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

  • To consider the reciprocal relations between human communication needs, practices, and technologies.
  • To develop an understanding of how communication technologies have changed through the course of history, with particular attention to writing technologies, and of how such changes may have influenced communication styles and genres.
  • To consider how responses to different media artifacts might be influenced by the medium in which each is presented (e.g., the McLuhan thesis: “the medium is the message”).
  • To consider the affordances and limitations of different technologies for knowledge mobilization.

Course Structure

Working forward from a foundational notion of writing as technology, we will progress through the course in a series of weekly modules:

Week 1 – Defining Terms and Introductions
Week 2 – Language as Technology: Spoken Language
Week 3 – Language as Technology: Written Language
Week 4 – The Mechanization of Writing

In the first four weeks, you will become acquainted with the course organization, your classmates, and the instructor(s). Here we define our key terms, “text” and “technology,” and set out some of the questions that will guide our subsequent investigations. During this time, we examine the shift from orality to literacy among certain cultures and with early technologies for writing. We 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. We also examine technologies for writing before the invention of the computer (i.e., scroll, codex manuscript, print). Again, we consider how these technologies modified reading and writing practices, as well as literacy instruction. 

Week 5 – Computer-based Writing: Early Hypertext Theory
Week 6 – The Breakout of the Visual
Week 7 – Literacy and Literacies
Week 8 – The Politics of Text
Week 9 – A Network of Texts
Week 10 – Attention Economy
Week 11 – Algorithms
Week 12 – Speculative Futures

In the last eight weeks of the course, we shift our focus to the consideration of digital technologies for writing and multimodal forms of literacy. In contemplation of writing, we 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 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 Walter Ong terms “secondary orality?” Finally, we 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

The major text for this course is:

Throughout the course, however, you will also be asked to read, view, and listen to a variety of other media, including podcasts, videos, and online and scholarly articles.

Assignments & Activities

In order to complete all the requirements for assessment in this course, you will choose a web-authoring tool and set up a personal web space within which you will document your engagement with course materials. You are not required to use any particular tool. Rather, we encourage you to choose a tool considering some of the questions raised by Postman about text and technology and the authority or set of constraints a specific digital textual space affords or denies. Moreover, we would like you to consider what is made possible by certain tools and the architectures they privilege, as opposed to others. One thing that is required is that whatever tool you choose, it must allow for social interaction with your content. Whether this is in the form of comments, annotations, or co-authoring of content (e.g., a wiki space) is up to you. Almost all the Weekly Tasks in this course require you to post your work to your webspace.

1. Weekly Tasks (12 weeks x 5% = 60%)

Each week you have been assigned a task and, possibly, an activity. Only the tasks will be assessed and graded. In order to “hand in” the task, you will submit a URL to the appropriate section of your web space in which you have posted your work.

2. Linking Assignment (10%)

This assignment is to visit your colleagues’ web spaces to read, absorb, and ponder their engagement with the course and the means by which they display this engagement in comparison with your own. You will then choose 6 items from 6 different sites that link, in some way, to your experience. You will post these links in a separate “page” on your own site, complete with a summary and reason for the link. The goal in this task is to create a web of interconnection between all the different content created by the students in ETEC 540. This assignment is an ongoing project. However, we expect that you will visit your colleagues’ sites on a regular basis AND contribute to them (via comments, co-authoring, annotations, etc.) as a part of your participation grade. Participation in ETEC 540 is assessed holistically based on your interaction with your colleagues’ web spaces and your participation in scheduled video chats (4 chats total throughout the course).

3. Describing Communication Technologies (30%)

Taking the notion of reciprocal relationships between communication needs, invention, and practices as a scaffold, extensively research a particular development in technologies for writing and reading and its implications for literacy and education. In some cases, you may work with a partner if you wish. You may produce either a video documentary, a podcast, an infographic poster, or a written piece based on your research. You must contextualize the technological development historically and culturally, taking into consideration the needs that such a development addressed and the existing practices that shaped it. You will also suggest what implications this development may have had for literacy and education. Post your creation to your own web space. The technical requirements for this assignment vary depending on the chosen mode of delivery.

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