Friday, 2 December 2011

Digital literacy events: Revisiting the twitter debate (rather long post)

I'm going to talk a bit about the LIDU twitter debate at the Society for Research in Higher Education conference next week, so I thought I would revisit it here and create a handy link for myself, for the talk (which makes this post a kind of meta literacy event!).

The twitter debate illustrates the ideological dimension of literacy practices - how communities use them to include or exclude others - so it's quite a good case to use to combat the relentless digital-literacy-as-online-skills discourse that seems to be rather setting the agenda for these kind of discussions at the moment.

I've illustrated it to break up the textiness a bit...


It was four o'clock on a sunny autumn afternoon, and the seminar had reached its final plenary session. CJ, in his role as discussant, was summarising the events of the day. Behind him was a large data projection screen. There were about 30 people in the audience, sitting informally in rows. Some of them had notebooks in which they were writing, others were using laptops. Plenty were just listening. It was a typical academic seminar in 'winding-up' mode.

To illustrate what he was saying  about the difficulty of separating technology from practice, CJ projected a view of the live twitter stream to which a few of the audience had been, and were still, posting. The twitter stream remained displayed on the wall behind him while he continued his summary, scrolling occasionally as people in the room continued to post comments.

When the summary had finished, and the audience was invited to respond, a participant said that she felt a surprisingly strong reaction to the the twitter stream (still projected on the wall) which was distracting and intrusive. She felt irritated by the people who were tweeting, as if they were absenting themselves from the live group in order to talk to unseen others.
The tweeters responded that being able to maintain contact with their remote networks enhanced their participation in the seminar. One said that coming from the learning technology world it had not occurred to her that people might object to tweeting, or to the stream being made public.
Others joined in the dispute, but it was relatively mild, nobody punched anyone, and the whole thing was put to rest after about 10 minutes when the projection was switched off and the conversation took another tack. However, most of the tweeting stopped.

Moreover, the episode left its mark on the memories of several of the participants. Feelings were involved: objectors experienced strong negative reactions, some of the tweeters felt got at,  exasperated by the objections. Also, the event disrupted the 'knowledge agenda' of the group: a seminar about literacy in the University was forced to see its own practices as problematic, not just those involved in teaching students. The discussion was followed up a few days later on the seminar blog. It was still being referred to 12 months later, in the third seminar, and here am I rehashing it again after two years.
For me it illustrates the ‘ideological’ dimension of literacy as social practice really well. It was an example of contested social action -- a struggle for the legitimacy of a certain kind of text. The twitter stream, both online and as projected onto the wall of the seminar room at this time, is the text – its legitimacy as part of an academic seminar is under attack.
Social literacy has operational, cultural, and critical dimensions. At the operational level there are skills involved in using twitter to communicate. But it isn't inability to use the tool, or to write the kind of things that tweeters write, that causes the non-users to object. They don’t want to use it. I make this rather obvious point to demonstrate the problems of ‘competence deficit' models of literacy. Whilst using twitter may be an aspect of 'digital literacy', not using twitter can’t (yet) be seen as indicative of digital illiteracy.

(It is possible that there are aspects of the operational skill of tweeting which are to do with managing the general communicative context, rather than the specific requirements of the tool, and which might prove taxing for anyone who wasn't practised at it. For example, an engaged tweeter will not only be posting their own comments in parallel with their participation in a face-to-face discussion, they will also be receiving and replying to the comments of others, both present and remote. Multitasking of this kind is characteristic of digital social communication in general and is supposed to be easier for ‘digital natives’ to do successfully, because of personal disposition and, some say, cognitive adaptation (see Prensky and others). But the key word here is 'successfully' because determining what is successful in terms of communication is a cultural as well as an operational matter. In literacy, performance enacts social relations as well as individual skills.

If twittering is seen as a literacy practice for this seminar, it is clear that operational and cultural dimensions are aligned for some participants but not for others. For one participant, prominent as an expert in the learning technology community, there is no reason not to tweet at an academic seminar. For another, recognised as expert in the literacy community, it feels as if people are engaged in private phone conversations with others not present. The management of focus of attention at an academic seminar is a cultural practice that has developed over time. The purpose of maintaining a single focus of attention, as far as possible, is to further the practice of debate, an academic tradition. At one level those who were tweeting could argue that their activities were not undermining debate, but at another level, some of their colleagues clearly did feel undermined - there were other conversations going on, to which they were not party, somehow devaluing the seminar itself as the focus of the discussion.

Both groups in this case seemed to feel that they were being marginalised or otherwise disempowered by the practices of the other. Empowerment and marginalisation are the central 'problem' of literacy at the critical or ideological level.

Both online and face-to-face debate are characteristic of academic discourse around learning technology. But when they happen at the same time participants can come to see others' alignment of operational skills and cultural practice as disruptive or constraining to their own expression. This is fertile ground for the emergence of a critical sensibility, focused firstly on whose practice has appropriated the right to dominate, and then subsequently on how to recognise the rights of all. The critical dimension of literacy is its ideological expression, the manner in which practices function to 'normalise' power relations, including marginalisation, in a social group. Both traditional academic debate, and contemporary social networking, argue for their role as forces for the democratisation of knowledge. However, as we've seen, the practices of each can be perceived as disruptive, or oppressive, by the practitioners of the other. In bringing these (unsuspected, problematic) perceptions into the open and accounting for them through a social theory, such as the theory of literacy as social practice, a larger truth underlying their apparent opposition can be signalled -- the truth that all communication practices privilege some and disadvantage others.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

English in the global academy

Here's (what I thought was) a perfectly good English sentence that I included in a paper that I submitted to a certain educational technology journal:

The role of teachers who have little or no face-to-face contact with their students, and their use of available online resources to support such engagement, is the focus of this paper.

One referee objected to it, and to several others like it, and advised me to...

 "consider using a concise subject to start a sentence, not a long prep phrase or modifying clause".

Here's another of the modifying-clause offenders:

Evidence of ways in which these tutors perceive their students to be increasingly challenged by the conventions of academic writing was provided by a survey carried out in 2008.

Now, whilst I'm satisfied there is nothing grammatically wrong with these sentences I was taken aback to read that the same referee found them 'confusing' and 'difficult to understand'. Aside from the embarrassment that this causes me, as a English-speaking academic writing about the teaching of academic writing, I'm quite deflated by this. It suggests that my academic literacy skills are not as they should be.

In a world where English is being adopted and adapted by readers and writers from a huge diversity of educational and linguistic backgrounds, I may have to learn to modify not just my sentences but my whole approach to writing in English. Out with 'left-branching' rhetoric (politically suspect too)! In with the 'concise subject' as theme. I stand corrected.

Still, I vaguely yearn for readers like those the Capital Community College Foundation advises:

" if, as reader, you let yourself go a bit, there's a well earned delight in finding yourself at the end of such a sentence, having successfully navigated its shoals."

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Object-centred sociality – what happened to this discussion?

Jyri Engeström (not to be confused with Yrjö Engeström – which I did at first) wrote a blog post back in 2005 entitled Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality, which attracted about 100 comments and seemed to open up an avenue of discussion about social media and social networks that look like leading to some interesting new theory, and perhaps new approaches to the design of social media.

In fact, not much came of it. Apart from a couple of responses in other blogs at the time, mainly of the 'wow cool'  ilk, and subsequent journal articles (Hoogenbloom et al 2007), Conole & Culver (2009)  the idea seems to have missed its moment.

I think this might be because it was the approaches to the design of social media rather than the interesting new theory that caught people's attention. Engstrom's post was apparently triggered by reading Russel Beattie's account of why he was stopping using LinkedIn.  Many of the comments addressed the issue of social networks needing something to socialise about and discussed the pros and cons of systems that support the sharing of different kinds of 'objects'. The authors of the two journal articles referred to above also pick up the idea of the object as a kind of focus for the relation between people in a network, and discuss the design of systems  intended to facilitate object-centred exchanges conceived in this way.

My own reading of the work of Knorr-Cetina , cited by Engstrom, however, is that she was conceptualising object-centred sociality as being about relations between people and objects – where objects include epistemic entities, like theories, models, descriptions of things in the world. In describing these relations as sociality, she ascribes reciprocal agency to the objects themselves - a relation markedly different from our usual view of objects as either instruments or commodities. The way that this kind of socialty 'aggregates' into relations amongst human collectives (networks, communities etc.) is not really addressed.

Knorr-Cetina's kind of thinking seems to me to be quite different from what is going on in the discussions referred to above.  It is much more challenging for a start, and may be able to lead us to quite different ways of conceptualising the objects of our knowledge construction activities online. For example, what is the difference in the 'sociality' of my relation to each of the two 'objects' pictured below?
On the left, the journal where I found Knorr-Cetina's article in the OU library.  On the right,  the same journal on the Internet (sadly not going back to 1997 - hence the library ).

I'm not going to attempt to answer my own question (above) in this post - for the time being it will have to remain rhetorical!  Suffice it to say, that Knorr-Cetina's concept of an epistemic object includes the dimension of textuality – the capacity to be represented via different semiotic systems.  You can see where I  might be going with this....  textuality is also central to concepts of literacy.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Do we still need academic journals?

As we in the UK higher education sector approach the next round of our periodic national research assessment exercise (this time hubristically called the 'Research Excellence Framework') the pressure to publish in 'high-impact' journals intensifies. One of my colleagues has, in fact, this minute sent round some advice on identifying high impact journals, and a couple of useful websites, e.g. the Journal Citation Reports Website:

Impact in journals, as we all know, is calculated on the average number of citations each paper published in the journal gets. Citations are regarded as measure of the extent that papers are read, indicating their contribution to a particular field, but they may also be a measure of the overlap between readership and authorship in a particular journal. If a group of authors frequently publish in a particular journal and frequently cite their own and each other's work in their papers, the impact factor for that journal goes up.

Reviewing my own case,  I've put myself at a disadvantage (I only just managed to scrape into the previous two research assessment exercises) as I haven't tended to pay much attention the impact factors of the journals I publish in. This is because since I stopped being part of a particular scholarly community writing about computer-assisted language learning, in the late 1990s, I  haven't tended to pay much attention to journals for reading purposes at all.  Almost everything I read I find in the reference lists of papers and articles, or through keyword searching in databases and through Google.  Yes, these sources are usually organised into journals, and I'll sometimes find myself downloading two or three papers from the same journal, especially if there has been a special edition in in an area I'm interested in, but my point is that I don't go to the journals first,  I find them incidentally while I search for papers on topics.

I think my 'topic-driven' behaviour is a consequence of the fact that there aren't any journals   dedicated to 'literacy and technology in higher education', which is how I define my interests.    Not only does this mean that I don't have a natural home to publish in, but it also means there are no obvious other authors whose work I can follow consistently - or who are likely to follow mine - as most other authors sensibly associate themselves with particular fields and journals.

As I look through my CV I realise that, not only do I not publish consistently in a single journal, but I haven't published in the same journal twice in the last 10 years!   Here are some of the journals where I've published one paper in the last 10 years:

Distance Education
Language and Education
Journal of Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education
Education communication and information
International Journal of Educational Research
Teaching in Higher Education 

With this range it's not surprising my citation count isn't very impressive. I've managed to maintain a research profile within educational technology by writing and editing books and book chapters, although this would probably serve me in better stead as far as citations are concerned in the Humanities than it does in the social sciences.

 ...and more recently I've been exploring avenues of digital scholarship such as with this blog (although if comments are the equivalent of citations there's not much progress here either).

For myself, and I think quite a lot of other academics in interdisciplinary fields, the identity and the impact factor of a journal is not the main consideration, rather whether some of the people whose work we are citing have published there, giving us an idea of who we are writing for. As  I tend to read quite eclectically, and very seldom from some of the journals with high impact factors in what is supposed to be my official REF-oriented field - educational technology - I find myself wandering from subfield to subfield around the topics  of literacy, language, pedagogy, e-learning, social theory, culture, higher education practice, teaching and learning, etc etc . Not very scholarly I admit,  and not very efficient either.  No way to have an impact but still rather satisfying all the same.

To answer my own question - yes I think we do still need journals, to help us organise our thinking and to ensure that we think about how we write for different audiences. (This only really works, of course, if we write for lots of them, which brings this argument full circle!).

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Reflections on the Bayeux tapestry

The famous multimodal tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 combines figurative images (the events depicted), symbolic images (around the borders), and written text (the Latin commentary), all mediated via a popular representational technology of the time -- embroidery. Here's a typical section of it:
This bit shows William' s men feasting before they get on the boats for England. (Actually this is not a picture of the original tapestry, but a drawing I did  of it while I was on holiday. Yes they did have postcards that I could have bought but I wanted to see how difficult it would be to draw. The hardest bit turned out to be getting the colours something like the originals. I don't think I was particularly successful here - despite having 10 times as many colours at my disposal than the original authors did).

It's interesting too from a literacy-and-technology point of view, not least because you wonder why they bothered with the literacy bit - the Latin commentary which runs throughout the strip and simply describes what you can see happening. It identifies some of the characters, like the Bishop (Odo) in this example,  but they could have done that just as easily with little labels, like political cartoonists do today. You can read the whole text at  and it's clear it must have added quite a bit of work to the overall job. Given the relatively few people at the time who could actually read it (mainly the bishop and his mates),  you wonder if the authors were thinking about readers from the future who might not necessarily already know the story-- like putting a message in a time capsule. Or perhaps they were using the Latin as a kind of stamp of authority - validating the account, as it were, by giving the Church a hand in it.  

Also interesting are the little pictures in the borders top and bottom which as well as decorating the strip apparently contain all sorts of allusions to Aesop and other myths and fables.  According to ( the running theme  of these references is cunning  and betrayal -- and interesting literary, if not exactly literate, device.   

Monday, 17 October 2011

Is tweeting literacy? Or just short-winded conversation?

This is a pic I took sitting in the observation room of the IET Ambient Lab, here at the OU, during a focus group discussion set up by colleagues on the digital scholarship project, that I happened to be observing. The group was discussing their, and other people's, use of twitter for professional communication.
The group is being vidoed live - shown on the screen on the left. At the same time, other colleagues around the university are discussing the same questions on twitter -- shown on the screen on the right. (One of the group facilitators is tweeting the questions as they are asked). The feed from this twitter discussion is projected on the wall in the room where the live group are, but only one of them is paying any attention to it -- she's actually tweeting to the remote group in between contributing to the discussion of the 'present' group.

A lot more words are being used, inevitably, in the face-to-face discussion. And other signs are being used too - facial expressions, body language, as well as the  bits of paper and other media that the facilitators have on the table. By contrast, the tweeters  get through fewer words (even though there is no break in the stream) and their visual signals are limited to punctuation, capitals, smileys, and the odd URL.

Both groups are discussing what they do with technology. The focus group reflect across a range of life and work contexts, going on at length and wandering off at tangents. The twitter group stick mainly to talking about twitter. They 'talk' in turn, are very concise, and generally keep to the point.

I would love to do a proper discourse analysis comparing these two discussions around the same topic. I wonder if it would provide me with grounds to talk about the twitter activity as 'literacy', in a way that I could not do with the face-to-face discussion?  Or would it show the twitter stream to be basically the same kind of conversation, only with a lot less said?


Friday, 14 October 2011

LIDU final report

Now that the end-of-award report from the seminar series has been accepted by ESRC and while we wait for it to appear on the ESRC website, here is an extract from the 'findings' section:

The series has not produced any ‘findings’ as such (it was a seminar series after all, not a research project). However, we are claiming the following ‘clarifications’ of key issues around literacy in the digital university:

1. Conceptualisations of ‘literacy’ amongst educational developers concerned with digital technologies in teaching and learning continue to reflect a polarisation between those who take an ideological (literacy as social practice) and those who adopt an autonomous (literacy as individual competence) perspective.

For example, researchers exploring textuality in digital contexts, and practitioners concerned with the development of skills in digital communication and information management, seem to share little in terms of theoretical assumptions, methodologies, goals and outcomes.

This does not mean, however, that there cannot be any dialogue between researchers and practitioners coming from these different perspectives. The seminars have shown that the two agendas can co-exist productively. Viewpoints can meet over the discussion of principled means of describing practices that teachers and learners engage in when they do ‘university business’ online. Both perspectives can benefit from the analysis of quantitative as well as qualitative data, and from engagement in reflexive as well as analytical deliberation.

2. The idea of the ‘digital university’ is not a given. New conceptualisations of the institution and its practices have emerged from the attempt, during these seminars, to circumvent the differences in disciplinary and pragmatic orientation described above.

These include the concepts of: digital scholarship, the borderless institution, and post-human pedagogies. These keystone concepts will need to inform any research agenda that is developed on the basis of what has gone on in these seminars.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Debating digital scholarship

Here's another pic of academics engaged in a conventional academic literacy practice - sitting around around talking about a bit of text on a screen. In this case the event was a traditional debate, about the likelihood of untraditional practices like tweeting ever being regarded as prestigious enough to build a scholarly reputation on.

It was Martin Weller's idea, as he is proposing the motion that “In the next decade, digital scholarship (in open journals, blogs and social media) will achieve the same status in academic settings as traditional scholarship” at EdMedia 2011 next week and needed some practice!

Rob Farrow opposed the motion, with all the sophistry of a philosopy graduate with his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek.

The debate was light-hearted and interesting and I ended up voting against the motion, just to tease Martin, although I secretly wondered whether the proposal might not be right. After speaking first and thinking after (a failure of mine I admit), what I should have said was that traditional scholarship was likely to change quite a lot in the next decade under the impact of the public engagement agenda, and that digital communication was likely to be instrumental in this. In that sense, digital scholarship and traditional (engaged) scholarship are indeed likely to converge in practice. Whether the real status can be wrestled away from the academy's gatekeepers and/or the research industry's CEOs  in that timeframe is another question...

Anyway - good luck to Martin in the debate (judging by the preponderance of white male faces on the EdMedia website I'd have thought there would be no problem about them achieving the same status as traditional scholars whenever they liked! Thank goodness for Patrica Leigh)

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Rosie Flewitt's notes from the OU Digital Literacy seminar

(This seminar commented on in this blog on May 23rd)

On 20th May 2011, researchers in the Centre for Research in Education and Education Technology (CREET) hosted a 1-day conference on Literacy in a Digital Age. Unusually, the event brought together participants from research, policy and practice, from the UK and further afield, and from a range of education sectors, including early years, primary, secondary and higher education. The aim of the day was to throw some light on two main questions:

1) What have new media practices got to do with literacy?
2) What are the implications for practice, policy and research?

We began with a series of quick-fire presentations of OU research projects spanning early years to post-compulsory education, and discovered a surprising degree of harmony in issues arising from the changing nature of ‘literacy’.

Rosie Flewitt reported on an ESRC-funded study Multimodal Literacies in the Early Years that investigated 3 and 4-year-old children’s reading practices with diverse media at home and in a preschool nursery. Rosie found that whilst most adults recognised the importance of new technologies in young children’s present and future lives, many also feared their potential harm to ‘childhood’. This, coupled with a lack of guidance on using new technologies to promote literacy development in the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum, has led to a 'digital divide', where some children are developing sophisticated skills with a range of new technologies, while others lack skills and confidence.

David Messer, Natalia Kucirkova & Denise Whitelock then showed us a new iPad and iPhone App called ‘Our Story’, which they have designed so young children can make personalised icards and stories by adding their own pictures, sound and writing. Our Story shows how digital technologies can provide interactive, personalised and creative literacy activities, and can motivate personal story sharing.

Delivering his talk via Skype from Bangladesh, Chris Walsh presented a gameplay model for teaching and professional development that enables educators to valorise pupils’ gaming literacies in ways that support their acquisition of traditional and multimodal literacies. Chris showed us how young Australian students with previously low engagement with schooled literacy activities had produced highly complex and polished literacy texts through digital games and their paratexts (ancillary texts about digital games), and highlighted a need to integrate digital games authentically into the literacy curriculum.

In a written paper, Anna Craft argued that children and young people’s contemporary interactions, learning, play and development are characterised by four P’s: Pluralities - of place, of activity, of connection, of their own online presence; Possibilities - being able to transform from what is to what might be, and multiple opportunities to act ‘as if’; Playfulness – the online expansion of playworlds into extended make-believe through opportunities to self-create through emotionally rich gaming, social networking and generating content; and Participation - becoming author, maker, performer, audience, in a democratic space where all ideas are welcome. Anna proposed that the four P’s reflect a discourse of empowerment at odds with the competing discourse of ‘childhood and youth at risk’ and bring into focus the tensions in current and emergent educational provision.

Moving on to post-compulsory education, Rebecca Ferguson argued that by the time young people leave school, most have extensive experience of learning together through speech, yet they have far less experience of learning together through text, although this is increasingly important for online education. By observing some of the new literacy practices used by adult students learning together online, Rebecca has identified a range of practices that enable online learners to share knowledge, challenge ideas, justify opinions, evaluate evidence and consider options, and argued that certain skills that characterise online literacy practices should be made explicit, such as stressing unanimity, transferring responsibility, complimenting, mirroring and empathising with fellow learners.

Mary Lea presented findings from an ESRC funded research project into academic literacies in a digital age, highlighting how contemporary HE students now work with multiple sources, which in many ways brings reading – in contrast to writing – to the fore in their literacy practices. Mary’s study found that in an increasingly complex digital world, students are becoming adept at drawing on hybrid, textual genres, using a range of technologies and applications, and integrating these into their work for assessment, yet they remain uncertain about which texts are considered ‘valid’ sources.

The last morning presentation (and most of the audience was still looking surprisingly alert by this stage!) was by Robin Goodfellow, who gave us a quick account of some of the outcomes from the ESRC Seminar Series Literacy in the Digital University. Robin discussed how researchers from different paradigms approach ‘literacy’ from different perspectives. Focussing on issues that have arisen between applied linguists and learning technologists, Robin proposed how these two groups of educationists might find synergies in their work which could help to anticipate the changes in academic literacy practices associated with the increasing digitisation of post-compulsory education.

In an afternoon plenary session, participants and presenters exchanged their views and experiences of changing literacy practices across all education sectors, and finally, Julia Davies (University of Sheffield) drew together key themes that ran through the day’s discussions. Julia reminded us of Victoria Carrington’s use of the term ‘the uncanny’ (from the Freudian ‘das Unheimliche’) to describe the sudden unfamiliarity of the literacy practices and texts of young people around digital technologies - both in terms of the anxiety caused by the unexpectedly unfamiliar and by the increasing fuzziness of the concepts of text and literacy. Julia also made a distinction between digital literacies - which she presented as a term which is mainly about using digital media to produce text - and new literacies - a wider, more socially-contextualised category that describes how new collaborative practices are emerging in new communicative spaces. Julia drew our attention to how ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ literacy practices are currently existing side-by-side, and how in the future we may need to adapt not only the curriculum to reflect changing practices, but also change the way we ‘do’ education.

The afternoon’s plenary sessions led to rich discussion, which we would like to continue to develop on this blog. Some of the themes that emerged include:

Emerging Themes

The afternoon’s discussions were very rich. Here are a few of the themes and ideas we discussed – please add your thoughts to these:

1) What have new media practices got to do with literacy?

Participants reflected on whether literacy practices with new technologies are fundamentally different, or whether new technologies are making more visible issues that were also identifiable in traditional literacy practices. Do we put too much on the digital? What is different? What is the same? Discussion around this included:

• Recognition of an increasing range of genres and the need to move across genres and media;

• Multiple reading pathways in both digital and new forms of printed texts, sometimes sequential, sometimes non-sequential, left to right reading pattern is often disrupted, some online texts have two or more sequential reading paths (e.g. following different ‘threads’ in online conversations);

• Readers/writers need to be able to transform/ transduce meanings across modes, and to understand how modes are valued within and across media in different sociocultural contexts;

• Reading can now be viewed as active and interactive (e.g. Wii and mobile phones); and ‘readers’ learn that taking action has consequences (e.g. Virtual Worlds); the boundaries between reading/writing boundaries are becoming blurred

• Literacy practices are increasingly crossing boundaries, and offer great potential for further boundary crossing (e.g. home/school; curriculum and other worlds) and offer the potential to integrate personal lives into other spheres. However, there is a danger that education could attempt to ‘colonise’ the private lives of children, young people and older students

• Is there a new form of ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu) evident in ‘gaming capital’ – the kudos that comes with being an ‘expert’ rather than a ‘newbie’

• There are many issues of access, of access to digital skills and competences and to digital hardware; we need to consider how diverse texts, media and practices are policed and/or valued

• New media sit uncomfortably with traditional education practices, particularly with forms of assessment that are based on intermental, cognitive approaches to knowledge

Implications for research, policy and practice

Research: There is a need to develop a new meta-language to describe contemporary literacy practices, and to develop new definitions for literacy to guide policy and practice;

We need to reflect on the future of literate ‘texts’ (input and output; text as having a lasting presence – ephemeral or more enduring; texts as enactment in social contexts as part of social practices);

Dialogue is needed between disciplines to clarify different interpretations of ‘literacy’;

Consider post-humanist approaches to notions of agency and technology

Policy: Need to recognise new definitions for literacy, not ‘the basics’, not ‘simple’, not the 1990s policy shift to literacy as an economic driver, where ‘literacy’ was a proxy for cognitive skills; need new definitions that reflect the diversity of practices and purposes for literacy;

Need to recognise different pathways into literacy through diverse media to build up children’s skills, competences and image of selves as literate beings;

Need to make explicit things that are learnt implicitly through digital practices (what is acceptable behaviour in different digital environments);

Need to consider the implications of new media for formative + summative assessment;

Reconsider the design curriculum? (design as multimodal rhetoric + ‘designedness’) = a real strength so must be valued in curriculum and assessment;

Practice: Practitioners should value and validate the processes of text production, sources of text production, and clarify how different sources are valued within a given discipline;

Help learners to understand how to get to the end point, to promote/practice negotiating, risk-taking and contingency planning, to find ways to harness digital practices as intellectual resources and to value collaboration;

There is a fear that due to financial constraints, HE sectors may be forced back into a transmission model of learning ; however, on a more optimistic note, this could open the door to encouraging more collaborative peer group work;

Practitioners could explore more ways to exploit the motivational pull of digital game playing to promote learning.

On being an academic and being a bidder

Warning - Dragon-enabled posting.
(My relationship with this animal is sadly worsening.We haven't talked properly for a couple of weeks now. This is mainly due to the fact that I've been working on the JISC bid that I mention below, and Dragon's habit of playing havoc with the logoff times on my PC, not to mention its random dumping of the contents of the clipboard into my e-mails, makes it rather hard to co-operate with on such fiddly work).

On being an academic, I recently enjoyed reviewing an article for a journal called 'Pedagogies-an international journal', which I hadn't come across before. It's a Taylor Francis/Routledge eJournal but the OU library doesn't have it in its database. I looked through the six volumes that they have published since 2006 and found a handful of articles relating to literacy and higher education. A couple of these I've now ordered through the OU library electronic document delivery service, which involves filling in a form by hand and posting it! (I like doing this -- it reminds me what I have hands for).

The Journal seems to have a bit of critical slant, which comes as a relief after dealing with the 'visionary' discourse of JISC's digital literacies call. The article I reviewed encouraged me to believe that there is an emerging field of research around cultural and critical conceptions of literacy in the Digital Universitythat I might be able to contribute to.

On being a bidder to a JISC e-learning programme ('developing digital literacies') - this has been striking in the way it combines the expansive rhetoric of 'new literacies' with an oddly restrictive set of institutional print-literacy practices required to complete the documentation. For example, JISC's project management guidelines (66 pages of them) contain a set of Word templates to use in the bid which are basically tables setting out required information in columns. Eg: the stakeholder engagement template looks like this:

Tables certainly make the information clearer, but they are quite wasteful of space. Given that the bid document will be automatically binned if it goes over 12 pages, every table considerably reduces the amount of information that can be included elsewhere. I tried to get round this by putting the tables on their sides. But I'm not sure that I haven't lost some of the point of having the tables in the first place by doing this.

It's interesting to reflect on the relationship between these conventional institutional literacy practices (developed in the interests of standardisation and clarity) and the 'digital literacies' that the bidding projects are concerned to develop in students and others. Being able to turn a Word table on its side doesn't make me digitally literate in the terms of JISC's 'vision', but it did enable me to get the bid in.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Digital literacies across the sectors

The one-day research conference on Digital Literacies that Rosie Flewitt organised at the OU on May 20th was unusual in that it brought together people from early years education, primary; secondary; and tertiary education, all in the same room, all eating the same pastries, and all (most amazingly) talking about similar practices and problems!

The problems we all share are to do with the changing nature of 'literacy', and how to retain cultural and critical perspectives on it, in the face of policy agendas that seem determined to ignore research altogether.

How can schools be contemplating a national literacy curriculum for 2012 that pays not attention to multiliteracies and the 'design' curriculum?

How can universities respond to a funding agenda for digital literacies which unashamedly adopts a competencies approach in an era of 'social' media?

But aside from the head-scratching, there were some really absorbing demonstrations of the sheer complexity of children's engagement with tools and toys that add layers and layers of interactivity (with the screen and with their co-readers) to the simple practice of reading a story.

But Rosie also reflected on some early years settings where adults were so anxious about the potential effects of 'new technology' on the children that they timed out their  activities on the PC with an egg-timer. The same  adults didn't seem to regard the things the kids did with mobile phones, TVs, and other digital devices etc. as 'technology' at all.

David Messer and Natalia Kucirkova's presentation of the 'Our Story' application also drew us in to the intimate and familial world of early years literacy.

It made me feel just a little envious of what seemed to me an uncomplicated synergy between the digital and the literacy aspects of the learning that was going on. Nobody was suggesting that there is any conflict between the goals of learning to read in the conventional sense, and learning to 'read' multimodally. (I was made aware in the later plenary discussion that this is an idealistic illusion!)

An equally fascinating session on gaming from Chris Walsh via Skype did raise some potential conflicts: not least between our recognition of the personal value to a child of their world of creative play, and our wish to use this to engage them in classroom activcity! All the same, Chris' presentation gave us food for thought in differentiating the idea of 'enacting' a text from that of 'reading' it.

The plenary session was led by Julia Davies who produced a wide-ranging but completely coherent summary of themes that she had detected running through the day's presentations and discussions. I was interested to hear her refer to the idea of the 'uncanny' in connection with teachers' attempts to come to terms with the multiply-mediated literacy practices of their teenage pupils. (We've met the uncanny before, in Sian Bayne's talks in the LIDU seminars).

She also made a distinction between digital literacies, which she presented as being mainly about digital media (logically I suppose), and new literacies - a wider, more socially-contextualised catgegory of activity taking in new communities and new purposes etc. I guess I broadly agree with the ideas behind this, but it is a question of where you are coming from (or who you are talking to). New literacies seems to belong more to the schools sector (through the work of Lankshear & Knobel - who I notice are not above borrowing the term digital literacies for their 2008 book of the same name) - digital literacies is a currently a proxy term for 'skills-that-employers-want' in the tertiary sector. (I've tried to unpick some of these terms in a paper in Teaching in Higher Education called 'Literacy, Literacies, and the Digital in Higher Education').

The discussion that Julia prompted was lively and insightful. I took lots of notes and I noticed that Rosie did too, so hopefully some of these will find their way on to this blog. But, for the time being, this post is quite long enough as it is....

Sunday, 8 May 2011

You wait years for a book on literacies in the university and now two are about to come along at once

Routledge are currently anticipating proposals for 2 edited books focusing on literacy/literacies in the university. One is our own proposal for a book based on the LIDU seminars 'Literacy in the Digital University', edited by Mary Lea and myself (Open University), which we glossed thus:

These accounts draw on recent and on-going research which addresses some of the key educational issues associated with the spread of digital technologies into teaching and learning within colleges and universities, and at the borders of these institutions with contexts of work or informal learning. Issues such as the disruption of conventional academic knowledge practices by those of the 'social web'; the challenge to the authority of teachers and 'experts' posed by the immense resource of the internet; the opening up of practices of 'scholarship' to practitioners and work-based learners; threats to trust and the confidence of learners arising from 'crowd' behaviour online, etc.

The other will be called 'Embedding academic literacies in university courses: research, concepts and case studies', edited by Cathy Gunn and Lorraine Stefani (Auckland University), which they describe so:
A book of research, concepts and case studies featuring the use of interactive technologies to embed academic literacies into university courses. ‘Academic literacies’ is a term used to describe the attributes listed in graduate profiles, e.g. critical, reflective and relational thinking, information literacy, reflective writing, critical reasoning and problem solving. English for non-native speakers is added to this list in many institutions.
These two descriptions nicely illustrate some of the differences between 'social' and 'cognitive' perspectives on literacy, and critical and instrumental perspectives on learning technologies.
Hopefully the publisher will see them as complementary and allow both collections to come to fruition and get published, and the discerning audience for such books will dig into their pockets and buy both in huge quantities.

Friday, 15 April 2011

LIDU Seminar 4 at Lancaster

The fourth and final LIDU seminar was at Lancaster University on April 8th.
This was a smaller one-day affair, intended to allow a more in-depth discussion of 'next steps' for this seminar group.The discussion programme and some of the informal position papers that fed into it are on the series website.

 Lancaster managed to produce some of the nicest weather, and the tastiest lunch, of the series to date. It did produce some in-depth discussion, focused around: a review of what we felt we had achieved in the series, and where it left us individually; consideration of the most appropriate form of publication output; and plans for taking forward a 'Literacy in the Digital University' research agenda. Below is a short summary of these discussions, 2 decisions, and a shortlist of emergent research themes:  

 We began with a discussion of issues around 'digital scholarship' -- a theme introduced in two of the OU-led sessions during the series. Whilst the Open University is the only institution which has formally instituted a digital scholarship development program, there is clearly a wider sectoral relevance in the concept for the development of literacy in the digital university. Most of the meeting participants felt themselves to be involved with the concept in some way, either actively or critically. How do new digital communication contexts impact on, and change our understanding of, what we and our students do as scholars? Are we simply re-conceptualising conventional ideas of scholarship in order to preserve them in the 'digital university', or are we open to the challenge of completely new academic and study practices? Is the conventional notion of scholarship as a solitary, reflective, individual activity still relevant, or will it be swept away by the current 'fetishisation' of digital interactivity?

 The discussion round the Lancaster statement focused initially on the importance of keeping FE in the frame when we are talking about the digital university, with a possibly reduced relevance for the scholarship discussion in this context. This led to a more general debate about what is meant by 'boundaries' and' borderlessness', relating to the relationship between the university and the workplace, the university as a workplace, and wider theoretical questions concerning the body and the technologies that extend it beyond the person.

 The GCU statement generated more discussion around the idea of the digital university as a 'borderless institution', and the kinds of knowledge practices that this might imply. The suggestion that companies and the 'world of work' are challenging the university's 'monopoly of legitimate knowledge' was debated, and the notion of university study and what it means to be a student was revisited. There is an important tension between the idea of permeability between the university and the world of work and the idea of scholarship/studentship. The institutional university as a centre of scholarship is undermined by discourses of e-learning/digital native from both the right (new forms of digitally empowered individualism) and left (new kinds of digital collectivism). But these 'grand narratives'of institutional transformation are relatively meaningless unless they are informed by an understanding of specific learning contexts.

 The Edinburgh statement began with a positive commitment to the possibility of a joint research agenda that addressed the re-conceptualisation of conventional boundaries within the digital domain. They suggested a focus on the 'autodidact'  and linked this to a philosophical move to post-humanism, by which they meant a questioning of humanistic presumptions about agency in assemblages that involve the individual, the social, and the technical. These concepts received some discussion - particularly around the problems that this perspective creates for Education, which is traditionally based on humanist principles.

 The individual statements re-emphasised issues such as: the necessity to start being specific about the kinds of learning contexts that we needed to explore, and the inherent challenges of empirical projects in this field ; the impact of audiences and of issues of trust, for example related to plagiarism; the hybrid nature of texts and social identities in the 'digital university'.

 This session concluded with the question: 'would/could we have had this same discussion at the beginning of the seminar series 18 months ago?'. There seems little doubt that we had all come quite a long way towards being able to talk constructively about learning across the disciplinary gap between 'literacy/language' and 'technology/interactivity'. The gap hasn't gone away, as we still differ over what we mean by key terms such as 'text'. However, we do feel we are all talking into the same conceptual space now. Which wasn't the case at the beginning of the series. So no, this discussion would not have happened then.

 To summarise emergent research themes, I took it on myself to write a list of about six items on the whiteboard. Nobody seemed to object so here is a compressed and annotated version:
  • Scholarship -- what does it mean and who does it identify?
  • The borderless institution -- can it still be a university?
  • Moving beyond humanism -- where is agency?
  • Trust and assessment -- empowerment or threat?
Notice the absence of the words 'literacy' and 'digital'! But to paraphrase the cyborg...

they'll be back...

Friday, 1 April 2011

Eternal Sunshine of the spotless C: -- more Dragon tales

Following a particularly virulent virus picked up through carelessness whilst charging around the websites of US academic conferences trying to get costings for a research bid I had to have all the applications on my PC scoured clean and reinstalled (a severe case of digital obliteracy).Sadly this had to include my dragon friend, with all the careful training data that we have been building up over the past 18 months of co-authorship. The consequences have been devastating just doesn't know me any more, its memory has been wiped clean.

It is like losing a friend -- what has happened to all those secret little pet words we use to share? All those cryptic commands that it alone knew the meaning of? All that special vocabulary? All those OU acronyms? How long did it take me to teach it to write literacies instead of literacy is? How can I bear to start building our relationship all over again?

To console myself, whilst I was in NZ last month I sought out and bought the little volume of poems by Fleur Adcock called 'Dragon Talk'. (I've referred to this earlier in this blog). There is only one poem in it that is actually about Dragon - the title one - here is another extract from it:
I do the talking;
you do the typing.
Just try a bit harder
to hear what I say!

Dragon Talk by Fleur Adcock: Bloodaxe Books, Northumberland NE48 1RP

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Digital University (part 2)

This is a reconstruction of the second post I made in February as it seems to have been lost: Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe (2007) have argued that digital technologies constitute a new context for learning and teaching for several interrelated reasons:

  • The technologies themselves and their availability in advanced industrial countries;

  • the social and cultural changes related to these new technologies (e.g. Castells 1996);

  • the consequent epistemological changes affecting what counts as useful knowledge and how knowledge is produced, circulated and consumed;

  • the nature of work and the growth in demand for qualifications from universities;

  • the way the changing nature of work affects universities in relation to faculty and their work and the relationship between universities and their students;

  • the changing nature of the students entering university.

The term Digital University is one that although poorly defined can be taken to apply to all university functions as they are revised to make use of digital technologies and accommodate their impacts. This suggests a two way process in which universities, and various bodies within and beyond them, actively seek to develop new modes of working that make use of the new possibilities that digital technologies make available and at the same time accommodate to changes deriving from the deployment of digital technologies, which are outside of their control, but which have direct consequences for university operations. The main areas of change involving digital technologies include all main university functions:

  • Teaching

  • Learning

  • Research

  • Library services

  • Management, administration and working practices

The term also offers an alternative to other attempts to grasp the nature of change using terms such as the Virtual University (Ryan et al) or the Global Virtual University (Tiffin and Rajasingham 2003) and it avoids the presumption that digital technologies are somehow less real than other forms of mediated contact. Finally the idea of the digital can provide a kind of stability in a period of rapid change. The digital, as a general technological form, has affordances that are more stable than the specific technologies developed using digital technologies. Boyd argues that four properties arise out of the digital nature (bits) of new technologies in this context:

  • Persistence: Online expressions are automatically recorded and archived.

  • Replicability: Content made out of bits can be duplicated.

  • Scalability: The potential visibility of content in networked publics is great

  • Searchability: Content in networked publics can be accessed through searching.

It is of course possible to generate further affordances of the digital, such as manipulability, the capacity to edit, mash and reform digital artefacts. The interesting feature of the use of the idea of affordance by boyd is the way she directs attention to relatively stable features of digital technologies and elaborates how these features shape peoples participation in a relatively new Web service and the way this structures networked publics. I have separately tried to capture the changes connected to digital technologies in relation to education in the following list:

  • Time shifts – Computer networks used in education affect the usual time patterns of education. Many courses delivered across networks are asynchronous.

  • Place – The introduction of mobile and ubiquitous computing devices have begun to make the idea of education occurring at anytime, anyplace, and anywhere seem more feasible.

  • Digital preservation – The outputs of synchronous and asynchronous activity are easily preserved in transcripts, logs and a variety of other forms including the archiving of web casts and audio interviews/podcasts.

  • Public/Private boundaries – The preservation of what would otherwise be ephemeral materials alters the boundaries between what is public and what is private. Tutors can now view and preserve the details of student’s interactions during group activities, making these available as tools for assessment.

  • Forms of literacy – The still largely text based world of networked learning has generated new forms of writing that are neither simple text replications of informal conversation nor are they formal written texts. The integration of images and audio into digital environments has suggested new forms of multimedia literacy.

  • Content – The boundary between content and process is shifting. Blogs and wikis can provide elements of content and cut and paste re-use is common practice. The idea that there is a clear distinction between activity/process and artefact/ content is becoming strained. (Jones and Dirckinck-Holmfeld 2009 p10)

Once again the feature I would draw your attention to is the relative stability of this list in relation to the constant change in technologies, tools, digital devices and networked services. Many of these features were applicable in the early years of educational use of the Internet (see for example Harasim et al. 1995). Acknowledging the contextual nature of users’ interpretations of technology does not mean succumbing to the idea that technology once fixed in place has no role in shaping the nature of use. Hutchby argues that:

“The concept of affordance has been applied to technology in the sense that: technologies possess different affordances, and these affordances constrain the ways that they can possibly be ‘written’ or ‘read’ (Hutchby, 2001, p. 447).

It is this sense of constraint that I wish to convey here. Technologies are indeed read by their users, but the reading is constrained by the features of the technology and the technological infrastructures that have been put in place.