Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Glasgow plenary - a microcosm of the question?

When Eileen Scanlon said, halfway through yesterday's plenary session, "I'm confused - I don't know what digital literacy means any more!" she probably spoke for more than a few people in the room. Over the day we had seen the term used to refer to an increasingly broad range of learner capabilities and activities, and institutional competences and practices. "This is why we called our project 'learning literacies in a digital age', said Lou McGill, from the LLiDA project.

After the enthusiasm for the series topic that was generated at the Edinburgh seminar last October, this could have been a bit disillusioning, but in fact I think it brings us closer to one of the issues that motivated the idea of a seminar series on literacy in the digital university in the first place. Whilst some in the room may have been coming to the conclusion that 'literacy' is one of those humpty-dumpty words that means whatever the speaker wants it to mean, and should give way to some more pragmatic concept capable of being translated into pedagogical action, others had already demonstrated that it is capable of a precise interpretation.

Mary Hamilton and Candice Satchwell had shown, in their morning session, a framework which they had used in their 'literacies for learning' project to characterise the practices of the FE students they observed. It was quite detailed, and contained slots for attributes such as: audience, purpose, mode, technology, etc. (I'll hopefully get their slides up on the LIDU website before very long).

Their talk followed an equally principled one from Helen Betham, (utterly undiminished by having to be delivered from Devon, via Skype, with jet lag, in the aftermath of a car accident). In Helen's talk the concept of literacy was aligned with actions for developing lifelong learners: providing authentic tasks and contexts, making explicit community practices of meaning-making, using knowledge practices as resources for learning etc. (This quite detailed paper is already on the LIDU website).

Both these talks seemed to know pretty well what they meant by literacy. The difference between them, was in the way it was theorised: in one from a disciplinary perspective; and in the other from a practice perspective. The disciplinary approach, drawing on a tradition of research, is concerned with what is, or is not, meant when a term like 'literacy' is being applied to observations of communication practices. The practice perspective, drawing on a sensitivity to policy and the interests of stakeholders, is concerned with what is or is not justified by the use of the concept.

The same difference was occasionally detectable in the contributions of our discussants too: Allison MacKenzie making practice-informed points about the need to breach the boundaries between domains of professionalised 'learner support' (information literacy, writing, study skills etc.), and Caroline Haythornthwaite promoting a socio-technical understanding of the way that literacy practices evolve. (Also on the LIDU website soon!)

So we had at least two conversations going on at the same time, and this is is the microcosm of our over-arcing question that I'm referring to.
When we set out to develop a research agenda for literacy in the digital university we first face the question "how can we talk together - the people who think they know how practices work, and the people who think they know what kind of practices are needed?"

In the next seminar, in October in Milton Keynes we're going to approach this through the lens of methodology. By talking about how to observe, record, and make sense of practices we can hopefully start to talk about research that makes sense to all of us.

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