Digital text and Language Learning

On: October 16, 2010
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About Bram van der Kruk
My name is Bram van der Kruk, I am 27 years old and an aspiring new media theorist based in Amsterdam. My area of academic interest and professional expertise concerns new media in education. Being a full-time English teacher myself, I deal with the drifting apart of educational practice and students on a day to day basis. Moving back and forth from their wired, graphic, global digital environments into the classroom and that one person in front of class to listen to. Any observant teacher will notice this at one time or another during his or her career, a professional requirement for working in school being to listen to and adapt to students‘ needs. But to dig into both the methodological consequences of teaching digital natives and how this would affect their participation in today‘s mediascape is something most teachers will not have the time, resources and background for. The demand for new ideas concerning this intersection of media and education is one of the reasons I chose to commit myself to this area of new media theory.


The replacement of printed text by digital text might strike us as another carefully manufactured revolution, but those who have had a lifelong use of communications and media technologies surrounding them  might not be as intimidated by this transition as their elders. The malleability of  texts makes perfect sense to them, traditional books, rigid cumbersome rectangle devices, do not.

According to Marc Prensky, writer of “Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning!”: How Computer and Video Games Are Preparing Your Kids for 21st Century Success and How You Can Help“, digital natives lack engagement and learning through digital material is the solution. He states that digital natives want to feel engaged and that learning is no exception. These new students want gameplay, not presentation. They are used to multiple data streams, not one thing at the time and they want random access, not a linear story[1]

This observation is not limited to digital natives but is part of the digital society’s spirit and captured by Lev Manovich in the term database logic.

After the novel, and subsequently cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate-database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don’t have beginning or end; in fact, they don’t have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.

The database as privileged form of cultural expression is an interesting challenge to those teachers and parents who supplement their repertoire to engage children at home or in class, with printed literature. In the same way face to face communication takes on a different importance in light of recent popularity of digital asynchronous communication, so it is the case with books and linear stories. They become a marked category in light of the database logic.

Since reading substantial bodies of text is still expected from students at any level of secondary school in The Netherlands questions about the lexical appropriacy of these texts should not only investigate learner’s proficiency but also how (and if) they relate to digital texts (in the media literate sense of the word) and digital storytelling.[2]

The process of producing texts is a somewhat separate enterprise (didactically) from its receptive counterpart in learning to deal with language, reading. Examining the productive spaces digital natives engage in and finding parallels with the traditional production of text in schools is a worthwhile exercise when debating digital texts in schools. While the mechanical workings of language or the appreciation of density of meaning that can be read in literary works might have traditionally been fertile grounds for exegetical exercises in teaching, writing by its productive nature has always been based around the newly appreciated user generated content.

[1] Prensky, Marc. “Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning!”: How Computer and Video Games Are Preparing Your Kids for 21st Century Success and How You Can Help. New York: Paragon House Publishers, 2005.

[2] Whether there is such a thing as digital narrative has been researched by (amongst many others) Jesper Juul in: Juul, Jesper. Half-Real. Video Games between real worlds and fictional worlds. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005.

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