D E L E T I N G   T E A C H E R S'   F E A R S

title | introduction | section one | section two | section three | conclusion and limitations | references

[ Section Three ]
Audio/Visual Instant Messaging as a Tool for Multimodal Literacy

What technological devices can enable teachers to achieve a comfort level with technology that is comparable to their students'? The choices of tools offered by technology are as vast and varied as the topics offered by encyclopedias. Out of this range of choices, administrators or researchers could insist that teachers learn inaccessible software that heightens their feelings of powerlessness in the face of the daunting new "field" of technological literacy, one that highlights alien and abstruse aspects of technology and requires prior schematic knowledge to run. But content-area classes devoted to computer applications can better teach these subjects. And amid the sea of possible choices are also technological tools that will seem immediately familiar to teachers because these tools resemble the multimodality of the classroom itself. The utility of videoconferencing, or real-time audio/visual information communication technologies, can integrate written text, oral text, and visual text into scenarios that are not appreciably different from those experienced in a classroom; the main difference is that the encounter is mediated through a technological tool rather than through a teacher's own visual, oral and written performance. There are many such types of software (see Table 1) available for download, and most of them are completely free.

Table 1: Videoconferencing software for Macintosh and Windows operating systems

iChat AV

Macintosh and PC:

Yahoo Webcam
Netmeeting (built into Windows OS)

Much like a teacher in a classroom, an audio/visual ICT combines audio, visual and written input to create a combined multimodal text (see Table 2). The program conveys a real-time video feed of the communicator, including visual and vocal components, much like a teacher would convey real-time visual and audio messages to a classroom. At the same time, the audio/visual ICT enables the communicators to convey messages to one another through text as well, just as a teacher can use the textual aid of the chalkboard to explicate her message in class. If communication breaks down aurally, either text or visual aids can help to explain the aural message. If communication breaks down textually, the communicator can explicate the message verbally or through gestures. This technology requires an understanding of and familiarity with the use of combined textual, oral and visual input--but this knowledge is part of the schema that all students and teachers bring to a classroom.

Audio/Visual ICTs as a Means to Bring Technological Literacy into Classrooms

If teachers accept current definitions of technological literacy as a field that is couched by researchers as "anarchic," "revolutionary" and obviously threatening to a teacher's classroom authority, researchers and administrators must comprehend that teachers will feel an additional burden when they must first learn and then teach this new literacy in the classroom. However, defining technology as a tool to convey multimodal literacy will enable teachers to better accept its place in the classroom. An audio/visual ICT--a technological tool that closely resembles the multimodal experience of the classroom itself--can further the inclusion of technological tools into the classroom because of four specific reasons.

First, the mode of instant messaging is one that students are already familiar with. Alvermann (2004) wrote of instant messaging as a technology that is so deeply integrated into students' lives that for students, "literacy" presupposes knowledge of media and ICTs. Audio/visual ICTs are one genre of many kinds of ICTs (the most ubiquitous being real time text-only messaging) that are used by adolescents to connect them to their environment, including family, friends, identity building through creating personal websites, commerce, and world news. And the naturally occurring integration of technological texts into adolescent lives, instant messaging tools in particular, suggests that adolescents do not need to be taught technological literacy as much as their teachers do; in fact, perhaps the students in many cases can aid the teachers in overcoming their resistance to the new multimodal device. Students can use their own practical experience to help teachers see beyond the foreign technology, and help teachers see the similarity to their own classroom interaction. Hagood et al. (2004) posited that students discovered limits to technology in the natural course of their daily interaction with technology, and that teachers do, in fact, have the ability to impose their own control over these texts.

Table 2: Example of Audio/Visual ICT session
Second, audio/visual ICTs are part of operating systems that currently stress usability through visual metaphors. Both of the commonly used computer platforms (PC and Macintosh) currently use the visual symbol system of icons to translate backend processes into language that any user can comprehend. In the realm of technology, the icon is a visual shortcut, a means by which humans can interact with complex background processes in a familiar multimodal world. The desktop is familiar enough to non-technically-savvy users that it presents logical choices for interaction. The visual metaphor of a desktop enables the user to know immediately that "files" are stored in "folders," much like on a real desk. Instead of typing a long string of text to execute a program, the user can simply double click on the icon for it. This comprehension of the basic need for users to interact with technology through multimodal metaphors remains a guiding principal of operating system manufacturers, and also guides the design of instant messaging technologies.

Third, audio/visual ICTs are specifically designed to enable users to engage in multimodal activities via program metaphors that utilizes cartoon elements and commonly recognized symbols for its commands, such as speech bubbles, ellipses to indicate thought, and user-chosen icons to represent each participant in the conversation. The cartoon imagery itself is an important element of the program. Purves (1998) discussed that the power of cartoon imagery lies in the ability to make images universal, and therefore more easily recognized by viewers. The audio/visual ICT's use of the language of cartoons immediately empowers users, because users are better able to manage and manipulate the tool, and because they sense the innate familiarity of the iconic language (Purves, 1998). When interacting with a technology that has been designed around cartoon iconography, teachers are able to enter into a world of symbolism that is both historic and familiar. Unlike some information communication technologies that use radically different interface metaphors, such as the command-line interface of unix echo/writes, audio/visual ICTs present a comfortable and easily comprehensible multimodal experience.

Fourth, manufacturers of audio/visual ICTs have also noticed the strong similarity between the multimodal elements of the technology and the traditional classroom, and have promoted the use of these technologies to extend and enhance classroom teaching. For example, the Apple website "iChat AV and iSight in the Classroom" promotes the use of Apple's audio/visual ICT technology, iChat AV, for distance learning, teacher conferences, classroom sharing, and speaking with experts. A subsection of the site, "iChat AV and iSight in the Classroom: Lesson Plans," lists ten research papers that document classroom experiences utilizing this tool. These experiences range from using the tool as a tool for sharing poetry and plays with students in a remote classroom, to consulting with a professional mentor in a science classroom, to interviewing other students for classroom projects. All of these studies stress the accessible nature of audio/visual ICTs as a classroom tool, and discuss the benefits that the technology offers the classroom. Although these audio/visual ICTs were helpful in breaking down barriers of distance between classrooms, teachers and researchers, all of these experiences could have been had without the use of any technology at all. This reinforces the fact that audio/visual ICTs function so similarly to traditional classroom practices that they can be used in place of them, but do not challenge a teacher's classroom authority.

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title | introduction | section one | section two | section three | conclusion and limitations | references