A child reads information in a school textbook. A child then reads on the Internet. Is reading the same?
No, says Dr. Donald Leu, a prominent reading researcher, director of UConn’s internationally renowned New Literacies Research Lab in the Neag School of Education and the John and Maria Neag Endowed Chair in Literacy and Technology. “This is a digital native generation,” he says. “But they are really not very skilled in using information.”
Leu believes he can change that. “We’ve identified the skills and strategies for successful online reading and writing,” he says. “I care deeply about preparing our children for the kinds of reading and writing demands that will define their future.”
Leu predicted the Internet would be a powerful tool when he first encountered it in 1994. Seventeen years later, two billion people are online. And he foresees that within seven to 10 years, everyone in the world will be. The challenges that coincide with its growth are multiplying too.
An affable yet ambitious academic who is a graduate of Michigan State, Harvard and Berkeley, Leu was comfortably ensconced as chair of the Department of Reading and Language Arts at Syracuse University when the Neag Endowed Chair came calling. The Neag chair would enable Leu to teach teachers new ways of reading instruction, and provide funding to create and run the literacy center.
He accepted the chair. During his tenure at UConn, the literacies lab has established itself as the premier center for research on new reading comprehensions and learning skills required by the Internet and other technologies. Leu is also widely published, and recently co-published the Handbook of Research on New Literacies (Erlbaum, 2008).
Groundbreaking research has its perks: Leu’s reputation and the literacies lab’s discoveries have attracted the attention of a number of charitable heavy hitters including the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, PBS, the Annenberg Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among a host of others who have combined to provide grants in excess of $8 million.
More than attracting grant money, the chair has brought international acclaim to the University. Leu lectures throughout the world on Internet literacies, and says he is consistently surprised by the prestige the chair has afforded UConn.
“It’s amazing to me,” he says. “I give 30 to 50 talks a year, and when I am introduced as an endowed chair at a talk, I see the impact. With this chair, UConn has achieved the stature and recognition at the level of other major universities in ways that are sometimes hard to accomplish. Everywhere in the world, people know of our research.”
Leu realizes that what he is seeking – to change the world’s classrooms – is not for the faint of heart. But the impact of his work continues to drive him. “When you teach a child to read and write,” he says, “you change the world.”