Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs among other writings on technology and culture, spoke (inspirationally) last Thursday at Toronto’s Ryerson University about the use of social media in education. That’s him below . . .

One of his themes is the need for educational institutions, instructional designers and teachers to recognize the new ‘literacies’ required of graduates, and the implications of them on how and what is taught.

The ‘literacies’ in Rheingold’s lexicon are attention, participation, collaboration and critical consumption, all of which make sense given the ubiquity of information, ease of search and value of networks in invention and ideation. Critical consumption – or crap detection – is especially important in a culture in which even barely educated Hollywood celebrities and 16-year-old pop singers have political and social opinions they think worthy of tweeting. And I would also add visual mindfulness to the list given the increasingly dominant place of images in online narratives.

I did wonder, though, about how much Rheingold values what he called ‘alphabetic’ literacy and the role it plays in his collaborative model of learning. As the final assignment in his course at Stanford, Rheingold asks his students, reluctantly I sense, to create (not ‘write’) an essay drawing together the words or concepts defined throughout the course. But the chronicle seems secondary to the process of connecting and interacting to develop the understanding, which now that I think of it is true . . . to a point.

My experience teaching at two urban Canadian universities and as a communications consultant in a large firm, makes me sensitive to any devaluation of the act of writing and what it requires in logical structuring and presentation of ideas. I see a lot of sloppy writing, from essays to news releases. And by sloppy I don’t mean the creative manipulation of language to make a point or give birth to a feeling, which can be artful.

Writing in Wired a few months ago, Clive Thomson reported that:

In interviews, they (students) defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see.
Nothing wrong with that. But persuading, organizing and debating, especially persuading and debating, without the rigor of expression is ineffective and usually boring. Not that I think Rheingold undervalues rhetoric. He is too much the master of language and reasoned argument himself. But I do think he and others should be careful not to turn a blind eye to how untutored many people are these days, and the fault is only ours when we don’t ask for high standards in expression even if people are attentive, participatory, and collaborative and exhibit effective bullshit detection.
Critic and scholar Jacques Barzun justifies why in the preface to his 1986 book A Word or Two Before You Go:

The fact is that great ideas and deep feelings cannot be fully known or enjoyed, rightly valued or reported, unless they are closely scanned in the only way open to us – matching the experience with the right words.