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.

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