ETEC 540: Text Technologies: The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing


The rise of computerized writing through the latter part of the twentieth century has precipitated extensive debate over how text technologies modify reading and writing processes. Our writing tools – whether chisel and stone, reed pen and papyrus roll, press and vellum, typewriter and paper, or keyboard and computer screen – necessarily influence the way we compose and respond to text. As Snyder (1996) observes in Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth, “the space created by each writing technology permits certain kinds of thinking and discourages others” (p. 5). By way of example, she suggests that blackboards invite repeated modification, causal thinking and spontaneity, while pen and paper invite care, tidiness, and controlled thinking (p. 5).

And now, from our vantage point some twenty years later, it is clear that alongside the developments of computerized writing tools, there have been equally extraordinary developments in the means by which texts circulate, especially in relation to the global communication network we call the Internet. Networked-based, computer-mediated communications now penetrate almost all aspects of text production, to the point that documents that are intended for print are created first in digital spaces, and any individual with access to appropriate technologies and the literacy skills to do so has the ability to publish to the world, a power once reserved to a limited few in society.

Harold Innis, the Canadian Historian of economics and media, noted in his 1947 essay, “The Bias of Communication,” that “sudden extensions of communications are reflected in cultural disturbances.” In the process of examining the early development of writing and the evolution of technologies for writing from ancient times to the present, this course will offer students an opportunity to test such claims, and to consider the ways in which different technologies have influenced beliefs about, and approaches to, writing and reading.

Learning Objectives

In completing this course you will:

  • Consider how the invention of writing, the fundamental technology of all literate societies, has modified human ways of knowing.
  • Develop an understanding of how technologies for writing and knowledge mobilization have changed through the course of history, and of how such changes have affected communication styles and genres.
  • Explore how cognitive and affective response to different media artifacts might be influenced by the medium in which each is presented (e.g., the “form and content” question).
  • Consider the affordances of different technologies for knowledge mobilization.
  • Consider how the “information explosion,” caused in part by the development of increasingly efficient vehicles for the creation and circulation of ideas, has modified human understandings of what it means to be educated.


Building on a foundational notion of writing as technology, we will progress through a series of four course modules.

  • Module 1: Introductions and Defining Terms (2 weeks)

In this introductory module you will become acquainted with the course organization, your classmates, and the instructor(s). Here we’ll define our key terms, “text” and “technology,” and set out some of the questions that will guide our subsequent investigations. In this module we’ll also introduce the ETEC 540 Weblog, an online space that will be developed collaboratively by all members of the class.

  • Module 2: From Orality to Literacy (2 weeks)

The second module concerns itself with an examination of the shift from orality to literacy among certain cultures, and with early technologies for writing. In this section we will consider how the invention of writing may have modified human thought processes, and what effects particular developments in technologies for writing — for example, the shift from iconic to symbolic writing — had on the rise and nature of literacy. Our central text during this module will be chapter 3 of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. As well, you’ll have opportunity to contemplate some critiques of Ong (e.g., Biakolo, 1999; Hochbruck, 1996). Finally, you’ll make a visit to the British Museum in order to examine their online collections of technologies for writing.

  • Module 3: Discovering Modern Literacy (2 weeks)

In the third module we’ll examine technologies for writing before the invention of the computer (i.e., scroll, codex manuscript, print). Again, we’ll consider how these technologies modified reading and writing practices, as well as literacy instruction. In this module you’ll be asked to research, individually or in groups, the implications for literacy and education of a particular technological development (i.e., the shift from scroll to codex [paged book], or the invention of the printing press), and to make a short video documentary in which you report your findings. In the last week of this module you’ll be asked to upload your videos to the course YouTube Channel (new this session — more about the channel soon). As a class we’ll read Chapters 4 and 5 of Orality and Literacy, as well as selected articles. You’ll also be directed to some online library collections.

  • Module 4: Literacy and New Media (7 weeks)

The fourth module comprises the last half of the course. At this time we’ll shift our focus to the consideration of digital technologies for writing and multimodal forms of literacy. In contemplation of writing, we’ll examine what some have called “non-linear” or “multi-directional” forms such as hypertext or hypermedia, along with a number of social media tools for writing and multimodal forms of representation. We’ll consider what implications hypermedia has for the future of literature, literacy, and teaching methodologies. For example, do Internet-based environments for knowledge mobilization encourage what Ong has termed secondary orality? Finally, we’ll also consider how the Internet as structured by Social Media extends and/or challenges some of the assumptions and practices developed in first-generation hypertext theory.

Readings & Resources

ETEC 540 requires two key texts and a variety of other readings and resources. Both books are available to you as eBooks via the UBC Library. All other resources will be available online through the course website.

Assignments & Activities

  • Contributions to course blog (35%)

You are asked to contribute three formal commentaries of at least 500 words on course readings on the class blog, in response to readings in different modules, and to make substantive comments (at least 250 words) on a minimum of six posts written by others.

  • Video documentary describing a pre-digital communication technology (35%)

This assignment asks you to extensively research the implications for literacy and education of a particular development in technologies for writing before the computer (i.e., the shift from scroll to codex [paged book], the invention of the printing press)  and produce a video documentary based on your research. You may work with a partner if you wish.The video sgould contextualize the technological development historically and culturally, and suggest what implications this development may have had for literacy and education.

  • Participation (10%)

Complete the introductions activity, the Rip.Mix.Feed activity, and comment informally on the introductions and assignments of other students posted on the class weblog.

  • Multimedia project (20%)

In this you are invited to create a multimedia production in a format of your choosing in which you synthesize your ideas about the content of this course or respond to a salient idea, or set of ideas, that drew your attention. You may work in pairs or groups if desired.

Minor course topic, activity, reading/resource and assignment details may change from year to year.