Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Painful lessons from the digital chalk-front

Following up some earlier musings about the relation between 'new' social media practices and 'old' academic practices. (I will stop referring to these as 'new' and 'old' from hereon as I fear it makes me look like a relic)....

A colleague just sent me an email drawing my attention to a twitterstream and blog involving students on a course I'm currently directing. Against my better judgement I went and looked to see what they are saying, and yes - it is critical and I wish I hadn't because it sent me home in a bad mood.

Why did my colleague think it a good idea to point out to me that students were complaining about the course in public social media arenas?

The kinds of things they were saying are the kinds of things that students quite often say when they are getting frustrated by feelings of lack of progress, lack of support, lack of peer participation etc. They criticise the course design, the activity (or apparent lack of) of tutors and course director, the university assessment regulations etc. I have a lot of symathy with them, and when these kinds of issues are raised in the course community spaces (discussion forums, emails) I always take them seriously and do my best to respond positively.

So, why do I feel so negative about about having someone outside the course community point out that these criticisms are going on out there in netspace as well? More to the point, why I am so absolutely disinclined to get in and answer the criticisms out there?

Because I guess I think of the course as a community, that inhabits a shared space, and of the public social networks as somehow outside that space. And I feel bitter that the work I put in inside that space somehow becomes insignificant as soon as someone else goes out there and makes our problems public, inviting (as I see it) casual comment and fleeting attention from people who may have nothing invested in solving the problems and every interest in enjoying any controversy that results from them.

This isn't what my colleague or the students who are blogging are doing, of course. They are engaged in generating a different kind of community. But why should this community be more significant, more worthy of attention than the one that the course has been developing over 4 years of quite intense negotiation amongst course developers, tutors and successive cohorts of students?

Is this a microcosm of the tension we have been discussing - between the academy (with its hidebound communities, fossilised values and restrictive practices) and the 'liberated' net-savvy learner with their fast-shifting focus and opportunistic grabbing of attention wherever they can find it?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Sian Bayne's uncanny talk at the Edinburgh seminar

Sian's talk at the Edinburgh seminar 'Uncanny' Literacies - Assessing the new texts made me with my 'literacies perspective' feel a bit like an old-fashioned headless ghost roaming a deserted lecture room clanking its chains and going 'whoooo' at the data projector.

I've heard Sian talk quite convincingly about this notion of the 'uncanny' before, in the context of Second Life, which is a bit spooky and dreamlike (at least at first), here she seemed to be using the expression to refer in a more general way to feelings of unfamiliarity and uneasiness around certain digital communication practices, which I found a bit less convincing as a trope. In fact it was noticeable how readily people in the seminar subsequently took up and recycled the term in jokes and asides, whenever they wanted to allude to some general quality of unexpectedness in a situation or role, whether it was associated with real uneasiness or not. In the end I wasn't sure that the words 'uncanny' and 'literacies' added much to each other - in some ways they almost seemed to be in a kind of conceptual opposition, the one waving excitedly at an unknown space which is thrilling just because it is unknown, the other gravely summoning up the illusion of understanding and control.

On the other hand, I thought that where she took up the question of the 'spatial' metaphor for the internet, implied by our (Mary Lea and my) use of the term 'technologies as sites of practice', contrasting it with the notion of a 'lifestream' made up of flows of 'volatile texts', she opened up an important issue which I'm still trying to get my head round. The 'lifestream' idea was illustrated with examples from the course on digital culture that Sian and Jen Ross have been running as part of Edinburgh's MA in e-learning. I as understand it, a lifestream is an aggregation of digital sources relating to interests and activities that participants in the course have engaged in. Some of these sources may be 'fixed' (eg: blog posts) but others may be dynamic (eg: feeds from other sites that the participant regards as pertinent in some way). A lifestream is therefore subject to constant change, which Sian interprets as a constant re-making of the identity(ies) of the owner.

Aside from the questions Sian herself raised about how these volatile texts can be assessed (in the more mundane though crucial academic context of the course), issues are raised here about the kinds of social action that a lifestream and its re-making of identities might take part in. I guess this was probably the main point of Sian's talk as far as literacy is concerned, but I'm not sure at the moment where this takes my own thinking. She also raised taxing issues about the role of temporality in literacy practices, and about the 'image-like' nature of textual archives like twitterstreams, and implications for reading from them. At one point she said that the students didn't view twitter as 'scholarly', and there was no reason why they should, but I wonder whether that is always going to be the case? At another point in the course, students are engaged in what they call 'virtual ethnographies' of internet communities, which they can represent using an application of their choice. The scholarly and the informal surely are blended together here?

The other seminar participants were certainly engaged by Sian's talk, and the questions and discussion went on almost as long as the presentation itself. I was interested in questions raised about who is represented in a course population which is able and happy to take on the uncertainty and chaos of digital culture as a topic of study - and how lessons from this kind of brave and exciting experiment in pedagogy might be applicable to the more personally threatened learners often found in widening participation contexts.

'Why talk about texts'?

This was blogged in response to Robin Goodfellow's post on the Literacies site and I hope can also be read there. I agree with Andy that new technologies bring forward new ways of expressing academic ideas – and maybe we need to use terms like critical, reflexive, evidence-based, rhetorical etc to describe what is valued about academic ideas, and/or acknowledge that traditions of how ideas are valued and validated can change as in the oral-to-written PhD. I think it will be in discipline and micro-discipline communities that new practices emerge, become visible, and come to be valued, i.e. become part of a social practice and historical tradition. I do also agree with Robin, though, that use of the term 'affordance' is not always helpful – again my personal preference would be to focus on knowledge practice. Ong, I think, talks about writing as both a technology and a practice. In this vein, 'text' is also a slippery term - it is used to mean both specifically written or printed communications (communications using a particular technology), and communication of many kinds viewed through a particular analytical lens (hence 'multimedia text').

To get back to the practices, the 2007 British Library report into the information behaviour of school-age researchers has this on p.46: 'About 40% of UK schools found content in the learning directory by using a Search engine image search... Further about half of US (47%) and EU universities (47%) accessed the learning directory using a Search engine image search.' This is not young people in their personal, social practice but engaged in formal learning contexts. And actually if you have some idea what you are looking for, selecting from images (even images of text) can be faster and more accurate.

There is absolutely no doubt that academic practices are changing - in fact text and what we can do with it is probably changing faster than other modes are being adopted - for me the question is how we reframe in the new knowledge media landscape what is valuable about academic modes of communication.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Next seminar - Glasgow March 1st 2010

We've fixed the date and venue for the next seminar: Monday March 1st 2010 at Glasgow Caledonian University. Places are limited and some of the people who came to the Edinburgh seminar want to come again, so if anyone reading this would like to claim a place please contact me (Robin Goodfellow) at r.goodfellow@open.ac.uk.

We're still discussing the programme - when we've finalised it, I'll post details on our ordinary dull website (see Doug Clow's blog) at http://lidu.open.ac.uk/

Friday, 6 November 2009

'Literacies and Technologies' or 'Why I think we need to keep talking'

I have been thinking about the question Mary H raised about why literacies people should want to talk to technologies people. From a personal perspective, my own interest in literacies comes from a deeply held belief in the central nature of language in learning, particularly in HE contexts, where to be a successful student means engaging effectively in a range of highly nuanced literacy practices across different contexts. The social and contextual nature of language in use is fundamental to understanding literacy as a social practice. So why am I interested in technologies? In short, because any exploration of academic literacies always involves, at some level, an understanding of and possibly more detailed exploration of technologies. It’s probably true that we’ve never been able to understand literacies without looking at technologies e.g. pens, pencils, paper, blackboards, and indeed literacy theorists such as Brian Street and David Barton have, historically, paid attention to these. I’m not sure they named them as ‘technologies’ though and in addition older technologies often became ‘black-boxed’, so familiar to us that we didn’t even notice them as technologies at all. However, this doesn’t pertain to the present situation for two reasons. First, because a whole industry has grown up around the use of, let’s call it ICT in HE, driven at first largely by software companies looking for emerging markets. Second, because in tandem, new professional groups, broadly termed learning technologists are now involved in actively and visibly harnessing a range of technologies and applications for learning. You can no longer talk about learning in HE without paying attention to technologies. For people like me who are primarily interested in learning in institutional contexts, and take a literacies lens to do this, I cannot engage in literacies and learning without paying attention to technologies and the implications of their use for practice.

The question I am asking myself now though is, I think, a more empirical and /or methodological one. How is my literacies approach similar or different from my colleagues who are also examining issues of learning and the Net Generation /Digital Natives? This has been brought very much to the fore for me having read two papers recently, where the authors invited my comments. One was from Laura Czerniewicz from the University of Cape Town and the other was from our own Chris Jones (IET/OU). Laura and her colleagues are drawing on Bernstein and the notion of boundaries in their research on students’ experiences of using ICT. Chris and his group draw on sociological concepts of structure and agency, Actor Network Theory and Activity Theory in reporting on their research. In our publications from the Digital Literacies in Higher Education http://digital-literacies.open.ac.uk/research Sylvia Jones and I draw primarily on the literacies framing but also Actor Network theory and multi-modal theory. What is really interesting for me though is that through these different lens there are remarkable similarities in terms of our findings, even if the ways in which we choose to articulate them through our own theoretical and methodological lens are on the surface rather different. The commonality between our findings lies in the fact that we all highlight the significance of the institution in framing and understanding students’ practices around the use of technologies in learning contexts. As a literacies person I admit to feeling a bit troubled by this because I want to hold on to the literacies perspective and everything it buys me ideologically and epistemologically. I don’t want to lose the focus on textual practice and what that can tell us about issues of meaning making and power and authority in learning contexts. On the other hand I value this coming together with technologists and the different perspectives they bring. I hope they feel the same!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

If Literacy is social practice why do we need to talk about Texts?

I gave a talk at the OU yesterday called 'Literacy in the Digital University' (good title eh?) at which the audience was a mix of people from learning technologies and language & communication backgrounds. It was basically a development of the talk that Mary Lea and I did at the Edinburgh seminar - the slides and paper/notes are here (paper/notes) and (slides).

I took the opportunity to rehearse a critique of some of the discourses of transformation through technology that are prevalent in our university, through its distance learning practices and its connections to the wider 'learning 2.0' community. I tried to counterpose a discourse of academic values and the public mission of universities, using a 'literacies' perspective to look through the technological practices at the social relations which underlie them.

I used a slightly adapted version of Helen's 'Academic Values and Web cultures: points of rupture' table that she based a discussion on at the Edinburgh seminar (http://kn.open.ac.uk/LiDU/Seminar1/Beetham_text.doc) to point up how much we don't know about 'Net' communities, as opposed to 'Academy' ones, and how much we don't know about the potential impact of 'Net' cultures of knowledge on the historical mission of universities to educate in a broad, critical and ideologically-aware sense.

I was a bit surprised myself championing the rather conservative cause of preserving the Academy's practices against the radical (and youthful) iconoclasm of the Net - what would my 1968 self have thought about that I wonder?

But what gave me most cause for thought were some questions of Mary H's ontological kind (see previous post) that came at the end, chiefly from my Learning Technologist colleagues. In particular: If Literacy is 'social practice' why talk about Texts? Why not just talk about social practice?

I think people resist the notion that practices around learning with technologies can be adequately described in terms of textual practice. Partly this is a hangover from the intuitive idea that text really means print, but it also reflects the view that digital communication is real life interaction and can no more be encapsulated in its textual residues than a face to face meeting can be recreated in all its complex interactions from its minutes.

My answer at the time (helped by Mary L) was that we aren't just talking about social practice in general, because we are focusing on practices in the university, which are uniquely defined in terms of texts. This is what a Literacy perspective brings to the better understanding of teaching and learning in these contexts. But as Mary H points out - it is always going to be the case that what we currently call texts are what define practice in higher education? As HE gets more intermingled with other social fields (industry, commerce, the professions, popular culture - see Mandelson's 'Higher Ambitions' framework) and as practice-oriented communication becomes more mutimodal and time-shifted and otherwise dispersed won't the notion of text as a defining characteristic of university practice become less and less relevant?

Well - it will be interesting to see how the 'outputs' of digital scholarship shape up. My money says they'll look pretty textual, even if they are digital.

..and if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck..

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

More thoughts: Some Ontological Issues

The seminar confronted me with some ontological issues about the nature of literacy texts and practices. I position myself as a scholar within the New Literacy Studies, with user knowledge of ICT but not research knowledge so this is the first time I have really sat down to think some of these things through. I am sure a lot of thinking has already been done so pointers and references would be welcome if I am going over old ground. But I would find it useful to have some explicit review of these issues even if there are good existing answers to them that people have thought through.

1 The virtual world often, paradoxically, points up features of the real, material world of print literacy that we have perhaps overlooked in the past rather than changing them. An example is the boundaries of a text (a paragraph, a page, a book, a set of volumes?); how texts change over time, their durability, stability, the contributions of multiple authors, the work they do within social (e.g. legal or medical) systems. How do new technologies change the nature and boundaries of what we have in the past called “the text” and are alternative labels like “document” or “artefact” more useful when we are talking across print and digital domains?

2 Is it misleading to try and apply old metaphors of communication to the new virtual environment such as writing/reading or speaking/listening… are these concepts tied to particular technologies and material circumstances e.g we say that a book “speaks” to us but it doesn’t really – unless it is audio taped. Do we need some new language terms to describe what we are doing in a virtual world (some are already developing – e.g. could you blog offline??)

3 I don't think is useful to characterise printed texts as inert and fixed in contrast to digital texts that are interactive, “speak back to us” and are changed by the machines we type them into. Rather might we think about the "virtuality" of printed texts as well - as objects that change and move and interact with the reader? In particular, are approaches from Science and Technology Studies, including Actor Network Theory, helpful in bridging our understandings of literacy and digital worlds? These emphasise distributed agency (and authorship) co-ordinated action through networks of things and people. This seems to fit easily with digital communication environments, but how about traditional print and oral interactions?

4 When we make comparisons between print and digital media perhaps we take quite contrasting genres as prototypical texts of each medium (e.g. the novel v the spreadsheet) in order to point up the differences. However, there are parallels with each of these genres in the other medium so may be there are more continuities than we think and it would be good to look across different genres and see how they are expressed as the same or different in print and digital environments.

Amy thoughts and comments welcome!!

Thoughts from the first seminar

It has taken me a while to put these thoughts together and post them up but I hope the seminar is still recent enough that they will make sense. I have been following the other postings with interest.

First, I think we missed the opportunity at this first event to introduce ourselves properly and the different academic communities we identify with. I especially thought about this in relation to Gunther when he introduced himself as an “outsider” to both digital research and literacy studies. I understand this to mean that he identifies himself mainly as a social semiotician who is concerned with meaning making through a variety of media and representational systems – whether visual, sound, movement or number. Language based representations are just a sub-set of these and interact and co-exist with the others. We did not take up this challenge to think about multi-modality and how it operates within the academy, how different modes are privileged by different technologies of communication. This might be something we could pursue in subsequent events.

Second thought (raised by Gunther Kress) – it is important to keep in mind the top-down decisions in relation to universities and technologies that are driving the changes that we are documenting – global marketing of HE, changes in view of the role and mission of HE, integration of HE and FE in England etc. industrial pressures to develop new technologies and so on.

It is also important to keep checking our assumptions and making comparisons across settings, since technological conditions and affordances are very different in different contexts internationally. Even within the UK, the working, teaching and learning contexts of Further and Higher Education differ significantly from one another.

Finally, Sian’s presentation, in particular, highlighted for me the significance and challenge of developing forms of assessment that are appropriate to the technologies the students are now using.

I left the first seminar ruminating on the question of why we all would want an exchange of views between IT and literacy people? What do we each expect to get out of such an exchange? For Literacy Studies people I think it is to better understand how reading and writing are changing and what this means for the academy, not just in terms of practices but also academic and scholarly values because the idea of a university is so centrally bound up with traditional print literacy. For the technology people – the purpose might be to better understand the expectations, practices and associated identities that staff and students bring with them to new technological practices in the academy. Also the techniques of micro-analysis of practices and events that literacy people bring to the table could be of use.