Prensky – Redefining Literacy OR Is the Print Culture Going the Way of the Oral Culture?

It’s funny how you stumble across things sometimes….

After intially hearing the news on Twitter, I was frantically searching the ‘Net for some news about Marc Prensky, who apparently may have suffered a stroke during his keynote at the NJECC conference (I hope he is well…) when I stumbled across his one of his most recent articles, from which I paraphrase and quote to make a point about “literacy” and “education” before I give you the full citation (unless you’re one of those types that just can’t wait and have to click here first…)

In the Middle Ages, (Prensky writes)”if you needed to communicate your thoughts on paper, you couldn’t do it yourself. You had to hire a better-educated person — a scribe — who knew the writing code. Then, at the other end, you needed someone to read or decode it — unless, of course, you were ‘well educated’, that is, you had been taught to read and write and thus had become literate.”

This notion of literacy (“the ability to carefully read and write a contemporary spoken language”) has now persisted for centuries. But we tend to forget that it is based on a print culture that supplanted an oral culture that assumed a different notion and definition of literacy. Did anyone really think that the print culture was the end-of-the-line gold standard that would not at some point be supplanted by another culture (and a new notion and definition of literacy) as society evolved?

Back to Prensky: “I believe the single skill that will, above all others, distinguish a literate person is programming literacy, the ability to make digital technology do whatever, within the possible one wants it to do — to bend digital technology to one’s needs, purposes, and will, just as in the present we bend words and images. …As programming becomes more important, it will leave the back room and become a key skill and attribute of our top intellectual and social classes, just as reading and writing did in the past.”

Prensky argues that programming is the new literacy. I agree…if you do not learn how to master technology, you will soon find yourself in the “illiterate” camp, both perceptually and perhaps even functionally as society evolves.


What do you think?


Prensky, M. “The True Twenty-first Century Literacy Is Programming”. In _Edutopia_, Feb 2008. (

Blogged with the Flock Browser


Doug Canfield has been running an "other-minded" language center down in the Tennessee Hills for about 8 years. A lapsed (recovering?) medievalist and French teacher, his passion now involves emerging research paradigms for exploring language instruction and learning, especially in virtual worlds. His goals include fostering the use of technology for instruction, communication, collaboration, and recreation. His alter ego sometimes blogs elsewhere.

Leave a comment

  1. Barbara · March 19, 2008 Reply

    I am still stuck on the thought that Prensky possibly had a stroke during a keynote…yikes.

    Any form of ingesting and interpreting information and making it relevant to your reality (uh oh is this acquisition theory rearing its head?), I guess, is a form of literacy. Yes?


  2. itsalljustaride · March 19, 2008 Reply

    I think I’m gonna have to disagree here. Even though I love learning about programming, I don’t think the analogy of “literacy” is apt. Actual programming is still, and appears that it will stay for the foreseeable future, in the hands of technicians, and to a limited sense, hobbyists. No one should expect someone who has a 9-5 job to learn C++ or even Ruby or VB. Much like someone who knows how to change the oil in their car, or change a flat tire, you might pick up some scripting tricks or HTML here and there, but actually doing something in a programming language takes a lot of effort that most people don’t have time for. I think I’d fall into his middle category that the new “literacy” will be more in the realm of media creation and competance, not the itty bits of programming minutia. There was a day when health professionals had to learn to program in a Unix shell just to get test results. Now technology is such that if it needs done, you hire someone to write an interface to plug into some database or another. Unless we magically come up with a functional programming language that can understand, “put this data here, and when you do, calculate it this way” I’m afraid most people aren’t going to bother.

  3. Barry · March 19, 2008 Reply

    According to Ned Davis from NJECC, Marc Prensky was taken to St. Joe’s Hospital in Patterson, NJ and he did not have a stroke. It was a combination of an infection, the medication he was taking and a very, very high level of blood sugar causing a diabetic-like problem. None of this is life threatening. He remains hospitalized.


  4. Benjamin · March 20, 2008 Reply

    I’ll have to disagree. “Mastering” technology is really not the issue if one means building computer-type programming competencies. Software becomes more user-friendly each generation, creating more accessibility to individuals with fewer computer skills; I believe this trend will continue. As educators, I think the real issue is how to design educational designs that uses technology to create a dynamic that is both engaging and effective for all learners. It doesn’t demand computer programmers, but it does demand of level of creativity. I believe if educators fail to “master” technology as an educational “tool” to be used within a given lesson plan, they are doing a great disservice to the learner, only to be left behind in the end.


  5. Steven Sharp · March 21, 2008 Reply

    I think if you read Prensky’s article, he talks about the fact that ‘programming’ is becoming easier, because of this it will become more necessary. You need to be able to control the devices that you are using, i.e. your cell phone, your vcr, even your web page. But as people become more competent in the “programming” literacy, they feel more of a need to go to that next level. html->xml->php->?? Of course I’m quoting him here, but I think it is relevant. I know we’ve all seen the problem some people have with setting up simple devices (to us) which seem so complicated to others. I used to get into fights with my staff when they said they couldn’t set up their laptop with a projector to give a presentation. This level of “programming” literacy should be basic!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: