in New Literacies

My Ed.D. thesis: introduction and a ?

Having found readers of this blog very helpful in the past – especially when it came to my most recent job description – I thought I’d ask for your help again. The input of all my readers to what follows, but especially those of a philosophical persuasion like Stephen Downes and George Siemens, would be fantastic.

What follows is a rough, not-long-enough first draft of introduction to my Ed.D. thesis. Trouble is, my interests have led to a slightly different focus from that outlined in my thesis proposal; I need a new working title, please! :-p

The structure of my Ed.D. thesis is going to be something like:

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature review (including discussion of ‘literacy’, ‘visual literacy‘, ‘media literacy‘, etc. and how these terms developed)
  3. Worldviews on ‘digital literacy’ (how various education systems around the world discuss the area)
  4. ‘Digital literacy’ in the UK (analysis of stakeholder policies and discussions of the area)
  5. ‘Digital literacy’ & educational institutions (suggestions of ways in which schools & universities can promote the skills congruent with the area)
  6. Conclusion

So please, read this rough outline to my introduction and I’d love it if you could think of a title. I’m currently thinking of something as simple as: What is ‘Digital Literacy’? A Pragmatic Investigation.

(Rough) introduction to Ed.D. thesis

“All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which, ipso facto, is apprehended by the performer as that pattern.” (Berger & Luckmann, 2002:42)

Human beings are tasked with making sense of the external world. We feel the need to decipher and communicate oft-repeated experiences and sensations, allowing other minds to share the same (or similar) conceptual space to our own. For example, research in Phenomenology tells us that two individuals may have two markedly different sensations when viewing a red pillar box. If, however, they agree on the category ‘pillar box’ to refer to approximately the shape they see before them, and that the colour sensation they are experiencing shall be called ‘red’ then meaningful discourse can ensue.

All human communication must begin in this manner. We train toddlers and young children to be able to understand the world around them by allowing them to use the constructs we ourselves use. These constructs we largely inherited from our parents, and they from their forebears. There comes a need, however, in each generation to create and agree upon new ways of understanding the world. This can be as a result of natural changes in the environment, new (disruptive) technologies, or some other way – usually involving politics or economics – that alter human relationships.

This thesis shall discuss the concept of ‘digital literacy’. It shall be my contention that, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, “some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist.” (Pinker, 2002:202) As we shall see, although a consensus is growing around the term ‘digital literacy’, other competing ways of describing a similar conceptual space have emerged. This is partly due to a lack of clarity over the seemingly-straightforward term, ‘literacy’.

When dealing with conceptual spaces, metaphor and new ways of communicating experience and sensation, it makes little sense to talk of ‘reality’ and, indeed, ‘truth‘. Without wishing here to go into too much phenomenological and philosophical depth, it would seem clear that descriptions and talk of ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competence’, ‘digital fluency’ and so on are of a different order than ‘sky’, ‘chair’, and ‘lamp’. There is a qualitative difference: the first seeks to be a lens in the way the second does not. It is the lens of ‘digital literacy’ that this thesis shall discuss, the aim being to seek to describe the changing landscape and terminology surrounding such conceptions.

To avoid the quagmire of correspondence theories of truth and slips into solipsism, then, this thesis will employ a pragmatic methodology. This way of approaching the world was first suggested in the 19th century by C.S. Peirce and developed by William James. Although there are disagreements within the Pragmatist movement, James perhaps has been the clearest exponent of classical Pragmatist philosophy. He argues that there is no ‘end to enquiry’ and that we “must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of [our] experience.” (James, 1995:21)

The above meshes with the phenomenological account presented earlier; if we are socially-constructing what we term ‘reality’, then changes in human relationships will alter our conceptual ‘realities’ and vice-versa. Pragmatists, without needing to hold onto a correspondence theory of truth do, however, reject the notion that the conceptual and practical realms are completely divorced. As James (1995:20) puts it,

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen.

With regard to this thesis, therefore, discussions that either make no or could make no difference in practice shall either be only mentioned in passing or disregarded entirely. Although a non-empirical thesis, what comes hereafter is intended to be of use and be able to inform policy-makers.

So, what do YOU think? Title suggestions, please!

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  • David Noble

    Hi Doug

    This comment falls between breaks in a cootie game in the back garden, so is brief:

    Will you link difficulty of conceptualising literacy to similar post-modern discourse on purpose of schooling?

    Are you focusing on literacy in schools, training or society?

    In taking a pragmatic approach, will you make explicit your epistemology and ontology etc?

    Will your pragmatic approach include practicing teachers in the (continuing) reconstruction of the concept?

    Finally, will you search for or put forward helpful, up-to-date metaphors?

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      David, thanks for the thought-provoking questions. :-)

      In terms of epistemology (what we can know, for other readers) and ontology (what exists), the pragmatic method lends me a fairly clear-cut approach. As William James put it, what is true is what is ‘good in the way of belief’. That is to say what *works*. So if I can find definitions in the area of digital literacy that make a difference in *practice*, than that will satisfy my and the approach I’m taking.

      My focus is mainly schools. I’m going to start with the macro (conceptions worldwide), then come down to UK level (differences between Scotland and England, for example) and then look at what schools can do in the conceptual area. It’s a non-empirical thesis so I won’t, as you are, be collecting data from practising teachers. I may include data from *other* people’s studies though… ;-)

      And yes, I’ll be looking at metaphors, both new and old. I’m a big fan of Gareth Morgan’s ‘Images of Organization’! (http://bit.ly/4gKYsl)

  • David Noble

    Hi DougThis comment falls between breaks in a cootie game in the back garden, so is brief:Will you link difficulty of conceptualising literacy to similar post-modern discourse on purpose of schooling?Are you focusing on literacy in schools, training or society?In taking a pragmatic approach, will you make explicit your epistemology and ontology etc?Will your pragmatic approach include practicing teachers in the (continuing) reconstruction of the concept?Finally, will you search for or put forward helpful, up-to-date metaphors?

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    David, thanks for the thought-provoking questions. :-) In terms of epistemology (what we can know, for other readers) and ontology (what exists), the pragmatic method lends me a fairly clear-cut approach. As William James put it, what is true is what is 'good in the way of belief'. That is to say what *works*. So if I can find definitions in the area of digital literacy that make a difference in *practice*, than that will satisfy my and the approach I'm taking.My focus is mainly schools. I'm going to start with the macro (conceptions worldwide), then come down to UK level (differences between Scotland and England, for example) and then look at what schools can do in the conceptual area. It's a non-empirical thesis so I won't, as you are, be collecting data from practising teachers. I may include data from *other* people's studies though… ;-)And yes, I'll be looking at metaphors, both new and old. I'm a big fan of Gareth Morgan's 'Images of Organization'! (http://bit.ly/4gKYsl)

  • Patricia Cone

    I have no suggestions, only a personal reflection. Back in the day (middle seventies) when I was completing my advanced BA in sociology, we read Burger and Luckmann (? The Sacred Canopy???) in a sociology of religion seminar. Fast forward two decades; I found the whole idea of semiotics fascinating when taking a masters degree in Educational Communications. I loved reading your introduction. It brought back some great academic memories, and almost made me want to go back to university….except I really like working in the classroom and my need seems to be to relate what I indulge my learning to what I do as a living. I’m still fascinated by how people construct realities and then proceed as if they are “fact” ignoring that these relaties are for the most part made by people not God.

    Makes me think of Monte Python’s Life of Brian: “We’re all individuals”….”I’m not!!!”

  • Patricia Cone

    I have no suggestions, only a personal reflection. Back in the day (middle seventies) when I was completing my advanced BA in sociology, we read Burger and Luckmann (? The Sacred Canopy???) in a sociology of religion seminar. Fast forward two decades; I found the whole idea of semiotics fascinating when taking a masters degree in Educational Communications. I loved reading your introduction. It brought back some great academic memories, and almost made me want to go back to university….except I really like working in the classroom and my need seems to be to relate what I indulge my learning to what I do as a living. I'm still fascinated by how people construct realities and then proceed as if they are “fact” ignoring that these relaties are for the most part made by people not God.Makes me think of Monte Python's Life of Brian: “We're all individuals”….”I'm not!!!”