Thursday, 9 September 2010

The 'Digital Turn' in the NLS

[I'm experimenting with a new practice -- blogging my response to an article as I read it, using the Dragon speech recognition software].

The article is by Kathy Ann Mills in the Review of Educational Research June 2010. It's called 'A Review of the Digital Turn in the New Literacy Studies and I'm particularly interested in it for two reasons: one because it's relevant to our ongoing discussions in the LIDU seminar series and in this blog, and two because I'm still waiting for referees’ comments on my own review 'Literacy, Literacies and the Digital in Higher Education' which I submitted to Teaching in Higher Education last March, and I'm anxious in case Kathy Ann turns out to have said everything already. Thus am I motivated by the pure and disinterested search for knowledge.

[Dragon note: I’ve moved from my nice comfortable armchair back to the office chair, so as to be able to make keyboard corrections manually when Dragon slips up and refuses to recognise commands dictated to my extension wall-mounted monitor]

This article focuses on literature which is explicitly associated with the New Literacy Studies -- work that introduced the concept of 'literacy practices' to replace earlier notions of cognitive competence as an explanation for peoples’ communicative behaviour in text. Literacy practices can only be understood in relation to the particular social groups that value them, thus scotching the idea that literacy 'skill' is something that, once gained, can be switched from context or context unproblematically. So far so good.

There is a lot of literature referenced in this article, about 176 citations. (I've only got 51 in mine, but, mind you, I'm only talking about higher education, Kathy Ann's field takes in the whole of the compulsory education sector as well. Still, I have to admit she has done a much more thorough job than me, of warranting her claims by showing that she has considered everything written that is relevant to the subject -- describing her search processes, search terms, search engines used, etc. A typically rigourous Educational Research approach). I won't try to report on everything she says, just pick out a couple of points that make this a really worthwhile read for anyone interested in the relation between literacy and technology, and then have a very minor grump about extensive referencing as an academic literacy practice that doesn't always do what it says on the tin.

One of the interesting things that came through to me from this review, is the way that the focus of 'literacy' thinking in education has begun to move, influenced by multimodal practices, away from the idea of written text as being a single mode. Mills points out that in virtually all the empirical research she reviews, 'participants engage with the written word in the process or product of their textual engagements, while frequently drawing on other modes and conventions' (Page 249), going on to refer to research done in Brazil that shows students using written forms such as dialogue and song lyrics, in two languages, as an integral part of multimodal presentations.

Opening up the space of possibilities for writing as part of a multimodal semiotic system raises questions about the value accorded to more colloquial, informal, and personally expressive forms of writing in institutional contexts of learning. Mills says, tantalisingly, 'there is surprisingly little evidence of any resistance to official literacies in the digital strand of this [new literacy studies] tradition’ (page 252). This surprised me a bit, because Lankshear and Knobel’s work (to name but two) is full of references to 'alternative' and 'resistant' youth literacy practices. It was them that tempted me (in my own review) to characterise media literacy research focused on schools as significantly anti-establishment as far as official literacies are concerned, and to contrast this with higher education where media literacy research has yet to get any proper foothold at all.

Mills refers us to the Digital youth network research (2009) large-scale studies of African American youth in sixth to eighth grades. These found, tellingly, that 'in formal settings, the most powerful examples of digital literacy programs were based on learner rather than teacher interests ... [with] ... unstructured experimentation with new media, rather than ... direct instruction from authority figures’ (page 253). She goes on to relate this to research around authoritative knowledge, mentioning studies that highlight 'the destabilising of traditional loci of authoritative knowledge and expertise’ and the new centrality of 'peer collaboration, mentoring, and voluntary support to members of online communities'. (Which, I must say, is very much what proponents of eLearning have been claiming for a couple of decades now, without that much evidence of significant changes happening in knowledge practices in higher education).

[Dragon note: rather than save time by trying to use Dragon to blog-as-I-read, I'm finding that this is taking just as long, if not longer, as it would if I just read and made notes, and then wrote it up in the conventional way. I'm only halfway through and this post is already far too long. I clearly need to be more disciplined in deciding what to comment on. This is not Dragon's fault I hasten to say, it's doing its best to adapt to me I must try to adapt better to it.]

If I've got time (and when I get back from my holiday) I might carry on discussing this review, as it's excellent, and I recommend it. However, before I finish here, I want to note something about all those references. This article makes an implicit claim for comprehensive coverage of its subject by searching for, and listing, as many other articles as it can find using keywords searches such as '(literacy Or reading Or writing) And (sociocultural Or social practice) And (digital Or techno* or comput* Or multimedia)' (page 247). What results is an invaluable list of references that enables the reader to scan titles for topics of interest without having to do their own search. What I find a little bit more spurious (and this is not just about what this author has done, but about academic practice in general) is the explicit grouping together of particular citations to suggest common approaches, themes, even research movements. I was pleased to see two references to my own work there (don't we always look for these first!), But I was puzzled by what Kathy Ann had given one of them as an example of: I've never written anything about ‘online chat’ as far as I can remember. I know that it's easy to forget who said what when you're referencing a whole load of sources, but it does make me wonder how many of the other citations might actually not be particularly relevant to the point being made.

Does it matter? Not if you like your academic rigour with a tiny grain of salt.

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