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....

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