Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Carmen Lee's talk at Seminar 3

Slides and recordings from Carmen's talk are on the website at: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/lidu/p4_3.shtml (Friday 10.20 in the timetable). The Olympus recorder was feeling keen that morning and caught the whole session, including the questions afterwards, so it's all there.

I've divided the recording up into 3 sections - one with Carmen's discussion of the methodological background to her research, one with her description of her studies of Hong Kong students' textual practices with Instant Messaging and Facebook status updates, and one with the audience's questions and her replies.

Carmen revealed herself as a reader of this blog when she quoted an earlier discussion we had on why talk about texts (that post actually got 3 comments - a record!) - she answered the question herself by pointing to the ubiquity of writing online and the way it is implicated in in almost all interaction. Her association of 'text' with 'writing' is part of her methodological approach - writing is also data for a linguist - but of course there are others who might use the term in a wider sense, to include other modalities too. Nevertheless, I for one am completely convinced that a 'literacies' approach to learning with technology is always going to have at least one eye on the written word, as it is so often the 'bottom line' where social action grounds out (especially in formal education and scholarly practice: assessments, evaluations, appraisals, arguments, evidence, reflection, etc.).

Eventually she described herself as doing 'discourse-centred online ethnography' which allows for all sorts of non-textual (in the writing sense) meaning-making as well. This was effectively evidenced by some of her examples of Chinese-speaking students' facebook updates, and her account of the process of 'turning her research sites into research tools' by progressively engaging participants in reflection on their own practices.

During the subsequent question-and-answer session, Carmen's responsive methodology led some of the audience to question how far participants in this kind of online ethnography can be said to be 'informed' in what they consent to revealing for research purpose. This issue had come up the day before in Sally Baker's talk about doing research using Facebook too. Is the 'tell all' ethos of social networking an adequate ethical justification for reporting anything that participants write or do?

Personally I felt quite comfortable with this, as with all of Carmen's ideas in this talk - it seemed to me pretty paradigmatic of qualitative, ethnographic, literacies research. Principled, thoughtful, and respectful of informants, especially if they are students (with the 'structural' relationship to the academic researcher that this often implies). It is true that Facebook participants might not have much idea of is going to be done with their words and their identities later, in the name of research, but that must be the case with most informants in ethnographic studies. In the end they, and we, trust the researcher to be like Carmen.

I felt hoist by my own petard when, just as I was looking forward to her telling us what kinds of variation in individual practice she had uncovered, she announced that she wouldn't be talking about findings as this was a methodology seminar. That had been my own insistence (vindicated too I reckon by the quality of all the presentations) - but a peek at what she found would have been nice.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Eszter Hargittai's talk at Seminar 3

Eszter's slides and audio recording are now on the Lidu website at http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/lidu/p4_3.shtml - sadly the audio is incomplete, as the recorder cut out inexplicably with 10 mins still to go. It did that with almost all the talks, in some cases (eg: mine) deciding to stop after just 5 mins (maybe it had heard enough). I've summarised the last part of Eszter's talk below, plus a couple of the questions from the audience.

Eszter's focus was on what she is calling the internet skills of US college students. By this she means what they know about it and what they can do with a computer connected to it. Her interest is to establish whether differences in levels of skill between people are random, or due to some systematic factor like gender, social background etc. (She has a nice graphic illustrating the cycle of skills->types of use->academic achievement ->life chances etc.)

The audio of her talk is split into two sections - about 15 minutes on her methodology, and then 10 on her findings. Under methodology she discusses issues such as the 'digital data paradox' (the Google fallacy: data about internet uses = data about users), and the realities of finding out what the 'wired generation' (95% of her student informants had access to the internet at home during their high school years, and they spend an average of 17 hours weekly on it not counting email, chat and Skype-type communications) can actually do. Eszter used observations, pen & paper surveys and interviews to rate informants' understanding of a range of internet terms ('download', 'bookmark', 'jpeg', 'Bcc', 'RSS' etc.) and their ability to carry out the procedures that these terms describe.

(I caught myself out wondering if I really do know what 'Bcc' does, even though I know what it means. I don't think I ever use it. I wonder if this affects my life chances?)

Under findings she provides some interesting (though not always surprising, if we think about it)data, for example:

  • Women consistently rate their skill levels lower than men do (there is no research domain, Eszter says, where this is not the case)..
  • ..however, where self-rating is equivalent between men and women, so are actual skill levels
  • There is a large skill/knowledge differential between Female/Hispanic students and Male/Asian ones
  • There is a differential between skill levels of students whose parents' education stopped at high school and those whose parents have college degrees
  • Most-used sites are Facebook, Youtube, wikipedia - only 18% use Twitter, correlating highly with interest in celebrities
  • Men upload content more
  • Women change their privacy setting more
  • 63% don't use mobile phones to access the internet (possibly because it's quite expensive and they all have laptops)
  • Some think that if Google found it it must be true
  • 25% don't engage with web 2.0-type activity at all
Eszter's conclusion is that there is non-random variation in skill level and that this may be indicative of 'digital inequalities' that should be addressed through education.

The audience threw a number of questions at her, particularly around the relation between her concept of 'skill' and the uses to which it is put, and the notion of 'practices' and the skills which they engender. She is clear about the methodological difference, but I sensed that some of the more social-literacies inclined people were not totally convinced that she is coming at this from the right direction!

For myself, I found her approach, her data, and her whole presentation convincing - she is finding ways to mine the responses of hundreds of informants, and if these studies can be satisfactorily replicated in other countries and cultures (which she says they have) I would think this is a really valuable 'other' dimension to the qualitative description of the practices of situated individuals. I wouldn't trust an educational policy-maker with this perspective alone, mind you - that 25% of non-engaged students might be doing something even more interesting while the others are online!

Monday, 18 October 2010

3rd Seminar report

Personally, I thought this seminar was brilliant! Two days of high-quality presentations and stimulating discussion, interleaved with some excellent cakes.

[This will be a quick descriptive report, there is a lot of comment and reflection to be done over the next couple of weeks while we put audio clips and presentation slides up on the website.]

The strategy of having two quite different international guest speakers, one on each day, worked a treat. Eszter Hargittai began the proceedings with a 'reality check' on US college students online skills and activities.

Eszter's presentation of her large-scale survey-based studies contained a number of nuggets of information that caused a frisson or two in the audience -- that male students are far more likely to overrate their skills levels than females, for example, or that males create and upload more content, but females spend more time changing their Facebook privacy settings. And most surprising, that only 18% of 2009's respondents were twitter users, or that 63% do NOT use their mobile phones to access the internet.

In contrast to Eszter's statistics, Carmen Lee's talk on the second day gave us what she called a 'discourse-centred online ethnography', looking at Hong Kong students' use of micro-blogging features in Facebook.

Many of us were particularly intrigued by Carmen's examples of student online texts which mixed English words with Chinese ideograms and phonetically-spelt Cantonese exclamations. The subsequent discussion raised the issue of anonymity (or otherwise) for informants in this kind of research, an issue relevant to the presentations of several other speakers.

In and around the presentations of these two international guests, the LIDU core seminar group fitted talks and workshops covering a wide range of topics, none of which could fail to engross anyone who has ever stopped to think about the actual literacy demands of engagement in online practices, from putting your homework up on Flickr to blogging your scholarly reputation.
Sian Bayne's meditation on distance education as a 'post-human' human-technology symbiosis was later illustrated by Jen Ross and herself with some impressive examples of their own MA students' virtual 'lifestreams' assembled from a variety of feeds over the course of their study. Lynn Coleman's and Sally Baker's joint discussion of the use of the digital as both object and artefact for research kept the focus firmly on methodology -- the theme of the seminar. Mary Lea gave an account of the pedagogical 'sandwich' in which unpacked and little-researched students' practices with technologies are the filling between layers of text-based task and assessment. Rhona Sharpe reported on research into learners experiences, demanding more reliable and usable methodologies to involve practitioners and students in data collection that captures and retains the learner's voice. David Barton, Mary Hamilton and Candice Satchwell, discussed and demonstrated Flickr as a learning environment, the possibilities inherent in collaborative research methodologies in which informants and researchers make collective decisions at all stages of the process, and the highly engaging online exchanges of children (and some of their parents) during a climate change project. Helen Beetham and Allison Littlejohn cajoled workshop participants into some meaningful reflexivity about aims and outcomes in digital literacy research, and I raised the spectre of the 'digital scholar' and the breaking down of the walls of the Academy!

In between all this we talked a blue streak, and I had the feeling that the whole topic was really beginning to open up, and to overcome some of the difficulties in communication between 'language' and 'technology' people, that we had found in previous seminars. This was confirmed by Carrie Jewett, who spent some of her preparation time as discussant, when she wasn't enthusiastically contributing to the discussion itself, compiling a 'wordle' out of the abstracts of the seminar talks.

This demonstrated vividly how research had come to the fore, and the problem terms 'literacy' and 'technology' were being absorbed into shared notions of practice and learning in digital environments.

The discussion that followed Carey's plenary session will be the subject of a subsequent post all to itself. In the meantime, here is a caption competition: who is saying what to whom in this snapshot of Jenn, Sian and myself sharing a post-human moment?