In the last chapter of my hopefully-soon-to-be-complete Ed.D. thesis I’m applying a model of digital literacy to games-based learning in an attempt to see if there’s scope for a ‘digital games literacy’.
One of the leading lights in this field is the Australian academic James Paul Gee who, thankfully, writes in an extremely incisive and lucid fashion. In Are Video Games Good For Learning? he produces this wonderful passage about the ‘just-in-time’ learning and scaffolding provided by good video games (my emphasis):
Video games are external (i.e., not mental) simulations of worlds or problem spaces in which the player must prepare for action and the accomplishment of goals from a particular perspective. Gamers learn to see the world of each different game in a quite different way. But in each case they must learn to see the virtual world in terms of how it will afford the sorts of actions they (where “they” means a melding of themselves and their virtual character) need to take to accomplish their goals (to win in the short and long run).
While commercial video games often offer worlds in which players prepare for the actions of soldiers or thieves, the question arises as to whether other types of games could let players prepare for action from different perspectives or identities such as a particular type of scientist, political activist, or global citizen, for instance. If games could play this role, they would speak to one of the deeper problems of education, the fact that many students who can pass paper and pencil tests cannot actually apply their knowledge to real problem-solving (Gardner, 1991).
Good video games distribute intelligence (Brown, Collins & Dugid, 1989) between a real-world person and artificially intelligent virtual characters. For example, in Full Spectrum Warrior, the player uses the buttons on the controller to give orders to two squads of soldiers (the game SWAT 4 is also a great equivalent example here). The instruction manual that comes with the game makes it clear from the outset that players, in order to play the game successfully, must take on the values, identities, and ways of thinking of a professional soldier: “Everything about your squad,” the manual explains, “is the result of careful planning and years of experience on the battlefield. Respect that experience, soldier, since it’s what will keep your soldiers alive” (p. 2). In the game, that experience—the skills and knowledge of professional military expertise—is distributed between the virtual soldiers and the real-world player. The soldiers in the player’s squads have been trained in movement formations; the role of the player is to select the best position for them on the field. The virtual characters (the soldiers) know part of the task (various movement formations) and the player must come to know another part (when and where to engage in such formations). This kind of distribution holds for every aspect of professional military knowledge in the game.
By distributing knowledge and skills this way—between the virtual characters (smart tools) and the real-world player—the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual soldiers. This offloads some of the cognitive burden from the learner, placing it in smart tools that can do more than the learner is currently capable of doing by him or herself. It allows the player to begin to act, with some degree of effectiveness, before being really competent: “performance before competence.” The player thereby eventually comes to gain competence through trial, error, and feedback, not by wading through a lot of text before being able to engage in activity.
Such distribution also allows players to internalize not only the knowledge and skills of a professional (a professional soldier in this case), but also the concomitant values (“doctrine” as the military says) that shape and explain how and why that knowledge is developed and applied in the world. This suggests an important question for research: whether and how other “professions”—scientists, doctors, government officials, urban planners, political activists (Shaffer, 2004)—could be modeled and distributed in this fashion as a deep form of value-laden learning (and, in turn, learners could compare and contrast different value systems as they play different games).
Shaffer’s (2004; 2005) “epistemic games” already give us a good indication that even young learners, through video games embedded inside a well-organized curriculum, can be inducted into professional practices as a form of value-laden deep learning that transfers to school-based skills and conceptual understandings. However, much work remains to be done here in making the case that the knowledge, skills, and values that good games offer transfer to school and, in particular, to students’ learning in traditional content areas.
(Gee, J.P. (2006) ‘Are Video Games Good For Learning?’ (Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 03/2006, p.174-6)
Increasingly, I’m realising that there are unsaid words that precede almost any statement involving a connotative element. What are those words?
Let me tell you a story…
Given the potential for almost any word in any language to be used metaphorically, storytelling is happening pretty much most of the time.
So here’s my story.
Digital literacy, despite the heated debate going on behind the relevant page at Wikipedia isn’t computer literacy. It isn’t media literacy either. And it’s certainly not e-safety.
Including e-safety as an input, as a constituent part of, digital literacy makes no sense at all. It’s like defining traditional (print) literacy by describing behaviour in libraries (or what you can do with a book). What lies behind this approach is the assumption that a collection of competencies makes a literacy, which isn’t true: a collection of competencies is a skillset. And one only has to refer to Searle’s Chinese Room argument to see the fallacy behind equating a skillset with any form of understanding.
No, e-safety is an output of digital literacy, something that flows out of it once an individual is fluent. Fluency is the top end of the literacy scale – and fluency is the result of practice. To divorce e-safety from practice, to conceive it as something that can be taught in isolation is ill-advised and, ultimately, futile.
So stop building your creepy treehouses, and start thinking holistically about literacy and education more generally. Avoid digital Taylorism, and start debating about what it is we’re trying to do here. If we’re truly trying to protect and educate our young people we need to know what it is we’re protecting them from, why we’re doing it, and the best ways of going about it.
Scaring people with statistics and horror stories perpetuates the wrong type of responses (e.g. blocking) and avoids the problem. Let’s tackle it head-on. Let’s start focusing on digital literacy.
Is the word ‘literacy’ useful? Literacy is a state which has traditionally been ascribed (or not) to individuals. Is the state that writers on ‘New Literacies’ espouse simply a case of encoding and decoding texts? It would appear from the above, given the references to ‘identity’ and ‘community’ that perhaps we have moved beyond literacy. An idea to be explored in what follows is that a digital version of the concept of Flow may be a Pragmatically-useful concept to use in place of the seemingly never-ending ‘umbrella terms’ outlined earlier.
In his seminal book of the same name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced flow as being at the root of true happiness, successful learning experiences and what can loosely be termed ‘intrinsic motivation’. In a state of flow, individuals undergo what Csikszentmihalyi refers to as ‘the autotelic experience’:
The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward… Most things we do are neither purely autotelic nor purely exotelic (as we shall call activities done for external reasons only), but are a combination of the two. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 2008:67)
Focusing on the term ‘literacy’ and attempting to shoehorn 21st-century behaviours, technologies and attitudes into the concept could lead to anachronism. Literacy, as we have seen, is predicated upon technologies used to encode and decode texts. The reason Traditional Literacy was such a stable concept with a definite meaning in the minds of most people was due to it built upon a technology that did not change significantly in hundreds of years. It is the pace of innovation in new technologies that has caused a problem for conceptions of literacy.
If instead of a ‘top-down’ approach to literacy (‘x, y and z consitute literate activities’) a ‘bottom-up’ approach was considered this could potentially side-step the difficulty caused by the pace of technological change. The reason that concepts such as ‘digital literacy’, ‘cyberliteracy’, ‘new literacies’ and the like have been proposed is to give a name to a socially useful state to which individuals can aspire. Given that most proponents of such terms would agree that their thinking is built upon Traditional Literacy, it would seem that using ‘literacy’ as an epithet for these extra skills, abilities and behaviours is unnecessary.
What may be more useful in a Pragmatic sense may be to assume Traditional Literacy and combine these skills with digital tools and sociocultural practices that lead to socially and educationally-useful outcomes. Instead of viewing a ‘digital’ version of literacy as a pinnacle to be achieved or surmounted, the focus would be on Flow. When dealing with digital ‘texts’ (loosely defined) this would result in Digital Flow depending upon literacy. Literacy becomes a staging-post on the journey instead of the destination itself:
Mass education – as developed in the 19th century – served to instil a minimum standard through drill-and-practice within the realm of Traditional Literacy. Some have likened this to a factory model with Taylorism as its guiding principles. This is slightly unfair, given the constraints, social problems and political landscape of the time, but does throw light upon how debates surrounding the purpose of education have shifted. It is no longer enough to ensure that young people leave school with the ‘3Rs’. Indeed, under initiatives such as Ofsted’s Every Child Matters (ECM), wider concerns such as children’s (mental) health, and their ability to achieve ‘economic wellbeing’ have necessarily been brought to the forefront of planning and curriculum design in UK schools.
Despite this, skills and abilities in almost every area of the curriculum are, somewhat indiscriminately, designated ‘literacies’. Courses are designed around concepts as ‘health literacy’, ‘financial literacy’ and ’emotional literacy’ as a shorthand to convey action relating to the ECM agenda. It may be more productive and instructive to replace this ‘scatter-gun’ approach to literacy with a more far-reaching commitment towards helping young people develop their ‘autotelic self’:
A person with an autotelic self learns to make choices… without much fuss and the minimum of panic… As soon as the goals and challenges define a system of action, they in turn suggest the skills necessary to operate within it… And to develop skills, one needs to pay attention to the results of one’s actions – to monitor the feedback… One of the basic differences between a person with an autotelic self and one without it is that the former knows that it is she who has chosen whatever goal she is pusuing. What she does is not random, nor is it the result of outside determining forces. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 2008:209)
Instead of having to continually widen and redefine literacy to cater for new technologies and methods of social interaction, a focus on Digital Flow would be consistent with the idea of ‘liquid modernity’. It would serve to end the idea of a ‘life-project’ being something external to the individual and encourage individuals to embrace short-term, pragmatic strategies when approaching digital technologies (Martin, 2008:153). Digital Flow is focused on the creative act, as opposed to never-ending definitions of literacy predicated on the consumption of media or physical goods. As a result, Digital Flow can be considered the ‘umbrella-term’ for which theorists have been grasping and over which they have been arguing. Moreover, it can be seen as a coherent target at which to aim educational experiences.
Some would reject the idea of a dialectic when it comes to literacy. Instead of encouraging an interplay of old and new conceptions of literacy, they would espouse a clear demarcation. New technologies call for new literacies – and perhaps, epistemologies:
[A] seemingly increasing proportion of what people do and seek within practices mediated by new technologies – particularly computing and communications technologies – has nothing directly to do with true and established rules, procedures and standards for knowing. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:242-3)
There are three main reasons why “what people do and seek within practices mediated by new technologies… [have] nothing to do with true and established… standards for knowing.” The first relates to the personality traits of people involved. A common internet saying is that “the geeks will inherit the earth” – certainly they are the early adopters, the first to figure out ways of using new technologies. By the time technologies reach the mainstream they are far from neutral having been tried, tested, accepted, rejected or accommodated by a ‘digital elite’. Skewed epistemologies can lead to skewed literacies.
The second reason why practices surround technology-mediated practices are different is down to identity. Digital interaction removes a layer of physicality from interactions. This can be liberating in the case of, for example, a burns victim or someone otherwise disabled or disfigured. It can also be ‘dangerous’ as individuals are often able to remain anonymous in online interactions. Physical interactions are bounded by time and space in a way that digital interactions are not. Whilst asynchronous interactions have been possible since the first marks were made in an effort to communicate, digital interactions go beyond what is possible with the book. In the latter, it is difficult to accidentally take something out of context as one has to deal with the book in its entirety. With digital interactions, however, it is much easier to misrepresent and distort the truth, even accidentally. Interactions and texts tend to be shorter online. Thus, in the fight for the soundbite distortion can take place.
Third, practices mediated by technology are different because of the element of community involved. Traditional Literacy, is predicated upon a scarcity model of education and exclusionist principles. An example of the latter is a near-synonym of ‘literate’ as ‘cultured’ (in the sense of having a knowledge of ‘high’ culture). Communities on this model are based on the who rather than the what – identity rather than interest. With technology-mediated practices, even ‘niche’ interests can be catered for.
These, then, are three reasons new technologies can be linked to new epistemologies. Whether new epistemologies necessarily lead to new literacies is an interesting question. As Erstad notes in quoting Wertsch (1998:43), all interaction is mediated and involves social and psychological processes. This is transformed when technology is used to do the communicating:
Regardless of the particular case or the genetic domain involved, the general point is that the introduction of a new mediational means creates a kind of imbalance in the systemic organization of mediated action, an imbalance that sets off changes in other elements such as the agent and changes in mediated action in general. (quoted in Erstad, 2008:180-1)
It is at this point that Lankshear and Knobel’s demarcation between ‘conceptual’ and ‘standardized operational’ definitions of literacy becomes useful. Conceptual definitions are what primarily interest us here – the extension of literacy’s “semantic reach” as opposed to ‘operationalizing’ what is involved in digital literacy and “advanc[ing] these as a standard for general adoption” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008:2,3).
Instead of coining terms and giving existing concepts a ‘digital twist’, those who reject the dialectical approach propose ‘New Literacies’. They would reject Gilster’s (1997:230) assertion that ‘digital literacy is the logical extension of literacy itself, just as hypertext is an extension of the traditional reading experience.’ Instead, New Literacies theorists such as Lankshear and Knobel believe that ‘the more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship…, the more we should regard it as a ‘new’ literacy” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:60).
In an attempt to flesh out this conception of New Literacies, however, the authors tie themselves up in knots, so to speak. By seeking to explain what is ‘new’ about New Literacies, Lankshear and Knobel make reference to ‘a certain kind of technical stuff – digitality’ (2006:93) which seems to somewhat beg the question. What is ‘digitality’? They do concede, however, that ‘having new technical stuff is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a new literacy. It might amount to a digitized way of doing ‘the same old same old’.’ The authors attempt to deal with the difficulty of New Literacies involving identity by demarcating between ‘Literacy’ and ‘literacy’. Their demarcation is worth quoting in full (my emphasis):
Literacy, with a ‘big L’ refers to making meaning in ways that are tied directly to life and to being in the world (c.f. Freire 1972, Street 1984). That is, whenever we use language, we are making some sort of significant or socially recognizable ‘move’ that is inextricably tied to someone bringing into being or realizing some element or aspect of their world. This means that literacy, with a ‘small l’, describes the actual process of reading, writing, viewing, listening, manipulating images and sound, etc., making connections between different ideas, and using words and symbols that are part of these larger, more embodied Literacy practices. In short, this distinction explicitly recognizes that L/literacy is always about reading and writing something, and that this something is always part of a large pattern of being in the world (Gee, et al. 1996). And, because there are multiple ways of being in the world, then we can say that there are multiple L/literacies. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:233)
Earlier, Lankshear and Knobel moved from new technologies to new epistemologies, here they move from ontology to literacy. It is not clear, however, that such a move can be sustained. What do the authors mean by stating that ‘there are multiple ways of being in the world’? What constitutes a difference in these ways of being? Does each ‘way of being’ map onto a ‘literacy’? The authors claim that to be ‘ontologically new’ means to ‘consist of a different kind of ‘stuff’ from conventional literacies’ reflective of ‘larger changes in technology, institutions, media and the economy… and so on’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:23-4).
This is so vague as to be effectively meaningless.
Whatever literacy is, it [has] something to do with reading. And reading is always reading something. Furthermore, if one has not understood [made meaning from] what one has read then one has not read it. So reading is always reading something with understanding. (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996:1-2, quoted in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008a:2)
The idea of literacy being ‘reading something with understanding’ is what shall be referred to in the followin as ‘Traditional Literacy’. This conception of literacy is ‘Static’ and ‘Psychological’, being focused on the individual’s relationship, and interaction with, physical objects. The book comprises what Lankshear & Knobel call the ‘text paradigm’ – something over and above the simple act of reading with understanding:
[D]uring the age of print the book… shaped conceptions of layout, it was the pinnacle of textual authority, and it played a central role in organizing practices and routines in major social institutions. The book mediated social relations of control and power… Textual forms and formats were relatively stable and were ‘policed’ to ensure conformity. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:52)
This perpetuation of hegemonic power through Traditional Literacy has complicated debates surrounding, and the evolution of the term, ‘literacy’. Not only is ‘reading with understanding’ bound up with politics, but with religion (due to the actions of the Catholic church) and identity. Literacy is predicated upon a scarcity model, ‘with literacy comprising a key instrumentality for unlocking advantage and status through achievements at levels wilfully preserved for the few’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:62). Schools and educational institutions, as Bigum notes, are mainly consumers of knowledge (Bigum, 2002:135, quoted in Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:188). Meaning is made centrally and then disseminated to such institutions and individuals as can access the encoded texts used to convey ideas, thoughts, concepts and processes. These encoded texts consist of, ‘ texts that have been “frozen” or “captured” in ways that free them from their immediate context and origin of production, such that they are “(trans)portable” and exist independently of the presence of human beings as bearers of the text.’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008b:257)
Recently, with the dawn of first mass media, and then mass participation with the rise of the internet, conceptions of literacy have had to change. This has put a strain on the Static, Pyschological conceptions implicit in Traditional Literacy. As a result, what ‘literacy’ means (and therefore what it means to be ‘literate’) has changed. As Lanham (1995:198, quoted in Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:21-2) puts it, literacy ‘has extended its semantic reach from meaning ‘the ability to read and write’ to now meaning ‘the ability to understand information however presented.’ There is no doubt that ‘literacy’ has become a fuzzy concept that gives the semblance of being straightforward, but contains layers of complexity. Erstad, for example, comments on this fuzziness, noting that it is apparent ‘especially among those educators and researchers whose professional interests are tied to how literacy is understood’ (Erstad, 2008:181-2).
Given these difficulties, some commentators (such as Sven Birkets in The Gutenberg Elegies) yearn to return to Traditional Literacy, due to the decline in the reading of books, ‘with the attendant effects of the loss of deep thinking, the erosion of language, and the flattening of historical perspective’ (Taylor & Ward, 1998:13). Birkets, like Barton (1994) and Kress (1997) argues that literacy ‘should be confined to the realm of writing (Buckingham, 2008:75). Rejecting the dichotomy, Tyner (1998) sought to reconceptualize the debate in terms of ‘tool literacies’ (the skills necessary to be able to use a technology) and ‘literacies of representation’ (the knowledge required to take advantage of a technology) (cited by Erstad, 2008:183). This middle ground gave space for multiple conceptions of literacy to flourish.
Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, these ‘new literacies’ smacked of old wine in new bottles:
It does not follow from the fact that so-called new technologies are being used in literacy education that new literacies are being engaged with. Still less does it imply that learners are developing, critiquing, analysing, or even become technologically proficient with new literacies. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:54-5)
The problem surrounding new(er) literacies in schools is fourfold. First, there is the very real problem of educators not having grown up in an environment where such digital skills – both Tyner’s ‘tool literacies’ and ‘literacies of representation’ were necessary. The age-old problem of “it was good enough for me when I was at school” applies as much to educators as it does to parents. If a problem cannot be seen it and/or understood then cannot be dealt with effectively. Second, is educators’ willingness to ascribe problems to factors other than their own weakness, ignorance or fear of change. If the mere presence of, for example, an interactive whiteboard in a classroom does not lead to increased examination performance, then the technology is blamed. Following on from this, and third, is what is known as the ‘deep grammar’ of schooling:
School learning is for school; school as it has always been. The burgeoning take-up of new technologies simply gives us our latest ‘fix’ on this phenomenon. It is the ‘truth’ that underpins many current claims that school learning is at odds with authentic ways of learning to be in the world, and with social practice beyond the school gates… It is precisely this ‘deep grammar’ of schooling that cuts schools off from the new (technological) literacies and associated subjectivities that Bill Green and Chris Bigum (1993) say educators are compelled to attend to. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:57)
‘School’ then becomes a self-perpetuating institution, cut off from new(er) conceptions and forms of literacy. Given that this is the place where most people (are supposed to) learn, this constitutes a problem.
Finally, there is the problem of ‘knowledgeable peers’ when it comes to new forms of literacies in schools. Top-down, hierarchical, Traditional Literacy is perpetuated within schools because it is so difficult to come up with other models. Students ‘seek to enter new communities… but do not yet have the knowledge necessary to act as “knowledgeable peers” in the community conversation’ (Taylor & Ward, 1998:18). Educators seeking to perpetuate Traditional Literacy often exploit the difference between students ‘tool literacy’ on the one-hand (their technical ability) and their understanding of, and proficiency in ‘literacies of representation’ (making use of these abilities for a purpose). Reference is therefore made to ‘e-safety’, ‘e-learning’ and ‘e-portfolios’, slippery terms that sound important and which serve to reinforce a traditional teacher-led model of education. As Bruffee (1973:644, quoted by Taylor & Ward, 1998:18) points out, ‘pooling the resources that a group of peers brings with them to the task may make accessible the normal discourse of the new community they together hope to enter.’
The barrier, in this case, is the traditional school classroom and the view that Traditional Literacy is a necessary and sufficient conditional requirement for entry into such communities.
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:
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?
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).
Whether he considers ‘affinity spaces’ to comprise of networks or groups of people (or whether they are ‘third spaces’)?
Which modern-day Pragmatist thinkers should I be reading in preparation for writing my methodology section? (e.g. Richard Rorty)
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’:
Similar messages communicated in different ways (e.g. film/poem, text/graph)
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:
Digital literacy is not useful term to use as consensus cannot be reached.
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! 😀
Since coming into existence humans have had to communicate with one another. One method of doing so is through the written word, but this technology has come rather late in the evolution of communication. One way to represent this evolution would be with the aid of the following diagram:
Writing in the age of mass communication and mass media, but before the dawn of the internet, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan were not disadvantaged by discussions of the latter clouding their thinking about previous technologies. It is from a synthesis of their thinking that the above diagram was created. As Ong (1982:7) explains, language is, and has been, by far the most prevalent method of communication. Language is ‘overwhelmingly oral’:
Indeed, language is so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands of languages – possibly tens of thousands – spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literate, and most have never been written at all. Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature (Edmonson 1971, pp.323, 332).
This is because, unlike writing, orality is ‘natural’ (Ong, 1982:81) and primary (‘Oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality’ Ong, 1982:8) The process of writing and becoming ‘literate’ actually restructures consciousness, believes Ong (‘Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does’, Ong, 1982:77). McLuhan goes a step further, calling writing ‘the technology of individualism’ (McLuhan, 1962:158) and reminds us that the typographic world is in its relative infancy. Although the written word as we know it did exist between the fifth century B.C. and the fifteenth century A.D. this was not ‘mass communication’ and was restricted to the elite few (McLuhan, 1962:74). It was the typographic world, as opposed to the scribal, manuscript-driven world previously in existence that led to the context-free nature of literacy, claims Ong (1982:77) – ‘ written discourse has been detached from its author.’ Whereas in an oral world things could be forgotten, stances changed and context necessarily understood, this changed fundamentally with the dawn of the typographic world. A difficulty arises when, at a distance from the author – and out of context – an individual attempts to separate the signifier from the thing signified:
Writing makes ‘words’ appear similar to things because we think of words as the visible marks signaling words to decoders: we can see and touch such inscribed ‘words’ in texts and books. Written words are residue. Oral tradition has no such residue or deposit. (Ong, 1982:11)
This ‘residue or deposit’ affects ideas surrounding human consciousness and identity. It gives human beings, both individually and corporately, additional ‘powers’ – especially in relation to ‘memory’ and communication over large distances. ‘Conversations’ (in a loose sense of the term) can happen asynchronously over many years and great distances. As Ong reminds us, there is no way to completely refute a written text as ‘after absolutely total and devestating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before’ (Ong, 1982:78).
The move to ‘new literacies’ came at the end of the 20th century. Ong (1982:3) would explain this through a move into what he would call ‘secondary orality’, whilst McLuhan (1962:253) speaks of the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ coming to an end in the era of electronic communication. Although McLuhan (1962:1) points out that we are approximately as far into the ‘electric era’ as the Elizabethans were into the ‘typographical age’, and that they had to justify books in education in a similar way that we have to justify technology (McLuhan, 1962:145), he explains that the two changes are nevertheless very different:
Our extended senses, tools, technologies, through the ages, have been closed systems incapable of interplay or collective awareness. Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious… As long as our technologies were as slow as the wheel or the alphabet or money, the fact that they were separate, closed systems was socially and psychically supportable. This is not true now when sight and sound and movement are simultaneous and global in extent. (McLuhan, 1962:5)
It is this less individualised, more ‘networked’ world that has led to the discussion of ‘new literacies’. The stimulus to traditional conceptions of literacy, says Ong (1982:85) was urbanization, partly because it led to the need and desire for record keeping. The stimulus to newer conceptions of literacy, including ‘digital literacy’ is, therefore, perhaps the metaphorical ‘proximity’ of our relationships despite geographical distance. Whereas traditional literacy was predicated upon technologies that promoted individualism, newer conceptions of literacy depend upon access, collaboration and sharing.
Just as post-Gutenberg civilizations struggled with the technology of the typographic world (and associated problems surrounding grammar/personal access to previously difficult-to-obtain works) so we struggle faced with a world where, quite literally, anybody can publish to a global audience cheaply and without delay. We are in a world where new literacies are required or, as Ong (1982:133-4) puts it, a world of ‘secondary orality’:
The electronic transformation of verbal expression has both deepened the commitment of the word to space initiated by writing and intensified by print and has brough consciousness to a new age of secondary orality.
This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas (Ong 1971, pp.284-303; 1977, pp.16-49, 305-41). But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well.
The reference to the self-consciousness of this ‘secondary orality’ is important, but also causes problems. As LaFitte put its (quoted in McLuhan, 1962:155), ‘because we are their makers, we have too often deluded ourselves into believing that we knew all there was to know about machines.’ Unfortunately, we do not. ‘In the electronic age which succeeds the typographic and mechanical era of the past five hundred years, we encounter new shapes and structures of human interdependence and of expressions which are “oral” in form even when the components of the situation may be non-verbal’ (McLuhan, 1962:3) We want to call this knowledge of machines and new shapes and structures a form of literacy. The question is whether ‘new literacies’ are ‘literacies’ in any real sense of the word.
Although I’m progressing well with my Ed.D. thesis, I do feel sometimes as though what I’m reading is adding epicycles on top of epicycles, rather than cutting (Copernicus-like) to the chase. Take, for example, definitions of digital literacy. For me to be able to deal with these systematically and critically, I need a bedrock definition of literacy upon which to base any criticism. What follows is a draft section of my thesis that aims to deal with just that. The quotation in bold towards the end is the definition of ‘literacy’ I’m thinking of using to base the rest of my thesis upon. :-p
Claire Bélisle (in Martin, 2008:156) identifies three conceptions in the evolution of our concept of ‘literacy’. First is the model favoured by UNESCO, the functional model. This conceives of literacy as the ‘mastery of simple cognitive and practical skills.’ Most theorists in the literature – and especially those who espouse ‘new literacies’ – would see this as a definition of competence, not literacy. Thus, ‘digital competence’ could involve a basic understanding of how the internet works (e.g. hyperlinks) and having the practical skills to be able to navigate it.
The second model in the evolution of literacy cited by Bélisle is the socio-cultural practice model. This model takes as its basis that ‘the concept of literacy is only meaningful in terms of its social context and that to be literate is to have access to cultural, economic and political structures of society’ (quoted in Martin, 2008:156). This seems to make sense: that individuals have to be literate for something. A rejoinder might be that we could conceive of someone who was ‘literate’ marooned in the middle of nowhere. However, as Lemke reminds 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, 2002:36-7)
Within the digital sphere, the socio-cultural practice model makes sense. It deals specifically with the disenfranchisement felt by those not literate within a given domain. The model can also explain how hegemonic power can be grasped or maintained by those with access to literacy tools. A good example of the latter would be the Catholic church in Europe in the medieval period. The model is also a useful call-to-arms for those concerned about liberty and equality in society – in other words, social justice. It provides an arena for discourse about the importance of literacy in living a productive and rewarding life.
There are, however, problems with the socio-cultural practice model of literacy. It deals with literacy as an ideology more than as a practical skill. As a result, the constructive, creative and critical elements of the 8 C’s are only alluded to whilst the cultural, communicative and civic aspects are focused upon. The cognitive element is not addressed, nor is the link between literacy and confidence. The socio-cultural practice model of literacy does not, therefore, have sufficient explanatory power to be used as the bedrock for new literacies.
The final stage in the evolution of literacy, according to Bélisle, is the intellectual empowerment model. This deals with the link between new tools and new ways of thinking:
Literacy not only provides means and skills to deal with written texts and numbers within specific cultural and ideological contexts, but it brings a profound enrichment and eventually entails a transformation of human thinking capacities. This intellectual empowerment happens whenever mankind endows itself with new cognitive tools, such as writing, or with new technical instruments, such as those that digital technology has made possible. (Bélisle, 2006: 54-55, quoted in Martin, 2008:156)
This ‘meta-level’ view of literacy certainly deals with the cognitive element of the 8C’s as well as, to some extent, the critical and communicative aspects. The cultural and creative elements are inferred, but no specific mention is given to the civic, constructive and confidence aspects of literacy.
If these conceptions of literacy have indeed ‘evolved’ from one another then they are additive; they build upon one another. If this is the case, then the functional, socio-cultural practice, and intellectual empowerment models of literacy together deal with the earlier-derived 8C’s. Putting them together, we would get a definition of literacy similar to the following:
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).
This definition would seem to satisfy the 8C’s outlined earlier, dealing with the cultural, communicative, cognitive, civic, constructive, creative, confidence, and critical aspects of literacy.
Now that a working definition of literacy has been arrived at based on the literature, we need to test it against the four conditions outlined earlier that would make for a valid definition of digital literacy. This is because digital literacy is necessarily predicated upon a bedrock definition of ‘literacy’. To recap:
‘Cash value’ – it must be useful and must be able to make a difference in practice.
Retrospective nature – it must include past (and future) instances of ‘digitally-literate practice.’
Metaphorical nature – its position to other metaphorical terms in the literate practices arena must be explained adequately.
Digital element – advocates must be able to explain to what the ‘digital’ part of ‘digital literacy’ pertains.
The definition of literacy has the potential to deal adequately with the ‘digital’ part of ‘digital literacy’ in that it acknowledges that changes can take place as a result of new ‘cognitive tools’ and ‘technical instruments’. Likewise, the definition can deal with both past and future instances of literate practices, as it mentions the ‘transformation in human thinking capacities’ that literacy brings about. Given that literacy is altered by the aforementioned cognitive tools and technical instruments, changes in the latter produce changes in the former. The metaphorical aspect of literacy is dealt with through its explanation that ‘the concept of literacy is only meaningful in terms of its social context’. The ‘cash value’ of the definition could be seen to be a call to action due to literacy involving gaining ‘access to cultural economic and political structures of society’ .
Lemke, J.L. (2002) ‘Becoming the Village: Education Across Lives’ (in G. Wells & G. Claxton (eds.) Learning for Life in the 21st Century)
Martin, A. (2008) ‘Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society”‘ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M., Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices)
You can read my thesis as it progresses here and view notes I’ve made on my wiki here. 😀
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.
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.’
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.’
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:
I want to finish before I’m 30 (December 2010)
It’s costing £thousands every year.
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!
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…