Contemporary theorists have identified a widening gap in computer literacy between teachers and students. This gap is viewed in terms of a cultural barrier. Students exist in the role of “digital natives,” while their teachers serve as, “digital immigrants (Brumberger, 2011).” A challenge for teachers is to connect established curriculum with the skills and interests of their students through digital literacy. This suggests a relatively new area of study, with strategies and methodology emerging from the efforts of practitioner teachers who report their empirical findings as they are encountered (West, 2008). As a result, the growing body of information and knowledge stem from active methodology with results offered in a real-time, cause-effect dynamic.
West (2008) composed a set of guidelines for utilizing this new media for instruction, focusing on blogging and literary responses. She itemized guidelines for utilizing this new media for learning. In one instance, a student who had been found to be particularly resistant to a certain assignment expressed himself ina vernacular, which might have been construed as a “potentially inflammatory action.” West observed that this student was actually performing as a literary respondent. West presented this example in an effort to dissuade educators from reacting too quickly to the literal text of student responses to studied work. As an alternative, it was suggested that student opinions and their use of language demonstrated that there was a real engagement between student and text. This process represented the establishment of a technological pedagogical content knowledge, as it combined critical thinking and text-intensive subject matter in an intellectual modality in which the teacher was able to assess the needs and the understandings of her students and, subsequently, adjust her lessons accordingly (Niess, Lee, & Kadjer, 2008).
Adams (2009), an English Language Arts teacher, reported the successful application of popular culture references as an effective tool in motivating student learning. While some teachers had incorporated the use of visual media games into their classrooms, Adams used the fantasy video game Neverwinter Nights to enhance her students’ classroom experience. In a tutorial setting, the competition embodied in the game was found to generate new content-related challenges and vocabulary development for the students. In one instance, when Adams found that the game-specific vocabulary was a challenge for students of varying reading levels, she attributed student success to the comfort that the students had with the video game medium. Adams asked the students to read the text, aloud, as they advanced through the game. Students were presented with problem-based approaches to the game’s tasks and self-assessment was enacted through rubrics. The researcher identified an increase in creativity in response to the students’ development of their avatars’ identities within the game. Visual aspects of the game helped the students relate to the on-screen text and to actively engaged them in their learning experience. Adams asserted that this visual literacy was essential for making the lessons meaningful and relevant to the educational experience, enabling students to learn about technology, inference, and comprehension. While Neverwinter Nights contained a degree of violence, the level of such violence was comparable to traditional works of literature, such as Beowulf and Titus Andronicus.
Compton-Lilly (2007) provided an anecdotal report of the use of video games as a bridge to student literacy. The researcher asserted that video games enhanced student engagement, held the attention of the student, developed identity, and challenged students to solve problems through a total immersion in the game environment. Practice enabled students to improve literacy skills, such as the recognition of sight words. Reading skills were improved through challenging the student to read as a requisite to advancing within the game. Compton-Lilly cited the development of probing skills and the ability to learn in an environment in which risks are faced via an avatar, devoid of real-life consequences. Citing Gee’s principles (2003), Compton-Lilly asserted that properly designed video games can offer the same level of interest as a well-written piece of literature, while helping the student to develop skills across a broad spectrum of aptitudes. The study concluded that video games appeal toa broader spectrum of learning levels than the traditional works of literature because the medium engages more senses and appeals to a greater variety of learning styles through the use of visual, audio, and kinesthetic modalities.
In a related study, Gainer & Lapp (2010) addressed the inclusion of popular culture in lessons that were compatible with traditional instructional tools, coining the term “remix.” The authors described remix as,“a method of activating prior knowledge and empowering students through the use of digital tools to become self-motivated, self-directing participants while in pursuit of compliance with curriculum standards.” Gainer & Lapp cautioned that teachers needed to connect student interests with literacy goals. They concluded that new literacies in the digital age should augment more traditional literacies, rather than replace them.
Alverman, Huddleston & Hagwood (2004) addressed the link between traditional works of literature and WWF wrestling themes. Referencing the current literacy crisis among modern youth, and citing the International Reading Association’s (1999) assertion that the at-risk students employ multiple practices of literacy in their own lives, the conclusions supported the use of digital literacies, literacies-in-context, and personal literacies, which influence reading preferences and student interpretation of culture. This case study was predicated upon the notion that WWF drama followed a pattern prevalent in classical drama. At the close of the instructional activity, students were asked to draw similarities between professional wrestling and classical works of drama, such as Julius Caesar and Beowulf, including plot and theme. The parallels affirmed for the students that themes in popular culture are shared with works of classical literature. Linking the genres reinforced student skills, including compare/contrast, visualization, and symbolism. These skills, reported the researchers, were the same skills that the students must utilize in order to pass the state examination in Texas (where the study was conducted). Another study, produced by the WCW (2004), focused on the use of a video game in which the subjects would respond with a deep engagement in the game. A comparison of both studies indicated that students must be engaged with their own culture, providing relevance, in order for them to interact with the computer/video activities.
Steinkuehler (2010) conducted a case study in which she challenged the popular assertion that video games represented the antithesis of books and learning. Basing her research on the premise that “video games could no more replace books than television could replace radio,” Steinkuehler worked with an eighth grader who was performing at a fifth grade reading level. When allowed to choose his own topic, the student selected a twelfth grade text and operated on an independent reading level. Steinkuehler concluded that this student was able to perform in such a manner because the topic was relevant to his own existence and goals. Steinkuehler cautioned that the student’s interest, not his actual ability, was the relevant factor. She further asserted that there may be some sort of gender/culture war at play, as English class has become a female domain, while males gravitate to video games.
The connection between performance and student interest was also affirmed by Jolley (2008), who concluded that remedial reading students performed better through scaffolding the use of graphic novels and video game-based texts before segueing into more complex writings. She reported that some students struggled with reading genres because they lacked an awareness of the links to their own interests. Jolley asserted that motivation, stemming from video games, could carry over into the classroom by linking the genres under study to the genres embodied in the video games students were playing for leisure. The population of video game players, she reported, varies in interest and literacy levels. Students must be literate in order to be successful.
Game-based texts are popular because they stimulate a readers’ background knowledge (Jolley). Students in this study were willing to read the texts based on two criteria: the text had to be well-written, and that it was something that they found interesting. Some students reported that they enjoyed certain texts because they were familiar with the video game that those texts had been based upon. Jolley reported that students were able to relate to the text due to their prior knowledge of the studied theme maintained though the mutual inquiry question.
Oldaker (2010) assigned his seventh grade students the task of deconstructing the novel, A Wrinkle in Time into its basic literary components. The researcher’s task was to bridge the technological gap that he believed existed between students and teachers (referred to as “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” respectively). Oldaker claimed that this gap was centered on the contrast between the conflicting ways in which each group related to the world. The project sought to develop of higher order thinking skills such as developing, testing, and revisiting hypotheses. The students emerged from the project with an improved grasp of the writing process, increased comfort with technology, and improved probing skills. Oldaker concluded his study with a call for additional research to determine as to whether his results could be generalized to other situations. He questioned whether his technique impacted student reading and writing scores. He asserted that test scores would be the most likely method for demonstrating that his findings would be beneficial for other educators to implement in similar classroom situations.
Bramberger (2011) asserted that students, as digital natives, are visual learners with significant visual literacy. In this study focusing on Virginia Tech students, it was demonstrated that many self-classified “gamers” relied heavily on video-based games for entertainment purposes. Bramberger suggested that there is “little, to no” empirical evidence to corroborate West’s (2008) contention that most results stem from in-service teachers’ trial and error with their students in their own classrooms.
Sanford & Madill (2007) found that boys had a tendency to be out-performed by girls in reading and writing scores. They found that boys did not feel engaged with the texts being studied. They further attested that the learning value of alternative, non-traditional literacies (including video games), was undermined because these genres were the products of popular culture. Sanford & Madill suggested that gaming provides multiple learning opportunities that are enjoyable and challenging for the students. An optimal vehicle for maintaining students’ attention, they claimed, was through careful scaffolding of lessons utilizing video games.
A major trend that was evident in the research literature suggested that the use of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) as a promising option for teachers. Several articles cited the use of video games such as Halo, Everquest, and World of Warcraft as preferred avenues for connecting traditional works of literature to digital texts. In this light, Lee, et al. (2009) employed the use of an MMORPG in a pilot study to test the genre’s viability in classroom instruction. Based on 13thcentury British history, the student objective was to help build, and successfully fortify, a castle. Though the researchers felt their study was a success, the team did not address the import of factors such as the inclusion of History that were engaged through the activity.
Many researchers in the field of digital literacy referenced the works of Gee (2003) in their studies of the juxtaposition of video games with instruction. Gee theorized that there are thirty-six learning principles through which students absorb, filter, and process information. The enhancement of gameplay works to feed the interest of the student, who in turn performs at a higher level.
Gee cautioned, however, that there is a real differentiation among the quality video games. Gee developed a scheme of criteria for identifying “good video games” (2003) for instruction. The research of Gee and others seems to indicate that video gaming is a viable means of literary instruction, provided that certain criteria are met on the part of the teacher in order to successfully execute the lessons.