Although I am less than half way through the CoETaIL program, I am already noticing a difference in my teaching. I now spend a lot more time thinking about technology and how I can apply it in the classroom. Although it is still early in the school year, I have already arranged a collaboration with the computer teacher, been in email contact with a number of teachers regarding a pen pal wiki project, had students upload their book trailers to our wiki, shown these student-created trailers to new students, embedded some cartoons and videos on my classroom website, added better graphics to a number of handouts and presentations, become somewhat of an activist at our school for improved access to technological devices, and been approached to be part of a speed-geeking team at my school. And, it’s only October.
Recently, I visited Jakob Nielsen’s page called How Users Read on the Web . Right away, he got my attention. Underneath the title, he simply wrote “THEY DON’T”. He says that people don’t “read” the web, instead they scan it. That said, I did actually read his page (though admittedly, I might have just scanned it were I not using his article for this blog post), and then I clicked on the link F-shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content. Later that day, I visited the Official Google Blog and read an article called Eye-Tracking Studies: More Than Meets the Eye.
Both articles talked about how people read web pages. As an English teacher, I spend a lot of time teaching students how to read printed texts. For example, we have lessons on topics such as how to use the 5 finger test to determine if a book is at an appropriate reading level, how to use the front and back cover of a book to gain information before we choose to read it, and how to use headings and subheadings to locate information in a non-fiction text. But I don’t teach them how to “read” what they find on the web.
Nielson uses the term “F” tracking to describe how people read websites. He says most people scan a website by looking vertically across the top first, then moving down and making another vertical scan of the page, and then finally, scanning down the left-hand side of the page. This mimics the pattern of a capital “F”. I believe him, as I am sure that is what I do. When looking for something on Google, I type in a search term, scan the first few results quite carefully, quickly decide if they contain the relevant information, scroll a bit down, read a few more lines, and then, only make it to the bottom of the page if nothing near the top of the page meets my needs.
I have never been taught to read a website this way, but I can. Why? Having thought out it, maybe I know how to do this because I have unconsciously applied my knowledge of skimming textbooks to reading on the web.
That said, one girl I tutor doesn’t read like this. Just the other day, I asked her find the names of some famous Italians. She went to Google, typed in “famous people in Italy”, clicked on the first result (which was a Wikipedia list), and began reading from the very beginning. The list was massively long, and she was reading word for word. Not surprisingly, it was taking her forever to come up with anything of value. I told her to look at the bar on the right hand side of the screen that indicated how long the page was. The scroll bar was tiny and at the rate we were going, we would be reading for hours. I then asked for control of the mouse. After quickly scrolling down the entire length of the page, I determined that this was not the kind of site we were looking for. I quickly went back to the search results page, did an “F scan”, and found the information we were looking for. That was a wakeup call. If she can’t read a webpage properly, I am guessing she is not the only one.
I have designed a few webpages. I have a classroom website, and I have made one for a charity in Africa. When designing the pages, I tried to make them functional based on what I like to see on a website. That said, I have not paid much attention to the first words of my paragraphs. Looking at the heat maps Nielsen included on the page taught me just how important the first words of a paragraph are. Because of F-tracking, I need to spend more time making sure I put the most important information on my website in the first two paragraphs, and as Nielsen says, I need to make sure to “start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behaviour.”
Fascinated by what I reading so far, I headed back to How Users Read on the Web, and clicked the link Scrolling and Attention. Nielsen has a great metaphor for how people read on the web, and as I have previously mentioned, I do love a good metaphor. “It’s as if users arrive at a page with a certain amount of fuel in their tanks. As they “drive” down the page, they use up gas, and sooner or later they run dry. The amount of gas in the tank will vary, depending on each user’s inherent motivation and interest in each page’s specific topic. Also, the “gasoline” might evaporate or be topped up if content down the page is less or more relevant than the user expected.” What he is saying basically is that the material that is most important should be above the fold (or the area which you can see without scrolling), as users do not look below the fold as much as they do above. He suggests that if you really want people to look far down a page, the layout must encourage scanning and the information above the fold must make the reader believe it is worth their time to scroll down to see more. Okay, clearly it is time to revisit my websites and improve their layout and design!
Still interested in Nielsen’s ideas, I returned again to How Users Read on the Web and read the articles Mobile Content is Twice as Difficult, How Little Do Users Read?, and World’s Best Headlines. I could go into a lengthly discussion of each of these articles, but I am trying to be a bit briefer these days in my blog posts, so instead, I will merely suggest you read them for yourself. They are well worth it.
After bidding Nielsen adieu, I set out to read an article from John Hopkins University School of Education, called Visual Literacy in the Classroom by Erin Riesland
The first line that got my attention was “The speed at which technology is altering classroom communication is overwhelming. The time to address visual media literacy is now.” Ms. Riesland certainly does not mince words. She goes on to say that often educators expect students to “present complex visual ideas using a variety of multimedia applications without serious direct instruction.” Good point Ms. Riesland. How many times do we tell our students to create a PowerPoint or something similar, but then fail to teach them how to create a PowerPoint. Sure, we might show them the basics, like how to create a new document, but do we teach them how to make one that is effective? All us educators know that it is our job to create the citizens of tomorrow, and like it or lump it, that tomorrow is going to be full of media.
Literacy is the ability to read and write, but what it means to read and write today is not the same as it was just 20 years ago. We need to teach students how to read multimedia texts and how to write them too if they are going to be truly literate in today’s society. As Riesland points out, “by educating students to understand and communicate through visual modes, teachers empower their students with the necessary tools to thrive in increasingly media-varied environments.”
Another point that Riesland makes is that “the increase in student use of online hypermedia for serious information gathering is altering the way students read and collect information, and will ultimately alter the way students write.” As an English teacher, I spend a lot of time teaching my students to write in the traditional ways- how to write a persuasive essay, a journal prompt, a friendly letter – but do I really instruct them how to write material that is going to end up online? The answer to that question is sadly a big “No”. When I ask students to create multi-media assignments, I spend little time, if any, talking about things such as typeface, size, style, colour, and page layout. I assume they know what to do, and I shouldn’t.
Riesland also states that “as students learn to decode hypermedia, they are also learning how to decode advertising”, and she advocates for visual literacy education that prepares students to critically analyze the great deal of advertising they will be exposed to during their lifetimes. Riesland says that students must be taught to ask questions about the images they see and “once students internalize these questions, not only will students be prepared to recognize and decode subversive advertising messages, but they will also be prepared to communicate with a level of visual sophistication that will carry them through the multimedia-dependent environment of higher education and the modern work environment.”
Riesland suggests that there are many ways to integrate and address multimedia in the classroom. She suggests taking a constructivist approach as one way. In this approach, the students produce multi-media information rather than consume it. “Through classroom construction of a multimedia project, an in-depth understanding of visual communication, or visual literacy, is learned along the way.” (Riesland)
In conclusion, Riesland says that “if the goal of literacy education is to empower students with the tools to communicate and thrive successfully in society, shouldn’t we consider the current literacy demands of the technological age? Who will ultimately teach our children to communicate?”
After taking some time to digest Ms. Riesland’s words, I decided to read one more article. I chose to look at Visual Literacy by Frank W. Baker. He made the point that “many of our students don’t question media: they believe everything they see–including digitally altered images seen in the media.” As a teacher of 10-12 year olds, I can attest to that.
Interestingly, very recently, I saw a trailer for the 2011 film Miss Representation. Within seconds of watching, I was riveted. Though only 8 minutes long, the trailer makes bold assertions about the impact media is having on our young people and how media’s portrayals of women affect young boys and girls. Immediately, I reposted this video on Facebook and it wasn’t long before many of the women in my life commented on, liked, and shared the video themselves.
Miss Representation 8 min. Trailer 8/23/11 from Miss Representation on Vimeo.
This video really hit home for me for two reasons. First, I work at an all-girls school. Second, I remember watching a similar video, Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne, back in first-year university. At the time, the realization that there were so many perverse images of women all over the media horrified me. That was almost ten years ago. How little things seemed to have changed in the last decade. One of my Facebook friends, a teacher and mother of teenage girls, quickly wrote on my wall, “So how are we going to address this?” and honestly, I had no good answer.
Okay, so I now am convinced. As an educator, I must make more of an effort to teach my students to be media literate. I must teach them how to read web pages and how to design them too. I must also teach them how to read the other forms of media that they will be encountering, and I must teach them how to create media. Now, where do I start?
I am already doing a collaboration with the computer teacher, wherein my students create trailers for books that they have read, but that is probably not enough. Unfortunately, media literacy does not seem to fit neatly into just one content area, so I think all us content area teachers just say, “Well it’s not my job” and hope that someone else is teaching it. At the moment, each department at my school is currently working on creating a more streamlined K-12 curriculum. As part of the English department, I am sitting in on meetings where we look at different aspects of English and what we are doing in each grade level. For example, last week, we discussed what was being done with poetry at each grade level. I could suggest we do the same for media literacy. Of course, this would only be covering what is being done with media literacy in one of the content areas, but I guess is a place to start.
Change does not happen overnight, and in my experience, you have to “be the change you want to see” (Gandhi). I know that I cannot simply wait to see what happens with media literacy at my school. I must be proactive. Therefore, just tonight, I emailed my curriculum coordinator and principal to ask if we could order the media literacy unit provided by Miss Representation. My thought right now is that I will talk with my fellow grade-level teachers, English department colleagues, principal and computer teacher and see if, with their help and support, I can put together a short unit for second semester. I don’t know yet where exactly I will find the extra time in my curriculum. Maybe I take some of the time that I set aside for having my students read and write in the traditional ways, and use it to teach them how to read and write media texts.
I want to leave you with two quotes, taken from the Miss Representation trailer, that illustrate just how important media literacy is becoming.
“If you think about media and technology, they’re delivering content that is shaping our society. They’re shaping our politics, they’re shaping our national discourse, and most of all, they’re shaping our children’s brains, and lives, and emotions.” (Jim Steyer, CEO Common Sense Media)
“People learn more from media than from any other single source of information, so if we want to understand what is going on in our society in the 21st century, we have to understand media.” (Jackson Katz, Phd, Educator, Filmmaker, Author)