Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Baroque Philadelphia 

When Cathy and I worked on the data that later became Points of View, we experimented with deconstructing the notion of 'the event', partly because we found it hard to define any clear boundaries between different instances of meaning-making in the material we were dealing with, and our multiple readings of the data, the stacking stories we developed, highlighted increasing levels of complexity, rather than coalescing around a single version of what was happening in classroom virtual world play. We struggled to find a word for what we were observing - maybe occurrences or action sequences might work - otherwise just call it the project! Part of the problem with the idea of 'events', which we haven't so far articulated, is the way in which they tend to associate too easily with 'activities' or 'routines' in the world of literacy education. And one thing that is clear about the virtual worlds work is the way in which it challenges just those sorts of boundaries, planned learning sequences, activities, objectives and all the rest. In our AERA presentation, we deepened our baroque reading of the data, using this to critique simple, reductive models of literacy in classrooms. Cathy introduced the notion of a baroque pedagogy, an exuberant expression of free roaming gameplay, one that is hard to describe, hard to understand, but thoroughly absorbing for participants. But we also used baroque techniques to illuminate the heterogeneity of meaning-making in classrooms, and that, I think, will be at the heart of the next paper that we're working on.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Norris's work on modal aggregates is a powerful way of conceptualising the iPad data that I've recently been writing about. Although her argument that multimodal perspectives destabilise the primacy of language in social interaction is not exactly new, the focus on action, as a unit of analysis, helps to highlight the shifting dominance of modes - how, in her words, modal hierarchies fluctuate. In the sorts of multiparty interactions that occur between children, adults and iPads, we can see how deictic gestures, at times dominant, give way to spoken language, onscreen visual movements, object-handling and so on. Accepting that overall meanings are always greater than the sum of these modal parts, this perspective helps to incorporate materiality and embodiment into the analysis in useful ways. There are some limitations, though. The analytical work that Norris (2012) engages in places humans as social actors at the centre of the interaction, thus following in the footsteps of earlier sociolinguistic approaches, but in doing this objects are cast as rather mute associates. For example, in Norris's data, a painting is moved (object-handling mode), pointed at (deictic gestural mode), and then talked about. But when scripted material objects - like iPads - are so deeply woven into activity, I think we need a broader perspective, one which shows how things (such as technologies) can generate, initiate, or participate in action. Perhaps it would help to focus on developing accounts of action sequences with different trajectories - the vibrating alert from a mobile phone that heralds an incoming text message, prompting some email checking, a phone call and so on, for example. Thinking about fluctuating hierarchies in modal aggregates might well be a useful way of approaching and understanding the emerging patterns of communication associated with new technologies. This could then lead to a more sophisticated account of how objects participate in social interaction, bringing what we read in Latour to bear upon our discussions of multimodality and discourse analysis.

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Monday, March 31, 2014

School collaboration 

The idea of connecting schools and school children has been around for some time. Serving worthwhile goals of promoting cross-cultural understanding, developing language awareness and language skills and even contributing to wider notions of citizenship, school collaboration often ticks all the right boxes. Anastasia Gouseti's new book, Digital Technologies for School Collaboration, explores some of these themes and recognizes that although programmes that provide opportunities for transnational collaboration between schools have a respectable history, the potential expansion of these opportunities through new technology has yet to be evaluated in a principled way. Gouseti's book does just that. Based on a case studies of teachers' and students' experiences of the European eTwinning programme she provides a detailed analysis of the promises and pitfalls of web-based school collaboration. But the book is much more than that, providing an excellent overview and critique of the rhetoric associated with web 2.0 and 'participatory culture.' This is a book that is well-informed, well-argued and scholarly throughout, offering practical guidance on how to develop school collaboration through new media.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Is it a book or is it an app? 

With World Book Day approaching, it is anticipated that children's literature and its authors will get plenty of coverage - but what about the growing market of digital fiction, e-books and story apps? Recent developments in app design have begun to show the way forward in new interactive texts for young children and work by researchers at the Sheffield Institute of Education and the University of Sheffield has been investigating the potential for using apps in story-sharing activity with young children.  We've seen how size, portability and touchscreen operation make tablets like the iPad attractive to young children and their teachers. And young children enjoy the interactive nature of some of the better story apps, and although it's still early days, the potential for innovative development is clear. Here's three examples of story apps for the iPad that show how the technology can be harmonised with story meaning to offer a strong learning experience for young children. For toddlers, Nighty Night is a great little app in which young children explore a farmyard scene, turning the lights off and saying goodnight to each of the animals (see here for more). This app depends on interaction from the reader who taps the screen in each location to move the story on. For slightly older children, there's a number of different versions of the traditional tale 'The Three Little Pigs' on the market - but the version by Nosy Crow is by far the most engaging and attractive. It's great the way that blowing into the microphone can involve children in the repetitive sequence of 'blowing the house down'. Young children love it! A more sophisticated story, 'The Heart and the Bottle' has been around for a while. It is beautifully illustrated and uses many of the iPad's multi-tasking gestures through a number of puzzles that are woven into the story. My favourite is the way that it uses the built-in accelerometer so that youngsters can create a snowfall by repeatedly shaking the iPad! In short, there are plenty of story apps out there, but these three really show the potential - and that lies in how an app can engage young children, actively involving them in making meaning. They won't be replacing print stories and picture books, but they certainly sit well alongside them. Whether they class as digital fiction, multimedia, or apps seems rather irrelevant. They are good stories, a new kind of book, and their development should be celebrated and encouraged on World Book Day.

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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Digital futures for teachers 

The need for teachers to engage with digital literacies at all stages of education has been articulated in numerous policy documents and directives in many parts of the world. Often the economic desirability of 21st century skills is seen as the central rationale for this, but commentaries also make reference to the increasing importance of digital literacy in citizenship and participatory culture. In education theory and research, the importance of acknowledging and using children and young people’s knowledge of popular culture has become a key theme, with a growing number of studies addressing the rise of digital culture. In the face of this, educators now realize that levels of participation in popular digital culture vary considerably between populations and social groups (Warschauer and Matuchniak, 2010). To add further complication, the understandings and experiences that learners and their teachers have, and need, are rapidly changing as technology itself changes (Davies and Merchant, 2009). Preparing teachers to operate effectively in this volatile environment presents a number of challenges. In our chapter in this book we look at some of the driving and constraining forces, concentrating particularly on the ways in which open educational resources (OERs) may have the potential to support teachers and trainee teachers in developing their capacity to address the ‘digital challenge’ (Abrams and Merchant, 2012). All this receives a detailed treatment in the chapter that Julia and I have written for this collection (now available). The chapter draws on the work of the DefT project.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

In-story purchases 

Last week I bought a goat, a spider and a stork. They cost 99p for the job lot. I know that because of the helpful receipt I got from iTunes. Now I've done some strange things in the name of virtuality, and this wasn't really one of them, but it is what they call a telling case. You see, as it turns out, I bought the goat, spider and stork as a way of upgrading my grandson's favourite story-app: the story that he calls 'Night Fours', which is his rendering of the opening line 'Night falls'. It's an app I recommend (it's real title is 'Nighty Night'). It's his favourite because it's an engaging app, and just right for 2-3 year olds. In the story, it's night time and most of the village is in darkness - apart, that is, from the farmhouse, which is still blazing with light. The reader is invited to 'go' to each light in the farmhouse, say goodnight to the animals found there and turn off the light. Once the light is turned off, there's no going back. Sure, you can return to the barn, the dog's kennel and so on, but they've gone to sleep and there's nothing at all you can do about it. It's a simple scenario, that helps with prediction, naming animals, and the simple and repetitive night time rituals of saying goodnight and turning off the light. So in this way it does what good picture books tend to do, in supporting language, helping children to make predictions and making connections to firsthand experience. What might the app add then? Well first off, even though, it's made for sharing, the child can look at it independently and still hear the story being told - a small gain admittedly, but nonetheless a difference from a print book. Then there is the important fact that it is user-driven. This happens in two ways: firstly, the animals and insects won't go to sleep unless you switch off (tap) the light  and secondly, the order in which this is done is entirely up to the reader - so it's not unilinear, the child dictates the reading path. Because this is an app for young children, these features are simple and easy to see, but  imagine if they were scaled-up and you begin to glimpse the future of digital fiction. Rather like a videogame, you are in 'Nighty Night' because you change the story environment as you go along. And then, of course, there's the upgrade I started with. I really enjoyed the surprise Dylan felt when he suddenly discovered that, overnight, more animals had moved into the farmhouse! The potential for a story that has add-ons is quite something. Of course, the same business model as in-game purchases is lurking behind the scenes - but I want to keep that in proportion. The app plus add-ons, is cheaper than most good quality picture books for this age-group.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Make up money 

I'm posting a picture of make-up. In fact I'm posting two pictures of make-up - and that might just be a first for this blog.  It's a photograph of what my mother would call a powder compact, or perhaps more simply a compact. I asked my daughter what she called it. Make-up, she said. It's a pleasingly shaped hinged box in black plastic, which snaps closed with a satisfying 'pock', and as you can see there's a delicate flower-like design in gold on the front. By contrast my mother's were weighty metallic things with an enamal finish. Enough to lend some substance to your handbag, I should imagine. But this is make-up with a difference. It's money. Or to be a bit more accurate it's got purchasing power......just a prototype, I know, but it works. And it may well be the shape of things to come. Probably the next big thing, if indeed something so small can be called big. And here's where the second picture comes in. You see you flip it over, and there's the evidence, in the Mastercard contactless chip which is embedded in the plastic case. Neat. And that allows you to buy things with make-up, and it's what I call new. It made me think of the slow demise of currency. Remember, I'm old enough to
remember decimalisation. When all of a sudden there were 100 shiny new pennies to a pound compared to twelve shillings, or whatever awkward amount we had before. And now it's all turning into plastic. Spending is gradually becoming more abstract, several steps away from the real thing. No wonder so many people get into debt! Of course that idea of coins  as the 'real thing' is actually a strange convergence of the material and the abstract. Maybe currency only has any real meaning at the point of transaction. And financial transaction itself is built on a sort of tacit social contract. Now I'm sure economists have better ways of talking about this, but the one thing I'm sure of is that the money business is looking very different as mobile digital technology takes hold. Take the fascinating emergence of mobile exchanges in Kenya. Read about it here, if you haven't caught the story - and this isn't about smartphones, we're talking basic models, here. What a wonderful illustration of the ways in which social groups take up the affordances of mobile technology and make it work for them to fulfil their needs. In fact, I can see myself doing the Kenya thing rather than carrying around make-up (or cufflinks, apparently).

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