Tag: Steve Higgins

Digital myths, digital pedagogy, and complexity

I’m currently doing some research with Sarah Horrocks from London CLC for their parent organisation, the Education Development Trust. As part of this work, I’m looking at all kinds of things related to technology-enhanced teacher professional development.

Happily, it’s given me an excuse to go through some of the work that Prof. Steve Higgins, my former thesis supervisor at Durham University, has published since I graduated from my Ed.D. in 2012. There’s some of his work in particular that really resonated with me and I wanted to share in a way that I could easily reference in future.

In a presentation to the British Council in 2013 entitled Technology trends for language teaching: looking back and to the future, Higgins presents six ‘myths’ relating to digital technologies and educational institutions:

  1. The ‘Future Facing’ Fallacy – “New technologies are being developed all the time, the past history of the impact of technology is irrelevant to what we have now or will be available tomorrow.
  2. The ‘Different Learners’ Myth – “Today’s children are digital natives and the ‘net generation –they learn differently from older people”.
  3. A Confusion of ‘Information’and ‘Knowledge’ – “Learning has changed now we have access to knowledge through the internet, today’s children don’t need to know stuff, they just need to know where to find it.”
  4. The ‘Motivation Mistake’ – “Students are motivated by technology so they must learn better when they use it.”
  5. The ‘Mount Everest’ Fallacy – “We must use technology because it is there!”
  6. The ‘More is Better’ Mythology – “If some technology is a good thing, then more must be better.

The insightful part, is I think, when Higgins applies Rogers’ (1995) work around the diffusion of innovations:

  • Innovators & early adopters choose digital technology to do something differently – as a solution to a problem.
  • When adopted by the majority, focus is on the technology, but not as a solution.
  • The laggards use the technology to replicate what they were already doing without ICT

In a 2014 presentation to The Future of Learning, Knowledge and Skills (TULOS) entitled Technology and learning: from the past to the future, Higgins expands on this:

It is rare for further studies to be conducted once a technology has become fully embedded in educational settings as interest tends to focus on the new and emerging, so the question of overall impact remains elusive.

If this is the situation, there may, of course, be different explanations. We know, for example, that it is difficult to scale-up innovation without a dilution of effect with expansion (Cronbach et al. 1980; Raudenbush, 2008). It may also be that early adopters (Rogers, 2003; Chan et al. 2006) tend to be tackling particular pedagogical issues in the early stages, but then the focus shifts to the adoption of the particular technology, without it being chosen as a solution to a specific teaching and learning issue (Rogers’‘early’ and ‘late majority’). At this point the technology may be the same, but the pedagogical aims and intentions are different, and this may explain a reduction in effectiveness.

The focus should be on pedagogy, not technology:

Overall, I think designing for effective use of digital technologies is complex. It is not just a case of trying a new piece of technology out and seeing what happens. We need to build on what is already know about effective teaching and learning… We also need to think about what the technology can do better than what already happens in schools. It is not as though there is a wealth of spare time for teachers and learners at any stage of education. In practice the introduction of technology will replace something that is already there for all kinds of reasons, the technology supported activity will squeeze some thing out of the existing ecology, so we should have good grounds for thinking that a new approach will be educationally better than what has gone before or we should design activities for situations where teachers and learners believe improvement is needed. Tackling such challenges will mean that technology will provide a solution to a problem and not just appear as an answer to a question that perhaps no-one has asked.

My gloss on this is that everything is ambiguous, and that attempts to completely remove this ambiguity and/or abstract away from a particular context are doomed to failure.

One approach that Higgins introduces in a presentation (no date), entitled SynergyNet: Exploring the potential of a multi-touch classroom for teaching and learning, is CSCL. I don’t think I’d heard of this before:

Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is a pedagogical approach where in learning takes place via social interaction using a computer or through the Internet. This kind of learning is characterized by the sharing and construction of knowledge among participants using technology as their primary means of communication or as a common resource. CSCL can be implemented in online and classroom learning environments and can take place synchronously or asynchronously. (Wikipedia)

The particular image that grabbed me from Higgins’ presentation was this one:


This reminds me of the TPACK approach, but more focused on the kind of work that I do from home most weeks:

One of the most common approaches to CSCL is collaborative writing. Though the final product can be anything from a research paper, a Wikipedia entry, or a short story, the process of planning and writing together encourages students to express their ideas and develop a group understanding of the subject matter. Tools like blogs, interactive whiteboards, and custom spaces that combine free writing with communication tools can be used to share work, form ideas, and write synchronously. (Wikipedia)

CSCL activities seem like exactly the kind of things we should be encouraging to prepare both teachers and young people for the future:

Technology-mediated discourse refers to debates, discussions, and other social learning techniques involving the examination of a theme using technology. For example, wikis are a way to encourage discussion among learners, but other common tools include mind maps, survey systems, and simple message boards. Like collaborative writing, technology-mediated discourse allows participants that may be separated by time and distance to engage in conversations and build knowledge together. (Wikipedia)

Going through Higgins’ work reminds me how much I miss doing this kind of research!

Note: I wrote an academic paper with Steve Higgins that was peer-reviewed via my social network rather than in a journal. It’s published on my website and Digital literacy, digital natives, and the continuum of ambiguity. I’ve also got a (very) occasional blog where I discuss this kind of stuff at ambiguiti.es.

Photo by Daniel von Appen

Doctor Doug.

Dr. Doug with Prof. Steve Higgins

Dr. Doug Belshaw with Prof. Steve Higgins

Today I graduated from my Ed.D. in the wonderful surroundings of Durham Cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Both my family and my supervisor Professor Steve Higgins were there to witness it and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their advice, guidance and support during the past few years. I’d also like to thank those who have cheered me on both here and elsewhere online. 🙂

My doctoral thesis has been online since I began writing it. You can access it at http://neverendingthesis.com

This event has come at a great time between finishing up my role with JISC infoNet and starting with the Mozilla Foundation. Exciting times!

Trajectories of ambiguity: my first journal article.

In a move that will no doubt shock known world, I’ve decided that first-ever journal article will be both a collaborative venture and cock a snook towards traditional subject disciplines. Provisionally entitled Seven types of ambiguity and digital literacy I’m co-authoring it with my Ed.D. thesis supervisor Steve Higgins. Allegations that I’m doing so to prove originality in my research ahead of my viva voce by producing an article from an intended thesis chapter are, of course, completely unfounded.

Ambiguous terms and phases of ambiguity

I’m not going to give an overview of the entire article (for obvious reasons) although it will be published in an open-access journal. Suffice to say that we’re introducing the idea that terms such as digital literacy and digital natives/immigrants exhibit a ‘trajectory of ambiguity’ through which they pass on the way to becoming what Richard Rorty calls ‘dead metaphors’.

To prevent you having to go back and do Philosophy and Linguistics 101 I’ll remind you that the denotative aspect of a term is its surface or primary meaning. The connotative aspect of a term is its secondary, or implied, meaning. In the article, which features the overlapping diagram above (I’m not allowed to call it ‘Venn’, apparently) we’re arguing that there are three distinct phases through which terms pass. Whilst they never completely shed their connotative aspect the edge to the right of ‘Productive ambiguity’ is where the dictionary definition of terms reside. Generative ambiguity tends to be ‘blue skies thinking’, Creative ambiguity discussing and debating the definition of a term, and Productive ambiguity putting it into practice in various contexts.

You’ll be delighted to learn that we’ve done a sterling job in making the article itself ambiguous, situating it in the phase of Creative ambiguity. “Be the change you want to see,” “walk the walk,” etc.

Meeting with Ed.D. supervisor: conceptual ecologies, productive concepts, and hypozeugma

I met via Skype with my thesis supervisor, Steve Higgins, a couple of weeks ago to discuss the process of finishing off and submitting my thesis. It currently stands at around 34,000 words but, given that I wrote 17,500 words of a mobile review in little more than a week, it’s not the actual getting close to 60,000 words that’s the issue: it’s the overall coherence.

Skype’s persistent chat history is fantastic; I can remember reading recently of a company that’s committed to promoting Open Source products, but that uses Skype (which is proprietary and closed-source) internally because of exactly this feature. I use it to note down important points in the conversations Steve and I have (as well as recording the audio of the whole conversation) so I can go back to it later. Here, then, are my thoughts prompted by revisiting that Skype chat history:

Where’s the value(s)?

One of the many problems I have with the concept of digital literacy is that it’s an inherently value-laden proposition. It is, as Steve puts it, and ‘intentional concept’ in that people want to achieve things through its adoption and promotion: consensus, change, and the like. It’s like bandwagon-jumping rather than hitchhiking.

Problematising policy

In an attempt to make my thesis of practical value, I had intended to apply my findings to the policies in various countries. However, Steve and I are agreed that moving this section (with a slightly different focus) to near the beginning of the thesis makes more sense. I’m now going to analyse policies relating to ‘digital literacy’ in various countries, show how they are problematic, and then go on to my Pragmatic methodology.

Digital AND Literacy?

If we imagine a Venn diagram with ‘Digital’ in one overlapping circle and ‘Literacy’ in the other then it would appear obvious that ‘Digital Literacy’ is the intersection of these two. However, as has become clear in my research, the information literacy community seem to have taken over the ground that includes everything other than the intersect. This muddies the waters massively.

In order for ‘Digital Literacy’ (in terms of the intersect) to be of added value then there needs to be something particular about it that isn’t covered by ‘Digital OR Literacy’.

Hardness and methodological rules

Before our meeting, Steve sent me this from my former Philosophy lecturer at the University of Sheffield:

The pragmatist principle is defended as a methodological rule [author italics] and Peirce hopes to show, on the basis of a systematic theory of signs, that it is an adequate rule for its intended purpose. A pragmatist analysis of hardness, for example, would tell us what is involved in believing that something is hard. … Clarification of a concept using the pragmatist principle provides an account of just what commitments I incur when I believe or assert a proposition in which the concept is ascribed to something. (Hookway, C. (2002) Truth Rationality and Pragmatism, p.60)

If I’m using the Pragmatic method, therefore, I need to explain the ‘commitments incurred’ when expressing the concept of ‘digital literacy’.

The local and the global

Pragmatism is predicated upon the idea that truth is what a community of inquirers would settle upon after a long period of time. There are, as Steve points out, both ‘local’ and ‘global’ communities of inquirers which has an impact for the meaning of terms such as ‘digital literacy’. It is likely, therefore, that the conclusion of my thesis will reconsider the policy documents presented in the first half of the thesis, explaining that what is ‘good in the way of belief’ in one country/area (local) is not necessarily good or useful elsewhere (global).

Conceptual ecologies

Words and vocabularies change over time. It may be, therefore, that at one point in time ‘digital literacy’ is/was a functional metaphor that, through a ‘creative ambiguity’ provided a negotiable space for dialogue. Taking a ‘conceptual ecologies’ view allows for the consideration of ‘spaces not boundaries’ (to quote Steve) – engaging with the concept of digital literacy may change your view of the world, and in turn change your view of the concept.

Productive concepts

Just because an ambiguity or a concept creates a metaphorical space for discussion and debate doesn’t make it useful. Like the f-stop controlling the aperture of a camera lens, larger and smaller amounts of creative space can be created through the use of metaphor. The debates in these spaces, however, have to be useful and of value to be considered ‘productive’. Any two words could be mashed together to create such a space, but it is the resulting conversation that is important.


Steve introduced me to the term Zeugma during our conversation, but then wondered whether ‘digital literacy’ was, after all, an example. I think he may be on to something and, given further investigation, think ‘digital literacy’ may be a hypozeugma:

The hypozeugma, also called an adjunctio in Latin, is a zeugma where a verb falls at the end of a sentence and governs several parallel clauses that precede it.

On the other hand, ‘digital literacy’ may be a full-on Syllepsis:

Syllepsis, also known as semantic zeugma, is a particular type of zeugma in which the clauses disagree in either meaning or grammar. The governing word may change meaning with respect to the other words it modifies. This creates a semantic incongruity that is often humorous. Alternatively, a syllepsis may contain a governing word or phrase that does not agree grammatically with one or more of its distributed terms. This is an intentional construction in which rules of grammar are bent for stylistic effect.

Literacies of the digital

The idea of ‘literacies of the digital’ may be a better expression as it makes clear (as opposed to with ‘digital literacy’) that digital is the noun. Literacies of the digital could well be everything apart from the intersect of the two-circle Venn diagram mentioned above. Steve and I discussed whether ‘digital participation’ was the intersect, or whether such a concept was ‘read-only’. I would argue that there needs to be a critical element to this participative element of literacy.

I’ve certainly got some more thinking to do on this… :-p

Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: restructuring

Pebble Art

Last night I had a Skype conversation with Steve Higgins, my Ed.D. thesis supervisor at Durham University, for the first time in a few months. As I half-expected when I set myself the challenge, a deadline of 1st January 2011 is going to be pretty much unachievable now as I’m only 34,000 words into a 60,000 word thesis. That being said, Easter 2011 is looking good.

I find it useful to record our Skype conversations to go back through at my leisure. I haven’t done that yet – but I did capture the main points of our conversation via the Skype chat window. Here’s the highlights:

Other people’s work

As long as I acknowledge them, I can get other people to draw what I can only describe. Whilst I’ve made an attempt at representing what I discuss in diagrammatic form, there’s certain conventions and methods that I’m just not familiar with. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to afford to commission someone, especially given that I want to publish my thesis as a book.

Adjectives & verbs

Steve said something which, although he’s mentioned it before, struck a chord with me. He stated his belief that with ‘digital literacy’ the adjective and the verb seem to be the wrong way around. That is to say that ‘digital’ is the modifier for ‘literacy’ when it should be vice-versa. This led to a conversation about the final two chapters of my thesis before the conclusion. I intend to show that ‘digital literacy’ – and even ‘new literacies’ are too ambiguous to be nailed-down for all time. Instead, we should focus on notions of ‘digitality’ or similar.

Structure of thesis

Most theses, or so I’m led to believe, contain an introduction, followed by a methodology followed by a literature review, explication of points, and a conclusion. Not mine. As I’m writing a philosophical, non-empirical yet vocational doctoral thesis a slightly different format is required. As I began to explain in Ed.D. thesis restructure, I’m going to situate my methodology section almost half-way through my thesis, using it as a lever or a lens through which to focus the rest of my thesis. As for the literature review, this will be in (at least) four parts:

  1. History of traditional (print) literacy
  2. The history of digital literac(ies)
  3. New Literacies
  4. Policy documents (digitality)

That should keep things interesting. 🙂


Usually, as with most people writing something lengthy, I’d decide on my conclusion and then work backwards. That’s not entirely possible given the constant state of flux my thesis is in. As befitting Pragmatism, I’m making tentative conclusions. At the moment I’m given to concluding that the process (i.e. the inquiry) of notions surrounding ‘digital literacy’ and the like is at least as important as the resultant definition. In fact, I’m leaning more 70/30 in favour of process over product.

Steve quoted Douglas Adams at me. If this quotation doesn’t end up in my thesis, then you know something has gone horribly wrong:

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!


Image CC BY pshutterbug

Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: my first journal article.

On Monday evening I met for the first time in a while with my Ed.D. thesis supervisor, Steve Higgins. Even though I’m much closer to Durham University these days we find it more productive to talk via Skype. 🙂

The focus of our discussion was my forthcoming submission of an article to an academic journal. Whilst my recent book review will be published in E-Learning and Digital Media 7:3 later this year this will (hopefully!) be the first time anything original of mine will be published in a peer-reviewed journal. I’m quite excited. 🙂

Regular readers know how open and candid I am about almost every area of my life via this blog and Twitter. I’m sure you’ll forgive me this once when I don’t go into too much detail about my proposed article; it would be easy to get scooped! Suffice to say I’m looking to apply a framework that should help understand just how exactly ‘literacies of the digital’ are ambiguous.

We also discussed the concept of Flow, popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I was a big fan of this theory when I first came across it, but now I realise it’s as empty a concept as ‘digital literacy’. Still, I do believe that such terms have some kind of Pragmatic utility – they are ‘good in the way of belief’. I’ve got a Venn diagram in mind to explain this in the article I’m writing.

Steve said something quite powerful in our conversation about ‘compressing depth of thought’. If you use too much terminology, compress ideas into too small a space and be overly concise then readers have to ‘read out’ rather than ‘read in’ to your work. If they’re not ‘reading in’ then they’re not applying. That, he says, is why ‘lighter, fluffier’ stuff gets more readily applied, whilst more ‘serious, focused’ stuff is sometimes ignored. I’ve certainly found that even with some of my blog posts.

Finally, I mentioned that if I heard someone uncritically use the term ‘digital native’ in my presence (or without tongue-firmly-in-cheek), I was likely to lay the smackdown on them. In fact, Prensky has since (in a 2009 article) moved onto talking about ‘digital wisdom’. He’s basically saying “I was wrong” without using so many words. Trouble is, he’s wrong about the digital wisdom too… :-p

Image CC BY-NC Jeremy Brooks

Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: digital literacy & ambiguity

I learned several things in my Skype chat with my Ed.D. thesis supervisor (Steve Higgins) this week, notably:

  • I’m a pearl-grower
  • People can be metaphorical in different ways
  • How ambiguity can be productive

Our conversation

Steve was very interested in what I’d mentioned in our brief email conversation earlier this month about different types of ambiguity. After reading William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (Wikipedia)recently I’ve realised that the terms that I’ve been analysing in the literature – ‘digital literacy’, ‘electracy’, information competence’, and the like – are actually ambiguous in different ways.

In fact, the level of ambiguity and lack of clarity can depend upon the ‘level’ at which people are working. So, for the teenager at school talking about ‘digital literacy’ isn’t productive or helpful. For the university professor, on the other hand, it could create a productive space in which to discuss one or more concepts.

Steve mentioned that I need to be careful about different positions taken by thinkers about literacy. Radicalists, for example, would argue that the way that you become literate affects the way you are literate later. This all links into the seven types of ambiguity mentioned above. I think that, given that Empson was considering mainly poetry and works of literature, there may be scope in my thesis to collapse or discard two or more types of ambiguity.

The problem about New Literacies is that they potentially lead to ‘infinite literacies’. For example, I’ve seen studies that seem to consider the use of Flickr as requiring a separate ‘literacy’ than, for example, Facebook. If there is such a thing as ‘digital literacy’ then it would need to be a level up from this – a complex organizing construct that could explain such affinity spaces. 🙂

Moving on to the structure of my thesis, I explained to Steve that I’m thinking about moving the location of my discussion on the Pragmatic method to the beginning of my thesis. If it went after the Literature Review, as originally planned, then it would seem a bit out-of-kilter. If so, that would give me the following structure:

  1. Pragmatic method (plus discussion of other lenses that can be used)
  2. Literature Review (including evolution of New Literacies)
  3. Discussion and analysis of seven types of ambiguity
  4. Analyse digital literacy (and other concepts) as constructs (do they have pragmatic utility?)
  5. Review of terminology used in government, NGO and media reports (e.g. Singapore, BBC, NGOs, UK, USA – what do people mean by digital literacy? is it a productive ambiguity?)
  6. Digital Flow as a more coherent and less ambiguous construct

Steve noted that ‘digital literacy’ is a term used mainly by digital enthusiasts. It creates a positive space or construct for people to explore shared meanings. I thought this was an interesting idea and brought up the idea of a continuum of positions people could take. Steve expanded on this to say that it’s as if the whole of the Venn diagram can be discussed rather than just the intersect:- includes the whole of the Venn diagram rather than just the intersect:

My ‘Norwegian analysis’ (as Steve calls it) contains a metaphorical aspect which is at heart of way the term has evolved. It creates a ‘productive space’ which may or may not be useful. By moving computer skills into the ‘literacy’ domain the debate is altered as a ‘value space’ has been created. After all, no-one is going to argue about the utility of a literacy. This could be a useful segué into the section about the what the media and governments say about digital literacy and related concepts.

Regarding my final section on ‘flow’ I mentioned how in the literature it is used most in relation to computer games. Steve mentioned that he has an unpublished presentation/paper on how interactive whiteboards (IWBs) develop teacher didactic ‘flow’ (in that they control IWB with one hand and class with another). The IWB encourages whole-class presentation, with more answers from students, but less depth. The teacher ends up in some kind of bubble which becomes less and less permeable. They are in control of resources; lessons ‘progress’ but without the cognitive dissonance required.

I was concerned that I wasn’t discovering academic journal articles in the most efficient mannter. I explained to Steve my method:

  • Find recent relevant, high-quality journal article using Google Scholar
  • Scour reference section for relevant articles.
  • Go through relevant articles and repeat.

Steve calls this pearl-growing and apparently it’s a popular method. He did, however, mention that ‘forward-tracking’ via services such as Google Scholar is also useful. Steve also recommended keyword searching at the Web of Science and directly within the archives of relevant journals. The problem with everyone ‘pearl-growing’ I pointed out is that, like the iPhone App Store, once something becomes slightly popular, it will become exponentially more so. Steve said that his colleague, Peter Timms, had found that there is evidence to this effect as there is no strong correlation between the quality of references in academic papers and the quality of the article itself.

Moving on we discussed the problem of ‘solidification’. As I’ve referenced before, Allan Martin has written on the idea of ‘liquid modernity’. This is the idea that by the time research has been done and social norms have begun to emerge, the technology has moved on. What Steve wondered, however, was whether this is true from this point forward (i.e. we will be in this situation forever more) or whether it’s for a finite period of time. I pointed out that my historical research has shown that people pretty much always think they’re living through times of rapid change! Steve quite rightly pointed out the difference between technological and conceptual things changing. Something to dwell on… :-p

The problem with such a nebulous concept as ‘digital literacy’ is that it can collapse to meaning no more than ‘having access to digital texts’. Steve and I discussed the importance of ‘knowing’ (in terms of internalization and understanding). All an individual can do on the first attempt is to assimilate information and value judgements into what W.V. Quine would call an individual’s web of belief. It would be interesting to explore the extent to which new concepts such as ‘digital literacy’ restructure belief systems (as oppose to merely being assimilated)

This led onto my wondering about ‘digital epistemologies’ – especially as Richard Rorty claims that pragmatists don’t have an epistemology. Steve though that, although he would have to check, Rorty means by this that pragmatists don’t have a single epistemology. They are more agile than thinkers holding different positions.

I thought that this potentially linked together our discussion of ‘liquid modernity’ with the idea of a ‘web of beliefs’. Pragmatists have a more fluid and changeable web of beliefs, meaning they are better situated when faced with fluid change. It’s something I’m going to think about putting into the first section of my thesis. 😀

Finally, Steve and I discussed the difference between C.S. Peirce (a community of inquirers would find truth in the long run) and Richard Rorty (there is no ‘truth’ to find). Peirce, coming before Thomas Kuhn, didn’t take into account paradigm shifts where the graph of what constitutes ‘normal science’ is forever having to restart. Although Peirce can be interpreted in a Postmodern way, Steve is more comfortable interpreting him towards the Realist end of the spectrum. That is to say: Peirce believed that the external world exists and there are truths to be known, it’s just that we as humans aren’t in a position to do that. The difference between Rorty and earlier pragmatists, suggested Steve, is that Rorty came from a strongly libertarian standpoint, whereas Dewey, for example, was more of a communitarian.

The hour went very quickly. Lots to think about and lots of work to do! 🙂

(pearl image CC BY Vali… & web image CC BY josef.stuefer)

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

The Dissertation

CC-BY-NC raffyd

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

I had several things I wanted to raise, namely:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: ‘aspirational naming,’ hegemonic power and finishing early?


Image by gagilas @ Flickr

Last Wednesday I met with Steve Higgins, my Ed.D. supervisor at the University of Durham. I enjoy the level of intellectual conversation I have with him and this meeting was no exception. Our discussion ranged from everything from Foucault to doing online shopping for your grandmother(!) and seemed to fly by. This post serves as a reminder for me and an insight for those interested in my chosen topic of ‘digital literacy.’

Concept maps and ‘umbrella terms’

Those familiar with the enormous Ed.D. concept map I produced will be familiar with the fair amount of complexity it contains. Steve suggested that I go back to it and attempt to synthesize some of the elements, perhaps by reworking it into a kind of Venn diagram. I replied that at the moment it’s something I don’t want to spend too much time looking at (because it took so long to produce), but will go back to it eventually!

I expressed my (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) annoyance that Lankshear and Knobel in the introduction to their 2008 Digital Literacies had pointed out and drawn attention to something I was going to present as a new analysis in my thesis: the ‘umbrella term.’ Many theorists take their conception of literacy and consider all others in the light of it, usually relegating them to some type of ‘sub-literacies.’ Steve suggested I try a different metaphor than umbrellas… 😉

Intentionality and trajectories

Steve reminded me that there is a ‘rhetoric’ to everything produced by theorists, even those who are leaders in the field (e.g. Lankshear and Knobel). There is an intention behind what they are doing; they are, to some extent, ‘tussling for position’ and attempting to prove a point.

All theorists in the realm of ‘new literacies’ deal in neologisms. That is to say they coin terms that they hope will enter common usage. Steve posited the idea of a ‘trajectory’ – that I need to show in my thesis where theorists are ‘coming from,’ what their definition is, what they’re trying to achieve through that definition, and then the logical implications and practicalities of this.

Language issues

At some point during the discussion I mentioned that I’d read that Norwegian has no word for ‘literacy’ as they use a different, but related term. I suggested that this might allow Norwegians to bypass some of the historical baggage bound up with the term ‘literacy.’ Steve pointed out that Norwegian also makes no distinction between ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’ which, if you think about it, is rather problematic. I can think of lots of efficient yet ineffective people vice-versa! :-p

I moved on to Gunther Kress‘ argument that because many languages don’t have the term ‘literacy’ then sub-dividing it into ‘visual literacy,’ ‘digital literacy’ and the like was problematic. I mentioned that I wasn’t convinced by his argument. Steve pointed out that English is a richer language (in terms of number of words) than other languages. This means that there may be actually an advantage in breaking down terms in English into sub-areas as it may be difficult to work out of a genuinely complex ‘super-concept.’

Thesis structure

The structure of all theses tend to be in a state of flux until towards the end, and mine is no different. Given that I’m doing a rather bizarre thing – a conceptual, vocational doctorate(!) – the structure is not prescribed nor, indeed, self-evident. I pointed out to Steve that although it is usual to write the ‘methodology’ chapter after the ‘literature review,’ it might actually be a better idea and more coherent to the reader if the methodology comes before the literature review.

I’m planning to write a chapter on ‘digital flow,’ after being inspired by Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. One of the issues with ‘digital literacy’ is, as Steve put it, ‘aspirational naming’: we come up with terms describing states to which we aspire. ‘Digital flow’ (as I shall define it) would be on the same spectrum and would, inevitably, include value judgements and aspirational statements about how I want the world to be. We’re came back our earlier mention of intentionality.

After coming up with a (tentative) definition of ‘digital flow’ I shall be doing some policy analysis looking at whether conceptions of digital literacy and/or flow are embedded in pronouncements and practice in countries ranging from the UK to Singapore. Steve suggested that I look at the relation between literacy and hegemonic power; ‘the position of the individual relative to the discourse.’ Steve’s of the opinion that power comes as a ‘valuable incidental’ to those in power and control and that they don’t necessarily reinforce this on purpose through such things as literacy practices. It’s a question of ‘coherence and complexity’ despite Marxist rants to the contrary. He suggested I look at the difference between devolved and ‘real’ power (c.f. Foucault).

The nature of literacy

I’ve avoided in my thesis up to now discussion of ‘media literacy’ as I thought it would take me down a rather tangential rabbit-hole. However, as Steve pointed out, at the end of the day it’s all about semiotics and the encoding of meaning. It’s about production and reproduction, said Steve, as letter-based literacy is a ‘dense’ and precise method of exchange. Visual literacy, media literacy and the like points towards more metaphorical use of language. Poetry, for example, would be somewhat of a ‘halfway house.’

It was at this point that I re-conceptualized what Steve said as being almost a continuum ranging from the ‘literal’ use of language in literacy left to ‘metaphorical’ use of language on the right. Text-based literacy would be on the left whilst umbrella terms – metaphors of metaphors (or ‘second order metaphors’) would be on the right. It may be interesting to plot conceptions of literacy on such a continuum in my actual thesis.

This reminded Steve of C.S. Peirce‘s idea of ‘firstness,’ ‘secondness’ and ‘thirdness.’ This relates to something which equates to ‘raw perception’ (‘firstness’), the ‘idea’ of it (‘thirdness’) and the way of trying to express this (‘secondness’). I think this could be a really effective addition to my discussion of the ‘red pillar box’ in my phenomological introduction (sample below):

Human beings are tasked with making sense of the external world. We feel the need to decipher and communicate oft-repeated experiences and sensations, allowing other minds to share the same (or similar) conceptual space to our own. For example, research in Phenomenology tells us that two individuals may have two markedly different sensations when viewing a red pillar box. If, however, they agree on the category ‘pillar box’ to refer to approximately the shape they see before them, and that the colour sensation they are experiencing shall be called ‘red’, then meaningful discourse can ensue.

Returning to the policy document analysis, Steve re-iterated that I need to concentrate on producing an ‘interesting synthesis’ rather than getting bogged down in detail. I also need to separate out in my thesis the difference between ‘digital literacy’ and ‘being digitally literate.’

Finishing early

I mentioned to Steve – as I have done at previous meetings – that I’d like to have my thesis finished by next summer. That’s a year before my official end date, after which people are still allowed a year of ‘writing up.’ There’s three reasons why I want to finish early:

  1. I want to finish before I’m 30 (December 2010)
  2. It’s costing £thousands every year.
  3. Every additional year I take is another year in which I have to consider and attempt to synthesize other people’s work into my thesis.

The official line for the Ed.D. is that the taught elements give the skills to undertake something at equivalent level to Ph.D. This is usually done where there’s a professional dimension to this ‘something.’ However, overlaps with other areas (in my case, for example, politics and philosophy as well as education) is inevitable. The examiner will ultimately be looking for ‘doctorateness’ and whether the thesis is sufficiently conceptually rich. 🙂

Steve said he’d get back to me with whether I’d be able to finish early, which he did the next day. It turns out that, officially, the earliest I’m allowed to submit is January 2011. I could apply for a concession to submit early, but given Durham’s ‘glacial bureaucracy’ and the second point in the list above, it’s unlikely that would be successful. I’ve decided that to have ‘finished’ by December 2010 and to submit on 1 January 2011 is fine by me!

Final thoughts

Other things we mentioned that I need to consider:

  • How would you go about ‘teaching’ digital literacy? (Foucault & power, etc.) Mention the ‘digital divide’ etc. and equality in society.
  • Make sure show aware of Prensky, ‘digital natives’ etc. – so ‘immersed’ and it is ‘second nature’. Two-edged sword – miss the ‘critical’ element. Intentionality? (step back, underlying conceptions – HTML, programming, etc.)
  • At the moment, people can still refuse to engage in digital world, and still function. Link to power and authority? Teenagers can’t do this? Bridging technologies (chequebook and Switch card)
  • Need to define ‘digital’ (definitions often aren’t bounded) – more than text (images, other media, etc.)

Very finally, we discussed the rather problematic issue of how I should submit my thesis. Given the nature of my thesis it would be more than a little anachronistic to only submit it in a printed paper format. Therefore we’re going to look at ways which would satisfy the university as well as ourselves (and the wider community) for the final thesis. Steve’s thoughts are that the appendices at the very least should be some sort of website. Given issues relating to ‘digital permanence’ Steve pointed out the very useful website snapshot-archiving tool iCyte which I’ll be exploring in more depth…

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