When a memo, classroom lesson or news story can include pictures, words, graphics and sound, what is “literacy”? Jason Ohler, the director and founder of the educational technology program at University of Alaska in Juneau is convinced that the “fourth R” for the digital age is not computer programming, but art.
How did you get involved in technology education?
One of the first educational technology programs specifically designed for classroom teachers was created here at the university. That was back in 1983 — we saw that this was a trend that was going to skyrocket.
By 1986, four years before the Internet was born, I had already had 1500 online users. Now, if you go to our website*, you’ll see that we offer an entire master’s degree in educational technology online. One of the compelling components of the program is the fact that it offers competency-based courses: prove to us that you know the material, send us a portfolio, and for half of the cost we will give you credit for the course.
I am also a writer and a composer. I have one book published and two more coming out in the Spring. One of them is a novel about the future of educational technology called, “Then What?”
What’s the background for the work you are doing in the area of the arts and technology?
I think for years educators have tried to sell art to the public on its intrinsic values— its ability to foster multicultural understanding, or how it gives kids a better way to express themselves. Lately there seems to be a correlation of art to academic achievement, and this is wonderful, but I think your average citizen keeps saying: “Well, so what, does it help people get a job?” If not, when the money gets tight they will cut it — people will cut art before they will cut football.
In a sense, art has never had its own leg to stand on. Then along comes multimedia and suddenly we’re no longer able to look at art as something that you can lop off when you don’t have the money, or when time gets tight. In a very functional sense, in a very practical sense, we do need to begin to speak in pictures again.
We live in an internationally networked world, and language is obviously a lot more ethnocentric than pictures are. So we have a new Esperanto on the World Wide Web called the multimedia presentation. And if you can’t speak in the language of multimedia, you will be functionally illiterate.
How would you define “multimedia”?
Text, animation, graphics, pictures, sounds and music — basically all of those things that have been the domain of a single point of broadcasting, like television. We’re now putting that in the hands of everybody, and we are saying, “You’re not just a consumer, you must also be a producer, or at the very least a manager, and you must be literate in these “non text-centric” media.
How does this impact teaching?
Across the boards. We have had reading, writing and math across the curriculum for years. They are “the three R’s” that we consider to be the foundation of literacy, and rightly so.
We now have a “fourth R,” and it needs to be infused as deliberately and as deeply as the others; it needs to be in science, math, social studies, physics. It is how we now communicate.
How can teachers and other educators do this?
Well, you hop into a time machine. You go back twenty years. You see this coming and gear the entire educational system towards it!
Short of that, you must play a game of catch-up. I really think that what I am telling you may seem a bit theoretical today — but in ten years it will be obvious. We need to hire more art teachers. Being functionally literate in art and in art skills needs to be a part of every teacher education program. It means moving art off the elective list and into the core curriculum.
How does the “Fourth R” relate to jobs and careers?
Why is it important for a kid to read and write? It’s not necessarily because they will become a novelist. We all know what happens when kids get through school and they cannot really read and write. We all know the doors that will be closed to them.
We now have another layer of illiteracy. I am calling it art, for lack of a better word. There is not a business out there where there won’t be some form of multimedia. Everybody is going to need the ability, if not to create it, to at least read it, to manage it, to know what is effective.
You can throw junk up on a web page, and it doesn’t require any training whatsoever — but it’s bad, it’s not effective communication. So how do we get there? We teach design and art the same way we teach reading and writing. Here are the rules, here’s what works, here is what the expectations of the readers are.
How can more teachers incorporate art into their lessons?
They were raised in the text-centric culture. We have told them, “Okay, you are now hereby ordained as a teacher, go forth into the classroom, teach the three R’s.” Bingo! Along comes the World Wide Web — video, pictures, text, sound, music. A complete communication is no longer just a term paper with words on it, it has to have media back up that isn’t just gratuitous, but actually to the point and communicates well.
I would like to see art teachers across the curriculum that could rove and roam the schools. When a teacher is doing a project on social studies as a web page, the art teacher could come in and talk about white space, and color balance and what communicates.
Say a teacher was giving a math lesson — what would he do differently?
I have talked with math teachers who have used computer programs to turn learning math into as much of a design-oriented exercise, as a linear and rational mathematical exercise. For example, I have seen a computer program that allows kids to create a shape, and then get “inside” the shape and walk around.
What do you hope learning will be like in the next ten years?
Ideally, you would have a very strong dose of soft skills, those things that are outside the domain of strict literacy — teamwork, leadership, how to work in small groups, how to do presentations, how to communicate. Then you are going to have literacy, the skills that cut across every area of content — reading, writing, arithmetic and, for lack of a better word, art.
Then, in my ideal school, you need to get your hands on the gear, figure out how it works, and establish your comfort level so when it changes next week you don’t lose your balance.
It would be the job of the students in this school to help solve real problems in their communities. So instead of learning subjects and hoping that someday they will be able to use what they are learning, they start with a real-life problem and learn “backwards”–learn what they need to solve that problem.
*University of Alaska Southeast
Jason Ohler’s home page