact with others within such a group is by posting a message.  It should be noted, however, that writing within this context has grown to also encompass media-specific symbol systems that go beyond traditional alphanumeric text to include graphics, sound, and even new language traditions such as emoticons.  Emoticons and other Internet-specific shorthand expressions are especially interesting as they were developed within the UseNet discourse community to enhance their writing-only communication to convey messages not apparent in text only or to save typing common expressions.  Traditional written language has been modified to create a number of short hand expressions familiar to the web savvy community such  as :) to indicate a smile and lol to representing laughing out loud.  This evolution of language within Computer Mediated Communication is but one example of how the World Wide Web both builds on common notions of discourse and communities and gives rise to new variations.

More specific to literacy education, Computer Mediated Communication has been adopted by a number of writing projects across the nation.  Most notably, the Kentucky Telecommunictions Writing Project (Nearness of You, 1996) and BreadNet (Electronic Networks, 1999) have developed exciting undertakings in which CMC is a central component.  The Kentucky Telecommunications Writing Project was based on the notion that communicating with others across typical boundaries of time and space via the computer could be, " a superior method of teaching students that writing is a meaningful and public act of communication that has communal consequences for both writers and readers" (Howard, 1996, p. 49).  Similarly, BreadNet, is a group of networked writing classrooms.  BreadNet has grown out of the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College where the participating teachers meet face to face during summer coursework and continue to collaborate throughout the school year via electronic networks connecting the teachers and often their students.  The teachers and students of BreadNet also tend to be from isolated rural locations that would especially benefit from an electronic networks ability to connect people across such boundaries. Among the many useful conclusions from these works as a whole, most notable is the thread of "building a community" through electronic communications that ties the many individual projects together. 


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