Tag: literacies

An Anarcho-Syndicalist critique of Web browsers

It’s good to have outliers in your Twitter stream and other social networks. The following conversation between @leashless and @mmaaikeu really made me think today, especially about literacies for the Web being predicated upon viewing it through a browser with built-in affordances, etc.

If the Storify embed doesn’t appear below, the full conversation (including tangents) can be found in my Flickr photostream or on the Internet Archive.

[View the story “Anarcho-syndicalist critique of browsers” on Storify]

I welcome the pushback to the work I’m doing that’s implicit in the conversation above. It’s always good to keep stuff like this in mind!

Creative Ambiguity and Digital Literacy

I’m (re-)writing my first journal article at the moment, ostensibly in order to make my viva easier when I’ve finished my Ed.D. thesis. It’s easier to prove an ‘original contribution to knowledge’ when some of it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal! You’ll understand, therefore, why this post, which constitutes the first part of the article, is Copyright (All Rights Reserved).

All human communication is predicated upon vocabularies. These can be physical in the form of sign language but, more usually, are oral in nature. Languages, therefore, are codified ways in which a community communicates. However, such languages are not static but evolve over time to meet both changing environmental needs and to explain and deal with the mediation and interaction provided by tools.

As Wittgenstein argued, a private language is impossible as the very purpose of it is communication with others. Those with whom one is communicating must have the ‘key to open the ‘box’. Yet if all language is essentially public in nature it begs the question as to how popular terms can be used in such a variety and multiplicity of ways. Terms, phrases and ways of speaking have overlapping lifecycles used by various communities at particular times. A way of describing a concept often enters a community as a new and exciting way of looking at a problem, perhaps as a meme. Meanwhile, or soon after, the same concept might be rejected by another community as out of date, as ‘clunky’ and lacking descriptive power.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions provides some insight into this process. Kuhn identified periods of ‘normal’ science in a given field which would be followed by periods of ‘revolutionary’ science. The idea is that a community works within a particular paradigm (‘normal’ science) until the anomalies it generates lead to a crisis. A period of ‘revolutionary’ science follows in which competing paradigms that can better explain the phenomena are then explored. Some are accepted and some are rejected. Once a paradigm gains general acceptance then a new period of ‘normal’ science can begin and the whole process is repeated. Kuhn’s theory works in science because there are hard-and-fast phenomena to be explored; theories and concepts can be proved or disproved according to Popper’s falsifiability criterion.

The same is not necessarily true in the social sciences, however: it can be unclear what would constitute a falsification of certain widely-held concepts and theories. Indeed it is often the case that they gain or lose traction by the status of the people advocating them rather than the applicability and ‘fit’ of the concept. In addition, a concept or theory may serve a purpose at an initial particular point in time but this utility may diminish over time. Unfortunately, it is during this period of diminishing explanatory power that terms are often evangelised and defined more narrowly. This should lead to a period of ‘revolutionary’ social science but this is not necessarily always the case. If, for example, a late-adopting group holds political power or controls funding streams, even those in groups who have rejected the concept may continue to use it.

An example of this process would be the coining of the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ in 2001 by Marc Prensky. This led to a great deal of discussion, both online and offline, in technology circles, education establishments and the media. Debates began about the maximum age of a ‘digital native’, what kind of skills a ‘digital native’ possessed, and even whether the term ‘digital immigrant’ was derogatory. As the term gained currency and was fed into wider and wider community circles, the term became more narrowly defined. A ‘digital native’ was said to be a person born after 1980, someone who was ‘digitally literate’, and who wouldn’t even think of of prefixing the word ‘digital’ to the word ‘camera’.

It is our belief that the explanatory power of a concept, theory or term in the social science comes, at least in part, through its ‘creative ambiguity’. This is the ability of the term – for example, ‘digital native’ – to express a nebulous concept or theory as a kind of shorthand. The amount of ambiguity is in tension with the explanatory power of the term, with the resulting creative space reducing in size as the term is more narrowly defined. Creative spaces can also bring people together from various disciplines, allowing them to use a common term to discuss a concept from various angles.

The literal meaning of a term is the denotative element and includes surface definitions of a term. For ‘digital literacy’ this would be to simply equate the term with literacy in a digital space. The implied meaning, on the other hand, is the connotative element and deals with the implied meaning of a term. With digital literacy this would involve thoughts and discussion around what literacy and digitality have in common and where they diverge. The creative space is the ambiguous overlap between the denotative and connotative elements:

Such creative ambiguities are valuable as, instead of endless dry academic definitions, they allow for discussion and reflection, often leading to changes in practice. In order to maximise the likelihood and impact of a creative space it is important that a term not be too narrowly defined, for what it gains in ‘clarity’ it loses in ‘creative ambiguity’. There is a balance to be struck.

Terms and phrases, however, can be ambiguous in a number of ways. Some of these types of ambiguity allow for creative spaces between the denotative and connotative elements of a new term to a greater or lesser degree. In other words, they involve greater or smaller amounts of ambiguity.


Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (On The Horizon, 9(5), available online at http://dajb.eu/fpIs05, accessed 14 December 2010)

The rest of the journal article deals with Empson’s 7 types of ambiguity as related to the above. You may want to check out the posts I’ve written previously relating to creative ambiguity. I’d welcome your comments!

Ed.D. thesis Literature Review: a start has been made!

I wrote the following (c.2,400 words) today towards my Ed.D. thesis Literature Review, needing to get something written as I’ve neglected my studies for too long. It represents my current thinking, but needs fleshing out (a lot!) and tidying up. I’d very much welcome your comments if you’ve got time to read it critically… 🙂

UNESCO - Literacy (1957)

The concept of ‘literacy’ is akin to the Wittgenstinian problem surrounding the concept of a ‘game’: everyone knows what you mean when you employ the term, but pinning it down in a more formal sense is extremely difficult (Hannon, 2000:36). Simply conceiving of literacy as ‘the ability to read and write’ not only sets up a false dichotomy, but makes no allowance for reading and writing using various tools and for different purposes. Even the Oxford English Dictionary equivocates between two definitions: ‘one who can read and write’ and ‘a liberally educated or learned person’.

Some, such as Holme (2004:7) use the analogy of wave/particle duality in physics to explain how ‘literacy’ can have more than one nature yet still be a single concept. He believes there to be two central questions to the literacy debate, namely: (1) How much does one have to know about reading and writing to be literate? and (2) What does it really mean to read and to write? As Holme comments, these are seemingly simple questions yet are very difficult to answer.

Although not stated explicitly, Holme has a view of literacy that is predicated upon literacy’s relationship with knowledge, as alluded to in his first central question. This is manifest in his brief treatment of concepts of ‘new literacies’ such as ‘computer literacy’:

For example, a core feature of literacy’s meaning is ‘a knowledge’, often of the basic skills, of ‘reading and writing’. Now we use the term to refer simply to basic knowledge as in ‘computer literacy’. Though even more confusingly, computer literacy is also bound up with reading and writing skills. (Holme, 2004:1-2)

This link between literacy and knowledge is taken up by Gunther Kress in Literacy in the New Media Age (2003) in which he asserts, “Literacy remains the term which refers to (the knowledge of) the use of the resource in writing.” (Kress, 2003:24). Kress believes that the communication of ideas and meaning-making are covered by the terms ‘writing’ and ‘speech’. Knowing how to read and write, and then actually going about doing so to communicate meaning is something above and beyond mere ‘literacy’ for Kress.

Despite Kress’ erudition and attempted defence of equating literacy with knowledge, problems arise. The first is perhaps best summed up by Carneiro when he states,

New knowledge is undergoing constant metamorphosis. The most important change concerns the transition from objective knowledge (codified and scientifically organized) to subjective knowledge (a personal construct, intensely social in its processes of production, dissemination and application). (Carneiro, 2002:66)

Equating literacy with knowledge is relatively unproblematic if the latter is a static concept. However, if knowledge is ‘undergoing constant metamorphosis’ and is social in its aspect, then literacy must be likewise. Muller (2000:2) believes even more strongly that Carneiro that knowledge is intrinsically social, putting even more pressure on conceptions of literacy that are tied to a knowledge-based definition.

Given these problems, others writers have contended that literacy should be understood not as a ‘state’ which an individual has managed to reach, but instead should be conceived as being a ‘process’. Rodríguez Illera (2004) believes that we should rethink ‘literacy in terms of literate practices rather than seeing it solely as learning to read and write, [see] it as a process and not only as a state, and [emphasize] its multiple character and, above all, its social dimension.’ (2004:58-59)

Viewing literacy as a social process gives rise in the literature to much discussion about social and cultural practices upon which literacy may be predicated. Going back to Scribner and Cole (1981), Rodríguez Illera quotes the authors as stating that, ‘Literacy is not simply knowing how to read and write a given text but rather the application of this knowledge for specific purposes in specific contexts.’ This would seem to allow for Kress’ concern about literacy’s relation to knowledge, whilst allowing for the social context that so many writers on literacy believe to be important.

The ‘proof of the pudding’ in terms of whether someone can be called literate is the production of texts. Allan Luke (in Tuman, 1992:vii) gives a concise overview of the three-step process by which texts are created:

Literacy is a social technology. That is, literate communities develop varied social, linguistic and cognitive practices with texts. These require the development and use of implements, ranging from plumes and ball point pens to keyboards. The objects and products of such practices and tools are recoverable texts arrayed on tablets, notebooks or other visual displays.

The text is co-constructed within a community, it is ‘written’ using one of a number of technologies, and then it is displayed. With this social aspect of literacy comes several issues and problems, not least the ethnocentric problem of being ‘literate’ according to the norms and practices of one community, yet not so according to those in another – even another community speaking the same language. Secondly, it would seem at first glance rather problematic to identify literacy as depending upon the literacy practices of a community. We talk of individuals being ‘literate’, not communities. Third, if literacy is a ‘cultural expression’ (Freire & Macedo, 1987:51-52) then it would be possible to be literate at one point in a culture, but not when the culture evolves and changes.

This first problem is a somewat philosophical one in terms of the problem of ‘other minds’. However, on a more practical level, Welch (1999) has argued that literacy is not just the ability to read and write, but, ‘an activity of the minds… capable of recognizing and engaging substantive issues along with the ways that minds, sensibilities, and emotions are constructed by and within communities whose members communicate through specific technologies.’ (Welch, quoted in Gurak, 2001:9) This interaction, and indeed the ability to do so, is for Welch what makes an individual ‘literate’. Note that this definition is predicated upon technology – whether that be pen and paper or digital technologies such as email. Literacy involves the ability to read and write: merely speaking about and showing and understanding of what one has read does not completely fit the criteria.

The second problem mentioned above, seeing as problematic literacy being dependent upon the literacy practices of a community, is dealt with more easily by thinking of communities of literacy practices. Although Carr (2003) is talking of more generic skillsets in the following, it can easily be applied to literacy and literacy practices:

…there are going to be skills and activities (such as literacy and numeracy) that all need to acquire because no modern person can adequately function without them, as well as skills (of auto-repair and secretarial work) that some but not all individuals will require for particular vocations. (Carr, 2003:18)

Likewise, there are going to be some particular literacy practices – perhaps centering around professions or interests – that are specific to smaller communities, but this does not preclude there being a wider ‘literacy’ that all recognise as being relevant in a generic sense to all of these sub-communities. To be literate, therefore, can mean to build upon the literacy practices of one or more communities, without leading to the absurd conclusion of identifying the communities themselves as ‘literate’.

The third and final problem can be solved rather straightforwardly with a couple of thought experiments. First, imagine that you are taken as you are now and dropped in the middle of a village in a country whose language you do not know how to speak or read. You would not be able to read anything that they had written down, nor write yourself in a manner which they would understand. You would not be ‘literate’ in that community. The second thought experiment is similar, but involves a time frame. Imagine an English monk from the 13th century somehow being transported to modern day England. Although some words in Old English and Latin are similar to their modern-day equivalents, still the monk would struggle to communicate. Not only that, but he would be limited to being able to use – at least at first – those technologies available to him in the 13th century. As a result he would not be fully ‘literate’ in a 21st century sense of the term. Given these two examples, it seems relatively clear that literacy does depend upon culture and has an historical aspect. In fact, it must include the latter for community and cultural cohesion: generations have to be able to communicate with one another effectively!

Some may argue against this stating that an individual is still literate when apart from a community and in isolation. That may be the case, but his or her literacy skills are predicated upon those learned when within a community. The critic may rebutt this argument by thinking up a thought experiment of their own where an autodidact stranded on a desert island teaches himself to read and write by discovering a library. That may be the case but, as Lemke points out, we employ community-constructed social practices even when alone:

Even if we are alone, reading a book, the activity of reading – knowing which end to start at, whether to read a page left-to-right or right-to-left, top-down or bottom-up, and how to turn the pages, not to mention making sense of a language, a writing system, an authorial style, a genre forma (e.g. a dictionary vs. a novel) – depends on conducting the activity in a way that is culturally meaningful to 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, 2002:36-37)

The three problems relating to literacy being predicated and depending upon the literacy practices of a community, therefore, are solvable. In fact, to try and define someone as ‘literate’ without reference to something produced for another to read would be extremely difficult!

Hannon (2000) points out a distinction between ‘unitary’ and ‘pluralist’ views of literacy. The unitary view, he states, is predicated upon the idea that literacy is a ‘skill’ and that there is an ‘it’ to which we can refer – a single referent,

According to this view the actual uses which particular readers and writers have for that competence is something which can be separated from the competence itself. (Hannon, 2000:31)

In contrast, the pluralist view believes there to be different literacies. Hannon quotes Lankshear (1987) who links social literacy practices with a pluralist view of literacy:

We should recognise, rather, that there are many specific literacies, each comprising an identifiable set of socially constructed practices based upon print and organised around beliefs about how the skills of reading and writing may or, perhaps, should be used. (Lankshear, 1987, quoted in Hannon, 2000:32)

Pluralists believe not only that we should speak of ‘literacies’ rather than ‘literacy’, but reject the notion that literacy practices are neutral with regard to power, social identity and political ideology. By privileging certain literacy practices – intentionally or unintentionally – hegemonic power is either increased or decreased (Gee, 1996, quoted in Hannon, 2000:34). The pluralist conception of literacy is, to a great extent, similar to the postmodernist movement in the late 20th century. Whilst adherents are clear as to what they are against – in this case a ‘unitary’ conception of literacy – it is not always clear what they stand for. Hannon attempts to bring some clarity by appealing to the notion of ‘family resemblence’, much as Wittgenstein (mentioned above) did for the concept of ‘game’.

Hannon, however, does not pigeon-hole himself as either a ‘unitary’ or ‘pluralist’ thinker with respect to literacy. After suggesting that whether theorists prefer unitary or pluralist conceptions of literacy depends upon whether they focus on literacy as a skill (psychology) or as a social practice (sociology), he questions why we need to choose between these two conceptions. ‘A full conception of literacy in education requires awareness of both,’ he states (Hannon, 2000:38).

Although Hannon does not give a name to this ‘third way’ of dealing with literacy, it is difficult to argue against his rationale. Those working more recently than Hannon have indeed given a generic name to the types of literacies mentioned above. Known simply as ‘new literacies’, their study is now a distinct and separate strand of literacy research. They seek, as Durrant & Green put it, to describe a more ‘3D’ model of literacies including ‘cultural, critical and operational dimensions’ (quoted in Beavis, 2002:51). Seeking to describe and, to some extent, promote the new opportunities digital, collaborative technologies afford society, ‘new literacies theorists’ focus on new ways individuals can express themselves. They then debate and try to explain how using these new technologies and methods of expression fit within, or complement, existing literacies.

Most new literacies theorists seek to demarcate a new form of literacy, explain it in detail, and then explain how it is actually an over-arching literacy that contains many sub-literacies. Thus, we have Potter (2004:33) who states, ‘Reading literacy, visual literacy and computer literacy are not synonyms for media literacy; instead, they are merely components,’ but it perhaps most transparently and obviously stated by Thomas, et al. in their definition of transliteracy:

Our current thinking (although still not entirely resolved) is that because it offers a wider analysis of reading, writing and interacting across a range of platforms, tools, media and cultures, transliteracy does not replace, but rather contains, “media literacy” and also “digital literacy.” (2007)

The proliferation of terms, ranging from the obvious (‘digital literacy’) to the horrendous (‘electracy’) seems to be as much to do with authors making their name known as provide a serious and lasting contribution to the literacy debate. So far, although literacy theorists are almost certain about what literacy is not, and which side of several fences they sit, we are not much closer to a definition of what literacy means or consists of in the 21st century.


  • Beavis, C. (2002) ‘Reading, Writing and Role-playing Computer Games’ (in I. Snyder, Silcon Literacies: communication, innovation and education in the electronic age, London, 2002)
  • Carneiro, R. (2002) ‘The New Frontiers of Education’ (in UNESCO, Learning Throughout Life: challenges for the twenty-first century)
  • Gurak, L.J. (2001) Cyberliteracy: navigating the Internet with awareness
  • Hannon, P. (2000) Reflecting on Literacy in Education
  • Holme, R. (2004) Literacy: an introduction
  • Kress, G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age
  • Muller, J. (2000) Reclaiming Knowledge: social theory, curriculum and education policy
  • Potter, W.J. (2004) Theory of Media Literacy
  • Rodríguez Illera, J.L., (2004) ‘Digital Literacies’ (Interactive Educational Multimedia, number 9 (November 2004), pp. 48-62)
  • Thomas, et al.Transliteracy: Crossing divides‘ (First Monday, 12:12. December 2007)
  • Tuman, M. (1992) Word Perfect: literacy in the computer age
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My Ed.D. thesis concept map on ‘Digital Literacy’

This concept map took me ages. So long, in fact that I’ve no big long words or energy left to pad out this blog post longer than it needs to. Suffice it to say that the references on it can be found on my wiki. 🙂

I created the concept map using XMind, which is Open Source, cross-platform software that allows you to upload and collaborate. I found it very easy to use and would recommend it as a perfect blend of online and offline functionality! 😀

I’ve been asked under what license I’m releasing this mindmap. Here’s my answer:
Creative Commons License
Digital Literacy Ed.D. thesis concept map by Doug Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at share.xmind.net.


As I’ve neither the time nor the amount of energy needed to get published in an academic journal for the first time, this blog will continue to serve as a repository for slightly more formal blog posts (or less formal journal articles, however you want to think of them…) 😉

I’m aiming to investigate the concept of ‘digital literacy’ and issues surrounding it in my Ed.D. thesis. You can read my proposal at digitalliteracies.edublogs.org.

Everybody knows what literacy is. It’s the ability ‘read and write.’ But read and write what, and to what standard, and for what purpose? An even more important question might be ‘to read and write with which technology? For, as Tuman (1992:2) notes, notions of ‘reading and ‘writing’ are unstable as meanings shift along with technological change. We can no longer take it for granted that someone’s remark that they ‘read’ something means that they had to hand physical paper marked in a decipherable way by ink. By ‘writing’ we can no longer assume authorship using a pen or pencil. The digital world has turned literacy on it’s head.

Although people do write for an audience of only themselves in diaries, journals and suchlike, the usual purpose of writing is to communicate something – an idea or an emotion, for example. As new methods of communication become available, so new sub-literacies come into being surrounding them. As Kellner (2002:163 – my emphasis) puts it:

As technological convergence develops apace, individuals need to combine the skills of critical media literacy with traditional print literacy and new forms of multiple literacies to access and navigate the new multimedia environments. Literacy in this conception involves the abilities to engage effectively in socially constructed forms of communication and representation. Reading and interpreting print was the appropriate mode of literacy for books, while critical media literacy entails reading and interpreting discourse, images, spectacle, narratives, and the forms and genres of media culture.

Literacy, as alluded to above, it always reading and writing for a purpose. We would hesitate to call someone ‘literate’ who could read words and write them, but could not meaningfully communicate in written form with other people. Literacy is a ‘set of socially organised practices’ (Rodríguez Illera, 2002:51) or a ‘social technology’ (Tuman, 1992:vii) and, as such.

…involves gaining the skills and knowledge to read and interpret the text of the world and to successfully navigate and negotiate its challenges, conflicts, and crises. Literacy is thus a necessary condition to equip people to participate in the local, national and global economy, culture, and polity. (Kellner, 2002:157)

Without culture and society, there is no literacy. It is the practical application of historically-situated (Barton & Hamilton, 2000:13) sets of codes and signifiers that allow meaningful discourse within domains of various sizes. The activities within these domains are neither accidental nor random and are structured by these literate practices. (Barton & Hamilton, 2000:11-12) ‘Literacy’ has traditionally been pointed towards ‘high culture’ – which is actually a minority culture. (Beavis, 1998:240) The democratization of literate practices through technologies such as the Internet and the blog upon which I write this serve to illustrate this. Niche groups, with literate practices of their own, flourish. Take l33t, for example.

Schools, institutions that are perhaps the most conservative and preservative of the status quo in a society, perpetuate this link between literacy and ‘high culture’. As Alan Luke (2003) puts it,

Literate practice is situated, constructed, and intrapsychologically negotiated through an (artificial) social field called school, with rules of exchange denoted in scaffolded social activities around particular selected texts. (Eyman, no date:20)

Whilst there need to be some ‘rules to the game’ for there to be meaningful discourse, it would appear that schools are the enemy of evolving literate practices. Teachers have, almost necessarily, been successful at ‘working’ the existing system. They are at least reasonably successful within the bounds of traditional literate practices. There is therefore, somewhat understandably, a fear by some teachers that new technologies and literacies may somehow supplant those which they hold dear. As Illayna Snyder comments, however, such a sharp demarcation and transition is unlikely to occur:

New introduction of a new technology of writing does not automatically render older ones obsolete. For example, even though printing completely replaced handwriting in book production, it did not spell the end for handwriting. Rather, the boundaries between the two writing technologies blurred… The future of writing is not a linear progression in which new technologies usurp earlier ones. A more likely scenario is that a number of technologies will continue to co-exist, interact, even complement each other.

So just as we have both printed and online versions of newspapers, printed and electronic scholarly journals, and a variety of ways of accessing information we need for our day-to-day lives, so literacies can co-exist. Realising this, we need to embrace new technologies rather than fear them, finding ways to transform our world, and responding to the challenges we face by discovering new literacies (Kellner, 2002:154). 

Ultimately, decisions about literate practices are not ones we can avoid as educators by ‘sitting on the fence’. As William James put it, ‘…our thoughts determine our acts, and our actions redetermine the previous nature of the world.’ (Bredo, 2006:21). For us to be able to act, and interact, with others in a meaningful way given the nature of the technologies that surround us, we must develop new literacies, new pedagogies and new stories.


  • Barton, D. & Hamilton, M. (2000) ‘Literacy Practices’ (in Barton, D., Hamilton, M. & Ivanic, R. (eds.), Situated Literacies: reading and writing in context
  • Beavis, C. (1998) ‘Computer games, culture and curriculum’ (in I. Snyder, Page to Screen)
  • Bredo, E. (2006) ‘Philosophies of Educational Research’ (in Green, J.L., et al, Handbook of Complementary Methods of Education Research)
  • Eyman, D. (no date) ‘Digital Literac(ies), Digital Discourses, and Communities of Practice: Literacy Practices in Virtual Environments’ (Cultural Practices of Literacy Study, Working Paper #12)
  • Kellner, D.M., (2002) ‘Technological Revolution, Multiple Literacies, and the Restructuring of Education’ (in I. Snyder (ed.), Silicon Literacies: communication, innovation and education in the electronic age)
  • Rodríguez Illera, J.L. (2004) ‘Digital Literacies’ (Interactive Educational Multimedia, number 9, pp. 48-62)
  • Tuman, M. (1992) Word Perfect: literacy in the computer age
(image adapted from an original by Pink Sherbert Photography @ Flickr)