Is picting replacing words in our digital age – is this the new literacy?

Is technology changing our definition of literacy? That’s the question posed by Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway, university professors studying how much time today’s youth spend with text-based materials vs. image-based materials.(1) They estimate that 90 percent of K-12 classroom time in the U.S. is spent with text-based materials, and 10 percent with image-based materials; but outside the classroom, 90% is spent with image-based materials and 10 percent with text-based materials.

The bottom line from their provocative article, Picting, not Writing, is the Literacy of Today’s Youth (May 8, 2017) hits the literacy question head on: “No question about it: picting is the new literacy. For better — for worse.”

As I read their article, I thought about prehistoric cave-paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphics, wondering if we’re heading back to an older era of communicating through pictures, respawned by new digital tools. Various North American Indian tribes drew or carved pictures into rocks—the pictures stood for an idea or individual word. Similarly, hieroglyphic symbols represented objects, or stood for sounds or groups of sounds—in a system of picture-writing used on ancient Egyptian monuments. Many view such picture-writing systems as precursors to writing.

Norris and Soloway describe the changing world of literacy—through our many digital networks —with picting emerging as a system using visual forms to communicate ideas and expressions:

  • Snapchat is a social media service where people send pictures to one another. Though a note (words) can be added to the picture, it’s an unnecessary add-on. Pictures disappear after 10 seconds of viewing, or 24 hours for a story made up of sequences of pictures. Our professors conclude that Snapchat is like verbal conversations that disappear, only now it’s the pictures that disappear. The population “picting” is huge: some 30 percent of millennials in the U.S. visit the Snapchat app 18 times per day and spend about 30 minutes a day using it, 158 million use Snapchat daily, and the average number of photos shared is 9,000 snaps per second.
  • Facebook is a video-based social networking site where the video content is growing rapidly in popularity.
  • Instagram is a visual platform—a picting site. There are 400 million active users daily/700 million monthly; 80 percent are from outside the U.S.; over half of millennials with access to the Internet use Instagram daily; Instagram is the second-most used social network among 13–17 year olds; and 95 million photos are uploaded per day (up from 70 million last year).
  • YouTube is a visually-oriented social network. In the U.S., it is used by over 180 million people, reaches more 18-34 and 18-19-year olds than any cable network, 81 percent of millennials and 91 percent of Internet users ages 13-17 use YouTube, 58 percent of Gen X and 43 percent of Baby Boomers use YouTube, and 400 hours of new videos are estimated to be uploaded every minute.
  • Pinterest is an image-pinning bulletin board site. It serves some 150 million monthly active users, with 70 million from the U.S.. There are 50 billion+ Pinterest Pins and 1 billion+ Pinterest Boards; and the median age of a user is 40, however, the majority of active pinners are below 40.

Our professors conclude from these amazing statistics that “picting is a real trend — and one that is significantly engaged in by the youth of today.”

That begs their core question for all of us: “Is the trend towards picting, and away from writing, a good thing for today’s youth?”

There’s no easy answer. Reading words and writing words are key to our culture, life, and jobs. We cannot realistically communicate only through visual forms. However, visual forms (e.g., photos, diagrams, videos, emojis, GIFs) often communicate in a way that words cannot, so they play a vital role in literacy — and may grow in importance in a digital age.

The statistics Norris and Soloway have laid out are compelling, the trend lines undeniably headed upward. As we trade more pictures (with few or no words) with one another every minute, hour, and day, let’s think about the impact on our children’s literacy skills especially.

This is a set of developments that will be evolving in this next decade of digital change, as Norris and Soloway conclude, “For better — for worse.”

☹ ‍ 🙂

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(1) Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Their sites: www. imlc.io. See their Reinventing Curriculum blog at thejournal.com/rc

 

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