Navigating the Hypertext Labyrinth


Who Ilana Snyder Is



After ten years teaching English in Australian secondary schools, my academic career began with a doctoral study which investigated the impact of word processors on students' writing. Building on that early study, my research has focused on identifying the changes to social and cultural practices when digital technologies are used in school and out-of-school settings. A particular interest is the connections between literacy, technology and disadvantage. My principal research goal has been to improve our understanding of how the use of information and communication technologies in a range of settings affects literacy, language and learning. I am currently writing up the findings of a three-year Australian Research Council Discovery project that investigated the digital literacy practices of young people in all the dimensions of their lives: at school, at home and in the community. The project comprised a national survey of fifteen-year-olds and case studies of young people as they engaged with new media. The central aim of the study is to provide a rich knowledge base to inform technology-mediated work in school literacy contexts.

An earlier ARC Large Grant project (2001-2003,) in collaboration with Prof Simon Marginson, University of Melbourne, examined the connections between the use of new technologies, teaching and learning, and organisational change in Australian higher education. The main finding was that the most effective use of new technologies in universities occurs when educational and organisational objectives are in harmony. Such an alignment was not always evident in the case studies. My most recent book The Literacy Wars (2008) examines the volatile public debates around literacy education. The main focus is the media coverage of the debates since 2004 but attention is also given to their historical background. The book explains the reasons for the often bitter disagreements and argues that the challenge is to find a balance between preserving the legacy of the past and preparing children for the literacy demands of the future.

In addition to a continuing research program located in Australia, projects with colleagues in other countries are high on my agenda. A cross-cultural comparative study with literacy educators in Greece, Brazil, South Africa and Canada is underway. Integral to my role at Monash is working closely with higher degree research students as they explore questions about literacy education, in particular, the relationships between the use of new technologies and literacy practices and the implications for theory, policy and practice.

Research Interests

Media debates about literacy

Literacy, technology and social inclusion

Language and literacy education

Literacy and technology studies

Critical literacy and the use of new technologies

Pedagogical practices and new technologies


Hypertext and contemporary literary theories




Snyder, I. (2008) The literacy wars: Why teaching children to read and write is a battleground in Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Snyder, I. & Beavis, C. (eds) (2004) Doing literacy online: Teaching, learning and playing in an electronic world. New Jersey: Hampton Press.

Snyder, I. (ed) (2002) Silicon literacies: Communication, innovation and education in the electronic age. London: Routledge. Spanish edition published by Ediciones Aljibe, Malaga in 2004. Electronic rights bought by eBooks.com: the digital bookstore in 2003.

Lankshear, C. & Snyder, I. with Green, B. (2000) Teachers and technoliteracy: Managing literacy, learning and new technology in schools. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. Translated into Japanese, Kaibundo, Japan, in 2002, and distributed in India in 2006 by Viva Books.

Snyder, I. (1997) (ed) Page to screen: Taking literacy into the electronic era. Sydney: Allen & Unwin and London: Routledge. Electronic rights bought by eBooks.com: the digital bookstore in 2001.

Snyder, I. (1996) Hypertext: The electronic labyrinth. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press and New York University Press.

Feldman, S., Kamler, B. & Snyder, I. (eds) (1996) Something that happens to other people: Stories of women growing older. Sydney: Random.

Special Issue of a Journal

Snyder, I. & Prinsloo, M. (eds) (2007) The digital literacy practices of young people in marginal contexts. Special Issue of Language & Education: An International Journal 21, 3, 171-270.


Snyder, I. & Bulfin, S. (2008) Using new media in the secondary English classroom. In J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear & D. Leu (eds) Handbook of Research on New Literacies. London & New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Snyder, I. & Bulfin, S. (2007) Digital literacy: What it means for Arts education. In L. Bresler (ed) International Handbook of Research in Arts Education Part 2 (pp. 1297-1310). The Netherlands: Springer.

Snyder, I. (2007) New media and cultural form: Narrative versus database. In A. Adams & S. Brindley (eds), Teaching English with ICT. London: Open University Press & McGraw Hill.

Snyder, I. (2007) Research approaches to technology, language and literacy. In K. King & N. Hornberger (eds) Encyclopedia of Language and Education (pp. 299-308). New York: Springer.

Snyder, I. (2007) Critical literacy, learning and technology studies: Challenges and opportunities for higher education. In R. Andrews & C. Haythornthwaite (eds) The Handbook of e-Learning (pp. 394-415). London: Sage.

Snyder, I. (2005) Pattern recognition: Learning from the technoliteracy research. In B. Maloch, J.V. Hoffman, D.L. Schallert, C.M. Fairbanks & J. Worthy (eds) 54th yearbook of the National Reading Conference (pp. 51-62). Oak Creek, Wisconsin: National Reading Conference.

Snyder, I. (2004) Keywords: A vocabulary of literacy and new media. In E. Bearne, T. Grainger & H. Dombey (eds) Interactions in language, literacy and the classroom. London: Open University Press.

Snyder, I. (2001) 'Hybrid vigour': Reconciling the verbal and the visual in electronic communication. In A. Lovelace & V. Ellis (Eds). ICT, pedagogy and curriculum: Subject to change. London: Routledge.

McConaghy, C. & Snyder, I. (2000) Working the Web in postcolonial Australia. In G.E. Hawisher & C.L. Selfe (eds) Global literacies and the World Wide Web (pp. 74-92). London: Routledge.

Refereed Journal Articles

North, S., Snyder, I. & Bulfin, S. (in press) Digital tastes: Social class and young peoples technology use. Information, Communication & Society.

Snyder, I., Marginson, S. & Lewis, T. (2007) An alignment of the planets: Mapping the intersections between pedagogy, technology and management in Australian universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 29, 2, 1-16.

Snyder, I. & Prinsloo, M. (2007) Young peoples engagement with digital literacies in marginal contexts in a globalised world. Language & Education: An International Journal 21, 3, 1-9.

Snyder, I. (2005)[Attuned to the truth. Special Issue on Gunther Kress.] Computers and Composition: An International Journal for Teachers of Writing 22, 39-47.

Angus, L., Snyder, I. & Sutherland-Smith, W. (2004) [ICT and educational (dis)advantage: families, computers, and contemporary social and educational inequalities.] British Journal of Sociology of Education 25, 1, 3-18.

Angus, L., Snyder, I. & Sutherland-Smith, W. (2003) Families, cultural resources and the digital divide: ICTs and educational (dis)advantage in the e-society.] Australian Journal of Education 47, 1, 18-39.

Snyder, I. (2002) Literacy education in the digital age: Reframing curriculum and pedagogy Pedagogisch Tijdschrift 27, 2/3, 145-157.

Snyder, I., Angus, L. & Sutherland-Smith, W. (2002) [Building equitable literate futures: Home and school computer-mediated literacy practices and disadvantage.] Cambridge Journal of Education 32, 3, 368-83.

Snyder, I. (2001) A new communication order: Researching literacy practices in the network society. [Language and Education: An International Journal] 15, 2 & 3, 117-131.

Snyder, I. (2000) [Literacy and Technology Studies: Past, Present and Future.] Australian Educational Researcher 27, 2, Aug 2000, 97-119.

Book Reviews

Snyder, I. (2007) Review of J. Mendelssohn's Which school? Beyond public vs private. Australian Book Review Sept p. 57.

Snyder, I. (2007) Donnelly at large. Review of K. Donnelly's Dumbing Down. Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books. Australian Book Review May p. 17.

Snyder, I. (2006) Is there a pattern? Review of R. Florida's The flight of the creative class. Sydney: Pluto Press. Australian Book Review May pp. 16-7.

Snyder, I. (2005) Too everything. Review of L. Bretts You gotta have balls. Melbourne: Pan Macmillan. Australian Book Review November p. 51.

Snyder, I. (2004) Dubious appeal. Review of K. Donnelley's Why Australias schools are failing. Melbourne: Duffy & Snellgrove. Australian Book Review June p. 54.

Snyder, I. (2004) Video games give us a lesson in learning. Review of J. Gee's What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. The Age, February 16, p. 5.

Snyder, I. (2003) Degrees in inequality. Review of R. Teese and John Polesel's Undemocratic schooling: Equity and quality in mass secondary education in Australia. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press Australian Book Review May pp. 54-5.

Snyder, I. (2002) The Internet way. Review of Manuel Castells' (2001) The Internet Galaxy. New York: Oxford University Press Australian Book Review May pp. 29-30.

© http://www.education.monash.edu.au/profiles/ilanas

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Reading and Writing in a Cultural Battleground

A new world... por carf.
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18/02/2008 7:35:03 AM
Debates in the media over different aspects of literacy education about the teaching of grammar, reading and the canon, about the place of popular culture in the curriculum and the role of testing, about the use of new technologies and the introduction of a national curriculum are not new. However, in recent years the debates have become so heated and emotional that to characterise them as the literacy wars captures their force and intensity.

In their attacks, the conservative critics have accused literacy teachers of lowering standards by using child-centred approaches that do not provide children with a strong foundation in literacy learning. They have sought to discredit a literacy curriculum they believe is afflicted by relativism, fragmentation and a fixation on contemporary social issues. They have poured scorn on the teaching profession and institutions of teacher education, accusing them of damaging traditional educational values. Their mission has been greater emphasis in schools on cultural literacy, the literature of the Western canon and traditional values.

In response, literacy teachers and educators have argued that we can't turn the clock back, nor should we want to. There have been enormous changes in the world of ideas since many of the critics went to school in the 1950s due to science, but also due to feminism, multiculturalism and social justice. These ideas cannot be ignored and giving attention to them in the literacy classroom does not mean that there is no place for the enduring values and traditions of the classics and Australia's cultural heritage.

At the heart of these battles are competing definitions of literacy. Traditionally literacy has been thought of as a cognitive ability. Being literate has been seen as a matter of cracking the alphabetic code, word formation skills, phonics, grammar and comprehension skills. By contrast, more contemporary views see literacy as a social practice that takes place in different settings not only the classroom, but also the workplace and the other locations of everyday life. Reading or writing always involves reading or writing something with understanding.

My view is that both psychological and social understandings of literacy are useful for teaching and learning purposes but that is not the point here. There is no single, correct definition of literacy that would be universally accepted. This lack of agreement about what literacy is helps explain the conflict between the conservatives who want to preserve valued traditions and the literacy teachers who are caught somewhere between the legacy of the past and the imperative to prepare children for the demands of the future.

When conservative critics suggest that the current generation of students has been sacrificed to misguided beliefs about literacy education, they ignore the professional dimensions of what it means to be a literacy teacher in a school or in a university. Literacy teachers across Australia draw on rich and flexible repertoires of skills, resources and professional knowledge to meet the needs of the socially, culturally and linguistically diverse students in their classrooms.

They are engaged in a dialogue between past ways of understanding literacy and present formulations. If such dialogue did not take place, literacy education would be rendered moribund.

The critics have nothing to say about the real issues that confront education in general and literacy education in particular rapid advances in information and communication technologies, the explosion of popular and youth cultures, changes to work, multiculturalism and globalisation. The challenge for literacy teachers and educators is to find solutions to these burning issues that reconcile the very best in our social and cultural traditions with the future needs of Australian students in ways that work in all classrooms for all students.

There is no single answer to improving literacy education. There is no instructional approach or package that is universally effective for all the young people from different cultures, races and backgrounds who populate Australian schools. People have been searching for such a method for decades but it does not exist. What does work is strong school leadership, balanced programs in which literacy teachers make decisions based on the needs of the students, vibrant professional learning communities and staffrooms in which people talk to each other about literacy.

It is time to abandon the language of attack and accusation to concentrate on improving literacy education for all Australian students. There are some real problems but not the ones that the conservative forces have focused on in recent years. There are serious and consistent low levels of literacy performance amongst the poor, the underprivileged, recent migrants and indigenous students. These comprise the disadvantaged in Australian education who are being denied their entitlement.

A literacy agenda for the 21st century is rich with possibilities and the way to construct it is not in a highly politicised campaign of public abuse of teachers but through civil open discussion and dialogue.

Ilana Snyder is an associate professor in the faculty of education, Monash University. Her book, The Literacy Wars: Why teaching children to read and write is a battleground in Australia, was published this month by Allen & Unwin.

© http://www.canberratimes.com.au/news/opinion/editorial/general/reading-and-writing-in-a-cultural-battleground/132217.aspx


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Hyperfiction: Its Possibilities in English

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Dr Ilana Snyder
Senior Lecturer
School of Graduate Studies
Monash University
Clayton 3168
Ph: 03 9905 2773
Fax: 03 9905 2779
Email: ilana.snyder@education.monash.edu.au



When writers use hypertext - the technology that makes possible nonsequential, fully electronic reading and writing - to produce a fictional narrative, the result is interactive hyperfiction. This article charts what we know about electronic nonlinear narrative: its origins, literary precursors and distinctive features. It also explores the potential of hyperfiction in the English classroom. Finally, it examines some of the difficulties associated with the use of hyperfiction as well as the hype that has surrounded its introduction into educational settings.

Number of words: approximately 4,700

Key words: hypertext, hyperfiction, electronic technologies, computers, narrative, writing, interactivity


Hyperfiction: its possibilities in English


When the American writer, Robert Coover, published an article in the New York Times Book Review titled The end of books (1992, pp. 1, 23-25), not many people outside of multimedia business organisations and academia knew much about hypertext, let alone the use of hypertext to create interactive fiction. Coover announced the arrival of hyperfiction, a new narrative art form, readable only on a computer, and made possible by the developing technology of hypertext and hypermedia. He also explained how users 'read' these new forms of text and the nature of the experience. The consternation aroused in readers of the New York Times, reinforced by the bold headline, centred on the fear that the birth of hyperfiction necessarily signalled the death of the printed book.


Extreme responses to discussions of the changes to literacy practices and narrative form associated with the use of hypertext are not unusual. It seems that belief in the intrinsic value of the printed book is so deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness and memory that any challenge to its five hundred-year reign is greeted with hostility, even outrage. However, debating whether or not books will disappear with the advent of hypertext seems to be a rather pointless exercise. The relentless hype about the Internet, the World Wide Web and hypertext may lead people to fear otherwise, but the growing presence of the computer and electronic text does not necessarily signal the death of the printed book. The introduction of a new technology of writing does not automatically render older ones obsolete, mainly because no technology has ever proven adequate for all needs. For example, even though printing completely replaced handwriting in book production, it did not spell the end for handwriting. Rather, the boundaries between the two writing technologies blurred. It seems that typesetting, electronic writing and handwriting will continue to coexist and complement each other, at least for the immediate future (Snyder, 1996).


What is hyperfiction?


Hyperfiction depends on hypertext technology - a structure composed of blocks of text connected by electronic links that offers different pathways to users. Hypertext provides a means of arranging information in a nonlinear manner with the computer automating the process of connecting one piece of information to another. If the structure accommodates not only printed texts but also digitised sound, graphics, animation, video and virtual reality, it is sometimes referred to as 'hypermedia' or 'multimedia'.


When writers use hypertext to produce a fictional narrative, the result is interactive hyperfiction. A significant distinction between traditional print narratives and hyperfiction lies in how we approach them. Readers of print narratives usually begin on the first page and, even though they may move backwards or forwards, generally proceed through the text to the end. Their gradual progression follows a carefully scripted route which ensures that they get from the beginning to the end in the way the author wants them to. By contrast, most hyperfictions have no single beginning or end. A further distinction is based on the tangibility of the text. Whereas the length of a work of fiction can be gauged just by holding it, readers of a hyperfiction do not know what the hypertext contains till they load it into their computer, and even then they may never experience its full magnitude. The possibilities for readers to create their own stories are considerably greater in hyperfiction than when reading a print narrative or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, both of which have highly visible beginnings and endings, as well as other structural limitations.


Literary and electronic precursors


Although books are a poor medium for participatory discourse, since the beginnings of modern fiction authors have attempted 'to jar or cajole readers out of passivity' (Kaplan & Moulthrop, 1991, p. 11). Literary precursors of hyperfiction include Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67) and more recent fiction such as Cortazar's Hopscotch (1966). Sterne and Cortazar are self-consciously absorbed in both the act of writing itself and the difficult relationships between narrator, text and reader. Both work strenuously against the medium in which their books are produced. Any reader familiar with hypertext will look at such texts anew, and observe that in their resistance to linear narrative they have much in common with hyperfiction. By attacking the convention that a novel is a coherent narrative of events, such texts simultaneously invite and confirm reader-interaction.


But whereas Sterne and Cortazar can only pretend to offer their readers the opportunity to take part in the construction of their books, hypertext can demand that the reader participate. In a hyperfiction, no text appears on the screen until a reader summons it with a keystroke or the click of a mouse. Furthermore, the electronic environment gives a stronger sense than does the printed page of the author 'being there'. 'The author is present in the electronic network of episodes that he or she creates and through which the reader moves along associative paths' (Bolter, 1991, p. 134).


Hyperfiction develops from a twentieth-century tradition of experimental literature. Dadaism, for example, aimed at destroying the structures of established art and literature, and 'in that breakdown the Dadaists worked in the same spirit as writers now work in the electronic medium' (Bolter, 1991, p. 131). Dadaists often attacked the conventions of the realistic novel that tells its story with a clear and cogent rhythm of events, and in doing so found themselves straining at the limitations of the printed page. Because the linear-hierarchical presentation of the printed book was so well suited to the conventions of plot and character in the realistic novel, 'to attack the form of the novel was also to attack the technology of print' (p. 131).


Many other twentieth-century novels, plays and films also critique narrative conventions. In The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), Fowles gives the book two endings (or three, if you count the one that occurs three-quarters of the way through, which supplies a conventional Victorian outcome). Fowles here highlights the spurious meaningfulness of the fictional world he has created and the indeterminacy of the real one. In Reisz's and Pinter's 1981 film of the novel, the two endings are translated into a film-within-a-film.


Because interactive fiction already existed in print and film, the technological challenge for creators of electronic interactive fiction was 'to find a way of turning imaginary worlds lodged in the writer's head into virtual worlds lodged in the computer's memory' (Woolley, 1992, p. 155). The precedent was Adventure, developed in the 1960s at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). The program was conceived of as an experimental game. A computerised version of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Adventure comprises a series of descriptions of fictional locations inspired by Tolkien's fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1954). It maps an imaginary environment into electronic memory and allows its player-readers to explore that space by issuing simple commands. In giving these commands, the reader attempts to negotiate a series of spatial and narrative obstacles to reach some hidden goal. Adventure became a diversion of programmers and computer scientists, 'who built ever more intricate and challenging versions of the game' (Kaplan and Moulthrop, 1991, p. 12).


Adventure and its descendants continued to evolve through the late 1970s, when interactive text games migrated from academic and corporate mainframes to micro-computers. There the form was married with popular fiction and role-playing games to produce a second generation of text adventures that retained the problem-solving design of the original Adventure. These games were not networks of possibilities to be explored but arrangements of obstacles to be overcome in the progress to a determined goal. Later in the 1980s there emerged a third generation of interactive fiction in which the influence of game scenarios has been less noticeable. The multiple fictions of this third generation are narrative networks capable of differing significantly on every reading.


Afternoon, the first hyperfiction


Joyce's hyperfiction, Afternoon (1991a), is an intricate web of narratives, places, paths and 'yields', that is, words and phrases whose evocative resonances readers can pursue by using a mouse to highlight them on the computer screen. Afternoon is a fiction that changes every time it is read. It invites the reader to circulate digressively among a matrix of characters and events that are never quite what they seemed on first presentation. 'I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning', an anonymous speaker confides, disclosing a rich field of narrative possibility. However, none of the stories produced by interacting with Afternoon will validate or disprove either the desire or the perception of the speaker.


Afternoon is a text scattered with verbal associations. If you select the word 'son' in the first sentence of the story, for example, the text on the screen shifts to a description of the scene in which the narrator, who appears to be male, finds his son's school paper on the 'The Sun King'. The word 'die' in the initial sentence serves as the cue for a different narrative departure. But there is also a third possibility - a default condition. These default transitions, however, do not simply reinstate the fixed page-order of a bound volume. Afternoon is structured in such a way that its elements are assembled in a different order every time you call up a new screen.


Hyperfiction fosters both passive and active reading: 'looking at and looking through' the text (Bolter, 1992, p. 40). When reading an episode, you may succeed in looking through the text to an imagined world. Formal structures are both visible and operative in hyperfiction because they are embodied in the links between episodes. At each link the text offers a series of possibilities that you can activate, moving backwards and forwards between the verbal text and the structure as you read. In Afternoon you may get lost in Peter's engaging story of his search for his son. But the need to make choices never lets you forget that you are participating in the making of a fiction.


There is no plot as such in Afternoon. Because it is not built on causal sequences, it does not present parallel story-lines. Events are ambiguous, and the story focuses on how the characters might react to such ambiguities. There appears to be a mystery: the narrator's son may or may not have been in an automobile accident. Readers are compelled to follow the father as he tries to establish the fate of his son: in this respect, the father's quest becomes the reader's. The particular episodes you call up will determine the answer you receive. In other words, '[t]he reader's own participation in the story becomes the story' (Bolter, 1992, p. 29).


Afternoon differs from printed fiction by not offering any 'single story of which each reading is a version, because each reading determines the story as it goes'; as a result, 'there is no story at all; there are only readings' (Bolter, 1991, p. 124). We could also say that the story of Afternoon is the sum of all its readings, in so far as the story is a structure that can embrace contradictory outcomes. Afternoon is an infinite text which never offers the same page to any reader more than once.


Afternoon demonstrates that it is possible to create a text which does not force its readers down one particular route. A corollary is that readers risk becoming lost, partly because the textual landscape is unfamiliar and partly because the narrative is the means by which readers orient themselves. Joyce recognises such difficulties and seeks to overcome them by placing limits on narrative freedom, although in Afternoon he does not provide his readers with a map. In his hyperfiction, WOE, however, Joyce (1991b) includes a map of the text's overall structure and of places still awaiting discovery. It records previous paths and suggests which directions might prove fruitful for exploration.


Afternoon is not a random fiction because its author exercises control over the choices his reader can make. Afternoon can be (and sometimes is) a linear story, because occasionally only one path leads from an episode. At other times, it gives its reader dozens of choices, although they are far from random. As a text that changes before our eyes, Afternoon challenges our assumptions about the nature of literature: it represents a new kind of writing. But because it also comes out of a literary tradition, we recognise it as a coherent act of imagination, as a story with characters who interact and conflict.


Unlike interactive print fiction, hyperfiction abandons such conventions as chapters and the illusion of a seamless continuity between paragraphs. The virtual text exists only in electronic space or in our memories. As the text re-forms with successive readings, no two readings are alike. By presenting a chameleon text-like surface, hyperfiction is textually subversive. Its structure is 'effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings, each of which causes the work to acquire new vitality in terms of one particular taste, perspective, or personal performance' (Eco, 1979, p. 63). But hyperfiction also arouses unease if not antagonism in some users. It presents 'an electronic environment alien and inimical to our habitual reading patterns' (Douglas, 1989, p. 94)


Extemporising with narrative form


We love a good story, told by a skilled narrator, and dictated by the authoritative voice of an accomplished author. Hypertext invites us 'to find an analogue in the electronic medium for narrative line and authorial control in the traditional medium of print' (Bolter, 1993, p. 9). The most effective techniques for achieving a strong story-line in the print medium are linearity, plot, characterisation, textual coherence, resolution and closure. Experiments in hyperfiction, however, diminish these qualities in varying degrees by exploiting the electronic medium's capacity to create open-ended fictions with multiple narrative strands. Any discussion of the changes to narrative form brought about by hyperfiction necessarily involves a consideration of the ways in which writers using hypertext technology have played with these integral elements, and found alternative strategies and techniques for engaging readers' attention.


In one sense, each reading of a hyperfiction is a linear experience: confronted with one frame after another, you are still aware of a narrative, however confused it may be. At the same time, a hyperfiction seems to contain more than one voice and to change direction abruptly. Each hyperfiction handles in its own way the conflict between the linearity of the reading experience and the multiplicity of hyperfiction. In Joyce's Afternoon, for instance, some readings represent alternative voices or perspectives on the narrative, with each discrete change kept separate by electronic space. The web of intersecting narrative strands in Moulthrop's (1991) hyperfiction, Victory Garden, offers a mixture of voices and genres: first- and third-person narrative fiction, excerpts from other books, fiction and non-fiction, and quotations from televised broadcasts. Joyce's (1991) WOE is a narrative experiment in which some readings are metafictional commentaries on the narrative and its origins in Joyce's experience.


In hyperfictions such as these, a lack of linearity does not destroy the narrative. In fact, since readers always fabricate their own structures, sequences and meanings - and particularly so in hypertext conditions - they have surprisingly little trouble constructing a story as they make their way through the web. Reading hyperfiction, however, can be a very different experience from reading a printed novel or a short story. What hyperfiction forces us to recognise is that an active author-reader fabricates not only meanings but also a text from the kit supplied by the author.


Rethinking plot and story


Hyperfiction calls into question some of the most basic points about plot and story in the Aristotelian tradition. Hyperfiction interrogates not only Aristotle's notions of beginning and end, but also his assumptions about the sequence of parts and the unity of the finished work (Aristotle, 1959).


Hyperfiction apparently dispenses with linear organisation. Although the experience of linearity does not disappear altogether with hyperfiction, narrative chunks do not follow one another in a page-turning, forward direction. Hyperfiction space is multi-dimensional and theoretically infinite: its set of possible network links are fixed, variable or random. Readers can contribute by choosing their own route through the labyrinth; the more active may introduce new elements, open new paths, and interact with the characters or even with the author(s).


Many twentieth-century works of fiction explore the tension between linearity and a more spatial sensation of time. Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot (1961) and Janette Turner Hospital's The Last Magician (1992), for example, question the status of sequence in narrative and so too does David Malouf's Fly Away Peter (1982). The protagonists of all three novels are suspicious of chronology and sequence: what they experience is something more akin to simultaneity. The difference between their novels and hyperfictions is that hypertext confers greater freedom and power on the reader. Malouf decides at what point his protagonist's narrative is to branch out; in Joyce's Afternoon, the reader makes that kind of decision.


Reconceptualising beginnings and endings


The problems posed by hyperfiction for traditional understandings of narrative are particularly apparent in the case of beginning and ending stories. In their brief history, hyperfictions seem to have taken 'an essentially cautious approach' (Landow, 1992, p. 109) to the problem of beginnings by offering the reader a block of text - labelled with something like 'start here' - that combines the functions of title page, introduction and opening paragraph. There are various reasons for this. One is convenience: the disk has to be self-contained so that it can be used on stand-alone machines. Another is the reluctance of some writers to disorient readers at the point of their first contact with the narrative. A further reason is that some believe hyperfiction should change our experiences of the middle but not the beginning of narrative fiction. The rival view is that because hyperfiction uniquely enables us to begin with any one of its parts, we should take advantage of this fact. In order to achieve this end, each chunk of text must be sufficiently independent to generate meanings that can be followed in other chunks of hyperfiction.


Although they use familiar narrative strategies to make beginnings easier, hyperfictions challenge readers by avoiding the corresponding devices for achieving closure. It is up to readers to decide how, when and why the narrative finishes. In Afternoon, Joyce makes closure the responsibility of the reader. In a section entitled 'work in progress' we are advised: 'Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made manifest. When the story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends'. Hyperfictions always end because readings always end - either with a sense of satisfying closure, or from sheer fatigue.


Of course, we are not entirely naive about unresolved texts. Print and cinematic narratives provide instances of multiple closure and also a combination of closure linked to new beginnings. Charles Dickens and other nineteenth-century writers whose novels were serialised in periodicals mastered the art of partial closure in each episode. Furthermore, sequences of novels like Durrell's Alexandria Quartet 'suggest that writers of fiction have long encountered problems very similar to those faced by writers of hypertext fiction and have developed an array of formal and thematic solutions to them' (Landow, 1992, p. 112). However, culturally familiar though we are with the absence or denial of closure, we may still find the consequences disturbing.


The potential of hyperfiction in English


Articles discussing the possibilities for the use of hyperfiction in the English classroom are beginning to appear in the literature. Kaplan and Moulthrop (1991), for example, describe a course in which they used hypertext. They found that the writing of interactive fiction, by raising the possibility of alternative constructions, heightened the sensitivity of their students to narrative features such as point of view, the authority of the narrator and causal sequence. Interactive fiction also seems to help integrate an enriched experience of literature with the practice of writing as a social activity, and enables students to become not merely more perceptive interpreters of fiction, but also creators of it. Interactive hyperfiction, Kaplan and Moulthrop argue (1991, p. 21), has considerable potential for those who teach 'writing through literature, or literature through writing'.


The introduction of hypertext into literature classrooms raises a number of pedagogical issues. To treat Afternoon as a literary text, for instance, involves redefining what is meant by the terms 'literature' and 'text'. Such a reconceptualisation entails not only fundamental alterations in the roles of author, reader and text, but also changes in the role of the teacher and in the activities of teaching and learning about literature.


The use of hypertext in the English classroom provides another medium for the promotion of collaborative work. The technology offers the option of interactive or collaborative writing. Students can create texts in all manner of collaborative ways: 'trading lines, writing parallel texts that merge, moving independently created sets of characters in and out of communal fictional space' (Birkerts, 1994, p. 160). In his New York Times essay, Coover (1992, p. 24) described how he and his students established a 'hypertext hotel' a place where the writers were free to 'check in, to open new rooms, new corridors, new intrigues, to unlink texts or create new links, to intrude upon or subvert the texts of others, to alter plot trajectories, manipulate time and space, to engage in dialogue through invented characters, then kill off one another's characters or even sabotage the hotel's plumbing'.


Working with hyperfiction in the English classroom, however, raises new problems. One identified by many critics is that of getting lost. A hyperfiction can be at one and the same time compelling and confusing. The text is no longer static and stable; the reader may get lost in the maze and not enjoy the experience. All the characteristics of the novel to which we have become accustomed and which we teach our students - 'unity, integrity, coherence, vision, voice, seem to be in danger' (Coover, 1992, p. 24). Further, how do we assess and evaluate and respond to a work that is different every time we read it?


There is still an enormous amount that we don't know about hypertext. Hyperfiction's alleged potential to transform the teaching of writing 'whether by supporting familiar goals in fresh ways or by suggesting a whole new approach to reading and writing remains for the most part unexplored' (DiPardo & DiPardo, 1990, p.7). Moreover, early advocates have tempered their initial enthusiasm with some important questions. McDaid (1991), the author of a number of hyperfictions, asks whether hypertext actually facilitates the teaching of writing; whether its effects are good or bad; and whether we can overcome the problem of inequality of access.


Recognising the difficulties


When hypertext first arrived on the education scene, and with it the possibility of creating hyperfiction, enthusiasts endowed it with utopian promise. They believed that hypertext had replaced linear writing in an evolutionary step towards perfect communication technology. They believed that the mere act of linking multiple interpretations and voices resulted automatically in better communication. Moreover, they believed that hypertext would transform society and education systems, democratise the academy and promote the breakdown of the artificial divisions between the disciplines.


By contrast, detractors argued that hypertext portended dark consequences for our culture. They implored people not to submit to a technocratic force and a totalitarian nightmare. They dismissed promoters of hypertext as fetishising novelty. They also argued most vehemently that hypertext offered nothing but confusion and cognitive overload to users. They reminded people that the book was central to culture and consciousness and that they must not give in to the oppression of technology.


However, what seems a better alternative to polarised debates about hypertext is to approach the use of this technology in our classrooms, both critically and intelligently.

Eco (1995) reminds us that it's not an 'either/or' situation; we do not have to choose between books and the new electronic technologies. He points out that literacy comprises many media. 'An enlightened policy on literacy must take into account the possibilities of all these media' (p. 91). Eco implores us to not fight against false enemies: 'Even if it were true that today visual communication has overwhelmed written communication, the problem is not one of opposing written to visual communication. The problem is rather how to improve both' (p. 91).


Facing an electronic future


The historical record shows that many English teachers have tended to resist using the new electronic technologies in their teaching. Of course, there are teachers who have either no, or limited, access to the technology. And even if there are computers available for their students' use, they may not as yet have software such as Storyspace (Bolter, Joyce & Smith, 1990) to make the creation of hyperfiction an option. But there are also English teachers who work in environments that have computer facilities who remain reluctant to use them (Snyder, 1995). They are wary of the use of the technology despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we face a future dominated by computer culture.


However, if the influence of electronic text is to be as pervasive as many are predicting, then English teachers need to think about its consequences for teaching and learning. As Lanham points out, 'it is hard not to conclude that what we are doing now is not preparing our students for the world they will live in, and the lives they will live out, but training them, instead, to be the "clerks of a forgotten mood"' (1993, p. 136). Addressing teachers of writing and literary studies, Lanham poses the question: 'What business are we really in?' (1989, p. 285). His answer is unequivocal:

If our business is general literacy, as some of us think, then electronic instructional systems offer the only hope for the radically leveraged mass instruction the problems of general literacy pose. If we are in any respect to pretend that 'majoring in English,' or any other literature, and all that it implies, teaches our students how to manipulate words in the world of work, then we must accommodate literary study to the electronic word in which that world will increasingly deal. (p. 285)


But at the same time, we should remain sceptical of the probably unrealistic early claims made about hyperfiction's radical potential. We must address in systematic ways the difficulties that readers have identified when trying to navigate hypertext or that writers have identified when authoring hyperfictions (Hawisher, LeBlanc, Moran & Selfe, 1996). We should take note of Michael Joyce's (1988, p. 11) concern:


It is likely that the potential benefits outweigh nearly all the short run perils, save perhaps the most crucial one. The peril of overpromising threatens not just to sap the resilience of educators, who must wade through the dross and justify the costs. It also threatens the credibility and creativity of innovators, who find themselves having to disaffiliate and differentiate before they can discover.


In this article, I have not presented many examples of what teachers are doing with hyperfiction in their classrooms. Although I know that readers of this journal are interested in creative and imaginative ways in which to use the electronic technologies, my aim has been somewhat different. I have set out to chart some of what we know about this new nonlinear narrative form: its origins, literary precursors and characteristics. By considering how hyperfiction differs from the more familiar print literary forms, until now the staple diet of the English curriculum, we may be prompted to re-examine our notions and understandings of narrative. But I also recognise that it's all very well to explore the theoretical potential of hyperfiction, but 'making it work with real readers and writers, in real classrooms taught by real teachers' (Hawisher, LeBlanc, Moran & Selfe, 1996, p. 208) is just as important. However, we'll have to leave the exploration of that task for another article.




Aristotle (1959) The Poetics trans. L.J. Potts, Aristotle on the Art of Fiction: An English Translation of Aristotle's Poetics with an Introductory Essay and Explanatory Notes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Birkerts, S. (1994) The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine

Bolter, J.D. (1991) Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Bolter, J.D. (1992) Literature in the electronic writing space. In M. Tuman (ed.), Literacy Online (pp. 19-42). Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press

Bolter, J.D. (1993) Alone and together in the electronic bazaar. Computers and Composition 10, 2, 5-18

Bolter, J.D., Joyce, M., Smith, J.B. (1990) Storyspace: Hypertext Writing Environment for the Macintosh. Computer software. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Eastgate Systems

Coover, R. (1992) The end of books. New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1, 23-25

DiPardo, A., DiPardo, M. (1990) Towards the metapersonal essay: exploring the potential of hypertext in the composition class. Computers and Composition 7, 3, 7-22

Douglas, J.Y. (1989) Wandering through the labyrinth: encountering interactive fiction. Computers and Composition 6, 3, 93-101

Douglas, J.Y. (1992) What hypertexts can do the print narratives cannot. Reader 28, 1-22

Eco, U. (1979) The Role of the Reader. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press

Eco, U. (1995) Apocalypse postponed. R. Lumley (ed), London: Flamingo, an imprint of Harper Collins

Hawisher, G.E., LeBlanc, P., Moran, C., Selfe, C.L. (1996) Computers and the Teaching of Writing in American Higher Education, 1979-1994: A History. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex

Joyce, M. (1991a) Afternoon, a Story, Computer disk. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Eastgate Press

Joyce, M. (1991b) WOE, Computer disk. Writing on the Edge 2, 2

Kaplan, N., Moulthrop, S. (1991) Something to imagine: literature, composition, and interactive fiction. Computers and Composition 9, 1, 7-23

Landow, G.P. (1992) Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Lanham, R.A. (1989) The electronic word: literary study and the digital revolution. New Literary History 20, 265-90

Lanham, R.A. (1993) The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


McDaid, J. (1991) Toward an ecology of hypermedia. In G.E. Hawisher & C.L. Selfe (eds), Evolving Perspectives on Computers and Composition Studies: Questions for the 1990s (pp. 203-23). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Moulthrop, S. (1991) Victory Garden, Computer disk. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Eastgate Press

Snyder, I.A. (1995) Toward electronic writing classrooms: the challenge for teachers. Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education 4, 1, 51-65.

Snyder, I. (1996) Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Woolley, B. (1992) Virtual Worlds: A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books

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In Plain English, a War Worth Fighting

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Kevin Donnelly | February 02, 2008


IN her advocacy of new-age and politically correct approaches to English teaching, represented by postmodern theory, critical literacy, gender politics and embracing computers and the internet, Monash University's Ilana Snyder makes no bones about why she wrote her new book The Literacy Wars and who the enemy is.

The opening and closing chapters begin with references to The Australian's campaign for a more traditional approach to English, where the literary classics are centre stage and phonics and grammar play a significant role.

Snyder writes: "However, it was the Murdoch paper's crusade against contemporary approaches to literacy education that motivated me to write the book. It is time to hold them to account."

Parents and the public might like to believe the fourth estate has every right to reveal shortcomings in the nation's education system and to hold those responsible to account for failed experiments such as whole language and critical literacy, but not Snyder. Not only does she label the paper's stance and commentary on English teaching as ideologically driven and misleading, but commentators associated with the paper, including Luke Slattery, Christopher Pearson and me, are condemned as conservative, elitist cultural warriors guilty of manufacturing a literacy crisis.

Notwithstanding its flaws, The Literacy Wars deserves to be read. While attacking so-called conservative critics for getting it wrong, Snyder admits that during the 1970s and '80s grammar disappeared from the classroom.

She also admits there is no evidence that new technology raises student achievement, and accepts the truth of many of the criticisms detailed in The Australian when she states: "The issue of fragmentation of the curriculum is real and there are also problems with political correctness as it has played out in Australian schools."

The Literacy Wars provides a useful summary of how English has developed since the early '70s, including the use of the personal-growth model and process writing, where the child's experience is paramount and creativity replaces formally teaching grammar, spelling and syntax.

But Snyder's treatment of recent literacy debates is confused and one-sided. Take the issue of falling standards. The Australian's criticisms of professional associations and teacher educators relate to the fact, as the result of a dumbed-down English curriculum, that many students enter secondary school without the basics, and first-year university undergraduates have to take remedial classes.

One expects a literacy expert such as Snyder to be clear on the issue of standards; unfortunately she is not. First, readers are told it is impossible to decide if standards have improved or declined: "Reading and writing are dynamic practices, changing over time."

Two pages later, she argues there has not been "a general decline in literacy standards" and, notwithstanding her statement that it was impossible to judge either way, in the final chapter she says: "Allegations of declining standards and literacy crises are not tenable."

As shown by the 2000 and 2006 results in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's program for international student assessment, where Australian students dropped from second to sixth in terms of literacy performance, there is evidence that standards have fallen. Research by Canberra-based academic Andrew Leigh also concludes that "troubling new evidence suggests that literacy and numeracy scores have stagnated or fallen since the 1970s, despite the doubling of resources".

Snyder is also incorrect in attacking Australia's education system for being what she terms "high quality/low equity", an argument, often put by the University of Melbourne's Barry McGaw, that, compared with other countries, not enough is being done to help disadvantaged students.

As noted by Geoff Masters, the head of the Australian Council for Educational Research, the claim is wrong. Masters states, after analysing the 2006 PISA results: "Another indicator of the world-class nature of our education system is the observation that the relationship between socioeconomic background and student achievement in Australia is weaker than the OECD average. In the popular jargon, Australia is a 'high quality/high equity' country."

The failure to take note of research evidence is not restricted to Australia. Snyder condemns the type of testing associated with US President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative, claiming that a back-to-basics approach does not work. According to a report by the Washington-based Centre on Education Policy, released midway through last year, such is not the case. After analysing the data from 50 states, the conclusion is that the majority show improvements in learning outcomes as measured by reading and mathematics test scores.

In the final chapter of The Literacy Wars, Snyder states: "It is time to abandon the language of attack and accusation to concentrate on improving literacy education for all Australian students." It's a pity she does not follow her own advice.

Instead of welcoming public debate led by The Australian, she accuses the paper of manufacturing a crisis to increase sales and simply wanting to promote the conservative Howard government's political agenda. One wonders how those on the cultural Left will deal with Education Minister Julia Gillard's description of herself as an education traditionalist and the Rudd Government's back-to-basics approach to curriculum?

Instead of accepting that critics are motivated by a desire to empower students by giving them a rigorous education, Snyder also argues that those advocating the classics and curriculum are disinterested and driven by a desire to win the class war and to denigrate the work of government schools.

Debates about grammar, according to Snyder, reflect a "clash between proponents of social control and the proponents of social autonomy" and such battles are "as much about the restoration and renewal of traditional hierarchical relations in society as they are about schooling".

Ignored is the argument of David Kemp, a former minister for education under the Howard government, that the best way to help disadvantaged students is to teach them the basics and introduce them to the enduring works of the Western tradition.

Snyder's apparent position that many students are destined to failure due to their disadvantaged background and therefore schools cannot be held accountable for how well they learn, is self-fulfilling and defeatist if taken seriously.

Also ignored is The Australian's role in outing an exclusive Sydney-based non-government school for making students deconstruct Shakespeare in terms of neo-Marxist, postmodern theory. The reality is that politically correct approaches to curriculum affect government and non-government schools alike.

Kevin Donnelly taught English for 18 years and his PhD thesis examines developments in English teaching since the late 1960s. He has been a member of state and national curriculum committees and is a past member of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English.

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Building Equitable Literate Futures: Home and School Computer-Mediated Literacy Practices and Disadvantage

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Monash University


Contact author: Assoc Prof Ilana Snyder

Faculty of Education

PO Box 6

Monash University

VIC 3800


Phone: 61 3 9905 2773

Fax: 61 3 9905 2779

Email: ilana.snyder@education.monash.edu.au


AARE Paper Code: SNY02037


Since submitted to AARE, this paper has been published in the Cambridge Journal of Education 32, 3, 367-383

Biographical details

Ilana Snyder is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. Hypertext (Melbourne University Press and New York University Press 1996), Page to Screen (Allen & Unwin and Routledge 1998), Teachers and Technoliteracy, co-authored with Colin Lankshear (Allen & Unwin 2000) and Silicon Literacies (Routledge 2002) explore changes to cultural practices associated with the use of ICTs.

Lawrence Angus is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne. Much of his work has been conducted in relation to educational policy and institutional restructuring, which he connects with issues of social formation, culture and equity. His most recent book, with Terri Seddon, is Reshaping Australian Education: Beyond Nostalgia (Australian Council for Educational Research, 2000).

Wendy Sutherland-Smith is a research associate, Faculty of Education, Monash University, where she is undertaking doctoral studies in Internet literacy practices of tertiary English as a Second Language (ESL) students. She has published articles in The Reading Teacher and Prospect on her research of international students' reading practices in paper-text compared to hypertext environments.


Building Equitable Literate Futures: Home and School Computer-Mediated Literacy Practices and Disadvantage





This article examines the complex connections between literacy practices, the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and disadvantage. It reports the findings of a year-long study which investigated the ways in which four families use ICTs to engage with formal and informal literacy learning in home and school settings. The research set out to explore what it is about computer-mediated literacy practices at home and at school in disadvantaged communities that makes a difference in school success. The findings demonstrate that the 'socialisation' of the technology - its appropriation into existing family norms, values and lifestyles - varied from family to family. Having access to ICTs at home was not sufficient for the young people and their families to overcome the so-called 'digital divide'. The article concludes that old inequalities have not disappeared, but are playing out in new ways in the context of the networked society.




Building Equitable Literate Futures: Home and School Computer-Mediated Literacy Practices and Disadvantage


The cover of a recently published book, Creating Unequal Futures? Rethinking Poverty, Inequality and Disadvantage (Fincher & Saunders, 2001), juxtaposes two pairs of shoes beneath the title. The shoes on the left are neatly aligned, black, shiny, expensive, almost new. Those on the right, tinted in sepia tones, are positioned more casually, well-worn, deeply creased, with one sporting a hole at the toe line. This image of advantage and disadvantage is evocative, but also somewhat misleading: poverty is not always so easily discernible. Indeed, if we were unfamiliar with people's complex material and social backgrounds, and used only external attributes such as the condition of their shoes as markers, it might be difficult to distinguish the less advantaged from the more advantaged.

Just as the state of people's attire is not always a reliable indicator of relative advantage, access to computer technologies may be insufficient to determine whether or not people should be classified as technology 'haves' or 'have nots'. Yet many current assessments of our increasingly networked society argue that because access to the new technologies is unequally distributed, there is a growing divide - the so-called 'digital divide' - between the haves and the have nots (Castells, 2001). Intrinsic to this notion of the digital divide is the cachet society accords access to the new information and communication technologies.

At the global level, talk of those who have access and those who don't can be politically persuasive and strategic: the broad-brush stroke has the desired rhetorical impact and resonance. By contrast, at a local level, issues related to access require more sophisticated and textured accounts of the ways in which a number of interrelated critical elements and various dimensions of disadvantage come into play in different contexts. Indeed, to draw a simple dichotomy between the technology haves and have nots in local settings is not particularly generative. It may be, as the findings of the study reported here suggest, that even when people from poor backgrounds manage to gain access to technology, they remain relatively disadvantaged.

Our intention in this article is to provide a sense of the scope of the small-scale, intensive and multidimensional study we initiated to enhance understanding of the complex connections between literacy, the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and disadvantage. The year-long study examined the ways in which four families and the schools the children attend in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, use ICTs to engage with formal and informal literacy learning in home and school settings. The emphasis is on similarities between the families in their interactions with ICTs as well as potentially significant social and cultural differences.

What we mean by 'disadvantage' should already be emerging. As Travers and Richardson (1993) argue, being poor or disadvantaged is more than a matter of income. We can experience disadvantage or advantage through dimensions of our lives such as the characteristics of the neighbourhoods we inhabit, access to the collective resources of the communities in which we live, as well as through our income. Research using the term 'disadvantage' compares the circumstances of people or communities or places with others who are experiencing 'advantage' or who are living in 'average' conditions. 'Being disadvantaged is thus an explicitly relative state, but the term also has a strong normative connotation. To be disadvantaged is to be unfairly treated relative to others' (Fincher & Saunders, 2001, p. 8). Most importantly for our study, research using 'disadvantage' as a guiding concept often refers to disadvantaging processes - processes causing the production and reproduction of disadvantage for people and places.

When it comes to 'literacy', we make use of the concept of 'new literacy practices'. These refer to more than just reading and writing skills, which are only part of what people have to learn to communicate effectively in the 21st century. Indeed, given international developments in the fields that inform the study, it no longer makes sense to talk about literacy, technology and learning as separate enterprises: they are intimately interconnected (Snyder, 1998a; Lankshear & Snyder, 2000; Snyder, 2002). 'New literacy practices' refer to the ability to 'read' and 'write' all texts, signs, artefacts, nuances and images through which we come to understand and engage with society in the broadest sense. How to provide all students with the opportunities to acquire these literacy practices represents a profound challenge for educators and is fundamental to the study reported here.


Considerable theoretical and empirical work has examined the emergence of new literacy practices associated with the use of ICTs in school settings (Snyder, 1998a; Lankshear & Snyder, 2000; Loveless & Ellis, 2001; Durrant & Beavis, 2001; Snyder, 2002). In particular, this body of work recognises that reading and writing practices, conceived traditionally as print-based and logocentric, are only part of what people have to learn to be literate. Today, being literate is to do with understanding the complex ways in which the written, oral and audiovisual modalities of human communication are integrated into multimodal hypertext systems made accessible via the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Research attention has also been given to computer-mediated practices in home settings (Giacquinta, Bauer & Levin, 1993; Sefton-Green, 1998; Downes, 1999; Dede, 2000). There has been little research, however, investigating the connections between home and school computer-mediated literacy practices. This is somewhat surprising as the relationship between home and school literacy practices has been the focus of a number of important studies (Heath, 1983; Street, 1984; Prinsloo & Breier, 1996; Barton & Hamilton, 1998). These studies recognise the need to move beyond narrowly defined explanations of literacy to ones that capture the complexity of real literacy practices in contemporary society. As part of what is widely known as the New Literacy Studies (NLS), they emphasise the centrality of the social contexts in which literacy practices occur, directing attention to contexts of practice, to contrasts between home and school as sites of practice and to the relationship between home and school with respect to literacy learning (Baynham & Prinsloo, 2001).

In these studies, the focus has been on discerning the ways in which young people deploy linguistic resources, especially how they link communicative practices from one setting with those of another. Communicative competence - knowing when and how to use resources from different settings - is seen as affecting abilities to operate in different domains (Freebody, Ludwig & Gunn, 1995). Dynamic accounts of young people's 'ways with words' can help explain the link between social factors and school success (Heath, 1983; Street, 1998). Further, such accounts have important implications for curriculum and pedagogy.

The present study is informed by these understandings of literacy as social practice. It set out to investigate what it is about computer-mediated literacy practices at home and at school in disadvantaged communities that make a difference in school success, as perceived by both the consumers (the children and their parents) and the providers (the teachers) of literacy education. Integral to the study are three key understandings: the cultural and educational importance of ICTs; the centrality of the home in contributing to children's school-based educational outcomes as well as to post-school social, cultural and economic opportunities; and the home as a secure site in which people, both adults and young people, can acquire new literacy practices.


Unlike television, computer-mediated communication is not yet a general medium in Australia, however, computer usage is increasing in all socioeconomic sectors. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) anticipated that by the end of 2001 it was likely that every second household in Australia would have Internet access (ABS, 2001). As might be expected, higher levels of both computer and Internet access occur in households with higher incomes. Access is also higher in households with children under 18 years, and in metropolitan areas. In terms of gender, there are very small differences between adult male and female computer and Internet usage (ABS, 2001).

When it comes to school computer use, the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, claims to lead the way in public education with the best computer-to-student ratio in Australia (1:4.65). Notebook computers and Internet access are provided for all state schoolteachers at a rental cost of several hundred dollars per year. Three of the schools in our study eligible for this scheme reported that most staff have taken advantage of the offer. All four schools in the study share the policy priority of the improvement and extension of teaching with ICTs.


The study was prompted by an alliance between the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), a software company (Virtual Communities), and an Internet provider (Primus) to offer computers and Internet access to workers at affordable prices (Robinson & Barker, 1999). This alliance claims to represent a significant Australian initiative to 'redress the balance between the information rich and poor' by providing 'equal access to the World Wide Web' (Virtual Communities, 2002). We were interested in investigating if indeed access to ICTs at home 'makes a difference' for families previously excluded because of cost. The Virtual Communities project, and its historically unusual alliance between organisations as diverse as IBM and the ACTU, reinforces the point that ICTs are becoming increasingly pervasive and are widely regarded as a key element in social, economic and educational change (Castells 1996, 2001).

Given public advocacy for more and more computers and technology education, and growing home computer and Internet access in Australia (ABS, 2002), the study commenced with the broad question: 'What influence does the introduction of ICTs into low socio-economic households have on the families and the literacy learning of students?' A major aim was to provide teachers with understanding of how young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds use ICTs outside school so that they can build upon these practices in their approaches in the classroom. We were particularly interested in identifying the following: the computer-mediated literacy practices evident in home and school settings; the relationships between home and school computer-mediated literacy practices; patterns of interaction around computer-mediated literacy events in home and school settings, where an 'event' is an activity in which computer-mediated literacy practices have a role (see Barton & Hamilton, 1998); and the communicative resources available in the home setting and how these map onto the computer-mediated literacy practices available in schools.


We conducted case studies of four families (three who gained computer and Internet access for the first time under the Virtual Communities scheme, and one that had had access for five years for comparison purposes). As it turned out, only two of the four families could be described as 'disadvantaged'. However, the nuanced similarities and differences, indeed, the diversity between the four families, represented in the variety of trajectories occupied by the individual members, provided us with rich sources of data to draw upon in our analysis and interpretation.

We visited the homes of the participating families six times between mid-2000 and mid-2001 to observe and interview the family members as they used ICTs. The researchers also visited the schools the students attended at least three times to observe them in the classes in which ICTs were being used and to interview their teachers and other members of the school community about the use of ICTs in the curriculum. We spoke to principals, to teachers in charge of Information Technology, to English teachers, as well as to Curriculum Coordinators. We collected some artefacts volunteered to us by participants, such as electronic texts they produced and examples of email exchanges. We also examined school technology policy documents.

We organised the data so that we could systematically juxtapose literacy events across families and the schools the children attended, as the basis for our analysis. After experimenting with a variety of different forms of presentation, we chose the device of narratives fragments. These fragments are selective in relation to points of comparison and contrast between the four families. Even if assembled, the stories in each case are not exhaustive but focused around themes that are picked up within and between families and the schools the children attend. This allowed us to do some conceptual development work and to generate theoretical descriptions (Ball, Maguire & Macrae, 2000).

Our relationships to the families evolved over time. The three of us are middleclass Australians studying families for at least two of which the category of low socioeconomic class is consistently enacted in many if not all dimensions of their lives. Conscious of the knotty ethical and rhetorical dilemmas in writing about poor and working-class informants, we worried about the contemporary role of qualitative social researchers, particularly at a time 'when the leverage of and audience for progressive social researchers and policy makers has grown foggy, and weak in the knees'(Fine & Weis, 1996, p. 251). Gradually, however, we gained the trust of the members of the families and we report our findings with a desire to create a conversation about literacy learning and disadvantage in the context of access to ICTs.


The lives of the families described here are shaped in the relationship between structural and material limits and possibilities and various individual factors, that is, their different opportunities are in part self-made, but are also framed by the continuing importance of class, ethnicity and gender inequalities (Ball et al, 2000).
Surviving on welfare

The Brown family, Jenny 33 and her two children, Brad 14 and Lizzie 12, live in a modest three-bedroom brick-veneer council house on a major road in Greenacres. The front garden of the Brown family's house has no trees, shrubs or flowerbeds - just grass. The family has lived there since Jenny's husband walked out six weeks after Lizzie was born. Until a year ago, Jenny had a live-in de facto, John. That relationship lasted several years and John, whom the kids refer to as their Dad, still drops in. Brad and Lizzie attend Greenacres Secondary School: Lizzie was in Year 7 and Brad in Year 9.

Jenny is slim, most often dressed in black, tight-fitting clothes, which she gets from local opportunity shops. She grew up in an inner-city working-class suburb and went to a local Catholic girls' school. Apart from a short stint as a casual sales assistant before she married, Jenny has never had a job nor training of any sort. The three of them get by on her single-parent pension. Her father, a retired member of the Vehicle Builders' Union, took advantage of the Virtual Communities deal to lease a computer package for himself and one for Jenny and the children. Jenny says the computer has changed their lives.

Upwardly mobile but temporarily derailed

The Lawfords are no longer a 'family' as such: Helen and Brendan separated in mid-2000. Helen works for a multinational power and resources company. Brendan is a Communications Officer for the State Secretary of a union. Helen lives in the family home, a modest double-fronted weatherboard 'worker's cottage' in the inner-western suburb of Rosewood. The halt to the renovations is a casualty of the break-up. Their six-year-old daughter, Angela, lives mainly with Helen (and the computer) and stays overnight with her father in his flat about 200 metres away on two consecutive weeknights. Angela was in Grade 1 at Rosewood Primary School.

By any standards, Helen is a successful woman. A corporate high flyer, she has made a rapid ascent from working-class origins. Few of the young people who attended schools like hers completed their secondary schooling; fewer went on to higher education. Against the odds, Helen did both. Student politics brought Helen and Brendan together and paved the way for Helen to move into public sector administration under a Labor State government. Brendan implied that their relationship deteriorated when Helen moved to the private sector, thereby 'betraying' the values to which he says he's remained loyal.

New immigrants ambitious for their daughters' future

The Rodriguez family arrived in Australia in 1988 as political refugees from Chile. Fernando, a Metal Worker, works in an automobile parts factory, and his wife, Luisa, works in a creche. Their daughter, Carmen 11, attends St Cecilia's Catholic Primary School in a satellite city of Melbourne, 30 kilometres from the CBD, and Lydia, 5, goes to a local kindergarten. The family lives in a three-bedroom, ten-year-old house on a housing estate, in a suburb called Blue Hills.

The family speaks Spanish at home. Fernando did not complete secondary school in Chile and has limited English. By contrast, Luisa attended Migrant English classes when they arrived and TAFE (Tertiary and Further Education) studies in childcare. Both Carmen and Lydia are bilingual. The school they go to is not the closest but chosen by their parents because Luisa's sister's children had gone there. Luisa tells us that the girls will go to a Catholic Girls' Secondary College rather than the local public school because 'it offers the best program and standards'. According to Luisa, they have made many sacrifices: they want their children to have greater opportunities in life than they have had.


Ensuring the persistence of cultural cachet

Ray Lake, 43, who has a BA and two Grad Dips and Sara Lake, 39, who has a BA and a Law degree, are both trade union officials. Their two daughters, Felicity, 15, and Sally, 13, attend College High School - once an elite public school but now open to all, except for an accelerated program for the very able which has competitive entry. They are in Years 11 and 9 respectively and both play musical instruments. The family lives in a comfortably furnished, three-bedroom house that is full of books in the inner-city suburb of Kilvington.

The most striking aspect of the Lake house - particularly in the context of a research project focusing on computer use - is the abundance of books. The Encyclopedia Britannica occupies a shelf in the living room, while the computer is located in the back room. When the focus of the interview was on computer use, all four members of the family were careful to assert the essential superiority of books as the source of knowledge and values to anything available online. This is a family that reveres book culture yet its members were also the most skilled users of computer technology.


For the kids or for Mum?

Jenny's reasons for wanting the computer package were a little different to those of her father who paid for it. He said that he hoped to give his grandchildren another source of entertainment besides the TV. He also thought Jenny might improve her chances of employment if she got some computer skills. By contrast, Jenny was interested in the potential educational benefits for her children: 'Cos I knew that they were using them at school and, I mean, they're the future and they're gonna take over everywhere.'

Although Jenny 'didn't even know how to switch one on until we got it', she has turned out to be the main user of the computer in the family: she has become addicted to chat. An analysis of Jenny's intense interactions, which have many of the qualities of a soap opera, provides the focus of another publication (Angus, Snyder & Sutherland-Smith, in-press).

Brad is more interested in using the Internet to pursue his hobby of racing cars. He moves between the TV with its Play Station and the computer where he often downloads music or creates his own bizarre cars using elements from a range of models. He's the family's trouble-shooter and teacher. He showed Jenny and Lizzie how to create folders to save potential avatars (icons that represent individuals in virtual contexts) for use in the chat rooms. He works out how to do things as the need arises.

More like her Mum, Lizzie can spend up to four hours chatting in text-based exchanges with people - extended writing that she wouldn't contemplate at school: 'It's different. It's exciting on the computer. With pen, it gets hard to hold it after a while.' But she told us that chat can get very nasty, in fact, so venomous and crude that we have not included the email exchange between Lizzie and someone she met in a chat room. Neither Brad nor Lizzie use the computer for school work.

Although they each enjoy independent computer activities, there are also regular times when the three of them sit around the computer together, usually at a chat site. There are some books in the house: Lizzie has 66 volumes of the 'Baby-sitters' series and enjoys reading Danielle Steele novels once her mother has finished with them.

Adding to the household's resources

As Helen Lawford spends most of her time at work on the Internet and has her own laptop to use at home, Angela has almost exclusive use of the computer. A bright, confident and articulate six-year-old, she is very proud of her computer skills and was always keen to show them off to us. The computer has displaced the TV as her main source of recreation: sometimes with her mother beside her, sometimes alone. She uses it to play her CDs; Barbie.com is her favourite website.

When she invited her friends to come to a sleep-over, she printed out the invitation and mailed it. Brendan wants Angela to continue with her creative pursuits as part of his broad aspirations for her. He thinks that the computer will be used 'to do her work - whether study or as a resource to gather things, or to organise social aspects of her life'. Both Helen and Brendan stress that Angela is also an 'avid reader'. They both want to strike a balance between reading and computer use for their daughter.

Angela uses the computer, the modem and directories with confidence and skill. But although the value of play was endorsed by both parents, Angela didn't simply acquire this confidence haphazardly: Brendan and Helen deliberately selected Angela's first computer game, My Very First Software. As Brendan explained: 'I knew that the school ... had computer studies and having some sort of basic click and drag search ability to start with means she's at a level that she's not going to be behind as soon as they sit down at the screen'.

Monitoring computer use at home

Like the Brown family, the Rodriguez's computer is located in the living room along with the TV, the Nintendo and the typewriter. But unlike the Browns, the Rodriguez family never sits around the computer together. Fernando uses it occasionally for email to family and friends in Chile and to read newspapers in Spanish. Luisa prepared essays for her studies on the computer and now uses it to mock-up notices for work. Both Fernanado and Luisa, acutely aware of the sites they don't want their daughters to visit, prefer that the computer be used for educational purposes. The girls are allowed access only on weekends unless Carmen requires it to complete a school assignment. On the weekend, Carmen plays computer games. When she shows us what she can do with the computer, she moves from program to program with confidence and advanced skills. Luisa is concerned about improving her own computer knowledge. She says: 'I am the mother. I must know more than her'.

Playing 'Civilisation'

Civilisation is a computer game that Felicity and Sally Lake enjoy immensely, particularly when their parents join in. Felicity describes it as 'fun because you have to invent things ... I like the building and starting a civilisation'. In some ways, it seemed that the Lake family not only plays Civilisation on the computer, but also a version of it in real life. Family members associate the game with the learning of history, culture and literature, in which they are interested. Yet all of them, even Sally, speak about their computer skills in a deprecatory way (Ray: 'I'm never sure where to put the petrol in') and play down their obvious competence. They would rather talk about music and literature.

The liberal values endorsed by the parents are carefully packaged and passed on to their girls. All four members of the Lake family commend the virtues of book culture and all that it represents to them. They see the computer as a tool that has useful functions and facilities for them to exploit. Ray and Sara bought the computer so that they could do some of their work at home and thereby leave the office earlier. There is no real competition for the computer: certain activities and needs are prioritised. The hierarchy is: work, homework, general Internet searches and then games. Noone uses chat programs but everyone emails the Adelaide grandmother who is 'an email addict'. There seems to be an easy connection between the sophisticated computer work required at school and the ways in which Felicity and Sally use one at home.


Learning how to MailMerge

At Greenacres Secondary College, we were hard-pressed to find anyone with a high opinion of either Brad or Lizzie Brown. Lizzie was in Year 7 and seems hardly to have been noticed by teachers, whereas Brad was very well known. According to one teacher: 'He's the kind of boy every teacher knows', who had been 'kept down' at the end of year 7. The general view among teachers was that Brad had given up.

Apparently, 'there are a lot of Brads' at the school. In the words of his English teacher, they get 'a lot of strugglers. A lot of families that put education well down their list of priorities'. Even this teacher, whom Brad thought knew him best, expressed little knowledge of Brad's family: 'They're basically working class stock. Apart from that I really don't know.'

Brad was contemptuous of the school's computer education program: 'I fought you go on the Internet [but] we weren't allowed on the Internet at all for the whole class.' He tells us: 'I didn't learn nuthin' at school from the computer. I already knew ... I had Info Tech classes and I gotta admit I learnt somethin' but I've never used it - MailMerge'.

Life is not easy for Lizzie at school either. When asked what she does in computer classes at school, she replied: 'In maths we have fun because we do Maths Circus. But sometimes we have to just write out all these sums on the computer ... Most of the classes are OK, but what I'd like is for them just to stop tellin' me off.'

At school, Brad is widely perceived as having poor literacy skills. At home, however, Brad reads 'car books': 'they're real, all the info on that exact car are real'. When his uncle gives him a car magazine, he reads 'every article ... about ten times'. Not surprisingly, Brad was keen to leave school as soon as he was 15: 'I just hate everyfin about school ... [but] I don't want be a dole bludger! My parents don't reckon I'll do it that easy, so I want to prove to them that I can'. In mid-2000, he was thinking about spray painting and early in 2001, he secured an apprenticeship in a small local spray shop. Noone was going to make him go back to school; he would prove to everyone that he could get a job.

Laying strong foundations

As Angela Lawford was only in Grade 1, at a school which did not prioritise the development of computer skills at such an early age, we are unable to comment on her use of computers at school. However, unlike Lizzie and Brad's teachers, Angela's know her parents, particularly Helen, quite well. The Assistant Principal and the Computers Coordinator also know Helen, describing her as 'pretty dynamic' and 'confident'. Kate Steiner, who has taught Angela for two years (Prep and Grade 1), recalls that Angela received support from the extended family for special school events and that there was a strong level of engagement in her schoolwork from her mother. She's seen widely as 'bright, cheerful, always willing, and always courteous and always wanting to help the other children ... the perfect student, the ideal child'.

Trying to integrate computers into the curriculum

Using computers across the curriculum is high on the agenda at St Cecilia's, which has just over 300 students, representing 58 ethnic groups, 11 fulltime teachers and a few parttime. There is one computer lab and each classroom has six computers. The computers are all shared and as Carmen's teacher says: 'It's all very cooperative.' There's an Intranet and access to the Internet via the library. A computer consultant, Tom, comes to the school once a week and works with groups of students and teachers. The teachers develop units of work with Tom then implement them in the classroom. Carmen's teacher feels confident using ICTs in her classroom remarking that she learned pretty fast. She explains that her own children are computer literate and that 'you learn so much off the younger ones ... It's a two-way street. It's sort of a never-ending story - you're always learning'.

Carmen develops webpages in class and also uses PowerPoint for project presentations. She loves to use the computer and sees it as an integral part of her classroom experience. Carmen gets into the computer lab only twice a week in scheduled classes, but sometimes she also goes at lunchtime. When she finds information for a project, she always writes it in her own words as her teacher will not accept material simply cut and pasted from a website. Carmen's confidence with computers is constantly reinforced by her teachers.

Computers as part of professional practice

College High has one computer lab in the library with about 20 computers and about 10 classrooms with computers around the walls. The students are never required to complete work at home on computers as the school is sensitive to the fact that at least 33 per cent of the school population live in Housing Commission homes located close to the school and don't own computers. Both Felicity and Sally use computers at school in a number of ways - for Internet searches, word processing and presentation. Although Felicity has used computers since she was just two-years old, and recalls a favourite primary school teacher who showed the students something new to do with computers each Friday, she admits that she prefers using books for research. Felicity says that she's 'afraid of breaking the computer, of making it crash'. By contrast, Sally enjoys games, emailing friends, searching the Internet for projects but also considers the book version of Britannica more reliable and easier to use than trying to isolate the appropriate key word for an effective search.


In this section, the analysis begins by illustrating the dissonance between the computer-mediated literacy practices observed in the Brown home, and those prescribed at school. We saw various iterations of something closer to complementarity between what took place at home and in the children's schools in the educationally motivated Rodriguez family, the upwardly mobile Lawford family, and the resolutely middleclass - at least in terms of social, economic and cultural capital if not politics - Lake family. More attention is given to the members of the Brown family as their experience is the most illuminating in terms of the study's focus.

As already mentioned, Jenny believed that Brad and Lizzie would be advantaged at school by having a home computer. In particular, she thought the computer would 'help them look up things'. However, although aware that the computer had the latest versions of Encarta, Britannica and World Book as part of the Virtual Communities package, neither Brad nor Lizzie reported using them for schoolwork. As far as we could tell, the educational use of the computer in the home was minimal. Jenny has accepted the societal view that computers at home are good for children's education and give them a competitive advantage (a point hammered home in Virtual Communities' television advertising during programs such as football telecasts), but does not have the educational resources herself to help them much. Besides managing the programs and trouble-shooting, most of Brad's time on the computer was spent downloading music and searching for car information and images, while Lizzie was occupied with chat, celebrity news, magazine and fan sites, and VirtualDog.com.

Jenny has acquired her own computer competence, but boosts Brad as the 'family expert' who knows how to get rid of a virus. By contrast, at school Brad is consistently perceived as a 'loser'. That Brad and Lizzie, for that matter, might have some acumen with computers is not even considered. When Mr Hall was told that Brad had Internet access at home, he had low expectations about the sorts of activities he might be indulging in:

I'm sure, I'm certain that most of the time he's on the computer he's searching the Net; it's for pleasure not for anything educational ... You know the sites that ... Brad's heavily into - skateboarding for instance ... As a teacher I have a computer at home for my kids. When my kids use the computer I like to oversee it and see exactly what they're doing. But who knows what Brad is doing!

In fact, Jenny had quite a sustained, if casual, interest in what her children were doing on the computer, and often members of the family knew what the others were getting up to. Unless Brad was listening to music in his room, all three were usually in the lounge watching TV and/or using the computer, often looking over the shoulder of the person at the keyboard and discussing the chat. It seems that Jenny reserved her more intimate exchanges for late at night and during the school day.

On the other hand, as already suggested, even to the 12-year-old Lizzie, the chat room can be a pretty raunchy, if not abusive, environment. In one 20-minute session when Jenny, Brad and Lizzie showed one of us how to manipulate the chat environment, the avatars of others online who 'approached' them to 'whisper' (one-to-one chat) were named: 'Aussie 69', 'Hunky Girl', 'Big Boy', 'James Bond', 'Brice', 'Lori', 'A1Dude' and 'Remington Steele'. Lizzie spent a lot of time thinking about her avatar, 'Chickbabe': '[In my avatar] you can have a photo or little picture like of a cartoon, or not a cartoon character, but you can have a little girl with a hat on with blonde hair and blue eyes or something, and just jeans.'

As already indicated, there is not much to say about the connections between home and school computer activities for Angela, who is only six-years old, except to predict with reasonable confidence that both parents will continue to take a strong interest in all her school work and will increasingly encourage the use of the computer at home for educational purposes.

In the Rodriguez family, the ways in which the computer is used is controlled and scrutinised. The school Fernando and Luisa have chosen for their girls, for which they struggle to pay the fees, is in the process of making sure that the use of computers is integral to the curriculum. This is being achieved with the assistance of the consultant who is driving the teachers' professional development. Luisa expects the school to perform and deliver a good education to her daughters. She dislikes some of the principal's ideas but does not wish to approach anyone. Because of their distance from the school, the girls are not able to interact with school friends beyond school hours and Luisa and Fernando are not part of any school social network.

There is no tension between the approach to computers adopted at College High and the dominant attitude shared by all members of the Lake family: the educational importance of computer technologies is recognised but computers 'have their place'; they must not be assigned too much cultural significance. The Lake family and the school concur, although perhaps not explicitly, that book culture provides the foundation for contemporary society. For the Lakes, the computer is a powerful tool which they want their daughters to be able to use competently - and the school that they have chosen is achieving their aims.


Our comparison suggests that the 'socialisation' of the technology - its appropriation into existing family norms, values and lifestyles - varied from family to family. As the Lake girls are from a more economically advantaged environment, with appropriate cultural resources, they are better placed to exploit the benefits of having a computer at home; their learning experiences at home are equipping them with the literacies to participate in the technologically rich world of the future. For the Lake family, the use of ICTs is casually and almost effortlessly incorporated into their already-existing base of cultural capital. Even young Angela Lawford already has a huge lead over Lizzie and Brad Brown in the cultural capital stakes. The Rodriguez girls are also quite well positioned to acquire the literacies of power (Gee, 1996) mainly because their parents place such a high premium on the importance of education in the achievement of social advantage. However, we wondered whether Brad and Lizzie, even though they have home access, would develop similar skills and strategies for learning with ICTs as they certainly weren't provided with the opportunities to acquire them at school.

These are some of the cultural and material realities at play in the case studies presented in this article. But there are more. For example, the relationship of the Lawford family to the school contrasts with that of the Brown family. Despite their similar origins, Helen Lawford is a very different person from Jenny Brown. Helen is well connected to the school and local social networks of similarly minded people (middle class, Labor-voting, mainly tertiary-educated etc). Jenny is isolated in the home that she rarely leaves. There has been a major change in her life, directly linked to the arrival of the computer, but the new relationships formed in chat rooms are virtual and at this stage do not offer her any social advantage, just escapism and entertainment.

Perhaps if there hadn't been a disjunction between the sorts of learning opportunities afforded by new technologies when used at home as compared with school, Brad and Lizzie would have been less frustrated with their experiences at school (Furlong, Furlong, Facer & Sutherland, 2000). Their disappointment was caused largely because something they enjoyed at home was a drag at school: the use of ICTs was incorporated into the typical practices of school life that they regarded as boring. Despite the hype and rhetoric of empowerment, agency and the like (Snyder, 1998b, 1999), the use of ICTs at Greenacres Secondary School is being 'sucked into the pattern of teacher control and student passivity' that Furlong et al see as the 'typical conditions of learning' in schools (2000, p. 103).

Overall, compared with the Lawford and Lake children, and also with the Rodriguez girls, Brad and Lizzie Brown have experienced greater inequalities of access to resources and life chances, making the reproduction of disadvantage more likely. Yes, they have a computer and Internet access in their home, making them part of that rapidly expanding group, at least in Australia, of the technology 'haves', but that's where the similarities with the other children in the study more or less begin and end. We need to ask, therefore, how useful it is to talk about the technology 'haves' and 'have nots'.

As suggested by the analysis of the book cover at the beginning of this article, material markers of disadvantage may not be clear signifiers of socioeconomic difference. In the current study, although access to technology was available to all the participants, both at home and at school, this fact alone was not enough to enhance young people's literacy achievement at school. Indeed, in at least one instance, teachers at the school were unaware that the young people had a computer at home and that they were engaging in quite sophisticated literacy activities on a regular basis outside of the classroom.

Our findings suggest that we require an expanded reconceptualised understanding of 'access' and its relation to equity. Access cannot be seen merely as a matter of having a way to use computers and a connection to the Internet. 'Access' needs to be rethought as a much more complex and multileveled social goal. Burbules and Callister (2000) distinguish between 'quality of access' and 'quantity of access' and also between 'conditions of access' and 'criteria of access'. Considerations of how much need to be counter-balanced by considerations of how good. This view is consistent with Connell's (1993, p. 16) account of 'distributive justice': in relation to access to technology, it is about not only who gets how much of the technology resources, but also who gets the benefits associated with such resources and how much of them (Comber & Green, 1999).

Overall, the contrasts we observed between the young people's use of ICTs in home and in school settings were illuminating about the connection between literacy learning, the use of ICTs and disadvantage. We are seeing shifts in the meaning of 'disadvantage' in a globalised world mediated by the use of new technologies. New definitions of disadvantage that take account not only of access to the new technologies but also include calibrated understandings of what constitutes the access are required.

To conclude, we suggest that two questions could be asked about our presentation and analysis. First, are these just old 'class stories'? What has changed? We hope that our account of the rapidly changing educational environment, in which the imperative to be competent with the new technologies is integral to school and post-school success, is an adequate response to that. At the same time, old inequalities have not disappeared but neither are they the same. As already discussed, all the families had home access to the Internet, so in the parlance, they are all part of that expanding group, the technology 'haves'. But when compared to the other three families, the Browns were simply not as well off. Second, does the presentation of narrative fragments work? Our response is that we are attempting to capture and illustrate the complexity of contemporary educational inequalities within and across the lives of young people and their families. Differences and inequalities are multifaceted and are played out and develop over time. The narrative fragments are a device for analysing and presenting this.

In telling the stories of these four families and the children in them, we run the risk of drawing primary attention to individual rather than to social differences. This may work to disguise some of the older continuities of (dis)advantage as signalled by the class backgrounds of the four families. The families all live in socioeconomically contrasting parts of Melbourne and the relationship between opportunity and education is different in each case. We looked at the connections between the use of ICTs and existing patterns of social, economic and cultural (dis)advantage. These are not just questions about physical access to the best and most expensive technology (or to any at all), which is largely a matter of income, but also about the quality and nature of such access as mediated by the cultural resources that individuals and families can bring to bear on their relationship with technology. These questions about the nature and quality of access will inform the next stage of the research.


The research reported here was supported by a Faculty of Education grant in the first instance followed by a Small Australian Research Council grant. We thank Lisa Phillips who worked with us in the early stages of the project.


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