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Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: the confusion around ‘digital literacy’.


I had another Skype chat with my Ed.D. thesis supervisor, Steve Higgins, last night. I really enjoy our informal video conferences as he’s at the forefront of things at the University of Durham (and further afield!), as well as being very experienced and intelligent.

I’d been a bit apprehensive as during our email exchanges prior to the Skype chat he’d talked about bringing in my second supervisor. I assumed that this was because I wasn’t organized enough, wasn’t on track, etc. – but it turns out that it’s a result of the university’s new QA procedures. Steve said he’s ‘no concerns about the quality and level of my work’. So that’s good to know! 😀

I’m in the slightly odd position of undertaking a vocational doctorate (Ed.D.) in a purely conceptual and philosophical manner more suited to a PhD. That’s because my doctoral course is an extension of my previous MA (and before that my PGCE!) Steve urged me to focus on the overall conceptual schema so that the whole thing ‘flows’ and fits together. We agreed that the following thesis structure (which I’ve blogged about before), with one added section, has the scope to do that:

  1. Literacy (what is literacy?)
  2. ‘Digital literacy’ (literature review)
  3. Pragmatic methodology (what is the ‘core’ of definitions?)
  4. ‘Flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work – ‘digital flow’?)
  5. Application to schools (how ‘digital literacy’ as a concept is applied in educational systems around the world)
  6. Meta-level definition (*new*) (pragmatic definition of ‘digital literacy’ or similar)

Texts as metaphors

Steve and I started by revisiting the idea of ‘texts’ as metaphors. Whilst some would question this use of the word ‘text’, it is use widely in the literature to refer to even objects (digital/physical) that do not have an alphabet-based written element to them. Steve talked about the ‘denotative’ as well as ‘connotative’ meanings of texts, which is something I’m going to have to explore further… :-p

Hierarchical model of digital literacy?

I brought up the possibility of coming up with some kind of ‘hierarchical model’ of concepts in the digital literacy arena. Perhaps ‘digital competency’ would be at the bottom, with ‘digital literacy’ above it and ‘digital fluency’ as being at the top of the conceptual pyramid?

Steve agreed that this may be possible as ‘competence’ has a restrictive element to it in that it can be assessed or measured – it is bounded in some way. Literacy implies some kind of transferability which is, presumably, why educators like it as it assumes more than mere ‘competence’. Problems arise, however, when people want to be able to ‘assess’ digital literacy as what would such a test look like? Finally, the idea of ‘digital fluency’, Steve wondered, would surely be an extension of digital literacy rather than something separate?

Again, this is something I need to go back to the literature and investigate!

Forms of literacy

Steve mentioned en passant that librarians have really latched on to the term ‘information literacy’ as it describes what they are trying to engender in students and library users. We then discussed the use of ‘umbrella terms’ by those coming at new literacies from a particular angle. I mentioned the fact that not only do people try and use their preferred term as some type of overarching term encompassing other literacies, but that some make up words to try and make a name for themselves when doing so!

21st century skills

Regarding 21st century skills, I wondered about the relationship such an idea may have with ‘digital literacy’. Steve said it was worth looking at in terms of the formation of the phrase and where the drive is coming from. Is it coming from politicians worried about global economic competition and effectiveness, or from educators? If the latter, is it coming from those who would be considered ‘digitally literate’ or not?

We discussed the EU, and Norway in particular, as being at the forefront of ‘digital literacy’ from a participatory rather than simply an economic perspective. I’m going to compare and contrast this with views from (for example) the USA and Singapore.

Can literacy by dissected?

I mentioned to Steve that I’ve read this week about Knobel & Lankshear’s belief that literacy cannot be ‘dissected’. I thought I knew what this meant, but then when trying to explain to Steve got a bit tongue-tied. Steve talked about literacy being ‘complex’ – not complicated – but fundamentally difficult to understand and prise apart. If the various parts are teased apart do they still make sense in isolation? The danger is that literacy is reduced to competency – and therefore susceptible to tick-box tests… 🙁

Paolo Freire and ‘conscientization’

Whilst I was aware of some of his work, Steve thought that Paolo Freire’s idea of conscientization might be applicable to my thesis. This is something I need to explore more thoroughly, but the concept of an ’emancipatory literacy’ which is in some way opposed to ‘functional literacy’ would set up a good dialectic in my argument, I think! We came back to the previous discussion of whether ideas of ‘literacy’ in the EU, Singapore and USA involved an emancipatory element.

Solid and liquid modernity

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how struck I was with Martin’s idea of ‘liquid modernity’. Steve and I discussed the relationship between knowledge and technology and how, because of the rate of change of technology, ‘literacy’ and ‘knowledge’ are always in a state of flux. I raised my concern with Steve that this would mean not even a working definition of something like ‘digital literacy’ could be achieved. He responded that going to some type of ‘meta-level’ without specific mention of technologies, so long as it was rigorous enough, would work.

Steve mentioned the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium‘ in evolutionary theory and how technological advancements can be seen in a similar way. We moved into discussing cultural practices – for example the difference between being able to quote someone and/or use their ideas in your own words, compared with copying word-for-word what they said. At what stage will we privilege ‘organization’ as a higher-level skill?

After Steve raised the above, it got me thinking about Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas, which I’m currently reading (and have blogged about). Lessig talk about ‘remix culture’, something which Steve said he had a slight problem with as it has a negative connotation as being ‘derivative’. Howeer, if there is some type of granularity of reassembling, then such works should be valued as much as the originals.

Returning to the idea of a ‘meta-level’ definition for literacies, Steve talked about how they are not susceptible to shorter-term change, but must be applicable retrospectively to, for example, someone in Roman times. Obviously the ‘digital’ element will not apply, but the other elements should have some explanatory power.

What is ‘digital’?

Just before we finished, Steve drped a bit of a (positive) bombshell. Up until now I’ve been focusing on the ‘literacy’ aspect of ‘digital literacy’. But what about the ‘digital’ part? What makes something digital? How are, for example, a cassette recorder and a digital recorder different? Do they involve different skills?

In an attempt to tease this out a bit we talked about interoperability and connectedness. I thought about the conceptual difference between a book and a Word document (very little difference) and the difference once hyperlinks are added (quite a lot of difference!)

The idea of ‘digitality’ is something I’m going to have to explore further! 🙂

The way forward

Finally, Steve gave an example from a project he’s working on. He’s part of a group at the University of Durham experimenting with ‘multi-touch tables’. He talked about how some Year 6 pupils had seen him and other supervisors use ‘hidden menus’ within the software. The children only had to see this once to be able to access this themselves. Steve wondered wither this would fit into ideas of ‘digital fluency’.

This reminded me of the work of Sugata Mitra, creator of the ‘Hole in the Wall’ computer and ’emergent literacies’. This is, again, something I need to explore in more depth, but Steve said it fits in with the currently-popular Activity Theory (of which he’s not a big fan) and his concerns about the literature on literacy focusing on meaning rather than intention. It turns out that Mitra is now at Newcastle University, which is handy!

I’m going to concentrate now on my literature review, which I’ve already written a couple of thousand words on. Once that’s (almost) complete I’ll start work on fleshing out the pragmatic methodology. 😀

(Image credit: Literacy by ~Anarxur at deviantart)

Why governmental educational reforms fail.

failing_streetI’m sure that I’m not the only teacher sick of wave after wave of governmental reforms, tweaking and general tinkering about with the education system in the UK. We all know it needs changing, but it needs changing root and branch, not some remedial (and expensive) tree surgeon work!

The trouble with tinkering is that it prolongs the problem and means that year after year of students entering school for the first time don’t start off on the right foot.

It hit me in the shower this morning that the model Thomas Kuhn set out in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions applies here. For those (like me) who find diagrams easiest to understand, here’s one that gives an overview:



Think of Einsteinian physics replacing the previous model based on Newton’s work:

  1. Normal science – everything seems to work under Newtonian physics so people get on with ‘doing science’.
  2. Model drift – some anomalies mean that some ‘fiddling’ has to be done or scientists have to compensate for the shortcomings of Newtonian physics.
  3. Model crisis – there are now so many anomalies that it is interfering with ‘normal science’ taking place. This would happen at the atomic level with Newtonian physics.
  4. Model revolution – a time of great upheaval where scientists propose new theories and models to explain the phenomena. Think of the early 20th century when Einstein came up with his Theory of Special Relativity.
  5. Paradigm change – a model that explains the phenomena and allows science to move forward is settled upon and ‘normal science’ begins again.

I hope you can see already how this model pertains to educational reform. Although Kuhn’s model is of the order of a ‘grand narrative’ there is, I think, much explanatory power behind it.

If Kuhn’s model is applied to top-down government-funded educational reform then ‘normal education’ (akin to ‘normal science’) cannot progress. Teachers (akin to the scientists in the original model) have very little or no control over where their discipline is headed. There’s also the lack of an adequate feedback loop to explain the anomalies.

Finally, the clincher for me under this model is that governmental top-down reforms in education don’t take into account context. This is of fundamental importance and the biggest reason, to my mind, why such reforms fail. Using the Kuhnian model, the length of ‘normal education’, the number of anomalies, and the possible alternatives are dependant upon any number of local factors and features. In fact, not only is every Local Authority likely to be different, every school is likely to be different.

(read more on Kuhnian paradigm shifts here)

What are YOUR thoughts? Does the Kuhnian model work for you? :-p

(image credit: Failing Street by Chris Daniel @ Flickr)

How to promote organizational innovation.

future_of_ideasI’m reading Lawrence Lessig’s The Future of Ideas at the moment. It’s excellent. 🙂

After charting the history of the Internet,  and especially relating to its ‘open’ nature after the government’s relationship with AT&T, he explains that there are three ‘layers’ to the Internet:

  1. The Physical layer
  2. The Code layer
  3. The Content layer

If all three layers are controlled then this ‘chills’ innovation. I agree.

It made me think about innovation within organizations and I knocked up this table to help clarify my thinking:

3 layers

Whaddya reckon? 😀

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One step ahead of the storm.

Ahead of the Storm

Started as Director of E-Learning yesterday. Not going to be teaching at all until September – even then probably only 8 periods per week ‘across Key Stages’. Mostly team-teaching and modelling good practice. My primary role is to support teaching and learning using educational technology.

I have a vision.

Lots of meetings. It would seem I need to become more of a political animal…

(Image credit: Ahead of the Storm by Roy Levi @ Flickr)

Like words in a letter sent, amplified by the distance.

Loupe & lettres

A couple of days ago Vicki Davis wrote a blog post about mobile phones and teenage sleep deprivation. I commented by quoting a Kings of Convenience songs (‘Singing Softly To Me’) that points out how those things or actions not in our immediate vicinity can be romanticized or magnified to seem more important than they actually are:

Things seem so much better when
they’re not part of your close surroundings.
Like words in a letter sent,
amplified by the distance.
Possibilities and sweeter dreams,
sights and sounds calling form far away,
calling from far away.

Productivity is about dealing with the here and now and prioritizing what is important rather than extraneous.

(Image credit: Loupe & lettres by Alain Bechellier @ Flickr)

The 3 key elements of productivity.

Harder Better Faster Stronger

Productivity is big business. After all, who wouldn’t pay good money to find out how to become faster and better at work and play? The less reputable books, blogs and podcasts available would lead you to believe that there is some kind of ‘dark art’ or ‘magic formula’ to becoming more productive.

That’s simply not true.

Productivity boils down to three very straightforward things:

  1. Motivation
  2. Efficiency
  3. Choices

Let me explain…

1. Motivation

These three key elements to productivity are actually somewhat hierarchical. At the bottom of the hierarchy comes motivation. This can come from a variety of sources but all lead to a realisation that your day-to-day routine can be made faster, better and more interesting by making some changes.

Some of the best ways to get motivated that I’ve found are:

  • Getting up early
  • Reading something motivational (including the Bible)
  • Finding an audience (e.g. through blogging)
  • Holding yourself accountable to someone else
  • Having a goal in mind (e.g. spending more time with family, achieving a target amount of something)

2. Efficiency

Efficiency is doing things you already do, but faster and/or better. It’s like replacing You 1.0 with You 1.5.So instead of using a paper calendar you use an online calendar. You multitask. If there’s a way to use keyboard shortcuts in an application you use routinely, you seek them out and start using them.

Motivation must be present before time-savings and productivity boosts through efficiency can be found. It’s far too easy to maintain the status quo and do things in the same old tried-and-tested way. Efficiency involves experimentation and, as such, can be tiring as you are exercising your mental faculties more. This, of course, is good in the long run for mental development and memory retention.

3. Choices

Ultimately, though, being productive means making the correct choices, constantly improving workflows and having a decent feedback system. One of the best ways of doing this is by being part of a self-improvement community. Churc communities – at least the more evangelical ones – are naturally like this, but they can be found elsewhere.

Twitter and other social networks are good places to find motivated, enthusiastic people willing to share ideas and tips on becoming more productive. Some of the absolutely top tips, however, come from the comments sections of productivity blogs.

Here’s 5 productivity-related blogs you should definitely subscribe to:

What makes YOU more productive? 🙂

(Image credit: WAYWT? by Frederic della Faille @ Flickr)

Stepping out of the stream.


The best designers worry about empty spaces more than filled spaces.

Music is as much about the silences between the notes as the notes themselves.

Learning can happen whilst you’re asleep.

Without rainy, miserable days no joy would accompany sunny weather.

To be truly productive sometimes involves doing nothing.

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(Image credit: Doane Falls by Pear Biter @ Flickr)

Digital Literacy and the ‘Digital Society’


Sometimes you come across a passage in a book or article that puts into words what you’ve been thinking for a while. Today, whilst studying for my Ed.D. that’s exactly what happened. I’m working my way through Lankshear & Knobel (eds.) Digital Literacies: concepts, policies and practices at the moment and am up to Allan Martin’s excellent article entitled Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society” (hence the title of this post).

In it, Martin hits a nail firmly on the head when he talks about the crumbling of existing structures that give meaning such as family units, church and, to some extent, the state. In the place of these, he quite rightly asserts, individuals tend to define themselves by what they consume – usually in the way of media. It’s a lengthy quotation that I’m going to share, but definitely worth it!

Society is being transformed by the passage from the “solid” to the “liquid” phases of modernity, in which all social forms melt faster than new ones can be cast. They are not given enough time to solidify and cannot serve as the frame of reference for human actions and long-term life-strategies because their allegedly short life expectation undermines efforts to develop a strategy that would require the consistent fulfillment of a “life-project.” (Bauman, 205, p.303)

For those who do not belong to the global elite, life has become an individual struggle for meaning and livelihood in a world that has lost its predictability… Consumption has become the only reality, the main topic of TV and of conversation, and the focus of leisure activity. The modes of consumption become badges of order, so that to wear a football strip of a certain team (themselves now multinational concerns) or a logo of a multinational company become temporary guarantors of safety and normality.

In this society, the construction of individual identity has become the fundamental social act. The taken-for-granted structures of modern (i.e., industrial) society – the nation state, institutionalized religion, social class – have become weaker and fuzzier as providers of meaning and, to that extent, of predictability. Even the family has become more atomized and short term. Under such conditions individual identity becomes the major life-project. You have to choose the pieces (from those available to you) rather than having them (largely) chosen for you. In this context, awareness of the self assumes new importance, reflexivity is a condition of life; a life that needs to be constantly active and constantly re-created. And care is needed, because each individual is responsible for their own biography. Risk and uncertainty have become endemic features of the personal biography, and individual risk-management action is thus an essential element of social action (Beck, 1992, 2001). The community can be no longer regarded as a given that confers aspects of identity, and the building of involvement in communities has become a conscious action-forming part of the construction of individual identity. Individualization has positive as well as negative aspects: the freedom to make one’s own biography has never been greater, a theme frequently repeated in the media. But the structures of society continue to distribute the choices available very unequally, and the price of failure is greater since social support is now offered only equivocally.

This certainly resonates with my experience, especially of teenagers. I believe, as Martin later argues, that it’s our job as teachers to instil in youngsters the digital literacy/competence/fluency (whatever you want to call it!) to be able to critically and reflectively deal with media and the digital world.

Does this resonate with YOU too? 😀

(image credit: mesmerised by Joe Thorne & Flickr)

My presentation @ TeachMeet Midlands 2009

TeachMeet Midlands 2009

This evening I’ll be attending TeachMeet Midlands 2009 at the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham. If you’ve never heard of a TeachMeet before, they’re based around the idea of an unconference, ‘facilitated, participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose.’ (Wikipedia) I’ve been to a couple before – both of which were additions to the BETT Show – and they’re great events. There’s a fantastic buzz around the place, people passionate about what they do, and it’s a wonderful way to not only meet up with people you’ve only talked to online, but to come across new faces as well! 🙂

My (micro)presentation

I’ve signed up on the TeachMeet wiki to do a 7-minute micropresentation. Initially, I was going to talk about my role this year as E-Learning Staff Tutor and a bit about my Ed.D. on digital literacy. However, TeachMeets should be a lot more focused on classroom practice, so I’ve decided to instead talk about what I’ve been doing with my Year 10 History class.

This year I saw my having a new, fairly able GCSE History class as a good opportunity to try out some new methods and approaches to the course. As students at my school now have four lessons of their option subject per week instead of three, I decided to have one of them timetabled in an ICT suite. The room I was allocated has tiered seating and laptops, which was even better! :-p

After looking at various options, I decided to use Posterous for their homework blogs. Reasons for this include:

  • Blog posts can be written by email.
  • It deals with media in an ‘intelligent’ way (e.g. using Scribd to embed documents, making slideshows out of images)
  • Avatars allow for personalization.

I set almost no homework apart from on their blogs. This means that on a Friday they start an activity using (usually) a Web 2.0 service and then add it to their blog via embedding or linking. The only problem with this has been Posterous not supporting iFrames, meaning that Google Docs, for example have to be exported to PDF and then uploaded. Students are used to this now and it doesn’t really affect their workflow.

Examples of student work

Links to all blogs can be found at

Student feedback

I should, perhaps, have asked for parental permission to video students’ opinions about this approach. From what they tell me, they greatly enjoy working on their blogs. In fact, a Geography teacher at school has hijacked one of my students’ blogs so she does work for both History and Geography on it! I think they appreciate the following things:

  • Presentation (a lot easier, especially for boys, to produce good-looking work)
  • Multimedia (they’re not looking at paper-based stuff all the time)
  • Collaboration (they get to work with others whilst still having ‘ownership’ of the final product on their blogs)

It’s a system that I’d definitely recommend and I shall be using in future! 😀

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Why (educational) technology?

'The Thinker' and laptopBen Grey got in touch via a Direct Message (DM) on Twitter earlier this week asking my opinion and for some help. Although I haven’t (virtually) known Ben for that long, I like him. He comes across as a intelligent, knowledgeable, considered – yet humble and understated kind of guy. Given that, and the fact that what he was asking of me is close to my heart, of course I’ve responded! 😀

Ben asked:

I thought it would be helpful, and perhaps a powerful learning opportunity as well as resource, if I could gather a series of responses from a variety of minds in the field of education on the question I posed in my recent Tech & Learning post, “Why Technology?”

If you’re up for it, would you mind giving me your input on the question?  That can be done in the form of an email, a blog post, a comment on the T&L blog, or some other form of your choosing.

The problem is this: it’s easy to cut funding on technology-related projects citing technology as some kind of ‘luxury’ or ‘optional add-on’. I’ve got three points in reply to Ben’s post:

  1. What price education?
  2. Learning cultures and communities
  3. Invisible technology

I shall take each point, as they say, in turn:

What price education?

i_has_a_moneyIn his post Why Technology? Ben cites economic problems as reasons for school districts in the U.S. cutting back:

I’ve heard from several colleagues in various states that there is pressure mounting to cut both future and existing plans for increasing technology utilization in their districts.  Many districts are eliminating technology personnel as well.  The primary catalyst for this is being blamed on the economy.  Budgets are being trimmed and belts are being tightened, and it would appear to those wielding the shears that technology is the low hanging fruit.

At times of stress, we tend to revert back to what we know and be conservative. That’s why under-pressure teachers teach as they were themselves taught and parents tend to discipline their kids in the same way they were disciplined. But to do something just because ‘it’s the way it’s always been done’ or because someone you respect did it that way is fundamentally misguided. It takes into account neither context nor the purpose for which you or the organization for which you were are there.

Every generation needs to ask questions and tell its own story. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been done with education for at least a couple of generations. So as many commentators put it, we’re in the situation where students ‘power down’ when they come to school. They’re using the tools of previous generations. It’s at best anachronistic, and at worst dangerous to the intellectual health of the western world. 🙁

Learning cultures and communities

lolcat_tweetsMy grandmother is fairly representative of her generation. Not only does she have no idea when it comes to the internet, but she cannot comprehend how it can allow ‘communities’ to spring up. The latter point is something that is shared by others, some of whom are much younger than her. I have argued this point before, but most teachers, themselves being successful at school under the ‘old system,’ have if not an opposition to wholesale changes in education then certainly an inertia to change. Hence the status quo reigns supreme.

We’re used to both seeing school buildings and having not only children’s lives but those of adults being centred around the school day and the school year. Never mind that, for example, the long summer holiday was a result of a no-longer-needed nod to children helping with harvests! We carry on with what we’ve got because it’s familiar. But familiarity is no basis on which to resist change.

Newspapers and the media in general bemoan the breakdown of communities. By that, of course, they mean physical communities: people talking over hedges, leaving their doors unlocked, that sort of thing. What is ignored in their reactionary rants is abundance of technology-mediated networks. (I hesitate to use the word ‘virtual’ as it makes them sound less ‘real’) Just because older generations do not realise the importance of technology for communication should not mean they deny access to it to those who are already using it for such purposes.

Invisible technology

lolcat_invisible_everythingBut what is ‘technology’ after all? Pen and paper are ‘technologies’ yet we don’t tend to think of them as such. I would argue that it exactly our conception of something being ‘a technology’ that places an unnecessary barrier in the way of its widespread use. I don’t believe its simply playing with semantics to talk of ‘tools’ instead of ‘technologies’ – especially when the discussions about ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ becomes if not blurred then increasingly irrelevant with the advent of cloud computing. Laptops, after all, are almost commodity items these days.

To discuss technology is to talk about the wrong thing. You will always lose a debate if the only position from which you argue is that we should use more technology in education. The technology needs to be used as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. That’s for specialized clubs, hobbyists and those for whom technology is a passion. Education has the dual role of preparing young people for society and opening their eyes and minds. If technology, in whatever guise it takes, helps with that then so much the better.

At the end of the day, technology has the potential to change relationships and therefore disrupt power structures. I can’t help but think that it’s the desire of teachers to remain at the front of classrooms, senior leaders to remain behind desks, and parents to stick to what they know that results in no real fundamental, technology-driven changes happening in education.

What do YOU think? Do you agree with the above? What IS the role of technology in education? Join the discussion! 😀

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