Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Digital Literacies in Higher Education report - sneak preview!

Mary Lea promised to come back and report on the DLHE project (ESRC) in an earlier post, but I happen to know she's bogged down in lodging data from the project in various databanks at the moment, and as the official report is finished but hasn't appeared on ESRC Today yet I thought I would flag some of its highlights. (Link to follow when it's available).

Mary's report says the research was motivated by the fact that little is known about the digital texts that students encounter in their studies and wider personal lives. In fact quite a lot is thought to be known - they are blogging, facebooking, tweeting, YouTubing, MSNing, texting, and illegally downloading music and videos aren't they? This imagined activity is thought to pose a threat to their ability to carry out more traditional study activities like essay-writing. The project has taken the students side in setting out to discover what exactly they do do with technologies when they are being students - an approach owed to its Academic Literacies grounding, characterised by a vigourous resistance to 'deficit' models of student literateness.

The project has looked closely at the digital texts that students in higher education (and foundation degree bits of FE) negotiate and produce, and at the textual practices that surround their study behaviour, and has found that, by and large, they tend to start with what their teachers tell them to do, and then move on from there. They respond, in effect, to an 'institutional mandate' that is in the process of redefining how knowledge is conceptualised in the university. This foregrounds the digitally-mediated, the use of information from commercial and organisational sources, and personal and professional reflective knowing, alongside more traditional subject-based knowledge.

However, the scope and complexity of the practices that they are developing through their use of digital tools is not being fully represented in the products that they submit for marking. (Many of these assignments are still framed in terms of learning outcomes that have generally been associated with academic writing as it is conventionally thought of. In my own contribution to this research I have been exploring the embedding of academic values such as 'critical/logical thinking' and 'use of evidence' in the course descriptions and assignment rubrics that these students are responding to).

Not everything digital that is institutionally mandated is taken up. The project finds evidence of students resisting engagement with university virtual discussion environments, and sidestepping procedural aspects of academic acountability such as the competion of Personal Development templates.

The report concludes by highlighting the mutability of texts in digital form and the implications of this for approaches to teaching and learning that are still focused on the assessment of final, submitted, products. This emphasis on the textual dimensions of practice is contrasted with perspectives that focus on the technologies and the skills element of practice. The textual lens will remain robust even in the face of the inevitable changes in the tools and technical practices that institutions of higher education adopt as the digital age develops.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Teaching as interface authoring - a new literacy for course designers

Reflecting on my activity as I hurriedly get on with preparing for the next presentation of the online MA course I run at the OU: 'The ELearning Professional' (due in 3 weeks) it occurs to me that authoring teaching material via a technical system like the one the OU uses amounts to a literacy practice in its own right.

Below is an impression of the screen I'm working with:

All the headings on the left are links to bits of text, other websites, tools like forums, blogs, wikis etc. Each has a row of little icons next to it allowing me to change, delete, hide, move, or group the item. I can set any item to become visible to whomsoever I please, whensoever I please. The dropdown listbox at the top lets me change the view - to see what a student might see, for example, or a tutor, or another editor. There are a number of other admin functions I can call on in the menu on the right, like setting 'standard outcomes', or grade reports. I can incorporate news threads, new forums, calendar settings, alerts and subscriptions.

Somewhere under all this are the texts that the students read in order to do the learning that the course offers (the conceptual/cognitive learning that is - there is a lot of practical and social learning to be done in the collaborative areas as well). I have to admit that in all the structuring, designing, editing and re-editing that goes on through this interface (and I'm not the only one manipulating this course material at any one moment - there are OU editors and learning technologists helping me as well) I sometimes lose sight of what the texts actually say! In deciding whether to move this activity from unit a (where it was last year) to unit b (where I think it would be better this year), and in changing the instructions for the online activity that goes with it, to try and ensure more participation, and in redesigning aspects of the interface to conform to new accessibility standards, and in updating external weblinks that have got broken (and most of them do, from year to year) and in doing a dozen other tasks involved in 'delivering' this course, made two years ago ,to a fresh batch unseen learners, it's quite possible that I will forget what it is we are trying to teach about.

Resolutions I made last year, whilst the course was going on, about arguments that need to be clarified, or information that needs to be updated, or voices that need to be heard, or critiques that need to brought out, somehow get sidelined. The more efficient our design becomes, it seems, the more our content fossilises, as we become more and more focused on the appearance of activity and less and less on its meaning.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Forms of Literacy - in School and University

This is a thought I had whilst reading Victoria Carrington & Jackie Marsh, Forms of literacy,December 2008( This document was commissioned as part of the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families’ Beyond Current Horizons project, led by Futurelab.

A colleague passed this paper on to me, with the comment that it is a useful resource for us even though it's school-based and has traces of celebratory rhetoric. By that they meant that it occasionally adopts the slightly breathless tone of the technological visionary – “Knowledge production will be a dominant trend in the decades ahead, fuelled by greater access to participatory networks in which a more diverse range of literacy texts and practices will be used in the construction/recontextualisation of knowledge.”

However, given that it is a report for Futurelab which is usually pretty media-savvy (its Chairman is David Puttnam, celebrated film producer and also Chancellor of the OU, and its cause has been championed in parliament by no less a rhetoricist than Susan Greenfield) most of the discussion is actually quite cautious, erring on the “it is not possible at this moment in time to make firm declarations about literacy in the period 2025-2050” side, rather than the “how curriculum and pedagogy need to be transformed” one.

Apart from the fact that it is a pretty good review of 'new literacy' issues seen from the multiliteracies perspective, what is of particular interest to me is the fact that it is school-based.

They are talking about ‘dissolving boundaries’ between formal and informal learning and between real/virtual and online/offline spaces, and about literacy practices across space and time leading to transformations of texts and practices and ‘challenges to current boundaries between semiotic domains’ just as we in the HE sector are. What occurs to me is that if these major changes to the communication landscape are shaping primary & secondary curricula, what is left for universities to do, in terms of new literacies? How are blurred semiotic domains at HE level different from those that schools are dealing with?
Carrington & Marsh make the customary nod to the critical dimension of literacy and the way texts are imbued with ideologies, but it seems to me that it is chiefly the operational and the cultural (mainly participatory) aspects of communicating with new technologies that the transformed school curriculum is expected to feature. So perhaps this is where literacy in the digital university might find its particular mission – in developing and championing critique and the continuing role of objectivity in the evaluation of knowledge that is produced in participatory networks?