New media, new literacies and new forms of learning

This article was first published by MIT Press in the International Journal of Learning and Media, as the introduction to the special issue resulting from a workshop on the topic of new media, literacy and learning. The work is published by MIT Press as cc by nc-nd.

The article is available online (open access at present), and may be cited as given below. Note that although the article and issue is dated 2012, it appeared first in 2014; this online version was posted November 19, 2015 and should differ only in format from the IJLM copy.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2012) New Media, New Literacies, and New Forms of Learning. International Journal of Learning and Media 2012 4:3-4, 1-8.

New Media, New Literacies, and New Forms of Learning

Caroline Haythornthwaite

School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, The iSchool at The University of British Columbia


This paper introduces the summarizes themes relating to new media and literacy that inform papers in this special issue. The papers all address the topic of how new media are transforming what it means to be literate in today’s society, and how these media are creating new conditions and forms for learning. As a whole, the papers come together around the view that digital media are fundamentally changing learning practices, and that the transition to digital media is not just a transfer of class content to online venues, nor just an online-only effect, but instead represents a change in learning practice for the digital age. The papers and this special issue result from a workshop that provided the opportunity to integrate knowledge across multiple perspectives to address how new media and practices affect how, where and with whom we learn, and what it means to be literate in the 21st century.

Keywords: literacy, learning, new media


New media are driving new practices that are profoundly affecting many aspects of daily life and learning. The growing mass of resources online and people to reach, and the increased availability and use of mobile and internet-based platforms, affect where, what and from whom we learn. It mediates how we constitute and engage with learning communities, and how we trust online information and relationships. New paradigms about literacy are emerging around key concepts of digital practice, including multimodality, networked learning, participatory practice, e-learning, gaming, and ubiquitous (anytime, everywhere) learning. In an effort to bring these multiple perspectives together, and in particular to bring across disciplines and countries, we held a workshop that brought together experts in learning and technology from the UK, US, Canada and Australia in December 2011 to discuss these new paradigms. The workshop provided the opportunity to integrate knowledge across multiple perspectives to address how new digital media and practices affect how we learn. This papers in this issue include position papers from the workshop as well as new work by authors resulting from ideas exchanged during the workshop.

This introduction outlines some of the themes that formed the foundation of the workshop and also that emerged from our discussions. As a whole, the authors come together around the view that digital media are fundamentally changing learning practices, and that the transition to digital media is not just a transfer of class content to online venues, nor just an online-only effect, but instead represents a change in learning practice for the digital age (Dirckinck-Holmfeld, Jones & Lindström, 2009; Gillen & Barton, 2010; Steeples & Jones, 2002; Lankshear & Noble, 2008; Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011). This change accompanies transformations in online practices associated with Web 2.0 and myriad new applications and techniques. It includes new narratives of learning such as collaborative learning (Koschmann, 1996), teachers as facilitators (Garrison & Anderson, 2003), students as learner-leaders (Montague, 2006), and conceptualizations of technologies as ‘sites of practice’ rather than locations for information or applications (Goodfellow & Lea 2007). The narrative is no longer of learners as ‘empty vessels’, but instead as active, self-directed (Jenkins et al, 2006; Hase and Kenyon, 2000), entrepreneurial learners (Senges, Brown & Rheingold, 2008), creating their own user-generated contexts for learning (Luckin, 2010). While this learner may be independent, working through the ubiquitous medium of the Internet to gain knowledge, the individual is equally likely to be working with others, at a distance and through computer media. Such individuals learn and engage in the real-world practices of collaboration, cooperation, participation and community engagement, creating narratives around learning that involve people and resources met through multiple forms of digital media. Literacy and learning become co-incident with good group practice (Haythornthwaite, 2006a), and good participatory practice (Jenkins et al., 2006).

New Literacy Themes

Our collective research, and the workshop discussions highlight the increasing relevance of multimodality, context, social and computer networks, and mobility as organizing principles for examining digital media. As well, our work suggest concepts of emergence, co-evolution, and group process as important for understanding how literate practices change and evolve into new, potentially unexpected patterns of learning and connections among learners. These areas form the basis of research questions such as: What does it mean to be a literate member of society in today’s digital world? How is digital content created, mixed, re-purposed and re-posted in the service of learning? How does the use of digital media contribute to the development and identity in communities of inquiry? How can digital media be used to support personal learning contexts of people and resources? How does the presence and potential of personal digital media everywhere and at all times shape the face of learning and its integration into daily life? What digital data can we capture to provide feedback in the service of teaching and learning? The following outlines the themes that framed and emerged from the workshop, and that are taken up in the papers that comprise this issue.

1. Literacies and Discourses

Rapid, multi-modal changes in the means of communication beg for a redefinition of what literacy means in the information age, and hence what fluencies and practices are relevant in assessing what it means to be literate in today’s society (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear & Leu, 2008). In 2002, The International Reading Association noted the lack of hard data on literacy and technology, advocating for “[a]n intensive program of research on literacy and technology issues” with particular attention to the questions “What new literacy skills are required by new forms of ICT? How can we best support students in acquiring these new literacies?” (2002, p. 3). These questions are still vital. However, because online communication demonstrates an array of forms – words, images, sound, icons, diagrams, and more – read and produced through computing interfaces, and because the social contexts for communication are so different from those in conventional learning, a narrow notion of literacy (or ‘literacies’) as the reading and writing of words is no longer adequate. The idea of literacy is pushed to go beyond text-based reading and writing, whether in print or electronically, to embrace reading and writing of screens, games and virtual reality and the theoretical viewpoints of multi-literacies (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000), multi-modalities (Kress, 2003, 2010; Jewitt, 2008). Some argue that to move beyond words to other modes requires a shift in the discussion from literacies to new discourses (Andrews, 2009, 2010), which affords discussion of a wider range of communicative codes or modes while including attention to communication processes in a range of social situations and contexts (Kress, 2003, 2005). Others retain the term ‘literacy’ (Goodfellow & Lea, 2007) and foreground the ideological character of literacy over its modality. Yet others draw attention to the changing landscape of literacy as it shifts from consumption to production of texts, images, video, etc. and from individual reading, writing and learning to collaborative practices, creating the need for education and acculturation into a ‘participatory culture’ (Jenkins et al., 2006), and attention to teaching about the practice of collaboration (Haythornthwaite, 2006a). Operating in and with these new forms of multi-modal, multi-actor collaboratives pushes a need for wider definition of all learners as ‘e-learners’, with consequent need for ‘literacy’ in collaborative practices (Haythornthwaite, 2010). Each of these views suggest that need to widen our understanding of literacy to respond to theoretical developments in the understanding of multi-modal communication and to the rapid changes in media, modes and communication.

2. Co-evolution of Literacy and Technology

In parallel with notions of literacy, this theme emphasizes the way practices of communication, group behavior, and community emerge at the intersection of social and technical practices (Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011). This is seen widely in the way distributed and mobile communication technologies have transformed our practices of social, work and learning connectivity, e.g., in the impact of social media on youth interaction (Ling, 2008; Ito et al., 2008; boyd, 2007; Baron, 2008), changes in the balance of work and home life (Kramarae, 2001; Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robins & Shoemaker, 2000; Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002), changes to effect the distributed and global workplace (Orlikowski, 2002), development of online communities, peer production and crowdsourcing (Raymond, 1998; Benkler, 2006; Lessig, 2006; Haythornthwaite, 2009), and the impact of online gaming on structures for economic impact (e.g., ‘gold farming’ in World of Warcraft; Dibbell, 2006; also in crowdsourcing initiatives) and learning (Gee, 2003; Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2004; McFarlane, 2007). Ideas of technology as somehow ‘enhancing’ existing learning practice give way to a research paradigm that considers the emergent, co-evolutionary impact of practice on technology and vice versa (following research on organizational and societal impacts of technology, e.g., Kling, Rosenbaum & Sawyer, 2005; Orlikowski, 2002; Hackett, Amsterdamska, Lynch & Wajcman, 2008; for a review focused on learning, see Andrews & Haythornthwaite, 2007). Thus, we widen the view of socio-technical processes to address not just ideas of technology-enhanced learning but to include examination of emergent configurations of learning, context and technology.

3. Expansive Learning

Contemporary practices of production – of software, information, social relationships – contain an active component of creation and re-creation, leading to a continuously emergent, ‘permanently beta’ state of communal knowledge (Neff & Stark, 2003). Harnessing the benefits of crowds and communities in knowledge sharing and knowledge production is of great importance for both economic and learning outcomes. Digital media provide a platform on which such creation happens, operated by crowds and communities of interested and engaged participants who give a little or a lot of their time to building living, growing, learning environments. As such, digital media provide the infrastructure for the production of learning. This is more than information creation, access and use, and more than knowledge transfer. It is expansive learning as described by Engeström (2009) that leads participants to learn in areas where there is not yet a known knowledge base (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991, 1996). It is the kind of learning that creates knowledge but also the identity of individuals and groups in the context of a community of practice (Wenger, 1998; Wenger et al., 2002).


Digital media and computer networks support learning and social processes that go beyond static and/or authoritative creation of knowledge. Such resources are now mutable, growing, living information sources that are accessed, modified, morphed, reposted, and re-tweeted in wikis, social media, blogs, etc. Moreover, these living sources support not just information needs, but also the formation of group and community identity, comprised from their active and visible ways of being, their social capital, the technological and socio-technical definition of themselves, and their continuously emergent definition of the knowledge of importance to them. Of key importance is that, in these groups, the production of data, information, knowledge, and its collection, are in the hands of participants rather than some authority external to these participants (e.g., publishers, news editors, collection developers, teachers, etc.). Addressing expansive learning and identity formation in the presence of participatory practices, widens our understanding of learning production to include new and emergent knowledge and identities, and new roles for learners, e.g., as how we learn online begins to resemble practices of expert learners (Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011), with active, self-directed learning (Hase & Kenyon, 2000) and entrepreneurial practices (Senge et al., 2008).

4. Mobility and Ubiquity

It is perhaps obvious to point out the increased ability to access information and people from anywhere, at any time, and that transformations are emerging in whom we learn from, about what, when and where. Yet, the examination of mobile learning, and the way it supports new learning practices, is an emerging field of research. Discussions of mobility often only consist of ways to export information to mobile devices. However, it is also relevant to focus on the mobility of learning itself, occurring anywhere anytime, emphasizing not the devices but rather the practice of continuous, on-the-go learning (Vavoula, Pachler & Kulkuska-Hulme, 2009; Sharples, Taylor & Vavoula, 2007; Naismith, Lonsdale, Vavoula & Sharples, 2005). As learning leaves the classroom, it also leaves many of the institutional structures that have shaped the learning experience: the sequestered space, the quiet library, faculty office hours and student study groups. Yet, equally important is the way mobile learning can now engage the learner in new settings, or how new settings become learning spaces. Mobility and out-of-class learning draws attention to formal, informal and ‘non-formal’ learning (Garnett & Ecclesfield, 2009), learning for ‘serious leisure’ (Stebbins, 2006), learning in-class and out of class, across educational levels, and for continuing professional development (de Laat, 2012; Ivanič, Edwards, Satchwell & Smith, 2007; Ivanič et al., 2009; Literacies for Learning in Further Education project, It also puts emphasis on the individual learner, managing multiple settings and roles as they navigate through a diversity of sources and resources, and learn to be collaborative, peer-to-peer, contributory learners as is expected in many online degree programs, and as a member of a participatory culture. Mobility thus opens up our view of learning to consier the implications and impacts of learning in different sites and sectors, and how these combine as a whole to promote literacy in a knowledge society engaged in ubiquitous learning (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009).

5. Analytics

The Analytics theme addresses emerging work in determining what kinds of data and information about learning are relevant and useful to provide as feedback to instructors and learners. The use of digital media leaves traces that can be captured, analyzed and provided as feedback to teachers and learners, and for research. Analytics applies to the learning field the methods and techniques already becoming prevalent in e-research, e-science, and data mining. Learning analytics can make visible the hidden structures of knowledge development, connections between concepts, and connections between people that help make sense of individual and group learning experience (Siemens, 2004, 2010; Haythornthwaite, de Laat & Dawson, 2013). In an age of multi-modal, multi-media and multi-actor communication, tools and techniques that provide feedback on the learning process assist in providing awareness of others and their participation patterns, evaluation of individual and group learning, support for the development of community, and can facilitate literacy in the use of analytics. Attention to analytics brings consideration of feedback mechanisms, evaluation, and assessment of learning and learning processes into learning research, and focuses attention on how to proactive engagement with how to define, validate and create infrastructures for using and protecting data collected in the service of learning.

6. Augmentation and Minimization

One of the themes that emerged from discussions at the workshop, picking up from several disciplinary perspectives, addressed the way new media augment, expand and/or amplify our capabilities in support of learning. In retrospect, the themes above tended to address first round effects of technology, but discussion showed that these effects are themselves creating the conditions for even newer discoveries around augmentation of learning as technologies evolve to support and extend cognitive capacities. Among the effects is the way technology can act as a ‘cognitive amplifier’, expanding our capacity to maintain different conversational threads, with multiple others, in a 7/24 fashion, aided by the augmented ‘external memory’ of the computer and the Internet. Technologies may be developed or harnessed to augment the learning process through management of these multiple threads, suggesting design directions for meta-analysis learning technologies. Analytics can help to show learning asociations and practices among larger crowds of learners, and/or to support knowledge discovery across a large corpus of data.

At the same time as technologies support augmentation, there is a recognition that the increasing ability to personalize and narrow down the streams of information and contexts can act as a minimizer. ‘Just-in-time’ support for learning suggests the possibility of a precise set of resources perfectly selected to address the specific needs of an individual or context, aiding the individual to a problem solution. This is often the goal of information retrieval skills, and the design of search algorithms that return just the precise information needed. On the other hand, precise search and close connections to others can minimize the consulted circle of resources and people, leading to a narrowing of information exposure (Ling, 2008).

These two directions – augmentation and minimization – both have their place in learning. The issue to address is of how to balance augmentation (expanding world) with minimization (small world) in support of learning and individual needs.

7. Value and Visibility

In a participatory, contributory culture of learning and knowledge sharing, value accrues when information is made visibile. Thus, rather than a concern with privacy and protection of information, the issue here is with contributing and making information and expertise visible. Value stems from a critical mass of contributions and contributors who keep a conversation going in the development of new ideas. Value also accrues to observers: lurkers as they join a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), parents or teachers as they oversee children’s progress, learners as they view their progress in relation to others, participants as they view conversational patterns in a large commnity. Making visible the invisible opens up new possibilities for learning, making connections and learning from and with others. We can take advantage of new technology to make visible much more of the literacy/learning consumption/production process, as well as using that feedback in a co-evolutionary process to develop better social and technical practices.

8. Physicality & Locality

Finally, it is noted that technology does not equal practice, particularly in relation to learning and practice that requires eventual hands-on activities. While much of the discussion of media and learning is about tuning the technology to augment the physical, an alternate perspective acknowledges the pervasiveness of technology use and suggests taking a view of how the physical can restructure the digital, and to acknowledge how the physical and digital are increasingly interwoven. This is synergistic with considerations of locale and research relating to community informatics and urban informatics (e.g., ‘smart cities’), but turns attention to learning. Questions that result consider how to evaluate mobility in balance with locality, and the physical in relation to the technological as a joint ‘site of practice’ (Goodfellow & Lea, 2007).


The papers in this issue take different perspectives but all raise questions about how to view and address literacy in the digital age, for learning and education. Perhaps of most importance in examining new media and learning is the way this is a pervasive aspect of contemporary society. We work, learn, socialize and play – sometimes separately, sometimes all at the same time – through new media, and will continue to expand our practices with each new technology and each new reach of connectivity. The papers in step into this stream of development to inform us of new ways to address new media, new literacies, and new forms of learning.


The workshop that led to this special issue was organized by Caroline Haythornthwaite (, School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, The iSchool at The University of British Columbia, Richard Andrews (, Institute of Education, University of London, Robin Goodfellow (, The Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, and Mary Hamilton (, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. Funding for the workshop came from a grant to Haythornthwaite from the Hampton Fund, The University of British Columbia, and to Andrews from the Institute of Education. The workshop was held December 15, 2011 at the London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education. The special issue is edited by Caroline Haythornthwaite and Eric Meyers, The University of British Columbia, with editorial assistance from Shyla Seller.


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