way to talk

October 28, 2005

To become transliterate, publishers need to start a dialogue with e-learners, Sue Thomas says

Transliteracy. It's another of those new usages for old concepts. It was originally applied to the mapping of one system of writing on to another, and the idea is now being extended to the digital realm. Today it refers to literacy across several media, which means, perhaps, that the more media you can use fluently, the more transliterate you are. How will that affect those of us who write, teach and publish? Can an understanding of transliteracy help dispel those rising levels of anxiety about the world of the web that, to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is "so new that some things still lack names"?

Transliteracy was so much easier to achieve in the old days when all you had to learn was how to click on a link and open an e-mail. Today, its most recent manifestations can be found in social software such as blogs, wikis, Furl, Flickr and As Dan Gillmor wrote recently in the Financial Times , the networks supported by wikis and blogs are now "a key part of a growing, complex global conversation". He was referring to business practices, but the vision of such a conversation is of course also integral to academic life, where we have always sought to increase and disseminate a worldwide body of knowledge. The vehicles for those conversations have, in the past, come from print publishing, but now many publishers and editors are falling behind because they are, in the modern sense, illiterate. Or, rather, they are not transliterate. Much as they would like to contribute to that growing complex global conversation, they all too often find themselves locked out of it. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem, and it is right on their doorsteps. They can learn from the e-learners.

E-learning specialists understand how readers read and interact online.

They know how to edit, update and annotate digital materials to include the latest debates in their field. They are interested in accessing each others' contributions to the growing palimpsest of documents in their shared digital space. They read and write blogs, manage message boards and chat rooms, use multimedia, collaborate via a wide range of social softwares, and organise this dauntingly abundant library with tools that filter, tag and rank materials according to their personal preferences. In the process of creating these extensive online resources, and by virtue of the fact that they have often both written and designed their own materials, as well as edited and curated content produced by others, many of these people have become expert e-publishers. Unfortunately, however, in this divisive climate it is likely that those engaged in managing research-based publishing may have little contact with the specialists who train and support those using e-learning systems, or even with the e-teachers themselves.

But collaborations between e-learning and e-publishing could produce wonderful things. Our reading in the future will take place on multiple platforms, via products such as the recently launched SafariU, which allows the transliterate academic to design and build a customised textbook from a combination of library materials, personally produced media, updatable web-based content and shared learning objects and tools. And if we can build textbooks like that, we can also build monographs and journals by the same process.

Imagine a situation where all you need to do is to walk down the corridor and meet with colleagues to create interactive content informed by practical knowledge about how writers and readers behave online or devise new peer-review techniques using custom-built annotation and editing tools.

This collaboration, between those who create materials for teaching and those who create materials for research seems so natural and obvious that one wonders why it has not happened very widely.

Perhaps an example from history might help. Anglers, farmers and bird-watchers all existed before the 1970s, but it was the environmental movement of that period that provided the concept of green politics and an acknowledgement of shared goals between groups who in other ways were very different, perhaps even in active opposition.

Today, transliteracy has created a new ecology with new interdependencies.

As well as rivers and cities, we share bandwidth and server space. As well as buildings, we share software and chat rooms. And as well as books and journals, we read and write in that huge collaborative space called the world wide web. Yes, we sometimes have conflicting priorities and yes, we have our fears, but the key to transliteracy is probably just down the corridor.

Sue Thomas is professor of new media at De Montfort University.  

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