Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Lit vs TEL - a response to Robin

This is more or less copied from my own blog where I posted it several days ago, so apologies for duplication.

Robin makes some good points about the clash of the 'literacies in learning' and the 'technologies in learning' frameworks, and I'm always in favour of surfacing these tensions. We spend far too much time in e-learning trying to pretend it doesn't matter whether we're hardened instrumentalists or dyed in the wool social theorists, and it won't do.

However, I'm not sure ANY of the presentations I heard at the event, with the possible exception of (some bits of) Chris Jones' summing up (hope Chris is blogging this), fitted the charge that we 'simply utilised the term 'literacies' as a descriptor for different kinds of technical practices'. Personally I avoided the term 'literacy' as much as possible in that company, recognising that it has already been comprehensively theorised and to some extent therefore claimed by academics working in a very particular domain. I prefer to talk about knowledge practices, i.e the expression of some presumed personal capacities, preferences and habits in particular situations (I'm interested in the practices and situations, I'm not at all sure how one goes about accessing or even very usefully defining the personal capacities otherwise). By knowledge practice I do not at all mean 'signing up to follow someone's tweets' as a single action in a particular technology-enabled space, but I probably do mean the bundle of actions I perform using twitter and the meanings they have for me, and for others involved.

One problem may be that just as the literacy people are making certain assumptions about 'their' frameworks being widely shared, we too are making certain assumptions about 'our' technology being widely used. For example, putting a twitterstream live behind a speaker is for me so 'normal' that I didn't even stop to think that there might be sensibilities to consider. For any given f2f event of that kind I expect there to be an accompanying 'event' taking place on twitter (not a 'representation' of the 'real' event but another, parallel event). This 'other' is not even necessarily less interesting or engaging than the first (see http://www.daveswhiteboard.com/archives/2874 on the great keynote/harshtag debate - and twestivals, tweetmeets and flashmobs are examples of an originary twitter event breaking out into the 'real'). And bringing the two events into closer proximity through projection has evolved (I now realise) as a means of dealing with several social issues, e.g. exclusion (people not tweeting can at least take part vicariously in that event), respect (tweeting cannot take place behind anyone's back), interaction (questions can be taken from 'the floor' on a much broader basis), equality (people lacking the confidence to speak in public can tweet in public) etc etc.

I was frustrated in Edinburgh (for reasons not at all the fault of the University or our lovely hosts) that I couldn't get online to twitter, and so could not involve the many people outside of the physical situation who I knew were interested in it. In fact, to confess my own technology predelictions, I didn't feel properly 'there' as a result. Had I been tweeting I would not have been failing to engage properly in 'the real': on the contrary, I find tweeting an event for others at least as reflective as writing notes, with the added advantage of bringing other people's reactions and ideas into the live situation.

Before we have appropriated a technology to a personal and social practice, the technology itself seems to be the point (this is Robin's perspective). To the outsider, whether by choice or exclusion, the technology IS the practice. So for my 3-yr old writing is pens. To the insider, the technology is only visible when it becomes a problem (can't get online). The social practices that Robin found objectionable did need surfacing and exploring and negotiating, but to suggest that they were 'simply' technical practices, and that the technical was hijacking the social, is an equally one-sided perspective.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The great LiDU Twitter debate!

Chris Jones put another spoke in the LiDU first seminar wheel (see post Tuesday, 20 October 2009) when he put the #LiDU twitterstream (http://twapperkeeper.com/lidu/) up on the projector at the beginning of the plenary session and claimed it was another kind of representation of the seminar. Some of the audience complained that it was not a representation of the seminar as they had experienced it and that it was distracting for those who were trying to have a discussion , which it was, as a debate then arose between those who were tweeting, and those who weren't and didn't see why such commenting had to be displayed for everyone else to read.

My own contribution to the debate was to point out that we had spent several minutes discussing a practice that was relatively peripheral to the ongoing discussion, and that this was a good illustration of the way new digital practices have a tendency to highjack educational agendas. However, I made the mistake of characterising the tweeters in our midst as 'digital natives' with the implication that the rest of us were their parents! This was not well received by at least one of the twitterati!

I've commented before on the way that 'social reporting' activities can disrupt face-to-face interactions and distort the relationships they afford (July 7th http://literacyinthedigitaluniversity.blogspot.com/2009/07/social-reporting-as-new-literacy.html). This seemed to me to be another, albeit less problematic, example of the same thing. Having said that I have to admit to being not totally displeased when we got an email from Laura Czerniewicz in Cape Town later saying she'd been reading the #LiDU tweets and wanted a copy of the paper that we referred to in our presentation! Clearly twitter has its uses, even for digital dinosaurs....

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

LIT meets TEL

The LiDU seminars were funded in order to bring together people from different disciplinary orientations, specifically applied linguistics and educational technology, to consider the meaning of Literacy in educational contexts which are characterised by the use of digital technologies. In his contribution to the plenary session at the end of the Friday 16th seminar, Chris Jones asked people to identify themselves as 'literacy' or 'technology' - slightly more than half opted for literacy, with a number claiming both. Chris then went on to say that, for him, 'literacy' simply meant the capacity of people to engage in various social and cultural practices around texts and that his interest was in the broader questions around the use of technologies (such as 'network effects').

Needless to say, he was challenged on his association of literacy with individual competence - a number of people in the room had spent most of their academic careers trying to move the literacy and learning agenda beyond this. However, this 'commonsense' view of literacy as a kind of marker of educational achievement does seem to be deeply engrained, and I suppose, in retrospect, wasn't likely to be shifted in a single day, especially when the only actual discussion of the point had occurred very early, and rather cursorily, in the first presentation given by Mary Lea and myself. Thinking about the day now I realise that only ours, of the four formal presentations, drew on a theoretical perspective on literacy as a social phenomenon shaping the nature of practice in digital environments. The others simply utilised the term 'literacies' as a descriptor for different kinds of technical practices.

This is not a criticism of the other presentations. They all had their own theoretical orientations, and illuminating ones at that. But I mention it in order to highlight the challenge for the LITs when talking to the TELs (Technology-enhanced-learning-ites) during these seminars. To get beyond the assumption that everyone knows what literacy means and of course its important but why are talking about it when there are major questions about how people learn with technologies to be answered?

I don't think we (the LIT-ites) are going to get beyond this simply by constantly challenging the technology focus that IDA ("in a digital age") discussions always seem to have. Rather we need to make use of new and existing concepts that foreground the idea of the 'relations' that shape the networking, bookmarking, content-generating, mashing, tweeting, streaming, etc. and the impact that these practices have on the wider social and institutional contexts in which they occur. Relations like 'power' and concepts like 'identity' and 'meaning-making', which belong in literacy studies just as centrally as they do in social psychology, cultural studies, media and communication studies etc. I think that us LITS are going to have to be a lot more convincing about how we deploy them if we are to shift our TEL colleagues away from the idea that digital literacy is what you get the first time someone signs up to follow your tweets!

Monday, 19 October 2009

First seminar Friday 16th

The series began on Friday (16th October) with a seminar at Edinburgh university. Most of the 32 people who had booked places turned up, which was encouraging as you always imagine rows of empty chairs and piles of uneaten sandwiches.
Inital responses also suggested that people found it an interesting and in some cases provocative set of discussions, with even a little controversy creeping in over the activities of the twitterati in our midst (see forthcoming blog post).
Over the next couple of weeks I'll be putting papers, presentations, audios and pictures on the LiDU website (http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/lidu/p4_1.shtml) and reporting on some of the issues that were discussed here.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Academics writing as professionals

Just come from a very interesting talk given by Mary (Lea) about her and Barry Steirer's CETL project on Academics' writing as professional practice.

The substance of what she was saying is reported in their article in Studies in Higher Education: basically that the idea that the writing that academics do can be classed as either 'teaching', 'research' or 'admin' needs to give way to a more nuanced appreciation of the enormous range of texts and genres that have to be dealt with, as part and parcel of academic professional identity.

The kinds of things their informants had talked about were, as well as research reports and teaching material: advice documents for public bodies, evidence for quality processes, audit trails for assessment, expert witness submissions, strategy reports, brochure texts, letters to students, newletters, examiners reports, references, recommendations, case summaries, learning outcomes tables etc.

Add to that a variety of digital media genres: emails, online forum contributions, powerpoint presentations, spreadsheets, online templates, reviewers forms etc.

And add to that again a number of more reflective-type texts that her informants didn't mention: appraisal forms, promotion cases, blogs, diaries etc.

One thing that struck me was their suggestion that the writing academics do is slowly coming to actually stand for the practice that it is supposed simply to represent. For example, the progress form written for a research student actually stands for their progress, for most intitutional purposes, rather than anything they might actually produce, such as a paper published or talk given.

This should be a familiar switch to 'inhabitants' of digital spaces - look at the way that hits on websites have come to stand for quality, electronic 'followers' and 'friends' have come to stand for popularity. Blogs and emails have come to stand for conversation!