Tag: ambiguity (page 1 of 2)

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

Wednesday Wisdom #33: Uncertainty

Wednesday Wisdom #33: Uncertainty

Umair Haque wrote a post entitled Ambiguity and the Art of Meaning recently. While I don’t agree with the main thrust of the post, I thought this bit was great.

The whole set of Wednesday Wisdom images can be found in my Creative Commons-licensed Flickr set.

Image CC BY Patrik Jones

Volcanoes and ambiguity

We all have mental models and ways we approach the world. Some of these are more conscious and visual than others. Here’s a diagram one I used in The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies that, at this point in time, is pretty much part of my ‘operating system’.


Recently, I’ve been thinking it makes more sense to think of ambiguity in terms of geographical strata, perhaps tied to the metaphor of a volcano.

I need a better diagram, but you get the idea…

The lowest strata represents Generative ambiguity. Here, words are used as symbols for ideas that are very hard to express; an individual gives a name to a nebulous collection of ideas or thoughts. They struggle to make this approach make sense to others.

The middle strata represents Creative ambiguity. This is where one part of an idea is fixed, but the other part has a lot of freedom of movement. A good example of this would be appending ‘digital’ or ‘e-‘ to existing ideas – such as ‘e-books’ or ‘digital literacy’. Others can begin to see what the person is getting at.

The erupting volcano represents Productive ambiguity. This is where the real work is done at scale. Concepts can be productively ambiguous through straight metaphor, or by mass (media) convergence on a particular term. It resonates with many people.

The area on the surface represents dead metaphors. These are concepts that have become clichés. They don’t do any productive work and are usually over-used. They don’t particularly mean anything any more.

Does this make any sense? It does for me and helps me make sense of my information environment. However, it’s perhaps it’s not ‘productively ambiguous’ enough for others yet! 😉

Main image CC BY-SA Cai Tjeenk Willink

Ambiguity, OER & Open Badges (#OER13 keynote)

I’m presenting at the OER13 conference today. My slides should appear above and you can also access them by clicking through here. I’ll update this post when the recording becomes available.

I’d like to thank Paul Martin for his feedback on an earlier version of the slides. 🙂

Weeknote 11/2013

This week I’ve been:

  • Tidying up my article on ambiguity. I find myself referencing a 2011 article I wrote with my Ed.D. thesis supervisor Steve Higgins fairly regularly. It’s now available at http://dougbelshaw.com/ambiguity. Comments welcome!
  • Talking to companies about Open Badges. This week included a large media organisation, the people behind one of my favourite video games of all times, MOOC providers, and people who make stuff for railways. Badges for everything!
  • Confused about meeting times. It’s that time of the year when the US enters Daylight Savings. Everything will be up in the air again when we do likewise in the UK at the end of March!
  • Updating the Web Literacy standard blog. If you haven’t already subscribed, it’s here: http://weblitstd.tumblr.com.
  • Submitting titles and abstracts. The organisers of both OER13 and the PELeCON conferences both wanted more details on my upcoming keynotes. One of them will have a Wild West theme and the other one will feature more animated GIFs than you can stick a shake at. 😉
  • Travelling to Chicago. It was a fairly uneventful trip – oh, apart from the four and a half hours I spent in the immigration queue. Tired Doug is/was tired.
  • Attending DML2013. I’ve been in Chicago since Wednesday night for the Digital Media and Learning Conference (where we launched v1.0 of Open Badges). It’s as much a chance to catch up with my colleagues as attend the (excellent) sessions. I’ve written about it on my conference blog.

Next week I’m back home on Monday and in London on Thursday (just for the day) to talk to the games studio alluded to above.

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.

Nobody knows what digital literacy is.

A request for information series

I’m currently in the latter stages of my Ed.D. thesis focusing on the concept of ‘digital literacy’. It’s been a long haul – 6 years (spanning 4 jobs, 2 supervisors, and the birth of 2 children) working part-time in a quickly-moving digital world and, to be honest, I’m rather glad it’s coming to an end.

One of the reasons I’m glad that I’ll finish my doctoral thesis this year is that it’s clear just how much we need some alignment and operationalisation around the term ‘digital literacy’ rather than the endless squabbles, petty niggling and swamping of agendas by large organizations. I outlined these problems in 2009 and, unfortunately, they haven’t improved any. The fact that we’re still debating what is meant by the traditional term ‘literacy’ says a lot about how far we’re able to get on with operationalising notions of ‘digital literacy’ in the current climate. I’ll be explaining my notion notion of a ‘trajectory of ambiguity’ in an upcoming journal article: discussions of ‘digital literacy’, I believe, have become mired in endless debates half-way through this trajectory.

During my studies I’ve read countless reports and watched a myriad of presentations claiming (or at least assuming) some kind of authority when explaining what constitutes digital literacy. Many of these elide at least two agendas – usually e-safety or media literacy – with almost all of them missing the main point: digital literacy isn’t the ‘aftermath’ of literacy at all.

We don’t need to be told what digital literacy is, we need to discuss, build consensus, start aligning around a reasonable definition. Granted, there might be a difference in emphasis here and there, but only through such alignment will we able to start operationalising the concept of ‘digital literacy’ and use it for the benefit of learners.

And ulimately, after all the academic churning and grandstanding, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Image CC BY-NC Pulpulox !!!

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!

You don’t ‘build’ better teachers.

Teachers are not robots. You can’t add new modules, reprogram them, or expect them to work regardless of context. These seem to be facts completely alien to Elizabeth Green, writing in an article for the New York Times which appeared in March 2010. It genuinely surprised me that she’d actually set foot in a classroom, never mind being a ‘fellow of education’ at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Whatever that means.

It’s far from a logically-structured article. But an article doesn’t have to be logical to be dangerous – the Daily Mail is proof of that. To summarise, Green seems to be advocating, through a clumsy juxtaposition of quotations and roundabout argumentation that:

  1. Teaching is a science that can be taught.
  2. We need ‘better’ teachers (and the only way to measure this is through student test scores)
  3. Doug Lemov is awesome because he published a book highlighting basic teaching techniques.
  4. Money is probably the most important factor in recruiting better teachers.
  5. Classroom management and specialist knowledge are key to teaching.

Number five is obvious and the other four are obviously wrong: teaching is more art than science, teaching and learning are about much more than examinations, Lemov is just another author, and no-one goes into (nor would go into) teaching for the money.

Simply writing a misguided article isn’t dangerous. It’s dangerous when the author confuses and conflates several different issues to create an ambiguity in the sixth way defined by William Empson:

An ambiguity of the sixth type occurs when a statement says nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant statements; so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another. (Seven Types of Ambiguity, p.176)

By neglecting to state explicitly what makes a ‘good’ teacher, Green fosters an ambiguity that, by the end of the article, she seemingly wants you to resolve by believing in the following howlers:

  • She criticises “proponents of No Child Left Behind” for seeing “standardised testing as the solution” but later quotes with approval findings that show “the top 5 percent of teachers” being able to “impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one year, as judged by standardised tests.” (my emphasis)
  • By constructing a narrative (through the juxtaposition of third-party quotations) the article seems to show that paying teachers more leads to an improved ‘calibre’ of teacher. Measured by? “Standardised test scores”. These quotations, it becomes evident by the end of the article, merely mask the author’s opinion.
  • Green snipes at constructivism, “a theory of learning that emphasises the importance of students’ taking ownership of their own work above all else”. No it doesn’t. Do your homework.
  • She assumes that there is one way to be a ‘good’ teacher, that this is unchanging, and that it is independent of context. Quoting with approval Lemov’s assertion that classroom management is as “learnable as playing a guitar”, Green turns on the hyperbole (in what quickly turns into a puff-piece for Lemov and his book) with phrases such as “he pointed to the screen, their eyes raced after his finger.”

Usually I would ignore this as just another article written by another just another American in just another country. However, it would seem that the even-more-dangerous Michael Gove, a man against whom I tactically voted, is determined to bring the education system in the UK to its knees by a slavish aping of the worst parts of the American education system.

I despair.

Digital literacy: a function of poor design?

You’ll notice that I haven’t written a blog post about the new Apple iPad. There’s two reasons for that. First of all I haven’t got one (yet), and the second is that what would I have to say that hasn’t already been said? The iPad has been included in almost every presentation I’ve seen over the last few months as an example of outstanding design. The tech community have marvelled at the fact that people – such as the very young and the very old – are able to use the device intuitively. People haven’t had to have training to do things they and others find useful.

There are many definitions of digital literacy, the subject of my Ed.D. thesis. As I have discussed before, almost all of them are ambiguous in one of seven ways. Some of them are ambiguous due to semantics, some due to scope, and some because of scale. And some, quite frankly, as a result of a combination of two or three of the above. Many definitions of digital literacy conflate skills with knowledge, wrapping it all up in a Prensky-esque assertion that it is almost the preserve of ‘digital natives’.

This, of course, is nonsense. There is no reason why the mere use of a digital tool should require a separate literacy or, indeed, anything over-and-above the basic skills that primary schools should (and do) teach. It’s my belief that poor usability and bad interface design can be mitigated by the learning of procedural skills early in life. This in the eyes of older people who can remember life before that technology is assumed to be some kind of meta-cognition and a higher level skill that it actually is.

My favourite example of this is the ‘digital camera’. You don’t hear people of school age using this term. It’s an anachronism. Who uses film cameras in nowadays other than enthusiasts? The concept of taking a picture and it immediately appearing on a screen isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, my son happily snapping away as a 2 year-old and learning to frame shots as a 3 year-old.

It’s all about dominant paradigms. If you grew up taking photographs in the send-your-film-away-to-get-prints era, it takes a conceptual shift to move to digital photography. All the while you’re looking for the ‘equivalent’ of something in the digital system from the film system. It doesn’t quite work like that. It’s functionally similar but qualitatively different.

So, to my mind, much – but by no means all – of what we refer to as digital literacy consists of procedural skills. And the learning of such skills can be aided a great deal through effective interface design. For the second time this week I’m going to recommend you look at Chris Messina’s work – this time his rather useful Flickr collection of web usability stuff.

Digital literacy is a concept past its sell-by date. As I argue in an upcoming journal article, it’s lost pretty much any sense of creative ambiguity it may have once had. It also makes little sense from a procedural skills point of view.

We just need to design better user interfaces and nudge people into making more informed decisions. Enough of this talk of ‘digital literacy’! :-p

Image CC BY raneko