Last night a patron asked for help designing a website. Expecting a laborious foray into HTML and CSS, imagine my surprise when she showed me her laptop…the webpage was being built using Weebly. Here’s the catch: I had never seen Weebly until that very instant. I didn’t even know what a ‘Weebly’ was. How could I possibly help her include a hyperlinked image on her website when I had never seen the Weebly design platform before?
Well, it took less than five minutes to teach her how to use Weebly. But…how could I take a content editor I had never seen and turn it into a teaching moment? The answer is transliteracy.
Let me give a rough approximation of my thought processes. First, a screenshot of Weebly may help:
The particular task the patron needed help with involved (1) uploading a local image to her Weebly page, (2) inserting the image in the upper-left part of the main content area, and (3) adding a hyperlink to the image. Here’s how I tackled it:
- Note that Weebly has a “toolbar” with assorted content elements from which to choose
- The “canvas” instructs users to drag elements into place.
- Most programs that allow you to insert an image will allow you to upload an image from your local machine.
- Content editors usually allow left, center, and right justifications at a bare minimum.
- Most authoring programs allow you to set hyperlinks with either a right-click context menu or a little icon that either says “link” or shows a few links of chain
- So, in Weebly, you probably drag the photo icon to the intended spot on the canvas, look for a context menu that says “insert image” or something similar, locate the desired image on your computer, look for a context menu with a chain icon or the word ‘link’, copy and paste the desired URL at the appropriate place, and save/submit.
Though I had never seen Weebly before, a quick glance at its editing environment brought to mind other content editors ranging from PowerPoint to Word to Blogger to Picasa and more. Further, I understand the basics of HTML and the general design principles that websites usually follow. Almost instantaneously, I was able to take a new content editor, and map onto it the user interfaces and design principles for dozens of programs that I know quite well. I never had to Google for help or click around until I found the answer. In a sense, I knew how to use Weebly without ever having seen it. This, I contend, is an instance of transliteracy.
To explain, notice what it was not. It was not an instance of communicating using multiple media. It was not a particular level of comfortability with the digital. What it was was an instance of the cognitive processes that allowed me to take preexisting concepts and apply them in a new environment. I am literate with respect to, say, Blogger, meaning I understand the syntax, the semiotics, and the semantics of the Blogger platform. In successfully transferring this “literacy” (and others) to Weebly, I exhibited transliteracy.
Granted, this is a crude example, but it’s what I think of when I hear talk of transliteracy: i.e., transliteracy refers to certain cognitive abilities that allow us to transfer skills and knowledge across a range of information systems. I’m not proffering a definition. I’m just giving an everyday example. I’ll be a bit more technical in the next post.