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Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: the roadmap for 2010.

The Dissertation

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I met (via Skype) with my Ed.D. thesis supervisor, Steve Higgins, last night to discuss my progress over the last couple of months. Regular readers interested in my thesis (What does it mean to be ‘digitally literate’?) will already know that it’s available online as I write it at Here are the relevant posts that make up the parts of my thesis we discussed:

I had several things I wanted to raise, namely:

  1. The structure of my third section: I want to include an analysis of policy documents from various countries and outline a definition of ‘digital flow’. Possible?
  2. This definition of literacy that I developed after an analysis in the early stages of my literature review:

    Literacy involves the mastery of simple cognitive and practical skills. To be ‘literate’ is only meaningful within a social context and involves having access to the cultural, economic and political structures of a society. In addition to providing the means and skills to deal with written texts, literacy brings about a transformation in human thinking capacities. This intellectual empowerment happens as a result of new cognitive tools (e.g. writing) or technical instruments (e.g. digital technologies).

  3. Whether he considers ‘affinity spaces’ to comprise of networks or groups of people (or whether they are ‘third spaces’)?
  4. Which modern-day Pragmatist thinkers should I be reading in preparation for writing my methodology section? (e.g. Richard Rorty)
  5. Is it worth spending time looking at ‘media literacy’ separately (as I have done with ‘information literacy’), or should I simply insert it as part of the evolution of ‘new literacies’?

Steve thought my roadmap seemed sensible, but that I needed to be aware of times at which I would have more/less time to write. Writing the section on the history of new literacies now is fine, but I’ll have to (as I was going to) make sure I’m up-to-date on the latest thinking surrounding ‘digital literacy’ in late 2010.

One of the most exciting aspects of my thesis is how I’m going to publish it. Steve and I are both of the opinion that (only) publishing it in a traditional way would be somewhat anachronistic. Instead, we’re going to think of ways in which my thesis is very much a ‘digital text’. This won’t be an easy option by any means as I will have to balance author intentionality (i.e. what I’m trying to argue) with reader freedom (i.e. to ‘jump around’ the text). I’m going to finish the traditional version first, but have at the back of my mind the digital version. Steve suggested I might want to ‘tag’ sections to help me do this.

Whilst Steve maintained that he’s no problems with ‘the quality or quantity’ of my work, we need to think about how we’re going to prove that it’s an original contribution to knowledge. Suggested ways included:

  • Synthesizing of different conceptions of literacy.
  • Proposing a new definition (‘digital flow’)
  • My method of publication (digital text)

Steve sees a couple of journal articles in the third section of my thesis – perhaps one on analysing policy documents (how ‘digital literacy’ is used as a construct/aspirational term) and then another on how this helps flesh out economic policies, etc.

I then brought up the concept of ‘digital flow’ and how I could use this as a separate lens through which not only to analyse policy documents, but to consider concepts such as ’21st century skills’. There may be something, Steve said, in synthesizing policy presentations of what the ‘digital future’ is going to be like. He reminded me that it’s not just country-specific policy documents I should look at but European Commission, OECD papers, etc. A PhD student of Steve’s is doing a review of the ‘digital divide’ in China which may be useful (to compare, for example, with Futurelab’s report).

The definition of ‘literacy’ (above) that I came up with in the introduction to my thesis seemed reasonable to Steve, although he’s going to have another look at his leisure. He brought up the important point that ‘literacy’ can bring about a transformation in human thinking capacities. I linked this to the reading I’ve been doing of Ong and McLuhan – especially the latter’s belief that:

We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.

There is something beyond ‘reading’ digital texts and manipulating information – how does this alter cognitive structures? Although we both don’t like her conclusions, Steve suggested that looking at some of Professor Susan Greenfield‘s work. I could speculate about longer-term influences here and perhaps link it to my conception of ‘digital flow’. I need to have a realistic conception and presentation of this rather than re-iterating a polarisation (good/bad) of the debate as it currently stands.

We then moved on to the concept of ‘affinity spaces’. I explained how I was interested in these but wasn’t sure whether they were networks, groups or something different. Steve is going to get back to me with some pointers for further research. He did point out, however, that it is usually theorised in terms of ‘cultural spaces’. Each affinity space has its own cultural norms and practices, usually understood by reference to activity theory. I mentioned how these are often ‘third places‘ and that this blurs traditional boundaries. Steve mentioned how the ‘continuity of contact’ that social networking services and affinity spaces provide changes social interactions but also conceptions of identity. He suggested a distinction between ‘temporary spaces’ (not enduring, provisional) and ‘parallel spaces’ (contact maintained over time). It may be interesting to examine the status literacy and ‘digital flow’ in relation to these.

In terms of Pragmatist philosophers and thinkers that I need to make sure I’ve read, Steve suggested Quine in addition to Rorty. He also mentioned Mead (although this strays into anthropology) and perhaps Merleau-Ponty. Pragmatism itself is always presented from a certain point of view – for example, Rorty tends towards right-wing libertarianism. I asked whether there was a collection of articles on Pragmatism that Steve recommended. He’s going to look for this, but also picked Gutting’s Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity from his shelf as one I could look at. I should also look at Neopragmatism and its influences.

I then suggested that I should write my introduction, set out my stall, and then go about explaining my methodology in depth. Steve agreed, stating that this should be a justification of my approach to the thesis and include underpinning epistemologies. He outlined the difference between ‘necessary’ and ’empirical’ epistemologies – i.e how things ‘should be’ versus how they actually are. This is something I need to explore further, but Steve said that it was perfectly possible to have a strongly empiricist or realist epistemology in a digital world. He cited Tim Berners-Lee, the ‘father of the internet’ as someone who had a traditional view of the exchange of knowledge.

This reminded me of a debate I’d heard on Radio 4’s Start the Week about Wikipedia and its history. Steve talked about the role of the expert and the fact that there is in fact some type of hierarchy within Wikipedia. He related this to Peirce‘s idea of a ‘community of enquirers’, explaining that what Peirce had in mind in terms of 19th century Boston wasn’t quite the same in digital, hyperconnected spaces. Steve continued to state that there is an elision underpinning Wikipedia: the notion seems to be that knowledge is not tied to context and intention, whereas we always know something for a purpose. How ‘disinterested’ in information/knowledge can you be, asked Steve, if you’ve chosen to write about it for free? (Platonic forms don’t exist!)

After this I brought up my question surrounding the concept of ‘media literacy’ – should I incorporate it within a history of ‘new literacies’, or would it be better to consider it by itself? Steve’s response was really useful and enlightening. He said that media literacy was ‘quite a meaty chunk’ and was probably worth considering by itself. Whilst analysing ‘information literacy’ has allowed me to get a handle on the ‘literacy’ part of ‘digital literacy’, an analysis of media literacy would allow me to look at the ‘digital’ part. What he meant with this is that information literacy is predicated upon the neutrality of information/knowledge, whereas media literacy recognises communicative intent. A comparison of these against various definitions of digital literacy would be Pragmatic with a capital ‘P’.

Steve warned that I need to be careful how far down the media literacy rabbit-hole I go, as there are many forms – film, TV, radio, etc. I suggested that I should look at the work of (for example) Negroponte and Tapscott (especially the latter’s Growing Up Digital and Grown Up Digital). Steve suggested that there are two main conceptions of ‘digital’:

  1. Similar messages communicated in different ways (e.g. film/poem, text/graph)
  2. Translatability – moving things across different contexts

I mentioned how the latter could be conceived of as a ‘networked literacy’ and could be linked to ‘digital flow’. Steve agreed, mentioning how nowadays things ‘spill out across contexts’. We linked this to mashups and memes.

To conclude, Steve talked about how the level and detail of what I’m looking at is complex. I therefore need to think about how the reader is going to scaffolded through this, to impose a structure to help the reader understand. I could have alternative routes through the structure (through the use of hyperlinks) but then readers could lose the intended structure. As a result, I will need more scaffolding than usual and keep going over my arguments. I noted that I’ve already started doing something like this by writing my thesis on Google Docs but taking out blog posts that need to stand by themselves. Steve re-iterated that a potential contribution to new knowledge could be a synthesis of the ideas and form of my thesis.

We’re going to be looking at potential external examiners in 2010. Steve’s currently thinking someone from the London Knowledge Lab or similar – someone who ‘can deal with’ presenting my thesis as a digital text.

Steve and I will be meeting (via Skype again – it works well for us) in about a month’s time. I’m going to consider the 3 (or so) main points I want to make in my thesis, as I will need to reference these throughout the digital text by way of scaffolding. At the moment, I’m thinking that two of these will be:

  1. Digital literacy is not useful term to use as consensus cannot be reached.
  2. Digital flow is a useful for conceiving of post-21st century skills.

Finally, Steve’s invited me to meet up with a couple of his other doctoral students who are working in similar areas to kick around some ideas. I look forward to it! 😀

The evolution of communication.

This is another post from my Ed.D. thesis which can be seen in its entirety as I write it at References can be found at my wiki)

Since coming into existence humans have had to communicate with one another. One method of doing so is through the written word, but this technology has come rather late in the evolution of communication. One way to represent this evolution would be with the aid of the following diagram:

New Literacies hierarchy

Writing in the age of mass communication and mass media, but before the dawn of the internet, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan were not disadvantaged by discussions of the latter clouding their thinking about previous technologies. It is from a synthesis of their thinking that the above diagram was created. As Ong (1982:7) explains, language is, and has been, by far the most prevalent method of communication. Language is ‘overwhelmingly oral’:

Indeed, language is so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands of languages – possibly tens of thousands – spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literate, and most have never been written at all. Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature (Edmonson 1971, pp.323, 332).

This is because, unlike writing, orality is ‘natural’ (Ong, 1982:81) and primary (‘Oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality’ Ong, 1982:8) The process of writing and becoming ‘literate’ actually restructures consciousness, believes Ong (‘Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does’, Ong, 1982:77). McLuhan goes a step further, calling writing ‘the technology of individualism’ (McLuhan, 1962:158) and reminds us that the typographic world is in its relative infancy. Although the written word as we know it did exist between the fifth century B.C. and the fifteenth century A.D. this was not ‘mass communication’ and was restricted to the elite few (McLuhan, 1962:74). It was the typographic world, as opposed to the scribal, manuscript-driven world previously in existence that led to the context-free nature of literacy, claims Ong (1982:77) – ‘ written discourse has been detached from its author.’ Whereas in an oral world things could be forgotten, stances changed and context necessarily understood, this changed fundamentally with the dawn of the typographic world. A difficulty arises when, at a distance from the author – and out of context – an individual attempts to separate the signifier from the thing signified:

Writing makes ‘words’ appear similar to things because we think of words as the visible marks signaling words to decoders: we can see and touch such inscribed ‘words’ in texts and books. Written words are residue. Oral tradition has no such residue or deposit. (Ong, 1982:11)

This ‘residue or deposit’ affects ideas surrounding human consciousness and identity. It gives human beings, both individually and corporately, additional ‘powers’ – especially in relation to ‘memory’ and communication over large distances. ‘Conversations’ (in a loose sense of the term) can happen asynchronously over many years and great distances. As Ong reminds us, there is no way to completely refute a written text as ‘after absolutely total and devestating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before’ (Ong, 1982:78).

The move to ‘new literacies’ came at the end of the 20th century. Ong (1982:3) would explain this through a move into what he would call ‘secondary orality’, whilst McLuhan (1962:253) speaks of the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ coming to an end in the era of electronic communication. Although McLuhan (1962:1) points out that we are approximately as far into the ‘electric era’ as the Elizabethans were into the ‘typographical age’, and that they had to justify books in education in a similar way that we have to justify technology (McLuhan, 1962:145), he explains that the two changes are nevertheless very different:

Our extended senses, tools, technologies, through the ages, have been closed systems incapable of interplay or collective awareness. Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious… As long as our technologies were as slow as the wheel or the alphabet or money, the fact that they were separate, closed systems was socially and psychically supportable. This is not true now when sight and sound and movement are simultaneous and global in extent. (McLuhan, 1962:5)

It is this less individualised, more ‘networked’ world that has led to the discussion of ‘new literacies’. The stimulus to traditional conceptions of literacy, says Ong (1982:85) was urbanization, partly because it led to the need and desire for record keeping. The stimulus to newer conceptions of literacy, including ‘digital literacy’ is, therefore, perhaps the metaphorical ‘proximity’ of our relationships despite geographical distance. Whereas traditional literacy was predicated upon technologies that promoted individualism, newer conceptions of literacy depend upon access, collaboration and sharing.

Just as post-Gutenberg civilizations struggled with the technology of the typographic world (and associated problems surrounding grammar/personal access to previously difficult-to-obtain works) so we struggle faced with a world where, quite literally, anybody can publish to a global audience cheaply and without delay. We are in a world where new literacies are required or, as Ong (1982:133-4) puts it, a world of ‘secondary orality’:

The electronic transformation of verbal expression has both deepened the commitment of the word to space initiated by writing and intensified by print and has brough consciousness to a new age of secondary orality.

This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas (Ong 1971, pp.284-303; 1977, pp.16-49, 305-41). But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well.

The reference to the self-consciousness of this ‘secondary orality’ is important, but also causes problems. As LaFitte put its (quoted in McLuhan, 1962:155), ‘because we are their makers, we have too often deluded ourselves into believing that we knew all there was to know about machines.’ Unfortunately, we do not. ‘In the electronic age which succeeds the typographic and mechanical era of the past five hundred years, we encounter new shapes and structures of human interdependence and of expressions which are “oral” in form even when the components of the situation may be non-verbal’ (McLuhan, 1962:3) We want to call this knowledge of machines and new shapes and structures a form of literacy. The question is whether ‘new literacies’ are ‘literacies’ in any real sense of the word.

The future of my Ed.D. thesis.

A couple of people have very kindly been in touch privately to offer their thoughts on my Ed.D. thesis. Both expressed concern that I don’t seem to be up-to-date with my research! Whilst that’s very kind of them, I’d like to reassure both them and everyone else that I (think I) know what I’m doing. 🙂

Here’s my roadmap, if it helps:

My 2010 Ed.D. thesis roadmap

As you can see, I’m delaying writing about digital literacy until next summer. Why? Things move fairly quickly in this field. I want to be as up-to-date as possible when I submit!

In addition, I’m in the bizarre position of doing a vocational doctorate in a non-empirical, purely conceptual fashion. How odd. :-s

‘Information literacy’: its history and problems.

This is part of my Ed.D. literature review, part of my ongoing thesis which can be found at You can view everything I’ve written on this blog for and about my thesis here)

perlin flow particle ribbon 1079

CC BY-NC anthony mattox

Information literacy is a term that was coined in the 1970s but which has undergone a number of transformations to keep it current and relevant. Unlike ‘technological literacy,’ ‘computer literacy,’ and ‘ICT literacy’ is it is not technology-related (and therefore likely to become outdated), nor is it a corrective to an existing ‘literacy’ (as with ‘visual literacy’). Because it is not dependent upon any one technology or set of technologies, ‘information literacy’ has been eagerly taken onboard by librarians (Martin 2008:160) and governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50) alike. Indeed more recently it has been defined as a ‘habit of mind’ rather than a set of skills:

[I]nformation literacy is a way of thinking rather than a set of skills… It is a matrix of critical and reflective capacities, as well as disciplined creative thought, that impels the student to range widely through the information environment… When sustained through a supportive learning environment at course, program or institutional level, information literacy can become a dispositional habit… a “habit of mind” that seeks ongoing improvement and self-discipline in inquiry, research and integration of knowledge from varied sources. (Center for Intellectual Property in the Digital Environment, 2005:viii-ix)

Although evident in the literature since the 1970s, the concept of ‘information literacy’ gained real traction in the 1990s with the advent of mass usage of the internet. Suddenly information was a few effortless keystrokes and mouse clicks away rather than residing in great tomes in a physical place. Accessing this information and using it correctly constituted, for proponents of the concept, a new ‘literacy’. This was a time when politicians used the term ‘Information Superhighway’ to loosely describe the opportunities afforded by the internet.

‘Information literacy’ as a term was boosted greatly by a definition and six-stage model for developing the concept agreed upon by the American Libraries Association in 1989. The committee tasked with investigating information literacy proposed that an ‘information literate person’ would ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information’ (quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:52). Achieving the state of being ‘information literate’ involves passing through six stages, outlined in Bawden (2008:21-22):

  1. Recognizing a need for information
  2. Identifying what information is needed
  3. Finding the information
  4. Evaluating the information
  5. Organizing the information
  6. Using the information

Boekhorst (quoted in Virkus, 2003) believes that, indeed, all definitions of information literacy presented over the years can be summarized in three concepts. First there is the ICT concept: using ICT to ‘retrieve and disseminate information.’ Second is the information resources concept: the ability to find resources independently ‘without the aid of intermediaries.’ Finally comes the information process concept: ‘recognizing information need, retrieving, evaluating, using and disseminating of information to acquire or extend knowledge.’ As such information literacy has at times been seen as including computer-related literacies, sometimes as part of such literacies, and sometimes as being tangential to them.

From these statements in the late 1980s/early 1990s information literacy developed to include an ethical dimension (‘knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner’ – SCONUL (1999) quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:52) and an economic dimenstion (‘Information literacy will be essential for all future employees’ – Langlois (1997) quoted in Martin, 2003:7). Information literacy has been seen as a ‘liberal art’ with an element of critical reflection (Shapiro & Hughes (1996) in Spitzer, et al., 1998:24), critical evaluation (Open University Library website, in Virkus, 2003), and as involving problem-solving and decision-making dimensions (Bruce, 1997).

The problem with such a definitions and models is that they continue to view literacy as a state which can be achieved rather than an ongoing process and group of practices. However much ‘information literacy’ may be praised for being an inclusive term (Doyle, 1994), be evident in the policy documents produced by western governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50) and seen as ‘essential’ to the success of learners, it has ‘no agreed definition’ (Muir & Oppenheim in Virkus, 2003). It is, in the words of Stephen Foster ‘a phrase in a quest for meaning’ (Snavely & Cooper, 1997:10). How, he wonders, would we recognize, and seek to remedy, ‘information illiteracy‘?

However many theorists propose it as an ‘overaching literacy of life in the 21st century’ (Bruce, 2002) and bodies such as the US Association of Colleges and Research Libraries come up with ‘performance indicators’ for the concept (Martin, 2008:159), ‘information literacy’ suffers from a lack of descriptive power. It is too ambitious in scope, too wide-ranging in application and not precise enough in detail to be useful in an actionable way. Even a move from talking about being ‘information literate’ to ‘information savvy’ (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:47) runs into difficulties for the same reasons. Definitions of the concept are too ‘objective’ and independent of the learner – even when described as ‘seven key characteristics’ (Bruce, cited in Bawden, 2008:22-23).

(References can be found at my wiki. Want more? You may have missed my post The history of ‘new literacies’)

#eduhivefive (a suggestion).

This follows on a previous post r.e. the problem with (non-OSS) free stuff.

Image: ‘Bees

I’ll keep this short.

Lifehacker has a great regular thing called Hive Five for software/productivity recommendations. It goes like this:

  1. Question asked: ‘What’s the best x for y?’
  2. People respond.
  3. Five most mentioned in a positive way become ‘recommended’.

We should totally do this for education. I’ve created a wiki at in anticipation. :-p

Perhaps, given the demise of Etherpad, we could kick off with: “What’s the best online tool for collaborative writing?” and use #eduhivefive and #writing as hashtags?

The history of ‘new literacies’.

This section of my Ed.D. literature review is nearing completion, so I thought I’d share it! (although, of course, the whole thing is available via

No single, unitary referent for 'literacy'

The field of ‘new literacies’ has a relatively long history; it is a term that has evolved. Its beginnings can be traced back to the end of the 1960s when a feeling that standard definitions of ‘literacy’ missed out something important from the increasingly visual nature of the media produced by society. In 1969 John Debes offered a tentative definition for a concept he called ‘visual literacy’:

Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication. (Debes, quoted in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:281)

Dondis in A Primer in Visual Literacy (1973) made explicit the reasoning behind considering visual elements as requiring a separate ‘literacy’:

In print, language is the primary element, while visual factors, such as the physical setting or design format and illustration, are secondary or supportive. In the modern media, just the reverse is true. The visual dominates; the verbal augments. Print is not dead yet, nor will it ever be, but nevertheless, our language-dominated culture has moved perceptively toward the iconic. Most of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe, what we recognize and desire, is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph. And it will be more so in the future. (quoted in Barry, 1997:1)

Those who espoused this doctrine were careful to stress the importance of both being able to both decode and encode, creating and communicating via images. Considine (1986) championed visual literacy as being ‘the ability to comprehend and create images in a variety of media in order to communicate effectively,’ leading to those who are ‘visually literate’ being ‘able to produce and interpret visual messages’ (quoted in Tyner, 1998:105). More recently, with the explosion of what I shall term ‘micro-literacies,’ the concept of ‘visual literacy’ has been re-conceived of as ‘media grammar literacy’ (Frechette, quoted in Buckingham & Willett, 2006:168-9). That is to say it stresses the medium as being at least as important as the message.

In essence, the notion of ‘visual literacy’ is an important corrective to the idea that it is only textual symbols that can encode and decode information and meaning. As Lowe (1993:24) puts it, ‘visual materials in general are typically not considered to pose any reading challenges to the viewer.’ This is considered in more depth by Paxson (2004:vi), Sigafoos & Green (2007:29), Bazeli & Heintz (1997:4) and Kovalchik & Dawson (2004:602). As Raney (quoted in Owen-Jackson, 2002:141) explains, coupling ‘visual’ with ‘literacy’ not only prompts a debate about the metaphorical use of language but, by using ‘literacy’ suggests ‘entitlement or necessity, and the need to seek out deficiencies and remedy them.’

Hijacking the term ‘literacy’ for such ends has, however, worried some who believe that it conflates ‘literacy’ with ‘competence’ (Adams & Hamm, in Potter, 2004:29). Whilst some in the early 1980s believed that ‘visual literacy’ may ‘still have some life left in it’ (Sless, in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:282), others considered the concept ‘phonologically, syntactically, and semantically untenable’ (Cassidy & Knowlton, in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:282), as ‘not a coherent area of study but, at best, an ingenious orchestration of ideas’ (Suhor & Little, in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:282). Each writer on the term has written from his or her viewpoint, leading to a situation akin to the apocryphal story of the six blind men tasked with describing an elephant, each doing so differently when given a different part to feel (Burbank & Pett, quoted in Avgerinou & Ericson, 1997:283). The feeling from the literature seems to be that whilst there may be something important captured in part by the term ‘visual literacy’, it all too easily collapses into solipsism and therefore loses descriptive and explanatory power.

The concept of ‘visual literacy’ continued until the late 1990s, eventually being enveloped by ‘umbrella terms’ combining two or more ‘literacies.’ Parallel to visual literacy from the 1970s onwards came the development of the term ‘technological literacy.’ It began to gain currency as a growing awareness took hold of the potential dangers to the environment of technological development as well as economic fears in the western world about the competition posted by technologically more adept nations (Martin, 2008:158). ‘Technological literacy’ (or ‘technology literacy’) was a marriage of skills-based concerns with a more ‘academic’ approach, leading to a US government-funded publication entitled Technology for All Americans. This defined ‘technological literacy’ as combining ‘the ability to use… the key systems of the time,’ ‘insuring that all technological activities are efficient and appropriate,’ and ‘synthesiz[ing]… information into new insights.’ (quoted in Martin, 2008:158) This literacy was one defined and prompted by economic necessities and political concerns.

Although stimulated by competition with non-western countries, a growing awareness in the 1980s that computers and related technologies were producing a ‘postmodern consciousness of multiple perspectives’ with young people ‘culturally positioned by the pervasiveness of computer-based and media technologies’ (Smith, et al., 1988, quoted in Johnson-Eilda, 1998:211-2) reinforced the need for the formalization of some type of literacy relating to the use of computers and other digital devices. Technological literacy seemed to be an answer. Gurak (2001:13) dubbed this a ‘perfomative’ notion of literacy, ‘the ability to do something is what counts.’ Literacy was reduced to being ‘technology literate’ meaning ‘knowing how to use a particular piece of technology.’ The ‘critical’ element of literacy, which Gurak is at pains to stress, including the ability to make meta-level decisions judgements about technology usage, were entirely absent from these 1970s and 80s definitions. Technological or technology literacy is too broad a concept as ‘nearly all modes of communication are technologies – so there is no functional distinction between print-based literacy and digital literacy.’ (Eyman, no date:7) Discussions about, and advocates of, ‘technological literacy’ had mostly petered out by the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Growing out of the perceived need for a ‘technological literacy’ came, with the dawn of the personal computer, calls for definitions of a ‘computer literacy.’ Before the Apple II, ‘microcomputers’ were sold in kit form for hobbyists to assemble themselves. With the Apple II in 1977, followed by IBM’s first ‘Personal Computer’ (PC) in 1981, computers became available to the masses. Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) were developed from the early 1980s onwards, with the first iteration of Apple’s ‘Finder’ coming in 1984 followed by Microsoft’s ‘Windows’ in 1985. There is a symbiotic link between the hardware and software available at any given time and the supposed skills, competencies and ‘literacies’ that accompany their usage. As computers and their interfaces developed so did conceptions of the ‘literacy’ that accompany their usage.

The term ‘computer literacy’ was an attempt to give a vocational aspect to the use of computers and to state how useful computers could be in almost every area of learning (Buckingham, 2008:76). Definitions of computer literacy from the 1980s include ‘the skills and knowledge needed by a citizen to survive and thrive in a society that is dependent on technology’ (Hunter, 1984 quoted in Oliver & Towers, 2000), ‘appropriate familiarity with technology to enable a person to live and cope in the modern world’ (Scher, 1984 quoted in Oliver & Towers, 2000), and ‘an understanding of computer characteristics, capabilities and applications, as well as an ability to implement this knowledge in the skilful and productive use of computer applications’ (Simonson, et al., 1987 quoted in Oliver & Towers, 2000). As Andrew Molnar, who allegedly coined the term, points out ‘computer literacy,’ like ‘technological literacy’ is an extremely broad church, meaning that almost anything could count as an instance of the term:

We started computer literacy in ’72 […] We coined that phrase. It’s sort of ironic. Nobody knows what computer literacy is. Nobody can define it. And the reason we selected [it] was because nobody could define it, and […] it was a broad enough term that you could get all of these programs together under one roof” (“Interview with Andrew Molnar,” OH 234. Center for the History of Information Processing, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, quoted at

Later in the decade an attempt was made to equate computer literacy with programming ability:

It is reasonable to suggest that a peson who has written a computer program should be called literate in computing. This is an extremely elementary definition. Literacy is not fluency. (Nevison, 1976 quoted in Martin (2003:12)

In the 1980s applications available from the command line removed the need for users to be able to program the application in the first place. Views on what constituted ‘computer literacy’ changed as a result. The skills and attributes of a user who is said to be ‘computer literate,’ became no more tangible, however, and simply focused on the ability to use computer applications rather than the ability to program (Van Leeuwen, et al., in Cunningham, 2006:1580). On reflection, it is tempting to call the abilities that fell within the sphere of ‘computer literacy’ as competencies – as a collection of skills that can be measured using, for example, the European Computer Driving License (ECDL). By including the word ‘literacy,’ however, those unsure about the ‘brave new world’ of computers could be reassured that the digital frontier is not that different after all from the physical world with which they are familiar (Bigum, in Snyder (ed.) 2002:133). Literacy once again was used to try to convey and shape meaning from a rather nebulous and loosely-defined set of skills.

Martin (2003, quoted in Martin 2008:156-7) has identified conceptions of ‘computer literacy’ as passing through three phases. First came the Mastery phase which lasted up until the mid-1980s. In this phase the computer was perceived as ‘arcane and powerful’ and the emphasis was on programming and gaining control over it. This was followed by the Application phase from the mid-1980s up to the late 1990s. The coming of simple graphical interfaces such as Windows 3.1 allowed computers to be used by the masses. Computers began to be used as tools for education, work and leisure. This is the time when many certification schemes based on ‘IT competence’ began – including the ECDL. From the late 1990s onwards came the Reflective phase with the ‘awareness of the need for more critical, evaluative and reflective approaches.’ (Martin 2008:156-7) It is during this latter phase that the explosion of ‘new literacies’ occurred.

The main problem with computer literacy was the elision between ‘literacy’ as meaning (culturally-valued) knowledge and ‘literacy’as being bound up with the skills of reading and writing (Wiley, 1996 quoted in Holme, 2004:1-2). Procedural knowledge about how to use a computer was conflated with the ability to use a computer in creative and communicative activities. The assumption that using a computer to achieve specified ends constituted a literacy began to be questioned towards the end of the 1990s. A US National Council Report from 1999 questioned whether today’s ‘computer literacy’ would be enough in a world of rapid change:

Generally, ‘computer literacy’ has acquired a ‘skills’ connotation, implying competency with a few of today’s computer applications, such as word processing and e-mail. Literacy is too modest a goal in the presence of rapid change, because it lacks the necessary ‘staying power’. As the technology changes by leaps and bounds, existing skills become antiquated and there is no migration path to new skills. A better solution is for the individual to plan to adapt to changes in the technology. (quoted in Martin, 2003:16)

Literacy is seen as fixed entity under this conception, as a state rather than a process.

It became apparent that ‘definitions of computer literacy are often mutually contradictory’ (Talja, 2005 in Johnson, 2008:33), that ‘computer literacy’ might not ‘convey enough intellectual power to be likened to textual literacy,’ (diSessa, 2000:109), and with authors as early as 1993 talking of ‘the largely discredited term ‘computer literacy” (Bigum & Green, 1993:6). Theorists scrambled to define new and different terms. An explosion and proliferation of terms ranging from the obvious (‘digital literacy’) to the awkward (‘electracy’) occurred. At times, this seems to be as much to do with authors making their name known as provide a serious and lasting contribution to the literacy debate.

As the term ‘computer literacy’ began to lose credibility and the use of computers for communication became more mainstream the term ‘ICT literacy’ (standing for ‘Information Communications Technology’) became more commonplace. Whereas with ‘computer literacy’ and the dawn of GUIs the ‘encoding’ element of literacy had been lost, this began to be restored with ‘ICT literacy.’ The following definition from the US-based Educational Testing Service’s ICT Literacy Panel is typical:

ICT literacy is using digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge society. (ETS ICT Literacy Panel, 2002:2)

The skills outlined in this definition are more than merely procedural, they are conceptual. This leads to the question as to whether ICT literacy is an absolute term, ‘a measure of a person’s total functional skills in ICT’ or ‘a relative measure’ – there being ICT literacies, with individuals on separate scales (Oliver & Towers, 2000). Those who believe it to be an absolute term have suggested a three-stage process to become ICT literate. First comes the simple use of ICT (spreadsheets, word processing, etc.), followed by engagement with online communities, sending emails and browsing the internet. Finally comes engagement in elearning ‘using whatever systems are available’ (Cook & Smith, 2004). This definition of literacy is rather ‘tools-based’ and is analagous to specifying papyrus rolls, fountain pens or even sitting in a library on the classical definition. A particular literacy is seen as being reliant upon particular tools rather than involving a meta-level definition.

The problem is that, as with its predecessor term, ‘ICT literacy’ means different things to different groups of people. The European Commission, for example conceives of ICT literacy as ‘learning to operate… technology’ without it including any ‘higher-order skills such as knowing and understanding what it means to live in a digitalized and networked society.’ (Coutinho, 2007). This is direct opposition to the ETS definition above – demonstrating the fragmented and ambiguous nature of the term. Town (2003:53) sees ‘ICT literacy’ In the United Kingdom as

a particularly unfortunate elision’ as it ‘appears to imply inclusion of information literacy, but in fact is only a synonym for IT (or computer) literacy. Its use tends to obscure the fact that information literacy is a well developed concept separate from IT (information technology) literacy.

As Town goes on to note, this is not the case in non English-speaking countries.

(Please see for references/bibliography. To avoid making a long post even longer, I shall post separately my section on ‘information literacy’) 🙂

Best of Belshaw (2009)

Last year I simply listed the ‘top’ 25 posts on this blog from the previous year in Top 25: the Best of Belshaw 2008. This year, I’ve gone one step further: I’ve created a book!

It’s available as a free download as an e-book or to purchase (as cost price) as a physical book from

Best of Belshaw (2009)

And yes, it’s uncopyrighted as well. 🙂

Free copies

I’ve ordered 10 copies and am going to be giving them away for free to the following (UK-based) people who have helped and inspired me this year (in alphabetical order):

  1. Dai Barnes (for his help with EdTechRoundUp)
  2. Lisa Stevens (for being a cheerful, caring sort of person)
  3. Nick Dennis (for being my partner-in-crime on various projects)
  4. Stuart Ridout (for his help with the upcoming #movemeon book)
  5. Tom Barrett (for being a truly inspirational educator and collaborator)

Over and above these I’ll be giving some to members of my family, so I’ll have 2 spare to give away. If you’d like one of these, please leave a comment below explaining why!  Thanks to those who requested a copy in the comments below – the two that were up for grabs are going to Daniel Dainty & Julian Wood! :-p

Beyond Creative Commons: uncopyright.

CC badges


Jonathan Lethem (via Harold Jarche):

Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let’s try calling it that—not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly”—and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest…

Seth Godin:

So, how to protect your ideas in a world where ideas spread?


Instead, spread them. Build a reputation as someone who creates great ideas, sometimes on demand. Or as someone who can manipulate or build on your ideas better than a copycat can. Or use your ideas to earn a permission asset so you can build a relationship with people who are interested. Focus on being the best tailor with the sharpest scissors, not the litigant who sues any tailor who deigns to use a pair of scissors.

Leo Babauta:

This blog is Uncopyrighted. Its author, Leo Babauta, has released all claims on copyright and has put all the content of this blog into the public domain.

No permission is needed to copy, distribute, or modify the content of this site. Credit is appreciated but not required.

Terms and Conditions for Copying, Distribution and Modification

0. Do whatever you like.


Be the change you want to see in the world (Gandhi)


I’m here to change things. Do what you like with my stuff. It would be nice if you referenced where you get your ideas/resources from, but no longer necessary. From now on, my stuff is uncopyrighted.

CC BY laihiu

The problem with free stuff.

Image: ‘divieto?


I like free stuff. I also like Open Source (OSS) stuff. I especially like FLOSS. OSS has a model that works:

In his 1997 essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, open source evangelist Eric S. Raymond suggests a model for developing OSS known as the bazaar model. Raymond likens the development of software by traditional methodologies to building a cathedral, “carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation”. He suggests that all software should be developed using the bazaar style, which he described as “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches.” (Wikipedia)

The trouble is, the only real ‘model’ that non-OSS developers have for making software freely available is freemium: making basic services free whilst charging for more advanced features.

The problem:

Educators get upset when services they’ve been using (for free) get shut down. That’s understandable.

Why are educators using these free, online tools? Because those that are provided for them don’t cut the mustard. Why aren’t they paying for the more advanced (premium) features? Because they would have to pay for them personally.


  1. Encourage/dictate that staff and students use only Open Source software (if a developer leaves, the software is still there and you can find/pay someone to develop it further)
  2. Give staff (and students?) a budget to spend on software/web apps (a bit like a personal version of the ill-fated eLearning Credits system in the UK)
  3. Have a backup plan (what other services could you migrate to if the worst came to the worst?)


If you don’t pay for it (or, if ad-supported, click on the ads) don’t grumble if it’s not there tomorrow.

E-safety: the ‘googleability test’ (a suggestion).

The problem:

@4goggas (Kerry Turner)

Kerry Turner:

Any educator launching into the world of social media has to know its risks.

One evening, after reading several posts on Twitter, it was mentioned that school Acceptable User Policies were declaring that all contact with students on social media was to be avoided.

There are strong cases for and against its use. Most important is where the very public nature of social media spotlights professional conduct, where it is used as a vehicle for bullying, or presents us with evidence which we might need to flag up or report to a higher authority. Teachers worry that their natural way of conversing; expressing themselves after a frustrating day, or humorous posts about their personal life could compromise their position at work and result in a telling off from a superior. Yet we teach children to mind themselves online. Within reason, do we not need to consider the same? My belief is that as more students and NQT’s are educated about their use of social media, so the number of incidents which have resulted in censure will become less.

(my emphasis)

A solution?

IF “teacher” AND “” = “unprofessional” THEN “censure”

Goodness knows I’ve tried my best to put together some reasonable Acceptable Use Policies and ‘Digital Guidelines’ in the past. I think that we have to come to terms with the fact that people live increasingly large amounts of their lives connected via social media. So if you’re a teacher, use Twitter and occasionally swear, then protect your updates. If you don’t, and mind what you say, then as you were.

Using Google (or any search engine, for that matter) to search for an educator should bring up positive results on the first page. If it doesn’t, you’re doing something wrong.

After all, anyone can find out something negative or ‘unprofessional’ about a person if they do enough digging. :-p