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Literacy at the Interface: A Study of Workplace Literacies for Communication Educators – A Research Proposal

The rapid diffusion of information and communication technology in this first decade of the 21st century is remarkable for both its pace and impact on nearly every aspect of society. The world has changed dramatically and the revolution in information and computing technologies, or ICTs, has transformed economies, governments, businesses, educational institutions, politics, science, religion, and private lives. In fact, the rapid diffusion of technology may be one reason that media ecology—the study of media as environments—continues to generate scholarly interest. Taking an ecological perspective means examining the symbiotic relationship between people and technology to understand how “technology and techniques, modes of information and codes of communication play a leading role in human affairs” (Strate, 1999, p. 1).

One can witness how the rapid cycle of technological and scientific advance and obsolescence characteristic of the age requires people and organizations to adapt to the changing environment or withdraw from technological society (Ellul, 1964). In this setting, the ecological lens provides a useful frame for analysis. In particular, communication professionals—those who work at the heart of the ongoing communication revolution—are required to adapt to the changing needs of the institutions requiring their services and the technologies they employ (Rock, 2014). Likewise, communication educators must adapt their curriculum to meet the evolving needs of students entering the profession (Dennis et al., 2003; Voakes, Beam, & Ogan, 2003). This study examines the media environment—comprised of hiring institutions, communication technology, prospective employees, and educators—to explore and describe the literacies that institutions, using 21st century communication technology, require of communication professionals.

There is considerable disagreement in the literature on the definition and meaning of literacy. Historically, reading and writing were inseparable from the meaning of literacy. However, Goody (1973) described literacy as a “technology of the intellect”, or the techniques people use to code and decode writing. This definition leads to the question: What technologies of the intellect are required to code and decode the various modalities of electronic communication? Analysis of the landscape of multiliteracies, reveals tool literacies, like computer, network, and technology literacy, and literacies of representation including information, visual, and media literacy (Tyner, 1998). The study of multiliteracies is useful, insofar as they represent the landscape of new and historical literacies, and their definitions can effectively bridge the language used by employers and communication educators. In fact, many higher education institutions use the language of literacy to define and measure the learning outcomes of their programs.

To examine the literacies required by employers and provided by higher education, this study will take a qualitative and inductive approach to research and identify how multiple literacies emerge through examination of job posts. In addition, this research will identify how well communication programs are preparing students for the literacies required by institutions by also examining the literacies defined in the program-level learning outcomes of communication departments. This study is an important contribution to the literature for two reasons: 1) empirical data from a grounded approach will reflect the social demand for multiliterate people, contributing to the literature on literacy and media ecology, 2) the analysis will be useful input for communication educators interested in adapting their curriculum to meet the exigencies of rapid technological change.

This proposal begins with a review of the literature on media ecology and literacy—particularly at the intersection of the two disciplines. Next, this proposal describes the theoretical basis for studying literacies, as they emerge in social institutions, through the lens of media ecology. In addition, this proposal will describe the research rationale and research questions. Finally, the methodology, research methods, data collection, and data analysis techniques will be described.

Literature Review

Media ecology—the study of communication systems as environments—is often referred to as a metadiscipline (Nystrom, 1974; Scolari, 2012) that incorporates a variety of traditions including cultural studies, orality-literacy studies, media logic, medium theory, “semiotics, systems theory, and the history and philosophy of technology” (Strate, 1999, p. 1). Rather than address media ecology historically and holistically, the major premises of the ecological metaphor pertinent to this study will be explained.

First, media ecology sheds light on how different media influence the way humans think and perceive, how they understand, what they value, and what social roles they play (Postman, 1970). Second, lest the definition take too deterministic a stance, for the purposes of this research, media ecology is defined as study of the symbiotic relationships between media, individuals, and society and the relationships between different media (Scolari, 2012); or how people and social institutions are both shaped by and shape media technologies.

Media ecology also draws on the study of literacy—particularly on research tracing the differences in human thought process, culture, and society between oral and literate cultures (Ong, 1991). While the historical concept of literacy is often tied distinctly to the development of alphabet and writing technology—in another sense, literacy is a ‘technology of the intellect’ reflecting changing human thought processes in their relationship with different forms of media.

Expanding the metaphor.

However, it is first necessary to explore the media ecology metaphor further to place literacy in the proper context. Expanding the ecological metaphor, Scolari (2012) chronicled two dominant interpretations of media ecology: a) media as an environment that surrounds subjects, modeling both perception and thought, and b) intermedia—the idea of media as distinct species in an ecosystem that form relationships with each other. In an attempt to expand the metaphor and open up new theoretical questions and avenues for research—while incorporating the dominant interpretations—Scolari (2012) introduced three related concepts: a) evolution, b) interface, and c) hybridization.

Media evolution.

While several scholars have used the evolution metaphor to explain media (Dimmick, 2003; Lehan-Wilzig & Cohen-Avigdor, 2004) or technology (Arthur, 2009; Diamond, 2005) change over time, Scolari’s (2012) introduction of the evolution concept expanded the ecological metaphor in an important way. The study of media as environment typically explores the relationship between media, humans, and society across space or synchronically. As a complementary approach, exploring media evolution across time, or diachronically, allows media ecologists to borrow several important ideas from evolutionary ecology, including: a) how media emerge, survive, or go extinct based on the relationships between technologies, subjects, and social institutions, b) whether and how media develop patterns of punctuated equilibrium—long periods of stasis followed by a burst of invention, and c) how different media, or humans and media coevolve (Scolari, 2012).


Computer scientists describe the physical or logical connection between two systems or devices as the interface—the boundary between systems where communication is negotiated. There are two specific categories of interface, between technologies—such as the interface between a computer and an external storage device, constructed as both physical objects and logical code—and between humans and technology, or what computer scientists call the user interface (Scolari, 2012). Thus, Scolari (2012) suggested “every media has an interface…and at the same time, every media is an interface” (p. 216). The book is an instructive example. A book has an interface that includes printed pages, navigational aids, paratexts, and the reader (Scolari, 2012). In addition, a book is an interface integrating a variety of technologies including the alphabet, writing, paper, and indexing logic, to name but a few.

Scolari (2012) suggested the dualistic nature of interface sets the stage for rethinking media ecology as an integrated theory of interface. One the one hand, examining the interface between human and technology is old hat for media ecologists; however introducing a coevolutionary perspective on the human/technology and technology/technology interface might create enlightening opportunities for new research into how media coevolves and how media and humans coevolve (Scolari, 2012). Thus, “the interface is a key concept for our theoretical discourse because it integrates the two interpretations of media ecology” (Scolari, 2012, p. 217).

Moreover, Scolari (2012) envisioned interface more broadly as a site of dialogue between media ecologists and theorists who explore actor-network theories or social construction of technology theories—because the interface might be equally considered the site where political, social, and economic actors negotiate with humans and technology.


Hybridization is the idea that media confront and contaminate each other at the interface (Scolari, 2012). For instance, the logic of the book interface remains intact in electronic books, albeit with new affordances and constraints resulting from the hybridization of the book with the digital form. New affordances include searching within the text and linkable table of contents, while constraints include the need for power, and loss of pages in favor of locations.

Just as media ecology is still an emerging metadiscipline, Scolari’s (2012) expansion of the media ecology metaphor is a promising, yet emergent, theory. The author contributes to media ecology theory by introducing the concepts of evolution, interface, and hybridization—concepts whose promise is the integration of synchronic and diachronic examination of media through the concept of interface. However, interfaces and the coevolutionary and hybridization processes influencing them are worthy of deeper examination.

Interfaces have logics or properties on both ends that determine the nature of the interface. In the case of computer interface to an external hard drive, there is a physical wire with standard logic defining the interface between devices. In addition, there is software logic in both the computer and device to make sense of the signals sent over the physical wire. Each end of the interface has properties or logic. When examining the interface between humans and technology, similar properties or logic is evident. At the technology end of the human technology interface are properties—physical or otherwise—that allow humans to manipulate the technology. On the human end of the technology interface are where human senses and literacies play a role in allowing people to make sense of and use the specific properties and logics of the technology.

Literacy at the interface.

Following this line of reasoning, literacy is a technology of the intellect subject to coevolution and hybridization processes at the interface between humans, communication technology, and social institutions. While literacy scholars have not generally described literacy as an evolving concept, many literacy scholars suggest the concept of literacy changed with the diffusion of new communication technology (Graff, 1995; Johnson, 1978; Tyner, 1998). The idea that changes in literacy are coincident with changes in technology is suggestive of a coevolutionary process at the interface between humans and technology. Furthermore, literacy appears to be subject to hybridization as well. Indeed, Tyner (1998) suggested that “history demonstrates that literacy technologies ebb and flow, depending on the circumstances. They overlap, coexist, and change in symbiotic ways.” (p. 13). Definitions of multiliteracies are a case in point, insofar as they significantly overlapped in their scope and in their descriptions of required knowledge, skills, and abilities (Tyner, 1998). Coincidentally, there is additional support for the presence of evolutionary processes at the interface.

Literacy scholars frequently employ competencies, like knowledge, skill, and abilities into descriptions or definitions of literacies (Aufderheide & Firestone, 1993; Considine, 1990; McClure, 1994). Equally, employers depend on the same language when defining job competencies used for recruitment and performance reasons (Marrelli, 1998; Rock, 2014; Shippmann et al., 2000). According to Marelli (1998), “a competency is a measurable capability required to effectively perform work”. Competencies are typically expressed in at least one—or a cluster—of knowledge, skills, and abilities (Marrelli, 1998). Marelli (1998) defined competencies further:

Knowledge is the information or understanding needed to perform a task successfully…skill is a learned capacity to successfully perform a task or activity with a specified outcome…[and] ability is a demonstrated cognitive or physical capacity to successfully perform a task with a wide range of outcomes. (p. 10)

The commonality between literacy definitions and job competencies suggest ideas about literacy are shared across the interface between literacy and social institutions; it also provides researchers examining the interface a useful bridge between corporations, governments, and non-profits, and post-secondary education (Bertlsen & Goodboy, 2009; Paulson, 2001).

Theoretical Basis

Media ecology—generally considered a metadiscipline (Nystrom, 1974)—studies the symbiotic relationship between people, technology, society, and culture, and the relationships between technologies (Scolari, 2012). Scolari (2012) expanded the ecological metaphor to include media evolution and related evolutionary processes like media extinction/survival, coevolution, and hybridization. Furthermore, Scolari (2012) suggested the interface between humans and technologies or between technologies is the site where evolutionary and ecological processes, like coevolution and hybridization occur.

Exploring the interface concept, I suggest interfaces require specific communicative logics or properties at both ends of the interface. Specifically, literacy is the adaptive technology on the human end of an interface subject to coevolutionary processes.

In addition, the interface is the site “where political, social, and economic actors express, and interact with, technologies and humans” (Scolari, 2012, p. 216). Therefore, the interface is where humans and social institutions are both shaped by and shape media technologies through coevolutionary processes over time. As technologies evolve and social institutions deploy them, pressure is placed on people to acquire or learn new literacies, or further develop existing literacies, based on the affordances and constraints of the particular technologies being used. In fact, literacies show evidence of coevolution and hybridization: they change over time (Graff, 1995), new literacies emerge (Tzu-Bin, Jen-Yi, Feng, & Ling, 2013), and the definitions of different literacies contaminate each other (Tyner, 1998).

Therefore, literacies can be considered an important part of the interface between humans and technologies, and equally the interface between humans and social institutions in their relationships with ICTs.

One relationship, in particular, is worthy of investigating to discern the nature of literacy as an interface subject to evolutionary and ecological processes—the symbiotic relationship between communication educators and social institutions like corporations, government, and non-profits. In essence, communication professionals are expected to be literate with a variety of ICTs, given the centrality of ICTs in modern organizations, and communication educators are expected to prepare communication professionals with the literacies required by employers (Bertlsen & Goodboy, 2009; Rock, 2014; Wardrope, 1999). Given literacy scholars, employers, and educators all use the language of job competencies, exploration of this interface may yield important insights.

Research Rationale

The rapid pace of technological change shows little sign of abating; in fact, Kurzweil (2005) observed the rate of technological change follows an exponential curve. Already, literacy scholars and educational institutions struggle to adapt to the shift from literacy practices designed for the Industrial Age towards the literacies required in the Information Age (Tyner, 1998). The convergence of communication and literacy theory into a unified approach might set the stage for new perspectives on theory and practical insights for educators (Tyner, 1998). By using Scolari’s (2012) expansion of the media ecology perspective, theorists from both disciplines can open up new perspectives by examining literacy at the interface—and as an interface.

Indeed, this particular study combines theory from both disciplines to examine literacy as an integral part of the human/technology interface, and as an interface between social institutions. Consequently, this research will contribute to both traditions. First, this study will shed light on emerging literacy requirements as social institutions define them, creating a point of comparison for theoretical literacy frameworks. Second, this study will test the explanatory power and usefulness of Scolari’s (2012) expansion of the media ecology metaphor.

Finally, this study will produce practical insights for communication educators to guide their curriculum development and redesign efforts. Most research on communication-related job competencies focus on the general communication competencies required of any employee, rather than the competencies required of communication professional (Bertlsen & Goodboy, 2009; Curtis, Winsor, & Stephens, 1989; Wardrope, 1999; Weitzel & Gaske, 1984; Wood & Gregg, 1995). In fact, Spicer’s (1979) examination of the job market for communication specialists was the last published study that provided input to communication educators. Furthermore, I did not find any published studies describing the literacies employers require of communication professionals resulting from their deployment of ICTs. Therefore, this study addresses a significant gap in the literature.

Research questions.

This research will explore and describe the similarities and differences between the literacies required by employers of communication professionals, taught by communication educators, and predicted by new literacy theorists. The data collected will provide empirical support for the explanatory power and usefulness of Scolari’s (2012) conception of the interface as a minimal unit of analysis in media ecology research. Finally, the data collected will have practical value for communication educators.

This research will answer the following questions:

RQ1: What literacies do employers seek in communication professionals?

RQ2: What literacies do communication educators design into their curriculum?


This study is simultaneously descriptive and explanatory in nature. According to Neuman (2011), descriptive research is ideal when attempting to locate new data that might contradict previous data, and to create a set of categories, while explanatory research is useful when elaborating on a theory or extending it to new areas of interest (Neuman, 2011).

To identify and describe literacies, this research will analyze multiple cases of job posts for communication professionals and multiple cases of student learning objectives. Analysis of both type of texts—or secondary data (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008)—will allow the researcher to capture the dynamism of human’s relationship with technology, while situating the researcher close to social actors’ construction of literacy in their social world. Thus, this research will take a qualitative approach, allowing the researcher to contextualize the data and provide detailed description of literacies as employers and educators experience and define them. Qualitative research is appropriate when researchers are seeking to enhance data rather than condense it, and when the research requires thematic analysis (Neuman, 2011). This research requires a qualitative approach to thematically analyze and enhance data expressed as job competencies or student learning objectives, into higher-order literacy categories.

Given the purpose of this research, case study research will be the primary research method used to study literacies. In particular, extensive case study research—a design allowing researchers to map “common patterns and properties across cases” (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008, p. 118)—is suitable to the nature of the study. Of course, case study approaches to research design vary considerably in their techniques for data collection, use of logic, analytical techniques, and reporting (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008). This case study research will draw on grounded theory to inform the research design. While grounded theory is typically used to inductively build theory faithful to empirical data (Neuman, 2011, p. 71), some researchers use a grounded theory approach to classify and organize data, while eschewing the theory generation aspects of the approach (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008). This research takes the latter approach.


The scope of this study will be bound by the sources of case material, the selection of cases, the sample size. This case study research is considered an instrumental case study, insofar as the researcher is less interested in the cases, than in the cases’ usefulness to generate knowledge (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008). Therefore, purposive sampling is ideal, allowing the researchers to identify the types of cases with data relevant to literacies related to ICTs. There are two primary types of cases the researcher will analyze: 1) job posts for communication professionals, and 2) the program-level student learning objectives designed into undergraduate communication programs.

Qualitative research can use a variety of nonprobability sampling techniques based on best fit to the research study (Neuman, 2011). Purposive sampling is one type of nonrandom sample that relies on the researcher to identify cases especially significant or informative to the research (Neuman, 2011). Purposive sampling is appropriate in this study to identify the cases where literacy data exists. For example, job posts containing data on knowledge, skill, or ability requirements, will be purposively selected based on their relevance to the research. In contrast, job posts without reference to specific knowledge, skill, and ability requirements will not be examined. Rather than target a specific number of cases, the researcher will continue to select additional cases until saturation occurs.


While case study research is widespread in social science and business, media ecologists in the North American context, have not used the method. Instead, most media ecologists study media environments in a multidisciplinary manner as part historian, philosopher, cultural critic, semanticist, and conscientious objector—the discipline is not exemplified by empirical research (Lum, 2006). However, Scolari’s (2012) identification of the interface as a minimal unit of analysis opens up the possibility of empirical work in the field. Case study research is an appropriate qualitative method for this study because the paradigm’s analytical techniques include both pattern identification from empirical data and explanation building (Yin, 2002). Using the case study method allows the researcher to describe patterns of literacy grounded in empirical data, while explaining literacy’s function as the human side of the technology interface. What follows in this section are detailed descriptions of research methods, data collection strategies, and the data analysis approach.

Research methods. This researcher will use an extensive case study design to collect and analyze literacy data from two distinct, yet related, populations—social institutions hiring communication professionals, and communication educators. An extensive case study design does not examine a single case, rather uses multiple cases as instruments to generate knowledge beyond any single case, often in the form of patterns or themes that emerge from the data (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008). In extensive case research, the researcher needs to design the research logically and systematically by defining the unit of analysis, selecting relevant cases, and using appropriate data collection and analysis strategies (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008).

The unit of analysis in this study is the description of knowledge, skills, and abilities residing in each case. Notably, hiring institutions use job competencies—typically framed as knowledge, skills, and abilities—to assess whether job candidates are qualified for a given position (Marrelli, 1998; Shippmann, et al., 2000). Equally, literacy scholars use the similar language to express the similarities and differences between literacies (Aufderheide & Firestone, 1993; Considine, 1990; McClure, 1994). Given knowledge, skills, and abilities are common descriptions for both social institutions hiring communication professionals and communication educators, this researcher’s use of them as a unit of analysis is an appropriate choice.

Data collection. In extensive case study method, researchers can use a variety of approaches to selecting cases to analyze. As noted earlier in the document, this study will use purposive sampling. Purposive sampling is a type of nonprobability sampling common to qualitative research where researchers deliberately select cases for the information they contain relevant to the research question (Maxwell, 1997; Neuman, 2011). To assure valid findings, outliers will be sought during data collection (Barbour, 2001). For this study, cases will be selected from two types of cases—job posts and program-level student learning objectives—based on their usage of the unit of analysis. Job posts for communication professionals are texts typically found on job aggregation web sites like indeed.com or simplyhired.com. Each job post will be treated as a case.

However, the program-level student learning objectives from communication programs are not as readily available and will require another research method to collect the case data. Therefore, this researcher will design an online survey of undergraduate communication programs where the curriculum has one or more classes on ICTs. The online survey will ask respondents to share their program-level student learning objectives.

Rather than target a specific number of cases for each type of case, this research will use the theoretical saturation technique. Theoretical saturation occurs when adding additional cases no longer provides new information to the researcher (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008; Mason, 2010). Thus, the saturation technique allows the researcher flexibility to follow their interest in the empirical data until the data no longer provides information pertinent to the study. Therefore, the specific number of cases will not be specified in advance.

However, Mason’s (2010) examination of sample size in dissertations using qualitative research is instructive. The author studied sample sizes for qualitative studies and found case study research ranged between 4 and 87 with a mean of 36 cases. Given this study will examine multiple samples across two distinct populations with different methods of data collection, the sample size will likely be at the higher end of the range (Ritchie, Lewis, & Elam, 2003).

Data analysis. The study’s data analysis approach will draw heavily from grounded theory. In particular, this study adopts the concept-indicator model of analysis and the associated constant comparison method as an approach to interpret the raw texts and ultimately generate higher order literacy themes. The constant comparison method is a process whereby indicators in the data are first compared with each other during the analysis to identify the similarities and differences (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008; Glaser, 2004). Though the process of constant comparison, higher-level categories or concepts are produced through the researchers interplay with the data (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008; Glaser, 2004). As noted earlier, this researcher will not follow the constant comparison method into theory generation—that is not the purpose of the research. Therefore, the analysis will not be pure grounded theory—a fact Glaser (2004) might describe as muddling the method and turning grounded theory into technique.

However, using grounded theory for analysis is appropriate to the focus of this research investigation. In grounded theory, coding is essential to analysis (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008; Glaser, 2004). There are three types of coding: open, axial, and selective (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008). Open coding is the researchers first interaction with data—a line-by-line coding process whereby substantive codes are developed, that both describes the data and allows the researcher to become intimate with the data (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008). Open coding helps the researcher produce categories grounded in the data (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008). It is important to note that detailed memoing during the coding process will allow the researcher to provide step-by-step explanations of insights developed during the coding process.

Axial coding is the analysis of single code at a time, helping the researcher abstract the categories to a higher level (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008). In axial coding, higher-level abstraction is achieved by uncovering the relationships between categories by asking questions of the data, “such as why, how come, where, when, how and with what results” (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008, p. 165). Finally, selective coding, the critical step in theory building, is about refining the analysis until the larger theoretical theme emerges.

This research will rely on both open coding and axial coding to identify the descriptions and categories of literacies related to ICTs grounded in the data. In fact, literacy is the higher order abstraction and sensitizing concept—or “general sense of reference” (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008, p. 129)—in this research. Thus, selective coding is not desirable, nor necessary, in this study. While this approach might be considered unacceptable to proponents of traditional grounded theory, it is both practical and appropriate for this research. Indeed, rather than attempt to generate a new theory of literacy, the aim of the research is to describe literacy requirements resulting from adoption of ICTs and literacy requirements communication educators design into their curriculum—as a point of comparison for existing literacy theory. Moreover, the purposive samples selected by the researcher necessarily focus on cases with data already laden with theory in the form of job competencies and accepted literacy practices in higher education.

Ethical Considerations

By conducting this research, I will be joining the research community and taking on the ethical responsibilities that come with the role.   While all of the ethical responsibilities that come with doing research may not be applicable to this particular study, I considered each responsibility in turn to holistically evaluate the ethics of the proposed study. Given this survey will include an online survey, an informed consent statement will be provided to participants. An informed consent statement describes the purpose of the research and a description of research procedures, describes any risks, guarantees participant anonymity and confidentiality of records, identifies the researcher, describes the voluntary nature of participation, and offers to provide a summary of the findings (Neuman, 2011). In addition, the study collects job post data from pubic sources. The data collection will not include information identifying the company to protect their right to privacy.

The most significant ethical risk is assuring the trustworthiness and quality of the findings. As in any qualitative research study, high methodological standards are required to assure the accuracy of the research (Eriksson & Kovaleainen, 2008; Neuman, 2011). Built into the research design is triangulation of data between two distinct types of cases and triangulation of theories across literacy theory and media ecology. In addition, this researcher will triangulate researchers during the coding process by testing the intercoder reliability of the coding procedure. 


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About rjrock

Husband, Father, Friend, Business & Technology Executive, Student, Veteran, Leadership and Communication Scholar, Lifelong Learner, Sailor, Musician, Basketball Player, Camper, Harley Rider, Dog Lover, Lover of the Lived Experience, Coach, Mentor, Tutor


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