Electronic Literacies: Language, Culture, and Power in Online Education

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Electronic Literacies: Language, Culture, and Power in Online Education

Mark Warschauer (1999)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. iii + 220
ISBN 0-8058-3119-3 (paper)
US $22.50


Electronic Literacies: Language, Culture, and Power in Online Education is a book that investigates the uses of the Internet and other educational technologies in four language and writing classes: an undergraduate English as a second language (ESL) writing class at a small Christian college, a graduate ESL writing class at a large university, an undergraduate intensive Hawai’ian language class at the same university, and an English writing class at a community college.

Mark Warschauer, the author of this book, is an educational technology specialist at America-Mideast Educational and Training Services in Cairo, Egypt. He has taught graduate courses at the university of Hawai’i, Manoa. His research interests include technology in language education. Electronic Literacies is based on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Hawai’i, and reports on a two-year ethnographic study of the uses of the Internet and its role in the development of the language and literacy of linguistically and culturally diverse students.


The book consists of six chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix that has additional notes on the ethnographic approach and methods that Warschauer used for researching the online classroom. The first chapter, “Introduction: Surveying the Terrain of Literacy,” provides an historical perspective on how technologies available for reading and writing, along with other economic, cultural, and political factors, affect people’s experiences and thinking about literacy. It also discusses three contentious issues: a) the nature of electronic literacy, b) electronic literacies and school reform, and c) electronic literacy and inequality. [-1-]

The second chapter, “Computers, Composition, and Christianity,” describes the use of technology in an undergraduate ESL writing class that Warschauer researched at a small Christian college on the island of O’ahu. To understand teaching and learning practices observed in this class, he examined four aspects of the social context of learning: a) the church and college, b) the English language program, c) the teacher’s background and beliefs, and d) the triangular relationship that developed among teacher, researcher, and students.

Chapter 3, “Networking into Academic Discourse,” discusses the integration of technology into a noncredit writing course for international graduate students in the English language program at the University of Hawai’i. This course was a supplemental class for foreign students who had been admitted to the university but needed extra help with their English language proficiency. The students met in a networked computer laboratory twice a week to practice using online tools such as electronic mail, the World Wide Web, and a program for real-time chatting called Daedalus Interchange.

Chapter 4, “Computer-assisted Language Revitalization,” looks at a general Hawai’ian language class using the Daedalus Interchange software. Every week the teacher posted questions or topics for discussion. After several weeks, the students practiced their Hawai’ian by e-mailing students from another school. Near the end of the semester, they did a research paper using Internet resources and published it on the Web.

In chapter 5, “Cyber Service Learning,” the researcher reports on uses of the Internet in a service learning class for working students from diverse backgrounds. The students collaboratively used the Daedalus Interchange program at the beginning of the course; in the second part of the course they wrote service learning publications including World Wide Web pages for community organizations.

In chapter 6, “Conclusion: Striving Toward Multiliteracies,” Warschauer returns briefly to the interrelation among new electronic literacies, school reform, and the impact of the Internet on quality. He concludes that students of diverse linguistic, cultural, and class backgrounds need more than the Internet. They need to have knowledge of the pragmatic use of language and the discourse of power. They need to learn how to solve problems collaboratively with their classmates and with other students from different schools. They also need to read, write, and think about social and cultural issues and how they relate to their lives. These opportunities would help them establish a voice in society.

The epilogue shows the development of the teachers of the four classes after the semester in which Warschauer worked with them. An appendix describes the methodology of the study.


The technique used for collecting data is especially inspirational for researchers. Warschauer entered most of the classes as a co-teacher or a helper rather than merely an outside researcher. To be able to understand the students and their cultures, he also played the role of a learner in the Hawai’ian course. He explains: “I believe my role as a learner in the class contributed positively to the study in two important ways, it gave me insights into the issues I was investigating from a learner’s perspective, and it facilitated my contact with the other students, as I was able to interact fully with them on a daily basis” (p. 90). These multiple roles as teacher-researcher-student enabled him to construct convincing results. [-2-]

The book is well written, without too much reliance on technical jargon, and easy to read. The title reflects its content well, and the design of the cover catches the reader’s attention. It is a well-organized book, except for one minor point: putting the description of the study at the end in an appendix. It may be that Warschauer included it at the end of the book as a supplement because he was concerned that discussions of research methodology would interrupt the succession of the chapters of the book. However, placing the approach and methods of the study at the beginning of the book would have given readers a clearer idea of how the information was gathered before they read the core chapters.

Electronic Literacies is a timely book filled with important ethnographic data on technology and language education, including interviews with students and teachers, observation of classrooms, and transcripts of students’ online interactions. It is one of the few attempts to explore the role of the Internet in the development of the language and literacy of minority students, who have typically been overlooked in Internet-based education. The methodology used in this study can be applied to other groups of students in other contexts.

This text is an excellent resource for teachers and administrators interested in understanding the effects of new technologies on language teaching and learning. Through this understanding, they can promote the use of technology in their classrooms. Overall, the book is a valuable new addition to the field of technology and language teaching and learning.

Saad AlKahtani
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation.