Technological Acculturation

Here’s an excellent post from the ‘teacherstream’ blog on WordPress. The video is well worth watching. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The benefits of technology for enhanced student engagement and student achievement are endless and without boundary. I truly believe that we can use technology as a key tool to differentiate our teaching / learning process and to meet the individual needs of students within any diverse classroom. Not only can we better serve the multiple intelligences of students, but we can serve them within the world they are so familiar. As excited as I am about the digital revolution and its role in education, I have found that there are equally as many that are skeptical, and some that are just downright intimidated or afraid.

Much as I enjoyed this post, the grammatical error in the first paragraph (second clause of the third sentence) was a bit jarring. Ironically, perhaps, it points to the need for attention to traditional literacy alongside digital literacy. At least it will be easy to correct the error, given that this is not a print medium. By commenting on the blog, I’ve also provided an instance of Social Constructivism (Collective Intelligence) in action. Perhaps by the time others read my words here, the original will have been updated!

The video makes its point about digital text in a very graphic way, but it is slightly misleading in a historical sense. It implies that the separation of form and content associated with XML (the eXtensible Markup Language) is something that postdated HTML (HyperText Markup Language). While it is true that HTML was first specified by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, and the first specification of XML dates to 1998, XML is actually a subset of SGML (the Standard Generalized Markup Language), which has its origins in the 1960s. XML and SGML are different to HTML in a very important respect, but in order to explain this I need to take a short historical detour.

The term ‘markup’ comes from publishing. Traditionally a manuscript was ‘marked up’ in order to indicate to a typesetter what typeface, size, etc. was to be used for printing. With the arrival of digital documents, it became necessary to devise a computer-readable code that would allow the sharing of documents between computers. Documents produced with an application on one computer might need to be interpreted by a different application on another computer. SGML was designed to make this possible, and it was based entirely on the separation of form and content, all the way back in the 1960s, long before HTML and XML.

SGML is not so much a language as a metalanguage: it allows the user to create any number of markup languages. The creation of a markup language involves the definition of ‘elements’ (or tags) that describe content. For example, I could create an SGML language for use in medical publishing. I might create a tag for a ‘unit of content’ (such as a traditional chapter), and a tag for specialist medical terminology. Once the tags are defined (and stored in a separate document), the content can be marked up and processed by any computer for ‘rendering’ into print.

HTML is basically an application of SGML. It is a markup language rather than a metalanguage. Its tags were created in order to make possible the rendering of content by any computer (using the browser software designed for the purpose). It is not very flexible because its tags have all been defined (by the W3C), and they mostly relate to visual presentation (i.e. form).

XML, on the other hand, is a metalanguage. It is in fact a subset of SGML, designed for ease of use on the Internet. Like SGML, XML allows the creation of limitless markup languages. As long as the tags are defined somewhere, then software can be devised to interpret them. It does postdate HTML, but the principles on which it is based (separation of form and content) pre-date HTML by a couple of decades, in the form of its parent metalanguage, SGML.


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5 Responses to “Technological Acculturation”

  1. Mark Pegrum Says:

    Nice illustration of a lot of the principles we’ve been talking about in the course! In particular, as you say, the quote reminds us of the need to balance traditional with newer forms of literacy.

  2. Ross Says:

    Could you also point out all the LITERACY errors on my blogs? I see plenty but have yet to update. Perhaps being shamed on the permanent web I will be more proactive.

  3. erasmid Says:

    What Ross said – but I’m thinking of trying a “1337” post (, do you edit that writing too?

    and in the unlikely event that you make one I notice, I’ll return the favour.

    In praise of keeping linguistic evolution under control,

  4. apuley Says:

    “Perhaps being shamed on the permanent web I will be more proactive.” I don’t feel shamed, merely amused at the pretentiousness of those that actually criticize the writing of others on the web. Surely there are better things to do.

  5. Simon Kidd Says:

    “I’m professional, you’re pretentious, he’s pedantic.” 😉

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