Big Ideas in Literacy
Multiliteracy and Digital Literacy
It is well established that scientific literacy is multiliteracy, as it clearly involves more than just reading and writing text. The publications of Newton (17th century) and Vesalius (16th century) included numerous graphics, illustrations, and other unusual textual features. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published in 1859 famously contains a single but extremely influential figure, his sketch of an evolutionary tree. Graphics are so important to data representation in science that it would not be malpractice for a science instructor to spend the majority of his or her teaching on interpreting and making data graphics. However, to produce a final product in science, to make a fully supported scientific claim, will nearly always require supporting text and written or verbal communication of findings and conclusions.
Scientific literacy involves multiple literacy practices, including visual literacy (the composition and interpretation of graphs and charts); the use of specialized symbolic systems and mathematical and chemical formulas; and the specialized use of text, such as abstracts, figure legends, and changes in phraseology, depending on whether the writer is referring to results or interpretation of results. Even scientific note taking and recording of observations involve practicing specialized literacy skills.
The ubiquity of digital information technologies and networked computing has enriched and complicated the multiliteracy landscape. It is easier and faster than ever for scientists to share and communicate results, and scientists—having contributed to the invention and propagation of these tools—have heartily embraced their use.
For the purposes of literacy, it is useful to think of two categories of digital products:
- Core information and productivity tools, such as spreadsheets; databases; graphic and animation software; interactive virtual research communities; digital publishing and archiving tools; and data sorting, analysis, and display utilities. Scientists make extensive use of these tools to handle and share data.
- Multimedia, visualization, and communication tools, such as animations, websites, slide display programs, podcast and videocast programs, videos, and various forms of social media. Scientists also make extensive use of these tools but do not generally consider them to be core to data analysis; some scientists, however, may think of them as playing an important role in inquiry.
Many students are clearly attracted to the second category, while the first category is more integral to science as a discipline. Various media each have their own component literacies as well as certain strengths and weaknesses. Just as students need to understand that their scientific claims are not just a matter of opinion, not all media, uses of media, and combinations of media are equally valid or effective for a given purpose. Thus, there are challenges associated with evaluating, filtering, and establishing credibility.