Monday, 7 December 2009

Problematic digital literacy practices: no.4

I've written about (some might say whinged about!) certain aspects of digital communication activities that intersect unconfortably with more familiar academic practices several times before in this blog. For example, I described the impact of social reporting on my experience of a face-to-face seminar about personal trajectories of practice; I reported on the minor dispute around the use of Twitter amongst participants in the first LiDU seminar; and I bewailed the elevation of public blogs over private community spaces as fora for the discussion of teaching and learning-related issues.

I call these problematic digital literacy practices (PDLPs) because they disrupt my expectations of academic communication. And here is number 4 in the series:

A colleague (not the same one I fingered in the 'lessons from the chalk front' post, who I had to apologise to BTW - even though no-one else knows who he is) sent me an email saying there was a discussion about literacies and technologies going on in an environment called Cloudworks. When I went to see I found a strand entitled 'Literacy' with a few cryptic posts emanating from a discussion that a few people had apparently had somewhere else, which included a link to a slideshow that someone had done which also had 'Literacy'in the title, and some papers that mentioned 'Literacy', but nothing that looked to me like an actual discussion about Literacy and no references to any of the work that I recognise as being foundational to a discussion of literacy in digital environments. (Well there was one reference to Gunther Kress's well-known point that the English word 'Literacy' has no equivalent in most most European languages).

I sent a post to the discussion with a link to the LiDU website & blog and subsequently had a couple of exchanges with John Cook, followed by a series of email alerts containing lists of bullet points from people's slides some of which mentioned literacy but all of which were equally cryptic owing to the fact I wasn't actually part of the discussion, just getting a kind of echo from somewhere. It seems to have gone quiet now.

I want to be clear that I'm not criticising the discussion these colleagues were having. I'm sure it was highly principled - I might have criticised it if I had understood what they were talking about, but lurking around the edges getting glimpses of other people's slides is not good enough grounds for comment. My colleague said I should start my own 'cloud' about Literacy in that environment, but that's not the point. I was trying to join in a 'discussion' I had had my attention drawn to, but it wasn't a discussion, it was the remnants of someone else's interaction. Been and gone.

It was problematic for me as an academic because it left me with the sense that other people were appropriating the term 'Literacy' in a way that I was unable to call them to account for. That's as may be, and it's not a specifically digital issue, but what is specifically digital, is the aura of audience that these environments promote, even though there may be little of rhetorical substance actually being communicated. My colleague told me that Cloudworks has a user base of over 20,000 people internationally. But, even if that is so, why would I want to communicate with 20,000 people in bullet points, when the issue is one that demands sustained debate and the sharing of quite a lot of background knowledge? Crowds aren't wise just because they are crowds.

I would call this, and the other PDLPs, literacy issues, because they combine questions around the types of texts that are involved, with questions about the kinds of social values that these texts carry. Social media in academic settings support academic literacy practices to the extent that they promote argument and reflection on argument, not just by virtue of the number of people they claim to be able to engage.

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