Digital Literacy, Pragmatism and the Social Construction of Reality

Note: This blog post is to clarify my thoughts on the subject and provide an easy point-of-reference as I begin to write the Literature Review section of my Ed.D. thesis. Feel free to skip it if that’s not the reason for which what you came here/subscribed to my RSS feed! You can read my thesis proposal here and I collate links and quotes from my research on my wiki. 🙂

As I ‘write’ this I am looking through corrective lenses at a screen that is a representation of a digital ‘reality’. The alphabet by which the words and sentences are constructed is a social construct, as is the programming language by which the website on which you’re reading this came into existence. This also applies to concepts such as ‘bachelor’, ‘virgin’ and, indeed, any other idea that presupposes a limit to its application.

‘Digital literacy’ is one such concept. It is a social construct that has gained some momentum by its explanatory power in the face of technological change that has left some bewildered by the abilities of one generation with respect to another. That the term ‘literacy’ is attached to the concept shows the historical legacy, applicability and origin of the term. It is a concept mostly applied by an older generation about a younger generation (and especially the attitude towards technology of the latter).

Literacy used to have a rather precise definition: the ability to read and write with a pre-determined level of proficiency. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, literacy has been applied to much more wide-ranging concepts such as Multimedia literacy, Computer literacy, Information literacy, Technacy (or Technological literacy), Critical literacy, Media literacy, and Health literacy. This appears to be akin to early descriptions of cars as ‘horseless carriages’, the understanding of the new through an old, outdated framework. Or, to put it more formally, in the words of Berger & Luckmann (2002:49-50),

What is taken for granted as knowledge in the society comes to be coextensive with the knowable, or at any rate provides the framework within which anything not yet known will come to be known in the future.

Knowledge about society is thus a realization in the double sense of the word, in the sense of apprehending the objectivated social reality, and in the sense of ongoingly producing this reality.

What is necessary, therefore, when looking at concepts that are defined socially and in the light of their historical use, is to determine their ‘cash-value’. The Pragmatic method, invented (arguably) jointly by C.S. Peirce and William James, would seem to be a useful approach. James states the method thus (James 1995:21),

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as ‘God’ or ‘the Absolute’] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.

To explain a difference between ‘standard’ literacy and ‘digital’ literacy, therefore, means to see what difference there is between the two in practice:

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. (James 1995:20)

It is necessary to go beyond simple ontological arguments as to whether or not ‘digital literacy’ exists and instead flesh out whether belief in such a concept would make a tangible difference. My thesis will be concerned less with dogmatic attack or defence of particular terms and rather more with the ‘cash-value’ of concepts such as ‘digital literacy’.

Associated ideas such as ‘digital natives’ vs ‘digital immigrants’ (or more recent distinctions such as ‘digital resident/outsider’) will tangentially be discussed, especially in their usefulness as ways of understanding attitudes towards technology. The latter term – ‘technology’ – shall also be defined more accurately, perhaps as having a ‘digital’ aspect rather than being the use of any man-made object to achieve an particular human end.

My idea when beginning my thesis is that I shall not discover a coherent set of ideas and assumptions behind terms such as ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competency’, ‘digital fluency’, and the like. Still, as heuristics, as commonly-agreed methods by which to understand an observed difference, they will ‘work’ and have a ‘cash-value’ during an indeterminate and temporary period. Much, in fact, like the term ‘horseless carriage’. :-p

(Image credit: yellow rope with knot by limonada @ Flickr)

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Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour.

I usually dislike it when people blog about conferences and meetings they’ve been to. I mean, as if I care if you sat around a table with some suits and drank coffee at ridiculously short intervals! I feel I need to preface the following, therefore, by saying that there’s some great links I’d like to share.

I was invited by Dan Sutch to another Futurelab-hosted event, this time on behalf of Channel 4 (a UK independent broadcasting company) to, of all places, Bristol Zoo! The quotation that comprises the title of this post came during the course of the day from a fellow teacher attending the event by the name of Alice Bigge. A quick Google search would seem to indicate it originated with Truman Capote. It’s a great one that, no doubt, will make its way onto my classroom wall. It kind of sums up my pragmatic educational philosophy. :-p

The purpose of the day was to review from a formal learning perspective some informal learning resources produced by Channel 4. I’ll summarise each briefly and what I thought of them…

The Insiders

I thought The Insiders was a great idea. As careers advice given by schools has recently been slated by Ofsted, something like this website is just what’s needed. At present, there’s six occupations that have been dramatised and put online via videos and blogs on MySpace. These were taken and adapted (with permission) from people’s real blogs. A story about each character unfolds and the ups and downs of that career/job are highlighted in an engaging way. The six that were chosen – actress, doctor, fashion assistant, musician, policeman, teacher – are those that came top in a recent survey of UK teens as to what they want to do when they leave full-time education. I was surprised to see teacher in there!

I’ll definitely be recommending this to the Citizenship/PSHE co-ordinator at our school. In fact, I may even follow one or more of the stories with my Year 9 form group. 😀

Slabovia.tv

I have to say that I was less impressed with Slabovia.tv. This was the one that our group had to explain to the other groups, and we did so (at my suggestion) via a glog:

Whilst it deals with more than sex education, I do feel that the conceit created to deliver the message wasn’t the right path to go down. As other teachers noted, there may be issues relating to eastern european migrants in UK schools. Additionally, it’s probably got a limited audience to which it would appeal – the type of audience that wouldn’t want to be seen on anything a teacher pointed out in a lesson. I think this one is best kept in the ‘informal learning’ space.

Year Dot

From the information I received about Year Dot:

Year Dot follows a fly-on-the-wall documentary format that cuts across both linear television and online. 15-20 teenagers over the course of a year will try to gather support from around the internet, through social networking and video-sharing services, to reach a personal goal. The story of each teenager will be told as part of two series to be aired on Channel 4 in the autumn.

There’s a diverse range of goals that these teenagers want to achieve. One of the most moving was the teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome who, after receiving lots and lots of support from his school and local community, was purposely moving far away from home to go to university. His emotional journey, heightened by his condition, would really hit home with students with whom you shared his video journey.

The goal he had set himself was to come off Prozac and to manage to live independently. Other teenagers are trying to set up a dance company, get selected for Arsenal Ladies‘ First Team, or become one of England’s youngest ever Members of Parliament. Year Dot is another resource I’ll be recommending to the Citizenship/PSHE co-ordinator at my school. 🙂

Battlefront

Finally, Battlefront was the one about which I really couldn’t make up my mind. It has the potential to be revolutionary, but I’m afraid it might have life-changing experiences for the 19 currently involved and few others. The idea is that 19 – eventually 20 – young campaigners around England try to get out there and do something to make things better. For example, there’s a girl battling against the ‘Size Zero’ culture, someone campaigning against free newspapers ‘costing the earth’, and one trying to bring back free university education for all.

As I say, it’s got high-minded ambitions, but I’m not sure. Apparently, you can get in touch with Channel 4 to get any of the Battlefront campaigners to come into your school to talk to your students. If I can be of any help pointing people in the right direction for this, just ask!

I found it at once heartening and extremely disappointing to hear that all the other teachers in the room had major issues to do with Internet filtering. The content that Channel 4 has spent money on – most of which is excellent – resides in places that teenagers already visit: MySpace, YouTube, etc.  In other words, all the places blocked by school filtering systems. 🙁

There’s got to be a debate, and soon, about filtering in schools. It’s my belief that it’s holding back innovation and good practice in education. The sooner that something is done about it, the better.

I love going to Futurelab events as they are always very positive experiences. I was able to show fellow teachers about various things that they were having problems with, such as downloading YouTube videos. All in all, I found the day to be a very worthwhile use of my time, that I added to a debate, and that I met like-minded people with a real enthusiasm to move things forward. I might add that, as with many Futurelab events, the day’s ideas were represented pictorially by Dave Clark, who kindly let me use the image of the Slabovian general our group commissioned him to draw at the top of this blog post. 😀

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Politics: the biggest problem in education

The biggest problem in education is political interference in the work of classroom teachers. This post has been brewing for a while. One long-term influence is dissatisfaction with the current education system. This dissatisfaction is one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession in the first place, and also a reason I’m in favour of the Conservatives’ idea of independent state schools under the Swedish model. More short-term influences include Vicki Davis’ excellent blog post Administration Should Be Like The ‘Pit Crew’ and a meeting/confrontation I had today. As usual on this blog, I’m not going to mention where I work nor individual names there.

Although with the recent financial turmoil this is turning into a less illustrative example, the delegation of responsibility by the UK government to the Bank of England for some financial matters I see to be a great idea. It puts those with the greatest knowledge and experience in charge of something very important. Education, on the other hand, is a very party political matter with endless tinkering of the system to attempt to win the support of middle-class voters. I’m a believer in government being as small as possible: whilst the state needs to intervene in the ‘big picture’ of education, I think there are other organizations and bodies eminently more suitable to deal with assessment and examinations, for example.

Ever since the Conservatives introduced a free market into UK education in 1990, schools have become more and more like businesses. I’ve seen the good and bad side of this system. In 1990, the new rules allowed my parents to take me out of the local, very poor, middle school (at my request) and install me at a much better school. I’m not against parental choice, per se, but I’m certainly against the endless analogies and comparisons of schools to businesses. Educating children is not like making products to sell at a profit. Instead, I think a better model is schools as charities.

If schools were seen as charities they would be:

  • Independent
  • Able to raise money from various other organizations
  • Focused on process as well as results
  • Diverse in nature

The type of leaders needed in charities and NGOs are different from those required by business. I’m generalising monumentally here, but those at the helm of the former tend to have inspiration and drive quite unlike those in the latter group.

So those in charge in schools shouldn’t be good managers, they should be great leaders. Instead of flaunting their power within the ‘corporate hierarchy’ they should, as Vicki Davis states, support teachers – those on the front line:

To me, times are lean and mean.  The classroom should be like a well maintained car and administration should be like the pit crew. They should give the classroom the tools they need, encouragement, a mission, and quick “pit stops” to improve and keep them going…

If you’re not helping the cause of education, you’re hurting it.  And with times being tough, those who count themselves leaders need to take a hard look at their own rolls when asking teachers to make cuts.  For, to ask teachers to make sacrifices when you aren’t willing is unfair and breeds contempt.

Although I’ve been accused of it for the first time today, I’m not one for manipulating others and playing politics within my organization. Not at all: I’m there to make things better for the system – locally, nationally and internationally. The problem with a strictly hierarchical system is that it is nothing like a meritocracy. I’m certainly not questioning the overall ability of the senior management at my school, but I have felt, at times, and in my career overall, times when my ability as a professional to make decisions and put forward opinions has been undermined somewhat.

I’d like, as Vicki again mentions, school hierarchies to be as ‘flat’ as possible. Obviously, there’s a need for management. But now, more than ever, teachers need to be given freedom and be shown trust to exercise their professional judgement over issues affecting them. Not to do so would be to play politics for politics’ sake and to undermine potential educational experiences for a great number of children.

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Teacher as Game Show Host?

A couple of years I wrote a post exploring a metaphor of the Teacher as DJ. It was well-received and stemmed from the amount of music I use in an average lesson! Today, I came across another metaphor that ‘got at’ something central to my life in the classroom: the teacher as a gameshow host!

Joel at So You Want To Teach? (an excellent blog in many respects), wrote a post entitled Pacing: What Every Great Band Director Knows about the importance of transitions, engagement and procedures in the classroom. It struck a chord with me as I’ve been stressing these things to the student teacher currently in our department. You need to be smooth – and it pains me to see it when colleagues are otherwise.

Some of this comes through experience, but much has to be planned. I’m far from perfect, but if you’re starting off on the journey, here’s some tips:

Make everything look professional

Don’t give out badly-photocopied worksheets, use Powerpoints with awful, clashing colour-schemes, nor recycle folders to keep work in. Show some respect, get some respect back. The students in front of you are used to highly-polished media environment. Put some effort into your ‘stock lesson’ to make it better by seeking relevant help. My tip? Subscribe to blogs like Presentation Zen!

Focus on engagement

You can know your subject inside-out, use the best metaphors and diagrams you can muster, but if students aren’t engaged in your lesson, very little learning is going to take place. Play games with them that test their understanding of topics. I love, for example – and this is very relevant to this post – Game Show Presenter. Cheesy, but fun! Another favourite is Andrew Field’s marvellous ContentGenerator.net products, some of which are free. 🙂

Develop a winning formula

Never let it be said that teachers shouldn’t mix up lessons a bit, but there needs to be a basis on which this can be done successfully. As I’ve mentioned above and many times previously, I use a lot of music in my lessons. For example, students enter the classroom to a theme tune (think: Rocky, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, etc.) and know to write down the date, title and lesson objective. I then take the register whilst slower writers catch-up and those finished consider what the lesson’s keywords might mean. It works for me!

During the lesson, I play a variety of music – for example the Countdown 30-seconds-left tune, to fun stuff like the Oompa Loompa songs, to a bit of Speed Garage (if they’re working too slowly) or the occasional Mashup. You can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears… 😉

Work on your transitions

After a while, links between classroom activities come naturally. As a teacher you’re prepared to go off at somewhat of a tangent to explore an arising issue, then bring things back-on-track smoothly. But to begin with, this takes work! Anecdotes and interesting facts are really useful in this regard – as a History teacher I tend to glean these from Horrible Histories books and suchlike. The lesson should have an obvious progression toward meeting the objective that is clear to the student. Framing the title of lesson as a question works well in this regard.

If you’re a teacher, do you consider yourself to be like a gameshow host? a DJ? or something entirely different?

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Good teaching is good teaching.

I came across this video recently (thanks Ollie!) from Professor Daniel Willingham, Cognitive Scientist and Neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. He makes great use of YouTube to get across his points about the theory of ‘learning styles‘:

  1. They don’t exist.
  2. Good teaching is good teaching

If you’re a teacher, you need to spend 7 minutes of your life watching this:

I’ve no problem with people using learning styles as a way to get teachers to mix things up differently in the classroom. Where I have got issues is when teachers try to misuse data to define and pigeon-hole students into one dominant learning style. That’s got to be wrong…

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Never lose a document again: how Google Docs can change the way you and your department work!

Instead of attaching documents to emails, why don’t we attach email addresses to documents? That way, everyone sees each update of a document (e.g. a scheme of work) and there is a central repository for departmental or school files.

Watch this video:

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Google Docs is part of a wider suite known as Google Apps. There’s a version of this called Google Apps Team Edition that allows only those within an institution or business to collaborate on documents. You can access Ridgewood’s login page here. Only those with an @ridgewoodschool.co.uk email account can access this (which includes pupils, so be careful who you share documents with!)

Step 1

Sign up for an account. Follow the instructions using your school email address.

Step 2

Login to the Ridgewood Google Apps dashboard using the username/password set up in Step 1. You might want to bookmark this login page for ease-of-access next time!

Step 3

In the dashboard area you have several options, the rest of which you can explore at your leisure. For the moment we’re interested in Docs, so click on that!

Step 4

The Docs overview area is fairly straightforward. Documents which have been shared with you are accessible to the bottom-right. You can click on the toolbar to create a new document/spreadsheet/presentation/form/folder, upload existing documents (in Word .doc format, etc.), and share these with others:

Step 5

Once you have created or uploaded a document, click on the blue Share button to the top-right of your screen in the editing window. Then click on Share with others:

Step 6

You can view the ‘revision history’ of the document by going to Tools/Revision history in the editing window. This shows every change that has been made to the document. You can revert to any previous incarnation of a document if necessary!

Step 7

Play! Explore what Google Docs can do. Once you exhausted that, have a look at the rest of the offerings within the Google Apps suite – Sites (easy departmental websites), Calendar (plan course/departmental/school events), Start Page (customised ‘home page’) and Chat (real-time text chat like MSN Messenger)

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Doug’s first world tour!

I was looking at the little ClustrMap in the sidebar of this blog and it amused me that you couldn’t really see any land mass for all the red dots. Those dots indicate locations of visitors: the larger the dots, the more vistors from that part of the world.

If you click on the smaller map, a larger version of it pops up on the ClustrMaps website. Doing this, it got me thinking thatif each one of those dots indicated someone willing to put me up for a night or two, I could actually get my way around the world fairly easily!

Around 650 people currently subscribe to the RSS feed of dougbelshaw.com. Google Analytics reports about 6,500 unique visits per month. For my first world tour I’d like to play it safe and mainly visit English speaking countries. So, erm, who’s going to put me up next summer? :-p

 

Blue Skies Thinking vs. Grey Skies Thinking

I attended a meeting today. It began as it meant to go on: it was assumed and then stated explicitly that we all wanted to be home ASAP and that there was some stuff that needed to be done so we’d better get on and do it to meet our obligations and get it out of the way. It’s what I would term a ‘Grey Skies Meeting’.

We’ve all been to Grey Skies Meetings. They’re the ones where:

  • Something needs to be done but no-one wants to do it.
  • Problems are raised.
  • There is a strict hierarchy and everyone ‘knows their place’.
  • Saying anything that entails lengthy discussion is frowned upon and there is immense peer pressure not to do so.
  • Internal politics are at the forefront, the actual purpose of the organization is put on the backburner.
  • Quick solutions that tick boxes are welcomed.

I came away from the meeting somewhat downhearted. There were a few in that meeting who genuinely wanted things to move forwards in the same way that I did. But, for some of the reasons given above, they only expressed these ideas and thoughts before and after the meeting had taken place.

I want to work in a Blue Skies environment that has meetings whereby:

  • Opportunities are identified.
  • The reason for the organization’s existence guides the process and progress of the meeting.
  • People feel confident at putting forward ideas and concepts that aren’t necessarily full-formed, but point in the right direction.
  • A meritocracy operates: people’s contributions are judged by their usefulness rather than the position that the contributor holds or the length of time they’ve spent within the organization.
  • Smaller plans feed into a bigger plan.
  • The talents of the whole of the individual are used rather than their utility being defined by their position within the organization.

This isn’t a blog post about my school. It isn’t really about education per se. It’s about how our society operates and defines people. I want to be where there’s a blue sky. In fact, just saying that has made me remember ELO’s feelgood anthem Mr Blue Sky, which has cheered me up no end… :-p

Want to improve your meetings? Take a look at lifehacker.com/tag/meetings!

 

4 reasons you should jailbreak your iPhone 3G

I’m never happy to leave things be. I like doing things with devices that they’re not ‘supposed’ to do. Happily for my bank balance, there’s other people who feel the same way and are a lot more gung-ho with their devices than I am. My strategy is basically to see how they get on and then copy if they’re successful.

I don’t think I’ve actually mentioned that I re-purchased an iPhone after previously returning one. I love it. I paid £59 upfront for a 16GB version, then £45/month for 9 months and then dropping down to the £35/month contract for the remainder of my 18 month contract, as recommended on moneysavingexpert.com.

‘Jailbreaking’ your iPhone allows functionality not offered by Apple either via the in-built software or that available through the App. Store. Here’s 5 reasons to jailbreak your iPhone:

1. Apple doesn’t always allow a level playing field

For applications to show up in Apple’s App. Store, they have to be approved by Apple. Unfortunately, Apple don’t allow a level playing field. For example, applications that allow ‘tethering’ (using the iPhone as a broadband modem) aren’t allowed, and those that offer similar functionality (but are better) than Apple’s offerings aren’t allowed through the net. Podcaster, with it’s ability to download podcasts wirelessly is an excellent example of the latter. More on ‘Apple’s capricious app. policy’ can be found here.

2. Bypass silly things

Sometimes, applications that are allowed through into the App. Store have been crippled in some way. Take the applications that allow you iPhone to be used like a torch, for example. Apple’s rules don’t allow for developers of applications to play around the brightness settings, making this particular one of limited use. Jailbreak your iPhone, on the other hand, and no such restrictions apply! :-p

3. Customisation

I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that I like my devices to feel personalised, not just the same as everyone else’s. Jailbreaking enables you to make your iPhone yours. Look at the image to the right, for example. I’ve got rotating Mac backgrounds on there, a subtely different theme, coloured signal bars (which change colour depending on signal strength) and I’ve changed the ‘O2-UK’ carrier name to ‘DAJB’ (my initials). I’ve got lots of applications installed on my phone, but I just have the ones I use most often available at-a-glance. The rest are hidden away in a coverflow-style program for app. launching (see below). Much better! 😀

4. Mobile broadband with iPhoneModem

I bought a mobile broadband modem when we moved house and I was without landline broadband for a few weeks. This week I’ll be selling it on eBay. Why? iPhone Modem allows me to use my iPhone as, guess what? Yep, a wireless broadband modem. It works most straightforwardly in conjunction with Mac OSX, but it’s not impossible to use with Windows or Linux. Result!

Interested in jailbreaking your iPhone 3G now? The best place to start is probably the link below:

modmyi.com/wiki

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Creating a homework blog in 3 simple steps using email

Posterous has been mentioned a couple of times before on this blog. First, Phil Rowland set up a blog using the service for his BTEC Sport students (although he’s now extended it to include all his PE groups). Next, our librarian, Angie Dickson, set one up. Both have been impressed by how easy Posterous is to use.

Here’s how to get started (taken directly from Posterous‘ official guide):

Yep, that’s it! It really is very easy. No signups, and pretty much everything can be done via email. You can, of course, create a blog post via logging into the site itself, but most of the people I’ve spoken to about it like the ability to create them by email. 🙂

Anything that you attach to an email to Posterous will be dealt with ‘intelligently’ and added to the blog post. For example, here’s an email I sent to my Posterous blog:

 (click to enlarge)

and here’s how it turned out:

  (click to enlarge)

It really couldn’t be any easier to set up a blog! The only things I would recommend you take care over are:

  • Set the name of your blog, it’s address, and decide who can comment: login to your Posterous account and then click on ‘Manage’ at the top right-hand corner of your blog. Clicking on ‘Edit my posterous’ allows you to change the site name, where it is on the Internet (e.g. mrbelshaw.posterous.com and choose who is allowed to comment on your blog posts.
  • Set an avatar: an avatar is a small icon representing you on the Internet. I always use my little South Park character. There are many sites you can use to create something similar, including faceyourmanga.com, a South Park character generator (unfortunately blocked on our school network), and the Simpsons character generator on the SimpsonsMovie.com site! 🙂
  • Add some information about yourself: it doesn’t need to be much, but students and interested visitors need to know they’ve found the right blog and not someone else with the same name as you…

Here’s the Posterous-powered blogs so far at our school. I hope to add many more in the near future!

  1. Mr Belshaw (History – also links to GCSE History student blogs)
  2. Mr Rowland (PE)
  3. Mrs Dickson (library)
 
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