Tag: Pragmatism (page 1 of 2)

What I talk about when I talk about user outcomes – #6 – Open Educational Resources

My three main areas of research are Open Educational Resources (OER), Mobile Learning and Digital Literacies. I have no problem talking and writing about the latter of these – it is, after all, the subject of a thesis I’ve been writing for the last few years. Mobile learning, too, presents no great issue: I used mobile devices in the classroom as a teacher and Director of e-Learning. Moreover, because it’s a relatively new area there’s only a few ‘experts’ to which to defer.

OER is a different kettle of fish. Not only is it a increasingly-mature area of study but it’s a political minefield. Coupled to the fact that it’s very much a Higher Education-focused area of enquiry, I haven’t ventured many opinions publicly. However, as I continue to develop the OER infoKit with consultant Lou McGill I feel that I do have something to say about OER.

So here goes… (and this is my opinion, not my employer’s, etc.)

The landscape is changing

Recently I’ve been going back through the key posts in the OER debate curated by Lou McGill on the OER infoKit here. It makes for fascinating reading as, not only are there some very intelligent people arguing against each other (always interesting!) but it’s evident that OER is a battleground not over educational practice but ideology.

I’m a big fan of the philosophy of Pragmatism, as espoused by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and developed by luminaries such as John Dewey, W.V. Quine and Richard Rorty. My rule of thumb is that things worth pursuing should be ‘good in the way of belief’. In fact, it’s probably worth wheeling out the 10 guiding statements about what Pragmatism means from my thesis:

  1. Pragmatism is an anti-skeptical endeavour.
  2. Dividing lines between theory and action are arbitrary.
  3. Truth is conditional and dependent upon a community of inquirers.
  4. Human experience of the external world is ineffable.
  5. Pragmatism is method of ‘un-thinking’ rather than providing an explicit framework.
  6. A universally-held set of beliefs is impossible.
  7. Any statement can be accommodated as ‘true’ by amending a belief system to a greater or lesser extent.
  8. Knowledge is a matter of social practice rather than mirroring nature.
  9. We ‘create’ rather than ‘discover’ truth.
  10. New concepts are often understood through metaphor, enter common usage, and then ‘die off into literalness’.

So, what has this got to do with ‘user outcomes’? I think there’s three points I’d like to make about OER in this regard.

1. There’s nothing special about OER

Stripped back to basics, there’s nothing magical or especially revolutionary about Open Educational Resources. An educator allows others to use the materials they prepared. This has been happening ever since people have been able to share things.

The revolutionary thing comes in the co-ordination of the system around such sharing. The first massive massive boon to this has been the widespread adoption of Creative Commons licenses. These allow resource creators to state explicitly the conditions under which others can use what they have created. The second, which is perhaps where organizations such as JISC have been instrumental, is the expansion of open-access repositories like Jorum. Instead of merely unco-ordinated and fragmented institutional and personal repositories, there is a growing expectation that a copy of OERs will be deposited in such repositories.

As Mike Caulfield puts it, people do things out of habit because of established frameworks. He uses the simile of recipes:

If a recipe had to explain everything about cooking — what it was to beat an egg, what it meant to mix something, how broiling differed from sauteeing — well, no one would write recipes, and no one would use them. Recipes exist in a system of cooking that is relatively narrowly defined — the framework is in place, it just needs this thing called the recipe to work.

If we want people to share OERs then we need to make it easy for them to do so. But more than that, it needs to become just another thing that’s expected of educators.

2. There are no meaningful metrics for OERs

Not everything that can be measured should be measured; the pig doesn’t get any fatter by weighing it. If sharing and openly-licensing resources is a good thing that educators should do, then it needs to be an expected part of professional practice.

As I have often said with metrics such as numbers of followers on Twitter or winning awards, true influence is a fickle beast. Quantity is not quality. So what if one resource has been used 100,000 times and another one only 14? Unless you know in what circumstances and for what purposes it was used in each case, the task is meaningless. And even then the parts can be more than the sum – just look at the REF.

David Kernohan, JISC programme manager for OER, gets this I think:

The point is that OER release is adding to and improving the quality of the sum of human understanding, in an even more profound way than a research paper or press release. A good OER is written to support deep learning and this is the advantage that academia, which is unique in grappling with these issues every day, can bring.

An OER might never find itself being reused, but the process by which it is created is inherently valuable. It’s about mindsets, not metrics.

3. It’s not about OER, it’s about Openness

I can feel the vitriol that this comment will no doubt engender, but just how many people banging on about OER have taught in a classroom environment? And I don’t mean the occasional webinar or guest lecture, I mean preparing lessons day-in, day-out over years. It makes a difference to the way you approach the issue.

Scroll back up and read statements 2, 6 and 8 again. Whilst academic ideas and debates are important, the point – to paraphrase Marx – is not to describe the world but to change it. Waiting for everyone to agree about OERs before getting on and doing something about changing the system is a fool’s errand. No amount of posturing changes practice.

What’s much more important is to change the mindsets of educators so that OER release and reuse is an outflow of something they want to do. Thankfully, I think that Amber Thomas (another JISC programme manager) understands this:

Its worth saying… that of course open content isn’t just about the content … because it is also a manifestation of a way of working … and the benefits of the open way of working are:

  • knowing that content will be public is an incentive to improve the content
  • collaborative development improves the work: the many eyes principle
  • the best thing to do with your data/idea will be thought of by someone else
  • if the public have paid, the public should benefit
  • clarity of licensing makes re-use easier
  • free at the point of use can save £cash and time
  • it can invite commercial exploitation downstream
  • visibility increases reputation, brand awareness, recruitment

It would be remiss of me not to reference the excellent critiques of OER by Joss Winn and Richard Hall at this point. Read them, they’re eye-opening and staggeringly well-written.

Conclusion

Sadly, what I think is almost entirely lacking in the debate (apart perhaps from in Amber’s commentary) is an understanding that OER is merely a supply-side term for something that, let’s face it, educators should be doing anyway. Joss Winn’s qualms noted, it still seems manifestly obvious that if educators are funded by the taxpayer then what they do should be for the public good. And to my mind, that includes being as open as possible. I’m not particularly bothered if OERs are good for marketing, good for career progression or good for the REF. They’re good in the way of belief.

Bonus: check out posts tagged OER at my work blog.

Image CC BY-NC henrikj

Pragmatism as a candidate methodology

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog


To recap, a methodology suitable for this thesis must be:

  1. Recognised and respected as sound.
  2. Well-suited to the research area and aims of the thesis.
  3. Allow for results that will make a difference to a research area.

So far we have rejected Cybermethodology, Grounded Theory, Critical Theory and Post-Structuralism. The next candidate methodology to consider is Pragmatism. We shall find that this methodology is especially suited to the current thesis as it fits the three criteria set out above.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although it was Charles Sanders Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represents have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

Pragmatism has evolved over the last century and a half and therefore has many definitions. We shall explore the nuanced views of Pragmatist philosophers such as Peirce, Quine and Rorty in the next section, but start here with a definition by the populariser of Pragmatism, William James:

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the beliefs were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (James, 1995, p.77)

In this sense, it is already clear that Pragmatism is well-suited as a methodology that fits the third of the criteria specified above. Pragmatism is focused on a ‘difference’ making a difference in practice – with truth being defined by James elsewhere what is “good in the way of belief” (James, 1995, p.30). Pragmatists reject the Correspondence Theory of truth, which holds that a statement is true if and only if it accurately describes (i.e. corresponds with), that being described in the external world. This causes a problem in terms of verification; how can we know whether our ideas are true? Pragmatists answer this question by reference to a ‘community of inquirers’ rather than individuals. Truth becomes what is “expedient in our thinking” (James, 1995, p.86) and dependent upon discussion and debate within society:

The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge… Meanwhile we have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood. (James, 1995, p.86)

We shall explore in the next section how Pragmatism has been developed by philosophers such as Dewey, Quine, Davidson and Rorty but, for now, we must examine whether the core of Pragmatism constitutes a sufficient basis – and meets the set criteria – as a methodology for this thesis. Having established already that the third criterion is satisfied by Pragmatism, we turn to the first and second criteria to see if they, too, can be satisfied.

Pragmatism is a philosophy that, in its present form, is around 150 years old but with roots that go back further. Several research journals a dedicated to the field and three of the best-known philosophers of the 20th century, William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, were all Pragmatists. It is a coherent approach taught in modules in high ranking and respected universities. Academic papers and books based on the Pragmatist method contribute to the world’s body of knowledge every day. It is safe to say, therefore, that Pragmatism can be deemed an approach that is ‘recognised and respected as sound’.

As for the second criterion, I would argue that Pragmatism is well-suited to postmodern world, particularly suited to research in the digital sphere, and especially suited to research on Digital and New Literacies. The reasons for this suitability are threefold. First, Pragmatism is what John Dewey calls a ‘practical fallibilism’ (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.13). This uncertainty is not because of a gap between mind and matter but “stems from the fact that we can never be certain that the patterns of action that we have developed in the past will be appropriate for the problems that we will encounter in the future” (ibid.). In terms of Digital and New Literacies, we cannot be sure what kinds of ‘texts’ (and therefore what kind of literacy practices) will be necessary in the future. As a result, although we may do our best to make provision for what we see on the horizon, Pragmatists cannot be certain that past patterns of action will suit future problems.

Second, Pragmatism does not constitute a “recipe for educational research and educational researchers” being “as much a way of un-thinking certain false dichotomies, certain assumptions, certain traditional practices and ways of doing things” (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.114). Given that the central question of this thesis is “What are digital literacies?” it seems particularly appropriate to explicitly analyse the boundaries of literacy practices as well as question dichotomies, assumptions and traditional practices.

Third, Pragmatism does not aim to close the book and end the story by reference to definitions and postulating static theories. Instead, theories have a ‘cash-value’ and are tools:

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as ‘God’ or ‘the Absolute’] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. (James, 1995, p.21)

It is us who impose categories on the world, argues the Pragmatist, and ‘truth’ is a process of assimilation – not of discovery.

Pragmatism, therefore, is a philosophy that provides a sound methodology on which to base this thesis. In the next section I shall give an overview of the development of Pragmatism as a theory in order to define what shall be referred thereon as a form of shorthand as ‘The Pragmatic approach’ or ‘Pragmatism’.


  • Biesta, G.J.J. & Burbules, N.C. (2003) Pragmatism and Educational Research (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD)
  • Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: A Contemporary Reader (Routledge: London)
  • James, W. (1995) Pragmatism (Dover: London)

Social media, backlash and the nature of reality.

I Am Uneasy

There is no such thing as reality. There are stories that we tell one another, narratives that gain more or less traction and memetic phrases which help organise our experiences. As soon as such stories become less useful in the way of belief we can (and should) jettison them for ones that work better and that help us make sense of such experiences. That’s the Pragmatic philosophy to which I subscribe.

During times of fiscal instability and uncertainty societies naturally gravitate towards conservatism. This is evident both in the financial conservatism of public sector cuts but also in social conservatism – right down to retro designs in advertising. The 24-hour news industry feeds and catalyses this.

One thing I’ve noticed recently is, as Martin Weller puts it, the beginnings of a ‘backlash’ against newer (and particularly social) technologies:

The signs are that this year will be one marked by something of a backlash against social media/ web 2.0/ any internet stuff. I don’t mean from the traditional media, who’ve always been suspicious, but from people who know what they’re talking about and have been advocates. In other words, increasingly ‘us lot’ will be declaring that this stuff is peripheral, uncool, over- rated, etc.

I’d go further than this. There are always those (who call themselves) ‘thought-leaders’ who aim to be disruptive or, at least, contrarian who are always looking for something that will get them attention. All it takes is for someone to say that they were wrong about technology xyz for a feeding-frenzy of “I told you so” to take place. One competing story amongst many starts to appear ‘legitimate’.

It would seem incomprehensible to my 16 year-old self that I have absolutely no idea who is currently Number 1 in the singles chart. Last Saturday was the first time this season that I’ve watched the football programme ‘Match of the Day’. When it comes down to it all, reality is the coherence-through-storytelling that we paint as a veneer upon shared experience. To my mind, social media is one of the best ways I know to engage in such narratives.

I shall not be participating in the backlash.

Image CC BY-NC-SA daveknapik

Performativity, fetishism & the aristocracy of everyone.

I’m currently writing the methodology section of my Ed.D. thesis. The (non-?)structure I’m using for the whole thing is the philosophy of Pragmatism, which would take at least the rest of this post to describe adequately. Suffice to say that it’s a philosophy of action that rejects absolute, objective points of view.

Within the methodology section I have, of course, got to explain why I’m not using other theories as a framework so I’ve been reading up on Critical Theory and Post-structuralism. It seems to me that whilst they all have their appeal and elements of overlap, there’s important differences between them.

It’s always best for me to visualise things in order to understand them, hence the Venn diagram below (click to enlarge):

Venn diagram: Pragmatism, Critical Theory & Post-structuralism

I’d love to hear any feedback: people too often see infographics and visualizations as stone tablets from heaven, whereas this is very much a work in progress! :-p

Pragmatism, dead metaphors & the myth of the echo chamber.

Building upon Karl Fisch’s post from July about the myth of the echo chamber, this post reflects my thinking towards engaging and building consensus amongst colleagues as a result of studies towards my Ed.D. thesis.

There has been much discussion – in fact ever since I can remember – about the problem of ‘echo chambers’ in any given community. As in:

That’s all very well, but aren’t we perpetuating an echo chamber here?

You’re preaching to the choir; we need to get out there and spread the gospel.

And so on.

Whilst I understand the sentiment, it’s always felt a little odd to me that the two activities of community-building and inquiry on the one hand, and bringing others into that community on the other, should be seen as separate. I’ve been looking recently at the work of a number of Pragmatist philosophers which has helped clarify my thinking in this area.

So that people actually read this post rather than dismiss it as an abstract philosophical argument, I’m going to boil down what I want to say into the following three points:

1. Engagement and acceptance

If you engage with another community you lend some legitimacy to their programme. As Stanley Fish puts it:

It is acceptable not because everyone accepts it but because those who do not are now obliged to argue against it. (Fish, 1980:257)

Sometimes refusing to engage and accept someone else’s point of view is the best idea. In the context currently under consideration, that means ploughing on with the ‘echo chamber’ until others want to join it.

2. Dead metaphors

The vocabulary of a community is that of dead metaphors. So, for example, the metaphor of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ may have stimulated thinking in 2001 for a few years, but this metaphor is dead and lacks utility to those in the community to which it originally engaged.

As Richard Rorty puts it, citing Davidson, it is like a coral reef:

“Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and foil for new metaphors.” (Rorty, 1989:118)

Metaphors are used when the words and phrases within our vocabularies are not rich enough to capture something of value. ‘Memes’ often have an element of metaphor, therefore, as they correspond to something compelling yet previously-unexpressed.

3. Language games

It’s true of almost every community that one or two, or even a whole subset of, individuals get caught up in semantics. As Ian Hacking puts it, deciding whether something is a ‘truth-value candidate’ depends upon whether a sentence has a fixed place in a ‘language game’:

This is because it is a sentence which one cannot confirm or disconfirm, argue for or against. One can only savor it or spit it out. But this is not to say that it may not, in time, become a truth-value candidate. If it is savored rather than spat out, the sentence may be repeated, caught up, bandied about. Then it will gradually require a habitual use, a familiar place in the language game. (Rorty, 1989:119-120)

This brings us back to the idea of a ‘dead metaphor’ – something which I think will eventually happen to the concept of ‘digital literacy’. Echo chambers are thus important for pinning down a metaphor so it may do some work.

Conclusion

Echo chambers are good if, and only if, they exist for consensus building. This is, to paraphrase Charles Sanders Peirce, not a short-term project but one that tends towards the ‘end of enquiry’. That is to say the project involves grabbing a metaphor and killing it through use in order to feed ongoing discussion and community-building.

Or something like that. :-p

References

  • Fish, S. (1980) ‘What makes an interpretation acceptable?’ (in Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: a contemporary reader, p.265)
  • Rorty, R. (1989) ‘The Contingency of Language’ (in Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: a contemporary reader)

Methodology for Pragmatists

I had an extremely productive Bank Holiday Monday, writing c.5,000 words of the Methodology section for my Ed.D. thesis. The following is an extract that explains where the philosophy of Pragmatism originated.

The essence of Pragmatism is that there exists no standpoint from which to judge the objective truth or falsity of a statement or belief:

There is no absolute standpoint, and there is no exemption from standpoints; there are only and always relative standpoints… I can in reality think of no absolute whatever; I always tacitly place myself upon the scene as the observer who is beholding things in their relation to himself. (Lovejoy, 1930:81, quoted in Mounce, 1997:159)

Instead of being able to distinguish between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities in the world, therefore, we are left with only secondary qualities of which we can speak. The grass is not objectively green, it is only green to me. Pragmatism is a philosophy concerned with action and the practical application of meaning. It is concerned with the development of capacities and habits that allow for human beings to be successful and productive in the world. As we shall see, Pragmatist philosophers have little patience with definitions for their own sake.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represented have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

And later in the same essay:

Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder; the steps are actions, the new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.

Peirce and James did formalised this way of thinking in such a way that it provided a philosophical approach to problem-solving. Peirce’s project was anti-Cartesian in approach and focus, whereas James was concerned with the concept of ‘truth’ – especially as it related to religious belief. In addition, they both discussed the skepticism to which Emerson alludes, rejecting it as debilitating. James in particular thought that cultivating a habit of doubt in relation to truth statements was indicative of an attitude rather than an intellectual position (Mounce, 1997:88). Skepticism is the result of confining one simply to the intellectual and theoretical sphere, as dangerous as confining one solely to the non-rational.

Instead, James argued that we should allow our ‘passional nature’ to help us decide upon the truth or falsity of statements and propositions:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must decide an option between two propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question’ is itself a passional decision – just like deciding yes and no – and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.(James, 1918:108)

Like the historian, we gain certainty through commitment, by leaving certain areas unquestioned. Certainty both in history and science comes through being ‘imperfectly theoretical’ – i.e. Being theoretical up to a point. As Mounce (1997:99) puts it, “It is only in philosophy, where commitment is at a minimum, that scepticism flourishes without limit.”

As a result, endless definitions do not serve to advance our understanding of the world and move closer towards truth. ‘Bachelor’ is a oft-cited example of a definition that means something precise. However, an alien to our planet would have to understand the institution of marriage, which cannot be easily explained in a sentence, before grasping the meaning of ‘bachelor’. Instead of definitions, then, it is the commitment to a statement, proposition or belief that helps us make our ideas clear. To use another example from Mounce, there is no sharp demarcation between day and night but we still find it useful to use these terms (Mounce, 1997:104).

It is precisely the fact that Pragmatism allows for error and chance that makes it a practical philosophy. Instead of committing ourselves to omniscience when using the words ‘know’ and ‘certainty’ we use them as practical instruments to go about our business in the world. I, for example, know that I am to attend a conference in a foreign country soon. I can express this certainty despite my attendance depending upon my continued health, an absence of airline strikes, and various geological phenomena not taking place.

For Pragmatists, and James in particular, truth becomes close to utility – what is ‘good in the way of belief’. James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is a defence of this position. We cannot base beliefs on a theoretical conception of the world because this would, in effect, be a ‘view from nowhere’. Pragmatism, it will be remembered, is a philosophy that rejects the existence of an objective standpoint from which to ascertain the truth or falsity of a statement or belief. Reasoning is allied to experience rather than replacing it.

James was the original populariser of Pragmatism, the one who explained it to the intelligentsia of the early 20th century. However, it is important to briefly sketch the origins of Pragmatism in Peirce to understand the true aim of the overall project. Peirce rejected Cartesian dualism along with the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal world. To Peirce and later Pragmatists, what Kant termed the noumenal world – the unknowable world ‘as it exists in itself’ – is a fiction. Likewise, Peirce rejected Descartes’ recommendation to start from a position of scepticism:

Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you should begin by doubting everything, and says that there is no one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were as ‘easy as lying’… But, in truth, there is but one state from which you find yourself at the time you do ‘set out’ – a state of mind in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you can not divert yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubting has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all reality out of you, recognise, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt in the least. (Peirce, 1935(V) para 416:278, quoted in Mounce, 1997:21)

Meaning can only be grasped through practice, not through armchair philosophising, for Peirce and other Pragmatists. The ‘Pragmatic Maxim’ as formulated by Peirce states that a conception does not differ from another conception (either in logical effects or importance) other than in the way it could conceivably modify our practical conduct (Mounce, 1997:33).

It is this Pragmatic Maxim that I shall be using to test concepts surrounding ‘digital literacy’ in my Ed.D. thesis! 🙂

Bibliography

Designing for Creative Ambiguity

Design (Wikipedia’s definition):

Design is the planning that lays the basis for the making of every object or system. It can be used both as a noun and as a verb and, in a broader way, it means applied arts and engineering.

Creative Ambiguity (my definition):

Creative Ambiguity is brought about when an intangible idea, process or way of thinking is defined in an imprecise way. It is a delicately-balanced conceptual space in which the very nature of the ambiguity leads to creative outputs.

So if Creative Ambiguity is a good thing, how do we go about planning and designing for it? I suggest 3 guidelines:

  1. Avoid using precise language if your understanding of a idea, process or way of thinking is imprecise.
  2. View other people’s opinions in an and/and/and way rather than either/or. Embrace the greyness!
  3. When coming across a new idea, process or way of thinking, find out if it has been previously defined. If not, come up with a new term and throw it out there for people to comment upon.

According to Pragmatism, things don’t have to ‘exist’ they just need to be ‘good in the way of belief’. Is Creative Ambiguity good in the way of belief for you?

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! 😀

Affinity spaces, secondary orality & digital epistemologies.


sfondo spaces azzurro

CC BY-SA misstitina86 @ Flickr

I’ve been trying to squeeze in my Ed.D. research when I can recently, sometimes rising well before the sun does! I’m at the stage (seedougbelshaw.com/thesis) where I’m nearing the end of my first run through my Literature Review. I want to have it pretty much finished when I have a video chat with my supervisor next week.

This post is to summarize what I’ve been learning (and attempting to synthesize) about so-called ‘affinity spaces’, ‘secondary orality’ and ‘digital epistemologies’. Much of the following comes from, or was thinking provoked by, Lankshear and Knobel’s New Literacies (2006). My notes on the books and articles mentioned, as ever, are available at dougbelshaw.com/wiki. 🙂


Literacy is all about communication. Literacy therefore is all about creating or reading texts for a particular purpose. This doesn’t change when we move into the realm of ‘digital literac(ies)’. It was Gee (2004) who came up with notion of ‘affinity spaces’. These spaces are characterized by the following elements (taken from this useful post):

  • A common endeavor is primary, not aspects such as race, class, gender, or disability that can often hinder communication.
  • Newbies, masters, and everyone else share common space
  • Some portals are strong generators (whatever gives the space some content)
  • Content organization is transformed by interactional organization
  • Both intensive and extensive knowledge are encouraged
  • Both individual and distributed knowledge are encouraged
  • Dispersed knowledge is encouraged
  • Tacit knowledge is encouraged and honored
  • Many different forms and routes to participation
  • Many different routes to status
  • Leadership is porous and leaders are resources

In other words, an affinity space is somewhere where informal learning takes place and which ‘bridge[s] barriers of age, race, socio-economic status, and educational level, and allow[s] each user to participate as he/she is able’ (Gee, 2005). They are hotbeds of literate practices.

Some – e.g. Davies (2006) – discuss the ‘Third Space’ that websites such as Flickr allow to flourish:

Third Space … constitutes the discursive conditions … that ensure that … even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rhetoricized and read anew. (Bhabha, 1994 – quoted in Davies, 2006)

The example that is used time and again in the literature is that of Fan Fiction as the genre is a relatively stable one. Other affinity spaces tend to be characterised by memes. Knobel (2006) mentions that, indeed, affinity spaces are ‘perfect conduits’ for memes and that the former ‘can be fixed or fleeting and are always thoroughly relational in nature’. Lankshear & Knobel (2006:236) quote Gee as saying the following about affinity spaces:

[Affinity spaces are] specially designed spaces (physical and virtual) constructed to resource people [who are] tied together… by a share dinterest or endeavor… [For example, the] many many websites and publications devoted to [the video game, Rise of Nations] create a social space in which people can, to any degree they wish, small or large, affiliate with others to share knowledge and gain knowledge that is distributed and dispersed across many different people, places, Internet sites and modalities (magazines, chat rooms, guides, recordings).

It is clear even from the short introduction above that affinity are at the other end of the scale from the traditional classroom. They are based on interest rather than compulsion, the idea that everyone participating is of equal status rather than one person being in control, and emerging ‘rules’ rather than those imposed top-down.

The driving question behind my Ed.D. thesis is What does it mean to be digitally literate? Lankshear & Knobel (2006:243) make the point that definitions of digital literacy make little or no reference to memes, creativity or ‘digital playfulness’:

[T]he phenomenon of online memes challenges the growing dominance of ‘digital literacy’ conceptions of what it means to be a competent user of new technologies and networks… Digital literacy mindsets do not pay sufficient attention to the importance of social relations in developing, refining, remixing and sharing ideas in fecund and replicable ways, or to the important role that memes play in developing culture and creativity. (my emphasis)

The authors proceed to discuss Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, comparing books with ‘networked texts’. Digital literacy, of course, is not necessary to read the former – but it’s perhaps the inherently social element of the latter that sets it apart from print-based classical conceptions of literacy.

It is this idea of ‘text plus something else’ that will lead me to bring in the work of Walter Ong to my thesis. Ong (1982, 2002:3) talks of ‘secondary orality’ – i.e. a set of social practices that resemble purely oral cultures but which are predicated upon technologies surrounding literacy:

The electronic age is also an age of ‘secondary orality’, the orality of telephones, radio, and television, which depends on writing and print for its existence.

Ong’s point (summarized well at Wikipedia) is that oral cultures are additive in a way that solely print-based cultures are not. Writing before the dawn of the internet, Ong rather presciently explained that oral cultures allow ideas to be revisited in different ways that books and articles often do not. Positions are less fixed. As Douglas (1998:160) puts it in relation to the internet, ‘when you spin an argument in hypertext, you can choose to represent a world that is strictly ‘either/or’ or one that is ‘and/and/and’.’ Chris Lott made an interesting presentation entitled Closing the Gutenberg Parenthesis related to this recently.

All of which takes us neatly to the question of digital epistemologies. I need to check out A New Literacies Sampler before actually writing this section of my thesis, but I’m fairly sure where I’m going in abstract. Epistemology is, of course, philosophical questions about the nature and scope of knowledge. Digital epistemologies, therefore, refer to how knowledge is different in a digital world. This obviously has an impact and a bearing upon notions of T/truth. Truth (with a capital ‘T’) is received – and often ‘revealed’ – truths about the world that cannot (or should not) be questioned. Education has often been like this, leading to a transmission model of education.

On the other hand, truth (with a small ‘t’) is provisional knowledge, tentative conclusions based upon available evidence. This is the Pragmatist position, a philosophical methodology I’m employing in my thesis. A lot of what happens online – in fact most of what happens online is concerned with truth with a small ‘t’. As Lankshear & Knobel (2006:242-3) put it:

[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 with established rules, procedures and standards for knowing. That is most emphatically not to say that these matters are no longer important. Rather, it is to draw attention to the fact that today’s learners are increasingly recruited to other values and priorities.

Given the nature of the above, it seems out of place to tie everything together into a neat conclusion at the end of this post. Suffice to say, therefore, that memes and their impact on affinity spaces, the concept of ‘secondary orality’ in respect to the internet, and the links between literacy, truth and epistemology will certainly be featuring towards the end of my literature review.

I’ve still quite a bit of work left to do on this, so do feel free to point me towards any related and useful blog posts, journal articles books, etc.! :-p

Bibliography

  • Davies, J. (2006) Affinities and Beyond! Developing Ways of Seeing in Online Spaces (E-Learning, 3:2, 2006)
  • Douglas, J.J. (1998) ‘Will the most reflexive relativist please stand up: hypertext, argument and relativism’ (in I. Snyder (ed.), Page to Screen, London, 1998)
  • Knobel, M. (2006) Memes and Affinity Spaces: some implications for policy and digital divides in education (E-Learning, 3:3, 2006)
  • Knobel, M. & Lankshear, C. (2006) New Literacies: Everyday Practices & Classroom Learning
  • Ong, W. (1982, 2002) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word

My Ed.D. thesis: introduction and a ?

Having found readers of this blog very helpful in the past – especially when it came to my most recent job description – I thought I’d ask for your help again. The input of all my readers to what follows, but especially those of a philosophical persuasion like Stephen Downes and George Siemens, would be fantastic.

What follows is a rough, not-long-enough first draft of introduction to my Ed.D. thesis. Trouble is, my interests have led to a slightly different focus from that outlined in my thesis proposal; I need a new working title, please! :-p

The structure of my Ed.D. thesis is going to be something like:

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature review (including discussion of ‘literacy’, ‘visual literacy‘, ‘media literacy‘, etc. and how these terms developed)
  3. Worldviews on ‘digital literacy’ (how various education systems around the world discuss the area)
  4. ‘Digital literacy’ in the UK (analysis of stakeholder policies and discussions of the area)
  5. ‘Digital literacy’ & educational institutions (suggestions of ways in which schools & universities can promote the skills congruent with the area)
  6. Conclusion

So please, read this rough outline to my introduction and I’d love it if you could think of a title. I’m currently thinking of something as simple as: What is ‘Digital Literacy’? A Pragmatic Investigation.

(Rough) introduction to Ed.D. thesis

“All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which, ipso facto, is apprehended by the performer as that pattern.” (Berger & Luckmann, 2002:42)

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.

All human communication must begin in this manner. We train toddlers and young children to be able to understand the world around them by allowing them to use the constructs we ourselves use. These constructs we largely inherited from our parents, and they from their forebears. There comes a need, however, in each generation to create and agree upon new ways of understanding the world. This can be as a result of natural changes in the environment, new (disruptive) technologies, or some other way – usually involving politics or economics – that alter human relationships.

This thesis shall discuss the concept of ‘digital literacy’. It shall be my contention that, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, “some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist.” (Pinker, 2002:202) As we shall see, although a consensus is growing around the term ‘digital literacy’, other competing ways of describing a similar conceptual space have emerged. This is partly due to a lack of clarity over the seemingly-straightforward term, ‘literacy’.

When dealing with conceptual spaces, metaphor and new ways of communicating experience and sensation, it makes little sense to talk of ‘reality’ and, indeed, ‘truth‘. Without wishing here to go into too much phenomenological and philosophical depth, it would seem clear that descriptions and talk of ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competence’, ‘digital fluency’ and so on are of a different order than ‘sky’, ‘chair’, and ‘lamp’. There is a qualitative difference: the first seeks to be a lens in the way the second does not. It is the lens of ‘digital literacy’ that this thesis shall discuss, the aim being to seek to describe the changing landscape and terminology surrounding such conceptions.

To avoid the quagmire of correspondence theories of truth and slips into solipsism, then, this thesis will employ a pragmatic methodology. This way of approaching the world was first suggested in the 19th century by C.S. Peirce and developed by William James. Although there are disagreements within the Pragmatist movement, James perhaps has been the clearest exponent of classical Pragmatist philosophy. He argues that there is no ‘end to enquiry’ and that we “must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of [our] experience.” (James, 1995:21)

The above meshes with the phenomenological account presented earlier; if we are socially-constructing what we term ‘reality’, then changes in human relationships will alter our conceptual ‘realities’ and vice-versa. Pragmatists, without needing to hold onto a correspondence theory of truth do, however, reject the notion that the conceptual and practical realms are completely divorced. As James (1995:20) puts it,

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

With regard to this thesis, therefore, discussions that either make no or could make no difference in practice shall either be only mentioned in passing or disregarded entirely. Although a non-empirical thesis, what comes hereafter is intended to be of use and be able to inform policy-makers.

So, what do YOU think? Title suggestions, please!

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