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Affinity spaces, secondary orality & digital epistemologies.

sfondo spaces azzurro

CC BY-SA misstitina86 @ Flickr

I’ve been trying to squeeze in my Ed.D. research when I can recently, sometimes rising well before the sun does! I’m at the stage ( where I’m nearing the end of my first run through my Literature Review. I want to have it pretty much finished when I have a video chat with my supervisor next week.

This post is to summarize what I’ve been learning (and attempting to synthesize) about so-called ‘affinity spaces’, ‘secondary orality’ and ‘digital epistemologies’. Much of the following comes from, or was thinking provoked by, Lankshear and Knobel’s New Literacies (2006). My notes on the books and articles mentioned, as ever, are available at 🙂

Literacy is all about communication. Literacy therefore is all about creating or reading texts for a particular purpose. This doesn’t change when we move into the realm of ‘digital literac(ies)’. It was Gee (2004) who came up with notion of ‘affinity spaces’. These spaces are characterized by the following elements (taken from this useful post):

  • A common endeavor is primary, not aspects such as race, class, gender, or disability that can often hinder communication.
  • Newbies, masters, and everyone else share common space
  • Some portals are strong generators (whatever gives the space some content)
  • Content organization is transformed by interactional organization
  • Both intensive and extensive knowledge are encouraged
  • Both individual and distributed knowledge are encouraged
  • Dispersed knowledge is encouraged
  • Tacit knowledge is encouraged and honored
  • Many different forms and routes to participation
  • Many different routes to status
  • Leadership is porous and leaders are resources

In other words, an affinity space is somewhere where informal learning takes place and which ‘bridge[s] barriers of age, race, socio-economic status, and educational level, and allow[s] each user to participate as he/she is able’ (Gee, 2005). They are hotbeds of literate practices.

Some – e.g. Davies (2006) – discuss the ‘Third Space’ that websites such as Flickr allow to flourish:

Third Space … constitutes the discursive conditions … that ensure that … even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rhetoricized and read anew. (Bhabha, 1994 – quoted in Davies, 2006)

The example that is used time and again in the literature is that of Fan Fiction as the genre is a relatively stable one. Other affinity spaces tend to be characterised by memes. Knobel (2006) mentions that, indeed, affinity spaces are ‘perfect conduits’ for memes and that the former ‘can be fixed or fleeting and are always thoroughly relational in nature’. Lankshear & Knobel (2006:236) quote Gee as saying the following about affinity spaces:

[Affinity spaces are] specially designed spaces (physical and virtual) constructed to resource people [who are] tied together… by a share dinterest or endeavor… [For example, the] many many websites and publications devoted to [the video game, Rise of Nations] create a social space in which people can, to any degree they wish, small or large, affiliate with others to share knowledge and gain knowledge that is distributed and dispersed across many different people, places, Internet sites and modalities (magazines, chat rooms, guides, recordings).

It is clear even from the short introduction above that affinity are at the other end of the scale from the traditional classroom. They are based on interest rather than compulsion, the idea that everyone participating is of equal status rather than one person being in control, and emerging ‘rules’ rather than those imposed top-down.

The driving question behind my Ed.D. thesis is What does it mean to be digitally literate? Lankshear & Knobel (2006:243) make the point that definitions of digital literacy make little or no reference to memes, creativity or ‘digital playfulness’:

[T]he phenomenon of online memes challenges the growing dominance of ‘digital literacy’ conceptions of what it means to be a competent user of new technologies and networks… Digital literacy mindsets do not pay sufficient attention to the importance of social relations in developing, refining, remixing and sharing ideas in fecund and replicable ways, or to the important role that memes play in developing culture and creativity. (my emphasis)

The authors proceed to discuss Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, comparing books with ‘networked texts’. Digital literacy, of course, is not necessary to read the former – but it’s perhaps the inherently social element of the latter that sets it apart from print-based classical conceptions of literacy.

It is this idea of ‘text plus something else’ that will lead me to bring in the work of Walter Ong to my thesis. Ong (1982, 2002:3) talks of ‘secondary orality’ – i.e. a set of social practices that resemble purely oral cultures but which are predicated upon technologies surrounding literacy:

The electronic age is also an age of ‘secondary orality’, the orality of telephones, radio, and television, which depends on writing and print for its existence.

Ong’s point (summarized well at Wikipedia) is that oral cultures are additive in a way that solely print-based cultures are not. Writing before the dawn of the internet, Ong rather presciently explained that oral cultures allow ideas to be revisited in different ways that books and articles often do not. Positions are less fixed. As Douglas (1998:160) puts it in relation to the internet, ‘when you spin an argument in hypertext, you can choose to represent a world that is strictly ‘either/or’ or one that is ‘and/and/and’.’ Chris Lott made an interesting presentation entitled Closing the Gutenberg Parenthesis related to this recently.

All of which takes us neatly to the question of digital epistemologies. I need to check out A New Literacies Sampler before actually writing this section of my thesis, but I’m fairly sure where I’m going in abstract. Epistemology is, of course, philosophical questions about the nature and scope of knowledge. Digital epistemologies, therefore, refer to how knowledge is different in a digital world. This obviously has an impact and a bearing upon notions of T/truth. Truth (with a capital ‘T’) is received – and often ‘revealed’ – truths about the world that cannot (or should not) be questioned. Education has often been like this, leading to a transmission model of education.

On the other hand, truth (with a small ‘t’) is provisional knowledge, tentative conclusions based upon available evidence. This is the Pragmatist position, a philosophical methodology I’m employing in my thesis. A lot of what happens online – in fact most of what happens online is concerned with truth with a small ‘t’. As Lankshear & Knobel (2006:242-3) put it:

[A] seemingly increasing proportion of what people do and seek within practices mediated by new technologies – particularly computing and communications technologies – has nothing directly to do with true and with established rules, procedures and standards for knowing. That is most emphatically not to say that these matters are no longer important. Rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that today’s learners are increasingly recruited to other values and priorities.

Given the nature of the above, it seems out of place to tie everything together into a neat conclusion at the end of this post. Suffice to say, therefore, that memes and their impact on affinity spaces, the concept of ‘secondary orality’ in respect to the internet, and the links between literacy, truth and epistemology will certainly be featuring towards the end of my literature review.

I’ve still quite a bit of work left to do on this, so do feel free to point me towards any related and useful blog posts, journal articles books, etc.! :-p


  • Davies, J. (2006) Affinities and Beyond! Developing Ways of Seeing in Online Spaces (E-Learning, 3:2, 2006)
  • Douglas, J.J. (1998) ‘Will the most reflexive relativist please stand up: hypertext, argument and relativism’ (in I. Snyder (ed.), Page to Screen, London, 1998)
  • Knobel, M. (2006) Memes and Affinity Spaces: some implications for policy and digital divides in education (E-Learning, 3:3, 2006)
  • Knobel, M. & Lankshear, C. (2006) New Literacies: Everyday Practices & Classroom Learning
  • Ong, W. (1982, 2002) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word

#movemeon – a suggestion.

Update: view the latest #movemeon tweets via Twitter Search!

If you’ve been living under a rock, Twitter is a communications medium limited to 140-characters that has taken the world by storm.

If you’re baffled by what’s below, the hashtag (first proposed by Chris Messina in 2007) allows ‘channels’ to be created in Twitter. These can be followed by services like TwitterFall.

Thus we get tweets similar to the following that recommends people to follow:

Twitter - FollowFriday

I’d like to propose a new hashtag to help new and existing teachers share and pick up tips. It’s based on the title of a section of the Historical Association’s Teaching History magazine that aims to move student and newly qualified teachers forward. Thus we’d get something like:

Twitter - #movemeon example

I think this would be manageable. After all, how long does it take to reflect on a lesson, realise something and fire off a 140-character message? :-p


My first infographic competition.

Flowing Data competition - US class sizes vs. SAT (v2)

(click on infographic to enlarge)

I’ve come across a wealth of fantastic infographics blogs recently. One of the best, and which has a community element is Flowing Data maintained by Nathan Yau, an UCLA PhD candidate. Nathan runs regular Visualize This competitions, the latest of which (closes 24 November 2009) compares teacher/student ratio with SAT scores by State.

The hardest bit, I’ve found, of creating an infographic is (perhaps obviously) working out how to visualize the data in a meaningful way. The problem with the raw data presented in this competition was that there were 3 SAT scores (reading, maths, writing) and that a meaningful correlation would assume an inverse relationship between this and teacher/student ratio.

In other words I had to figure out a way of plotting something increasing whilst the other decreased.

After a bit of playing around fruitlessly, I settled on the infographic at the top of this post. I’ve a few days left to change it a bit if necessary, but I think that it does, on the whole, do what’s required of it.

I’m never going to win the competition (a copy of David McCandless’ The Visual Miscellaneum) but, like entering a half-marathon or a 5k to focus your running routine, it’s still worth doing! 😀

Infographics and my future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future recently and my career trajectory. I’m not sure I want to stay in schools forever and, perhaps, even in education. To that end, I’ve been exploring other avenues. One such avenue is the world of infographics:

Information graphics or infographics are visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics are used where complex information needs to be explained quickly and clearly, such as in signs, maps, journalism, technical writing, and education. They are also used extensively as tools by computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians to ease the process of developing and communicating conceptual information.

Over the last week or so I’ve been playing about with a few applications that can be used to create infographics. Whilst some, such as ManyEyes, are almost self-explanatory and produce results like this:

Literacy rates by country

…it takes something a bit more sophisticated to produce this:

Example of infographic created with 'Processing'

The creator of the above used the (thankfully free and Open Source) software program Processing. However, the words ‘steep’ and ‘learning curve’ spring to mind, so I may have to buy a book to teach me. :-p

Of course, infographics don’t have to be amazingly flashy to convey information effectively. Check out the Wordle created from my Ed.D. thesis (as it currently stands) below:

Wordle of my Ed.D. thesis as at 13/11/09

Finally, programs such as OpenOffice, Powerpoint and Keynote can be used to create infographics. I created the following in Keynote as a practice – it shows average Primary classroom sizes across OECD countries. It took me a couple of hours – the most fiddly part is aligning everything!

Comparison of Primary class sizes in state-funded schools within OECD countries (2007) v3

The most important thing, of course, is to have reliable data. The above was created after studying Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. The second most important thing is to represent the data in a way that makes interepretation easy and obvious. The third thing is that it should look pretty… 😉

Have I whetted your appetite for infographics? I hope to publish some more here soon, but in the meantime, check out these excellent infographics-related blogs:

Learning and growing.

Confucius quotation

Image CC-BY-NC-ND bobsd46 @ Flickr

These last few weeks have been difficult for me. Being promoted quickly is great but comes at the expense of very steep learning curves! 😮

That’s when quotations mashed with images like the ones above are useful to spur me on. I’ve just used an online poster-printing service to get a bunch printed for my office. There more images like the one above available at the Flickr group entitled Great quotes about Learning and Change. 🙂

What are YOUR favourite images or quotations relating to motivation/productivity?

12 educational ways of using

I first came across last year when it was in ‘Alpha’. It was an interesting diversion at the time, but I didn’t use it much and quickly forgot about it. Recently, I’ve noticed my email inbox filling up with notifications that people were following me on

Thinking it was worth another look I’ve put together this ’12 ways of using in education’. Please feel free to add your own! 🙂

Pondering educational utility of on

Educational use #1 – Asynchronous debates on

Educational use #2 – Synthesis on

Educational use #3 – VoiceThread-like on

Educational use #4 – Class documentary on

Educational use #5 – E-Portfolio reflections on

Educational use #6 – Ideas box on

Educational use #7 – Exemplifying good practice on

Educational use #8 – Virtual ‘penpals’ on

Educational use #9 – Learning conversations on

Educational use #10 – Language acquisition/practice on

Educational use #11 – Mini documentary on

Educational use #12 – Lesson reflection on

For longer (constrained) videos, I’d recommend Flickr that allows you to post videos no longer than 1:30. As we’ve found with Twitter, sometimes being constrained can be a good thing! :-p

Learning objectives: the importance of trigger verbs

Right arrowI’m not sure whether it was because I was new to the profession, but it was during my teaching practices that I attended two in-service training events that have had a profound inuence on my teaching. The first, about the use of body language and voice in the classroom I shall share in a future post. This post builds on Learning objectives: the basics, and concerns the second: the use of trigger verbs when framing lesson objectives.

It’s important to use these ‘trigger verbs’ – words that relate specifically to actions – when framing learning objectives for (or indeed, with) students. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to know which trigger verbs to use. Is, for example, interpreting a high-order skill than categorizing?

The document below () is based on an original by Ron Rooney of the Education Development Service and provides some clarification. Let me say in advance that I’m aware that some people believe that Synthesis and Evaluation should switch positions from that given in Bloom’s original taxonomy. I’m just providing the document largely as it was given to me. 🙂

You should have the options to both download this as a Microsoft Word-formatted document and print it using the buttons below the table. ‘KS3’ and ‘GCSE’ stand for ‘Key Stage 3’ and ‘General Certificate of Secondary Education’ respectively. You can remove or change these if they are not relevant to where you are or what you’re doing!

What do you think? Is this useful? Is it out of date? :-p

Ed.D. Thesis snapshot: towards a bedrock definition of literacy.

Although I’m progressing well with my Ed.D. thesis, I do feel sometimes as though what I’m reading is adding epicycles on top of epicycles, rather than cutting (Copernicus-like) to the chase. Take, for example, definitions of digital literacy. For me to be able to deal with these systematically and critically, I need a bedrock definition of literacy upon which to base any criticism. What follows is a draft section of my thesis that aims to deal with just that. The quotation in bold towards the end is the definition of ‘literacy’ I’m thinking of using to base the rest of my thesis upon. :-p

N.B. You may want to read my previous post The 8C’s of digital literacy for context before reading this one!

Bedrock (and the light at the end of the tunnel!)

Image CC BY-NC tj.blackwell @ Flickr

Claire Bélisle (in Martin, 2008:156) identifies three conceptions in the evolution of our concept of ‘literacy’. First is the model favoured by UNESCO, the functional model. This conceives of literacy as the ‘mastery of simple cognitive and practical skills.’ Most theorists in the literature – and especially those who espouse ‘new literacies’ – would see this as a definition of competence, not literacy. Thus, ‘digital competence’ could involve a basic understanding of how the internet works (e.g. hyperlinks) and having the practical skills to be able to navigate it.

The second model in the evolution of literacy cited by Bélisle is the socio-cultural practice model. This model takes as its basis that ‘the concept of literacy is only meaningful in terms of its social context and that to be literate is to have access to cultural, economic and political structures of society’ (quoted in Martin, 2008:156). This seems to make sense: that individuals have to be literate for something. A rejoinder might be that we could conceive of someone who was ‘literate’ marooned in the middle of nowhere. However, as Lemke reminds us:

Even if we are lost in the woods, with no material tools, trying to find our way or just make sense of the plants or stars, we are still engaged in making meanings with cultural tools such as language (names of flowers or constellations) or learned genres of visual images (flower drawings or star maps). We extend forms of activity that we have learned by previous social participation to our present lonely situation. (Lemke, 2002:36-7)

Within the digital sphere, the socio-cultural practice model makes sense. It deals specifically with the disenfranchisement felt by those not literate within a given domain. The model can also explain how hegemonic power can be grasped or maintained by those with access to literacy tools. A good example of the latter would be the Catholic church in Europe in the medieval period. The model is also a useful call-to-arms for those concerned about liberty and equality in society – in other words, social justice. It provides an arena for discourse about the importance of literacy in living a productive and rewarding life.

There are, however, problems with the socio-cultural practice model of literacy. It deals with literacy as an ideology more than as a practical skill. As a result, the constructive, creative and critical elements of the 8 C’s are only alluded to whilst the cultural, communicative and civic aspects are focused upon. The cognitive element is not addressed, nor is the link between literacy and confidence. The socio-cultural practice model of literacy does not, therefore, have sufficient explanatory power to be used as the bedrock for new literacies.

The final stage in the evolution of literacy, according to Bélisle, is the intellectual empowerment model. This deals with the link between new tools and new ways of thinking:

Literacy not only provides means and skills to deal with written texts and numbers within specific cultural and ideological contexts, but it brings a profound enrichment and eventually entails a transformation of human thinking capacities. This intellectual empowerment happens whenever mankind endows itself with new cognitive tools, such as writing, or with new technical instruments, such as those that digital technology has made possible. (Bélisle, 2006: 54-55, quoted in Martin, 2008:156)

This ‘meta-level’ view of literacy certainly deals with the cognitive element of the 8C’s as well as, to some extent, the critical and communicative aspects. The cultural and creative elements are inferred, but no specific mention is given to the civic, constructive and confidence aspects of literacy.

If these conceptions of literacy have indeed ‘evolved’ from one another then they are additive; they build upon one another. If this is the case, then the functional, socio-cultural practice, and intellectual empowerment models of literacy together deal with the earlier-derived 8C’s. Putting them together, we would get a definition of literacy similar to the following:

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).

This definition would seem to satisfy the 8C’s outlined earlier, dealing with the cultural, communicative, cognitive, civic, constructive, creative, confidence, and critical aspects of literacy.

Now that a working definition of literacy has been arrived at based on the literature, we need to test it against the four conditions outlined earlier that would make for a valid definition of digital literacy. This is because digital literacy is necessarily predicated upon a bedrock definition of ‘literacy’. To recap:

  1. ‘Cash value’ – it must be useful and must be able to make a difference in practice.
  2. Retrospective nature – it must include past (and future) instances of ‘digitally-literate practice.’
  3. Metaphorical nature – its position to other metaphorical terms in the literate practices arena must be explained adequately.
  4. Digital element – advocates must be able to explain to what the ‘digital’ part of ‘digital literacy’ pertains.

The definition of literacy has the potential to deal adequately with the ‘digital’ part of ‘digital literacy’ in that it acknowledges that changes can take place as a result of new ‘cognitive tools’ and ‘technical instruments’. Likewise, the definition can deal with both past and future instances of literate practices, as it mentions the ‘transformation in human thinking capacities’ that literacy brings about. Given that literacy is altered by the aforementioned cognitive tools and technical instruments, changes in the latter produce changes in the former. The metaphorical aspect of literacy is dealt with through its explanation that ‘the concept of literacy is only meaningful in terms of its social context’. The ‘cash value’ of the definition could be seen to be a call to action due to literacy involving gaining ‘access to cultural economic and political structures of society’ .


  • Lemke, J.L. (2002) ‘Becoming the Village: Education Across Lives’ (in G. Wells & G. Claxton (eds.) Learning for Life in the 21st Century)
  • Martin, A. (2008) ‘Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society”‘ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M., Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices)

You can read my thesis as it progresses here and view notes I’ve made on my wiki here. 😀

How I mark students’ books.

Marking books

I’d love to mark blogs (or even Google Wave) rather than exercise books. In my previous school I used Posterous-powered blogs with my Year 10 History class. However, in some situations it’s just not practical for various reasons. This isn’t the post to go into the ins and outs of why this is the case. This is the post that explains how I mark books with some justification behind my actions. One reason for putting my system online is to get feedback as to how I can improve it.

Let me just say right from the outset that I don’t mark as often as other teachers. Or as often as they claim to, anyway. In fact, during these half-term holidays is the first time I’ve marked my classes’ books this year. I would have ordinarily have liked to look at them before now (after 2-3 lessons) but setting up a new Academy kind eats into any free time you’ve got…

One more thing by way of context. It’s usual, but not universal, in England for Key Stage 3 students – whom I’m talking about here – to get one lesson of History (my subject) per week. Marking their books at the end of the half-term means they’ve got a maximum of 6 lessons work in there.

With that out of the way, let me explain how I go about marking. I do it in two ‘waves’:

First wave

Crap at History?

In the first wave I’m concentrating on the following:

  • Encouraging students
  • Completion of work
  • Understanding of key concepts
  • Spelling of key words
  • Factual errors (to correct)

If I notice a pattern across books (either all or a subset of them) then this informs my teaching and/or direction of Learning Support Assistants.

I used to mark in green, after hearing that some students find red a ‘confrontational’ colour. However, after having students in two separate schools complain about this, I’m back on the red. That’s handy, as green pens are more expensive and harder to get hold of!

Sometimes I fall into the trap of ‘ticking’ work. There’s really no point in this, but I do it to reassure students that I’ve seen a piece of work that doesn’t really require any comment. I focus my time and effort on things that are likely to make a difference to their learning. Sometimes this is reinforcing/correcting understanding of a key concept; sometime it’s encouraging a student; sometimes it’s drawing attention to spelling of key words. It depends on what you’re teaching and who the student is.

Second wave

Marking: the Second Wave

Once I’ve been through exercise books with a red pen, I revisit them (the ‘second wave’). The purpose of this is to:

  • Make a summative comment on how each individual student is doing.
  • Inform the student on work that’s missing from their book.
  • Highlight 3 ways they can improve.
  • Enter data into a grid showing homework completion.
  • Add notes, comments and indicative levels to my (online, Google Docs-powered) gradebook

Before I started to do this (or an iteration of it) I noticed that students wouldn’t read the comments I made on books. Having an obvious bookmark (such as that provided by the full-page feedback) gets them reading what I’ve said. By observing a colleague at my previous school I’ve also realised the importance of building time into a subsequent lesson to let them read what you’ve said. :-p


This marking system takes time. The thing that actually takes the most time is the chasing up of books that haven’t been handed in for marking, students who haven’t completed homework, and monitoring the catch-up work of absentees. Once students get used to the system, however, they seem to like it. After all, they know that I’ve been through their books carefully and given personalised feedback. They appreciate that. 🙂

Comments? Suggestions? Use the comments section below!

Got a blog? Do this simple thing to boost your readership.

Image CC BY derrickkwa @ Flickr
Image CC BY derrickkwa @ Flickr

I tried to do something very simple yesterday. Surprisingly, it caused me a bit of a headache. What was it? I just wanted to subscribe to some blogs via email.

Why would I want to subscribe to blogs via email? Well, for all I love Feedly, I have to go to a different location to access this. This involves a physical and conceptual shift. Making blog posts (or links to them) appear in my email inbox means I can’t really ignore them. In other words, I’m more likely to keep up-to-date.

However, when I went to subscribe to some blogs the option to subscribe by email wasn’t available to me (necessitating the use of xFruits) or seemed to be available but then didn’t work.

It’s trivial (and free!) to enable readers to subscribe via email to your blog. Here’s how:

1. Go to Feedburner and login using your Google account.

Feedburner login page

2. ‘Burn’ (i.e. add) your feed to Feedburner (you can find your feed URL by clicking on the RSS icon to the right in your address bar when you visit your blog):

Feedburner - burn feed

3. Within Feedburner, click on the ‘Publicize’ tab and then on ‘Email subscriptions’ on the left-hand side:

Feedburner - Publicize tab

4. Follow the (clear) instructions as to how to proceed. It shows you how you can add the option to subscribe via email to your blog’s sidebar.

Feedburner - Email subscriptions

5. Click on the ‘Optimize’ tab within Feedburner and then ‘BrowserFriendly’ on the left-hand side:

Feedburner - Optimize tab

6. Follow the instructions, enabling the BrowserFriendly service.

Feedburner - BrowserFriendly option

7. Make sure all the links to your RSS feed on your blog point towards the new Feedburner feed. If you’ve got a self-hosted WordPress-powered blog, the easiest way to do this is to download the relevant plugin to do this for you!

The result, if you follow these steps, will be that if users click on your RSS they should see something like this:

Feedburner-powered RSS feed

If you need any extra help or have some tips please use the comments section below! 😀

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