Tag: Research (page 2 of 9)

A useful way to categorise educational technologies.

On p.189 of Lankshear & Knobel’s New Literacies: Everyday Practices & Classroom Learning (2006) they cite the work of Naismith, et al. who suggest plotting commonly-used educational technologies onto two axes: static-portable and shared-personal. What they neglect to include is a graphic, which would have made a lot more sense.

Let me help them:

Educational technology classified

Interestingly, schools seem to be fine with technology that fits into the bottom-left space, but not with the top-right. Why? :-s

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


Image by gagilas @ Flickr

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

Concept maps and ‘umbrella terms’

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

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

Intentionality and trajectories

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

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

Language issues

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

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

Thesis structure

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

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

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

The nature of literacy

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

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

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

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

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

Finishing early

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

Other things we mentioned that I need to consider:

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

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

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Telling a new story.


98/365 by tim caynes @ Flickr

Oh, how the media do spin things! Teachers want ‘four-day week’ screams the headline from first of all the Daily Mail and then, more unexpectedly, the Daily Telegraph. Those within the profession know that this is, of course, nothing like the reality – and this is indeed revealed in the second paragraph of the Telegraph article (in the actual newspaper):

[Teachers] want the equivalent of a four-day teaching week to free up more time to mark and prepare children’s work.

How on earth can that be a bad thing? And notice that little word that was omitted from the headline? ‘Teaching’. We want to not teach so much in order that we can spend more time preparing high-quality lessons and have time to assess work properly. We don’t want a ‘four-day week’; we just want the proportion of time we spend in school to be allocated differently.

This, of course, highlights the problem facing anybody or group of people who want to change education in any real sense:  the nature of the conservative media. Whilst happy to bemoan declining standards in schools and the ‘factory’ nature of the state system, anything which might lead to progress is attacked as ‘unworkable’, ‘expensive’, or ‘dangerous’.

Take another piece of ‘research’ that also appears in today’s Daily Telegraph under the headline Facebook students ‘underachieve’ (I quote this in full):

Students who spend their time on Facebook are underachieving in exams, research suggests.

A study by Ohio State University has found that students who spend their time on the social networking website may devote as little as one hour per week to their academic work. It found that 65 per cent of Facebook users accessed their account daily, usually checking it several times to see if they had received new messages.

However, students who used Facebook had a “significantly” lower grade point average – the US marking system – than those who did not use the site.

On the face of it, a factual report and one that could be used to bolster stances taken by parents and those generally of a more reactionary nature during dinner party-table discussions. Looking at the Ohio State University’s overview of the study, the tentative nature of the conclusions become apparent:

The researchers surveyed 219 students at Ohio State, including 102 undergraduate students and 117 graduate students.  Of the participants, 148 said they had a Facebook account.

The study found that 85 percent of undergraduates were Facebook users, while only 52 percent of graduate students had accounts.

Karpinski emphasized that the results don’t necessarily mean that Facebook use leads to lower grades.

“There may be other factors involved, such as personality traits, that link Facebook use and lower grades,” she said.

“It may be that if it wasn’t for Facebook, some students would still find other ways to avoid studying, and would still get lower grades.  But perhaps the lower GPAs could actually be because students are spending too much time socializing online.”

Now that paints a fuller picture, doesn’t it? And what about the potential benefits? What about the fact that many more undergraduates are using it than graduates? What about harnessing the potential of a space students are already spending much of their time?

And then comes the darling of the middle classes, the neuroscientist who’s never scared to tell us that new equals bad. Professor Susan Greenfield is against computer games, social networking, and now the teaching of things like Twitter to Primary school children. It’s hard to feel that she’s not somewhat out of touch and setting up ‘straw man’ arguments:

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying games. But don’t you think it’s strange that people are engaging in activities that have no purpose? Spending their precious time and money sitting in front of a screen in a make-believe world when they could be out there having love affairs and doing things in the real world?

“And that’s what worries me. That we are rearing a generation of kids that are in danger of becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate, hedonists with the attention span of a gnat. Because they spend the majority of their time in front of a computer screen. A whole generation that can’t interact because their skills are limited to inhabiting a fantasy world on a screen.”

Never mind that ways of communicating change and evolve, that she’s as inarticulate in that world as she’s claiming the gamers to be in hers.

I think we need to tell a new story. A story about how technology can be used to bring people together. A story about realistic 21st century education. A story based on experts deciding upon and then implementing what’s best for children. A story, I suppose, not told by journalists in the traditional media.

Conversations about (new) literacies

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m (still!) studying towards my Ed.D. on the subject of ‘digital literacies’. The subject crops up in various networks of which I’m part from time-to-time, not least via my Twitter network.

Twitter only allows 140 characters which can be a little limiting sometimes and tweets are hard to collate and archive. As a result, I decided we needed a old-skool forum. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you:



It’s powered by bbPress, the sibling of the excellent WordPress (which powers this blog). It was super-easy to setup and there’s already some first-class debate and conversation going on. Head on over and take part! 😀

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

My Ed.D. thesis concept map on ‘Digital Literacy’

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

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

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

‘Flow’ and the waste of free time

flow_bookHaving twice got the classic work Flow: the psychology of optimal experience out of Durham University Library and having it twice recalled before I got a chance to read it, I decided to just go ahead and buy the book. It’s a very famous work, cited in almost everything I read – despite the fact that the author, Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, has an almost-unpronounceable surname…

Upon its arrival from Amazon, I eagerly opened and flicked through Flow. Just as sometimes you’re sitting in an audience and you feel that the speaker is talking directly to you, so it was with the section ‘The Waste of Free Time’ (p.162-3). Here’s my abridgement of that short section. Do you recognise yourself in it? I do!

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate, and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

The tremendous leisure industry that has arisen in the last few generations has been designed to help fill our free time with enjoyable experiences. Nevertheless, instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we got to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.

The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality. Mass leisure, mass culture, and even high culture when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons – such as the wish to flaunt one’s status – are parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened than we were before.

Most jobs and many leisure activities – especially those involving the passive consumption of mass media – are not designed to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for someone else. If we allow them to, they can suck out the marrow of our lives, leaving us only feeble husks.

Eloquently put, I’m sure you’ll agree! It reminded me somewhat of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in terms of the vision it conjures of a mass ‘citizenry’ obediently doing what the guiding voice behind the media they consume tell them to do.

It’s a wake-up call for me. Instead of spending money on gadgetry that allow me to consume mass media at an ever-increasing rate, I’m going to focus on creativity and meaning-making. For me, that will mostly be in a written format because of my interests and talents. But, you never know, it may stray into areas musical as well… 😀

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Hannon: ‘Reflecting on Literacy in Education’

It’s not too often I read something which makes me continually nod in agreement, but Peter Hannon’s marvellous Reflecting on Literacy in Education (2000) certainly had me doing that!

As regular readers will know, in my Ed.D. thesis I’m looking at the concept of ‘digital literacy’ – whether it (or something like it) ‘exists’ and the implications this may have. At one point Hannon’s book made me think he actually had all the answers but, like all great works, it left me with questions and inspired me to do more thinking and research. 🙂

Hannon has a very logical and coherent style, demonstrating a clear-headed and considered approach to his subject. I’m going to string together some of his quotations so you can get a feel for what he’s arguing. He begins by explaining that differences between printed and electronic text are very real and cannot be ignored:

David Reinking (1994) has suggested that there are four fundamental differences between printed and electronic texts. First, he points out that while it has often been suggested that readers interact with text in a metaphorical sense, in the case of electronic text this can be literally true, for example in the way readers can respond to some texts by switching to other texts via ‘hot links’. Second, it is possible for electronic texts to guide or restrict the reading path according to educational or other criteria, e.g. requiring re-reading of passages if comprehension questions are not answered correctly. Third, the structure of electronic text can be radically different in ‘hypertext’… Fourth, electronic texts often employ new symbolic elements – not just illustrations but video clips and other graphics, including next ‘navigation’ aids. One can argue about whether or not these features of electronic literacy are desirable but that they have arrived and that they represent a radical shift seems beyond argument. (p.22)

Whilst I think that at this stage he’s probably jumping the gun slightly to ascribe these different elements to literacy, I do think that pointing out these four differences is important. There are those, for example, who simply believe that electronic text is simply printed text in a different format.

From here, Hannon goes on discuss, as other writers have before and after him, how literacy is dependent upon technology:

The nature of literacy in a culture is repeatedly redefined as the result of technological changes. Throughout history the introduction of new materials (stone tablets, skins, papyrus, paper) and new mark making methods (scratching, chiselling, ink, the printing press, typewriters, ball-points, laser printers, and so on) has meant both new users and new uses for written language. The consequences of such changes can be very complex – not just in terms of more literacy but different literacy (Eisenstein, 1982). Technology begins by making it easier to do familar things; then it creates opportunities to do new things. Our literacy today is consequently very different from that of  medieval England not just because the printing press is more efficient than having scribes copy manuscripts, but also because printing and other technologies have stimulated entirely new uses for written language (e.g. tax forms, novels, postcards, advertisements) unimagined by medieval society. If the past is any guide to the future, we should information technology to transform literacy rather than eradicate it. (p.22-3, my emphasis)

The point that new technologies create new literacies because they allow different methods of expression and communication I believe to be monumentally important. Such changes lead to different norms of behaviour and cultural practice. Hannon gives the example of how email has removed tedious barriers such as printing a letter, putting it in an envelope, posting it, waiting for a reply, and so on:

Eliminating these stages not only speeds up the process of writing letters but also, like earlier technological developments in literacy, changes the uses for written language. It encourages a casual, immediate style of communication and it becomes possible, for example, to sustain a research collaboration with people thousands of miles away. (p.24)

Writing in 2000, Hannon was able to set up somewhat of a ‘straw man’ – the opponent who claims that because everyone has not yet got a computer with Internet access, teaching such literacy skills are pointless. Hannon, in a move which would delight any enlightened reader of the edublogosphere and believer in ‘School 2.0’, writes:

All our literacy students will end up using written language tomorrow in ways very different from those we can teach them today. This applies… much more strongly to younger students and children who, if development proceeds in the next fifty years as it has in the past fifty, will use written language in ways which we cannot even imagine. What matters in this context is that we teach what is important about written language – those essentials which can be expected to endure in future contexts. These could include the ideas that the value of written language depends on what we want to do with it, that all texts can be read critically, that there are many genres, that literacy has a potential for liberation, that writing can aid thinking, that reading can be enjoyable, that public writing is for readers not writers, and so on.

This is almost a ‘meta-literacy’ – an ability to reflect upon literacy not as a state, but as a continual socio-cultural construct.

Hannon then turns his attention upon those who espouse, almost unthinkingly, a ‘unitary’ view of literacy. He gives examples, all of which assume that literacy is a skill, that there is an ‘it’ of literacy to which we can refer. Opposed to this, Hannon investigates the claims of thinkers who put forward a ‘pluralist’ view of literacy. He quotes Lankshear (1987:58):

There is no single, unitary referent for ‘literacy’. Literacy is not the name for a finite technology, set  of skills, or any other ‘thing’. We should recognise, rather, that there are many specific literacies, each comprising an identifiable set of socially constructed practices based upon print and organised around beliefs about how the skills of reading and writing may or, perhaps, should be used. (p.32)

Hannon also quotes Gee (1996:46) who is concerned about the context of literacy:

[T]he traditional view of literacy as the ability to read and write rips literacy out of its sociocultural contexts and treats it as an asocial cognitive skill with little or nothing to do with human relationships. It cloaks literacy’s connections to power, to social identity, and to ideologies, often in the service of privileging certain types of literacies and certain types of people. (p.34)

But does the pluralist conception of literacy lead to problems. What type of literacy should be taught at school. If they are all so very different from one another, should we be calling them ‘literacies’ at all. Hannon brings in Wittgenstein’s famous difficulty (1953: sections 66,67) in defining what a ‘game’ is in support of the pluralist argument:

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’ for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc.overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say ‘games’ form a family. (p.36)

Just as Wittgenstein found nothing concrete in common between the different activities we call ‘games’ – yet still found a way to put them into the same category – so Hannon wants to do with literacies. He imagines them being set out on a family tree, with some more closely related than others. It’s an interesting concept.

He then, however, goes and muddies the water somewhat and, for me, spoils his argument slightly, by stating that we don’t talk of ‘musics’ even though there are many and varied styles. He also reduces theorists’ conceptions of literacy into two broad camps. He believes that there are those who believe literacy to be a skill and come from a psychological point of view, and those who believe it to be a social practice, who come from a sociological background.

Hannon concludes the chapter by offering a rapprochement between the two by quoting with approval Delgado-Gaitan (1990:29):

The ability to interpret linguistic and graphic symbols associated with texts requires one type of ability. Literacy is a sociocultural process, and it follows that another literate ability has to do with the sociocultural knowledge and cognitive skills that are necessary for the child and the family to interpret text. (p.38).

When I first read this, I thought it was a somewhat of a cop-out, a way of sitting on the fence. However, if we unpick it slightly, we end up with:

1. To decode linguistic symbols is an ability.

2. To decode graphic symbols is an ability.

3. Literacy is dependent upon the ability to decode symbols using the technologies of a relevant culture and context..

Ergo = To decode symbols using technology is a literacy dependent upon sociocultural factors.

I’m still thinking about this. At the moment I’m thinking it’s akin to genius as it cuts through a lot of the problems in defining literacy. On the other hand, I’ve a nagging  suspicion at the back of my mind that it may be using a lot of words to say something which maybe isn’t worth saying.

Hmmm…. :-p

Gunther Kress on Literacy

I’ve been doing more studying this evening, this time looking again at Gunther Kress‘ 2003 book Literacy in the New Media Age. There’s lots to like and agree with in Kress’ writing, but there’s a couple of things I’d take issue with, not least his definition of literacy:

…for me literacy is the term to use when we make messages using letters as the mans of recording that message. When we communicate through numbers, we use the term ‘numeracy’, and for very good reasons: the meaning-potential and the meanings made with numbers are very different from those made with letters. (p.23)

This is a fair enough point, that literacy should mean something specific. But I’ve decided that I don’t agree with what he goes on to say about adding prefix modifiers:

My approach leaves us with the problem of finding new terms of the use of different resources: not therefore ‘visual literacy‘ for the use of image; not ‘gestural literacy‘ for the use of gesture; and also not ‘musical literacy‘ or ‘soundtrack literacy‘ for the use of sound other than in speech; and so on. (p.23)

I think he’s used unfair examples. If we substitute instead ‘media literacy’ and ‘digital literacy’ I think that many would argue that these are different in the way that he accepts numeracy to be. If literacy is, as Kress believes, simply creating messages using letters, there would seem to be no point in his work and the following statement earlier in his book:

Given that in the world of the new media there are numerous modal resources involved in the making of ‘messages’ – word, spoken or written; image, still and moving; music; objects as 3D models; soundtrack; action – it has in any case become essential to ask what we mean by ‘literacy’. (p.21)

Clearly, he feels that there is something that is not quite being described by our current terminology.:

They make it easy to use a multiplicity of modes, and in particular the mode of image – still or moving – as well as other modes, such as music and sound effect for instance. They change, through their affordances, the potentials for representational and communicational action by their users; this is the notion of ‘interactivity’ which figures so prominently in discussions of the new media. (p.5)

This element that Kress terms ‘interactivity’ is what sets digital/21st-century/whatever ‘literacy’ apart from its standard definition. Kress would deny that it is in fact a literacy and instead claims it’s a skill:

[W]e can have writing or speech as the names of two resources for making meaning. Using pencil, pen, (computer) keyboard or whatever else are then separate and different matters, involving the skills of both production and dissemination, which may be more or less closely integrated with the potentials of the resource. Literacy remains the term which refers to (the knowledge of) the use of the resource in writing. The combination of knowledge of the resource with knowledge of production and perhaps with that of dissemination would have a different name. That separates, what to me is essential, the sense of what the resource is and what its potentials are, from associated questions such as those of its uses, and the issue of whether skills are involved in using a resource in wider communicational frames. (p.24)

However, this does not make clear as to whether ‘literacy’ under Kress’ conception and definition can be deemed a skill, item of knowledge, combination of the two, or neither. Whilst he quite rightly points out that the term ‘literacy’ has, and is being, used to lend credibility and legitimacy to questionable ideas (p.24-25), this does not mean he needs to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, so to speak.

One of his main arguments not to extend ‘literacy’ to mean more than creating messages using written forms is that other languages do not contain the word. I believe this to be a weak argument. He asks rhetorically whether English, as the dominant world language, should impose the word ‘literacy’ and demand that other languages have a translation of it. He conflates this with the quite valid point that the more things to which a concept can be applied, the less it means. To my mind, there’s absolutely no valid reason Kress gives why a modifying prefix such as ‘digital’, ‘media’ or ’21st-century’ cannot be placed in front of the word ‘literacy’ to make it apply to a specific context.

I’m going to be thinking more about this. These are just my initial thoughts. You can see more over at my wiki. 😀

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies

I’d really appreciate it if you tagged anything related to this post or topic literacyconversation.  It will help me (and others) collate ideas and conversations. Thanks! 🙂

As most people reading this will already know, I’m studying towards an Ed.D. at the moment. My (tentative) thesis title is What does it mean to be ‘educated’ and ‘digitally literate’? The impact of ICT and the knowledge society upon education in the 21st century.. You can find my thesis proposal here and bookmarks related to my studies here. My current thinking is that I’m just going to focus on the concept of what ‘literacy’ means in the 21st century as it’s a huge and confused (confusing?) field.

Because of my studies and deep interest in this field, I was delighted to come across Ben Grey’s blog post entitled 21st Century Confusion, which he followed up with 21st Century Clarification. Ben’s an eloquent and nuanced writer, so I suggest you go and read what he has to say before continuing with this blog post. 😀

The above blog posts sparked a great conversation on Twitter, of which I was part. The hugely influential Will Richardson suggested, as we were getting a little frustrated with being limited to 140 characters, that we have a live session via Elluminate the following day. You can find a link to the archived session here.

My own thoughts about that skillset/mindset/ability range we’re trying to quantify and describe by using terms such as ‘digital’ or ’21st century’ literacy are still a little jumbled. I’ve read, and am continuing to read a lot on the subject (and related areas), notes on which you can find on my wiki.

For now, though, here’s some highlights:

1. Literacies as ‘umbrella terms’

Many of the literacies or ‘competencies’ that are being put forward are described in ways that suggest they incorporate other literacies. Take for instance, this definition of ‘information competence’ (Work Group…, 1995):

Information competence is the fusing or the integration of library literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, technological literacy, ethics, critical thinking, and communication skills.

And again (Doyle, 1994)

In the last decade a variety of “literacies” have been proposed, including cultural, computer, scientific, technical, global and mathematical. All of these literacies focus on a compartmentalized aspect of literacy. Information literacy, on the other hand, is an inclusive term. Through information literacy, the other literacies can be achieved (Breivik, 1991). In attaining information literacy, students gain proficiency in inquiry as they learn to interpret and use information (Kuhlthau, 1987).

Ryan Bretag’s post, The Great Literacy Debate, introduced me to a word to describe this that I hadn’t come across before – deictic. This means that ‘literacy’ tends to be used in a way heavily dependent upon context. I couldn’t agree more!

2. Literacies defined too broadly or narrowly

As referenced above, if a type of literacy being put forward by an individual is defined too broadly, it becomes an umbrella term and of little practical use. Initially, I liked Judi Epcke’s comment that she’d heard Jason Ohler define literacy as “consuming and producing the media forms of the day”. But this began to trouble me. Aren’t consuming and producing different skills? And if they’re skills, is ‘literacy’ involved?

But then, defined narrowly, it’s easy to come up with counter-examples. For instance, if we define 21st Century Literacy in relation to technology, it begs the question ‘does literacy in the 21st century relate to printed matter at all‘. The answer, of course, would have to be yes, it does.

3. Do we need new definitions?

I share the despair of Gunther Kress (2003, quoted in Eyman) when he sees new forms of ‘literacy’ popping up all over the place:

…literacy is the term to use when we make messages using letters as the means of recording that message….my approach leaves us with the problem of finding new terms for the uses of the different resources: not therefore “visual literacy” for the use of image; not “gestural literacy” for the use of gesture; and also not musical “literacy” or “soundtrack literacy” for the use of sound other than speech; and so on.

Semantics are important. Whilst we can’t keep using outdated words that link to conceptual anachronism (e.g. ‘horseless carriage’) we must be on our guard against supposed ‘literacies’ becoming more metaphorical than descriptive.

Concluding thoughts

One educator left the Elluminate discussion on 21st Century Literacies before had really got going. He mentioned that he was in favour of deeds rather than words. I can see what he means, although as I have already stated, semantics are important.

But there comes a point where one has to draw a line. In my thesis, I’m using a modified version of the Pragmatic method, as spelled out by William James (1995:82)thus,

To ‘agree‘ in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed… Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn’t entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality’s whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement/ It will hold true of that reality.

Thus names are just as ‘true’ or ‘false’ as definite mental pictures are. They set up similar verification-processes, and lead to fully equivalent practical results.

I’m looking for a definition that doesn’t ‘entangle my progress in frustration’. I’m yet to find it, but I’ll keep on looking! :-p


  • Doyle, C.S. (1994) Information literacy in an information society: A Concept for the Information Age, DIANE Publishing
  • Eyman, D., Digital Literac(ies), Digital Discourses, and Communities of Practice: Literacy Practices in Virtual Environments (Cultural Practices of Literacy Study, Working Paper #12, no date)
  • James, W. Pragmatism (Dover Thrift Editions, 1995)
  • Work Group on Information Competence, Commission on Learning Resources and Instructional Technology (1995), quoted by Spitzer, K.L., et al. Information Literacy: essential skills for the information age, 1998, p.25

Forms of Literacy

As with Literacy, last week’s post after time spent doing some research, this blog post is a synthesis of some of the issues I have been looking at as part of my studies. I’m aiming to investigate the concept of ‘digital literacy’ and issues surrounding it in my Ed.D. thesis. You can read my proposal at digitalliteracies.edublogs.org.

As evidenced in my last post relating to my Ed.D., ‘literacy’ is not a stable concept with a fixed meaning. In fact, since the 1960s, literacy has been deconstructed and re-cast into many different forms. This has followed a change in education, from the imparting of academic knowledge, through to more constructivist theories of learning (Martin, 2003:3) By many, literacy is no longer seen as merely the ability to ‘read and write’, but instead to make sense of the world through wider competencies and abilities.

It has been estimated (Grov Almås & Krumsvik, 2007:481) that by the age of 21 the average person will have spent 20,000 hours watching television, 50,000 hours in front of a computer screen, and only 15,000 hours in formal education. Clearly, if literacy is the ability to communicate with, and make sense of, the wider world, it is more than simply the ability to ‘read and write’ texts.

The problem is that, until recently, ‘visualisation [was] seen as an unproblematic kind of ‘translation’ from one semiotic mode into another – as a simplistic kind of translation from one language to another’ (Kress, 1998:55). As a consequence,

…the idea that visual literacy is necessary for reading visual materials [was] not as widely accepted as the self-evident fact that textual literacy is required for reading text. This is partly because visual materials in general are typically not considered to pose any reading challenges to the viewer. (Lowe, 1993:24)

Since the 1990s when these writers were working, however, I believe there has been a shift in thinking. Schools have been urged to consider the different ‘learning styles’ of students, suggesting at least various aspects of literacy. In my own academic career I have had to shift from being an undergraduate working primarily from the books of ‘dead white men’ to working almost exclusively in the digital realm. There is no longer a ‘canon’; information and knowledge are everywhere. Literacy in this digital realm needs to include at least some sort of reference to trust and the ability to critically analyse sources of information.

Given the need to describe competency in various areas and the ability to work with some ease with the material present in those domains, many different forms of ‘literacy’ have emerged. ‘Media literacy’, ‘Visual literacy’ and ‘Information literacy’ were popular terms in the late 1980s/1990s, with their proponents urging the need to include more of it in our schools. However, when looked at in more detail, there are very close similarities between them – as Tyner (1998:104) notes,

The similarities between the stated competencies of information literacy, visual literacy, and media literacy are so close that separating them seems unnecessarily artificial.

The need to set one literacy apart from another can only be explained by a need to use the concepts for other reasons, that is, to strengthen the professional status of its constituencies, or to take issue with the approaches used by proponents.

The tendency is for these proponents to decide that their term – say, ‘information literacy’ – is an umbrella term under which other forms of literacy belong. For example, ‘media literacy’, ‘visual literacy’ and other literacies may make up ‘information literacy’. Meanwhile, proponents of the other literacies do exactly the same thing. Potter (2004:33) gives a perfect example of this, when he states,

Reading literacy, visual literacy and computer literacy are not synonyms for media literacy; instead, they are merely components.

It is as if they are trying to grasp for something in common but falling short of describing it adequately. Johnson (2001:1), Rodríguez Illera (2004:58-59), and Søby (2003) illustrate this desire to move away from literacy to a new concept that involves communication, context and competence. They wish to stress procedure over prose, reforming literacy as a series of literate practices.

Seemingly realising that ‘literacy’ is to this new conception what ‘horseless carriage’ was to ‘car’, Søby (2003) attempts to use the German word bildung in conjunction with ‘digital’ to refer to a state which is difficult to describe, is very complex, and can only be approached with a holistic understanding of the field (Prange, 2004:502). As a result,

…digital bildung suggests an integrated, holistic approach that enables reflection on the effects that ICT has on different aspects of human development: communicative competence, critical thinking skills, and enculturation processes, among others. (Søby, 2003)

In the hunt for a new term to define this digital realm that is both similar to, yet very different to print-based media, some have stumbled across somewhat clumsy terms. For example, Electracy, originally coined by theorist Gregory Ulmer, which is, supposedly, ‘to digital media what literacy is to print’ (Ulmer, 2003). Erstad (2003:11) clarifies Electracy to some extent, stating that it is, ‘something young people develop by growing up in a digital culture,’ being, ‘literacy for a post-typographic world.’

These conceptions remain rather vague as they try to describe the literate practices of some individuals within an increasingly heterogeneous society. In fact, as Koltko-Riviera (2004:249) notes, some research has shown that certain ‘personality types’ are more or less likely to demonstrate ‘digital competence’,

[Dr. Schaab’s] results are at least compatible with the notion that digital competence (i.e., competence in working within a highly computerized environment) is not equally distributed across personality types; rather, some personality types are simply more digitally competent than others. Such a finding, if replicated, would have profound consequences for human factors theory, research, and practice.

The last word in this post, however, will go to Suzanne Stokes (2001) whose lengthy quotation can be justified by its insight. In the end, literacy is a reflection of society. The fact that we have multiple forms and conceptions of literacy upon which we cannot agree tells us a lot about the kind of world in which we live:

A culture’s predominant mode of literacy depends on the technology and mass media it embraces (Sinatra, 1986). In education’s continuing mission of meeting the needs of learners, an apparent shift from the long-standing process of reading, writing, counting, and text memorization skills that may have been appropriate for the medieval clerk, are giving way to skills of analysis and innovation that are considered desirable in today’s modern cultures (West, 1997). Proficiency with words and numbers is insufficient and must be supplemented with additional basic skills as new and emerging technologies permeate activities of daily living. Viewing change with fear and skepticism often accompanies shifts such as these that can revolutionize society.

It’s time to stop making the academically-equivalent error of calling a car a ‘horseless carriage’… but I’m not convinced that ‘electracy’ is the answer! :-p


  • Grov Almås, A. & Krumsvik, R. (2007), ‘Digitally literate teachers in leading edge schools in Norway’ (Journal of In-service Education, 33(4), pp. 479–497)
  • Johnson (2001) quoted in W. James Potter Theory of Media Literacy), 2004, p.30-1
  • Koltko-Riviera, M.E. (2004) ‘Personality Theory and Human Factors Research’ (in Vincenzi, D., et al. (eds.), Human performance, situation awareness and automation: Current research and trends, Vol. 1, 2004, pp. 249-252)
  • Kress, G. (1998) ‘Visual and verbal modes of representation in electronically mediated communication: the potentials of new forms of text’ (in I. Snyder, Page to Screen, London, 1998)
  • Lowe, R. (1993) Successful Instructional Diagrams
  • Martin, A. (2003) ‘Towards e-literacy’ (in A. Martin & H. Rader (eds.), Information and IT literacy: enabling learning in the 21st century, London, 2003)
  • Potter, W.J. (2004) Theory of Media Literacy
  • Prange, K. (2004), Bildung: a paradigm regained? (European Educational Research Journal, 3(2), pp.501-509)
  • Rodríguez Illera, J.L. (2004) ‘Digital Literacies’ (Interactive Educational Multimedia, number 9 (November 2004), pp. 48-62)
  • Søby, M. (2003) Digital Competence: from ICT skills to digital “bildung” (available online: http://folk.uio.no/mortenso/Dig.comp.html)
  • Stokes, S. (2001) ‘Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning: A Literature Perspective’ (Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education)
  • Tyner (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information
  • Ulmer, G. L. (2003) Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (as quoted at Wikipedia)
(image credit: you have on new message @ Flickr)