Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thinking visually

In a number of papers I've put forward the idea that digitally-mediated communication has led to the use of innovative, self-sponsored writing on an unprecedented scale. This is writing at the point of change, with new forms, structures, spellings and functions coming into being. Writing as self-expression, writing as identity performance and writing as negotiation or participation. I've argued that writing on screen is an important and ubiquitous characteristic of contemporary cultural worlds and defended this 'narrow' description of digital literacy. This has led some to assume that I am arguing for preserving the 'dominance of the written form'. This is untrue; I'm just more interested in writing, although of course I note that it often appears on screen in combination with the visual. Still I'm as sceptical about popular ways of visualising data as I am about unsubstantiated claims about visual thinking or visual literacy. It's clear that images do some things better than words. So I found this piece on visualising data very interesting. Scrolling down the comments I found one that I was about to make. So here it is: 'Just to play Devil's advocate: if visualization is so great, couldn't you have conveyed all the ideas in this article using just visualizations? Why did you use words? Specifically data visualization is good for very large quantities of data that cannot be easily interpreted or even presented in a short word format.' (Mark Krepicz). So, for the time being, I'll stick to words to develop my ideas, not because they're better or anything, but just because they work.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Tina Peterson’s piece The Zapper and the Zapped , which is a study of the role of the microwave oven in everyday life really is a thought-provoking contribution to the Vannini book. It’s a perfect example of making the familiar strange. I suppose I consider myself to be fairly reflective, particularly when it comes to technology, but I must say I’ve never given the microwave much thought. Maybe that’s because I’m an avoider: Peterson has three categories, mad scientist, reluctant habitual and avoider. But actually I’m not an avoider for any of the reasons she gives, such as health scare/moral panic or food snobbery, but because I never really got the hang of it. Apart from the intellectual analysis that Peterson applies, I learnt that heating up drinks and doing popcorn are the real culinary niches that consumers have identified. No mention then of porridge, scrambled eggs or rice all of which work well. But I thought Peterson’s typology could be generalisable beyond the kitchen. Take computers, for example. You could be a playful enthusiast (mad scientist/techie); a reluctant habitual, after all there are a lot of them around; or an avoider (in which case you won’t be reading this). I think if I was granted another academic career, I’d be into material culture. After all they get all the best topics! As it is I have my own little world. For instance, there’s this on participation and new literacies, and I think it just counts as Merchant (2009). Now, where’s that zapper?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Writing, copying, assembling

'Writing is an act of poaching: stealing phrases, words, scenes, and experiences from the world around oneself, rearranging them, and in so doing, claiming selected bits for oneself as an author. The performance of writing makes concept into material - in the materiality of process, if no longer in the materiality of print. The act of reading is writing's second material moment. Partial, arbitrary, strategic, writing is translation: it is a struggle for meaning, not necessarily the "correct" meaning, but rather the will to be meaningful and communicate with recognized authority.' This is how Kien introduces his chapter on ANT Phillip Vannini's collection called 'Material Culture and Technology in Everyday Life', and it certainly is a wonderful description. It extends and repositions the idea of writing as copying or remixing; a subject that I've posted about before. The Vannini book is pretty good reading. I've been a fan of Vannini's since coming across his work on the social semiotic of the tanned body, and this diverse collection (recommended by Tetra) is certainly no disappointment. I particuarly enjoyed Noy's account of the domestication of the family car, and Richardson and Third on mobile media. If you're interested, you'll find a more exacting critique of the book here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


If you like the idea of wearing ridiculous glasses and seeing things in 3D you need some pretty expensive hardware - good graphics cards, offset projectors and so on. Wallwisher, on the other hand is free, flexible and fun (that's the three f's). But of course you can do things in a visualisation suite that you could never do in Wallwisher. But application aside, the world of 3D film can help to bring ideas about 'immersion' and 'virtuality' into focus (unintentional pun). It's interesting that 3D technology seems to emphasise the illusion of image. It's quite clearly an image but the difference is its dimensionality. I don't experience the same sense of place that I do in Second Life. Things are coming at me; but I'm not in it. The shared ground is that it's virtual in the sense that it's almost life-like. Real and not-real, both at the same time.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Losing culture

Johann Hari's piece in The Independent on Tuesday invites us to consider whether the 'internet has transformed the way we think about ourselves' which is an interesting question, but one that in the end treats technology as a thing that is doing something to us. But the points made about the changes in patterns of friendship and romance that have arisen with digital culture are well made. From lightweight friendship maintenance to searching for a partner online: it's clear there is a shift. I also liked the observation that rapid social networking helps the good, the bad and the silly to co-exist in an unregulated way. As for research on attention span and trains of thought, well....what was I just saying? I forget. Perhaps it helps to bring some of these issues into view in a reflective way, but personally I'm rather tired of hearing about the tyranny of ecommunication. Can't we move on? In a way the whole argument is concisely framed by the strap line 'are we losing our culture', implying that we had something worthwhile (in the last millenium) that is now in some sense under attack. Culture: is it seaping away through my keyboard or am I re-making it each time a type?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The soporific effect of phonics

Don’t ask me why, but I’m having to read lots of research papers on phonics at the moment. The only way I’ve found to cope with this is by taking a couple of them to bed with me each night. And there’s a very interesting phenomenon. It all starts off quite well; in fact I must say some of them are written quite well. You can sometimes believe that there’s a really interesting subtle problem that they’re shedding new light upon. Then the researchers begin to tell you what they did, and I notice how incredibly heavy my eyelids have become. But I push on, willing myself to concentrate. I wake up after about 10 minutes still clutching the paper; still no further on. It works everytime! Maybe I’ve discovered a cure for insomnia... but no sadly that can’t be true unless I first have a control group and a very specific treatment. Anyway I’ve tried reading them in the afternoon instead. Unfortunately I get the same effect. But today was a bit of a breakthrough. I read one in the morning. And I found myself wondering just how the learning of a symbol system invented by humans can remain such a mystery to those who invented it in the first place. And then I drifted off. Again.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Coming of age

I'm really enjoying the Boellstorff book 'Coming of Age in Second Life'. I thought that this was right on the button: 'Second Life culture is profoundly human. It is not only that virtual worlds borrow assumptions from real life; virtual worlds show us how, under our very noses, our "real" lives have been "virtual" all along. It is in being virtual that we are human: since it is human "nature" to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being. Culture is our "killer app": we are virtually human.' (Boellstorff, 2008). And that's only p.5...can't wait for the rest!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Facebook power

I learnt today that PGCE students compare school placement experiences through Facebook. Well I expect they’ve been doing it for some time, but the difference is that now the staff have cottoned on! So there’s a sort of student backchannel that exposes the wide variety of provision and experience. Ofsted would love access to this to drill through the glossy veneer of ‘partnership’ which ITE institutions are forced to present! Hearing this made me think how powerful social media can be. In earlier times ITE could operate a sort of divide and rule approach. Just as long as students were isolated in their various placement schools, they could be encouraged to get on with it and to see the local reality as the only reality. Of course they shared stories with friends, met up in pubs and commiserated with each other by phone, but the Facebook network is far more powerful. They are more widely and more publically connected and their conversations build. I expect we’ll be starting to advise students not to use Facebook soon, if indeed we aren’t already doing so. I mean if you ‘have to have a photo taken of you clutching your handbag, mascara running, asleep in the corridor when you were too drunk to make it back to your room’ (Miller, 2010:114) then what’s the point in having a reference?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


These last three posts under the title of 'Making it' are just ways of trying to figure out some connections between how stuff is produced, its history and the various roles of people and technologies. If the bookcase began with a plan, or a script, in the form of a text, it took human labour and the control of particular kinds of tools to produce. It grew out of a specific event or performance, in a particular time and now continues to perform a function. And presumably the rock band also started with plans or scripts - a number of different texts, musical, visual, gestural - and even, sartorial. Control of the musical tools is required for production as well as video tools to capture the performance. It presumably grew out of a rehearsed, a practised performance and continues to perform the function of entertainment. And so, too, the dance video, inspired by earlier texts or cultural forms, it is a performance at the practice stage. People and practices are central to all three performances, but they each involve intricate connections between texts and tools and all have there own history and temporal tragectories. The stuff we are left with seems to carry all the traces of prior activity, is conditioned by it and it turn conditions future activity.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Making it #3 - smartmob meme

It quite intrigues me that the whole concept of the smartmob, popularised by Howard Rheingold, has been adopted by traditional media to advertise itself. So last year we had the Tmobile phone company flashmob at Liverpool Street station and then this year the filming of a flashmob dance in Covent Garden. The video above shows an amateur take of the Covent Garden shoot (to promote Sky TV). Ruth auditioned and got paid for this. You can see her on the top right! So does old media eat new media or is it just a different way of making it?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Making it #2

My friend's son sings for this rock band. I like the energy in the preformance even though it's not my kind of music; and it makes me laugh! In some ways it's a sort of remix, a reversioning of guitar-based rock which has now been around long enough to cross generations. The performance has got all the elements, audial, visual and gestural. It's a different kind of peformance, a different sense of 'making it' to that shown in the previous post. The underlying question I have in mind is a semiotic one. Does it point to or represent anything else, or is it just what it is?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Making it #1

This is a bookcase my brother made when we were teenagers at home. He followed a plan from a DIY magazine he subscribed to, using the instructions (more or less) with a few improvisations on the way. He was always at his happiest making and doing. The bookcase ends up being an object that has outlasted him. I think its got an authentic sixties feel to it, and now it works well to store my back numbers of JECL: now ten years old. Still thinking about objects and material culture, I wanted to document this because it was a performance of something or other: and now its performing something else. It's useful. The object doesn't carry the story, or represent anything, it's just caught up in everyday events; a bit like Stan Ogden's glasses.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Twitter

I suppose as time goes on and the novelty wears off we can start to differentiate between different sorts of social networking , what they do best and how that suits our purpose at any given time. As will be fairly clear the blogging format works well for me, because it allows me to capture what interests before it evaporates, but in a reflective (but fairly rapid) form. But because I’ve never really got successful at photography, Flickr attracted me initially as a place to keep images and then as a place to study how we might network around images. Now I have mobile Flickr, new possibilities present themselves, but I’ve been rather slow on the uptake. Microblogging suggests something that’s different again. I like the always on idea, I like the economy of words that is imposed and sometimes I appreciate the chaos and randomness of intersecting conversations. Twitter works best for me when I’m bored. And that’s not very often. I like it, too when there’s a bunch of people I’m familiar with who are trading ideas around a theme. And finally I like Twitter as a backchannel at conferences and so on. But I’ve also noticed that how Twitter is presented makes a difference to me. The standard Twitter interface is a bit boring, somehow a little too flat for my liking. So I swapped to Tweetdeck, but I nearly chucked that in the summer because it’s too busy, too demanding, too intrusive. So my favourite quickly became Twitterberry, simply because it’s mobile and that seems to me to capture the lightweight feel of tweeting. But then Twitterberry got so very slow and so limited in functionality. I went back to a more self-disciplined use of Tweetdeck. Then Ruth introduced be to the Uber Twitter beta for Blackberry. That’s what I call an app! I really like the location function. If I want to, I can show you more or less exactly where I am. That’s fun; but it’s also pretty useful. Who needs a map with a good mobile? Who needs to know where you are with GPRS?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Houses and stuff

Daniel Miller’s Stuff is the best thing I’ve read for a long while. For a start he writes well; but also the book is an intriguing glance over the shoulder at his own journeys in social anthropology and the investigation of material culture. A favourite extract is where he launches into a passionate rebuttal of the semiotic perspective on clothing: ‘what and where is this self that the clothes represent?’ he asks. ‘In both philosophy and everyday life we imagine that there is a real or true self which lies deep within us....It is as though if we peeled off enough layers we would finally get to the real self within.’ And then ‘if you keep peeling off our layers you find: absolutely nothing left. There is no true inner self. We are not Emperors represented by clothes, because if we remove the clothes there isn’t an inner core. The clothes were not superficial, they actually made us what we think we are.’ (p.13). It’s the sort of performative account of ourselves that I was alluding to here. After all that I’m now in Houses: Accommodating Theory (Chapter 3), I wonder if that will be as entertaining.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Narratives of the self

Sartre wrote ‘a man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it’ (1964). Setting aside the rather unfortunate gendering, this is a particularly rich starting point for anyone thinking about identity and self narrative and indeed it forms the central motif of Bruner’s ‘Life as Narrative’. I’ve read the Bruner piece a couple of times and I have to say I’m a big fan. There is however a strong thread of determinism in the Bruner argument. He suggests that the narratives we inhabit are culturally constructed, rather than played out in a cultural context. I would argue for a more performative account...and I guess that’s the direction that Bruner veers towards in the end of the paper when he says ‘any story one may tell about anything is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it can be told.’

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writers and social networking

I've just read a fascinating piece on how professional writers might engage with audiences (or prosumers) using social media. Alison Boyle's project is described on Write4Children here, and raises thought-provoking issues about social networking in general. There are some familiar themes, such as the observation that most online networks are extensions of offline ones, as well as interesting observations about language conventions and building an audience. She also points to the limitations of the common tendency for brief commenting; comments that may be positive, but don't actually help you to refine your ideas. I was also struck by the short consideration of ratings, as used on Quizilla and the implications of applying crude mathematical algorithms to content on SNSs.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Identity themes

Elizabeth Moje and Allan Luke have an interesting review that explores the relationships between literacy and identity in the current issue of RRQ. This follows the Special Issue of Literacy, on the same theme, that I put together with Victoria Carrington earlier this year. The Moje and Luke review explores some interesting areas and overlaps but in the end it failed to really impress. I found the most useful bits were the questions posed, and the issues raised, rather than the themes that were identified. However, the review sits well alongside the excellent Grenfell essay on Bourdieu, Language and Literacy in the same issue.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Return of the flaneur

Yes, it's true, I was in Paris at the weekend. Paris is now so much closer, thanks to the Eurostar. So it's perfectly possible to be a weekend flaneur. The only problem is that it can take twice as long to get to London as it can to get to Paris. So the picture shows the flaneur at rest or, to be exact on the Metro. That's one way to spend le weekend. The next three all involve teaching. Still, musn't grumble!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Beware the wordle tree!

I'm getting rather cynical about Wordle - what does it actually do? A glorified word count, that’s all. It doesn't really produce a tag cloud based on a folksonomy, or an aggregate of our interpretations. It scans the document and produces something that looks like a tag cloud, treating words as data rather than words as ideas. However, I did like this post on visualizing tools as an accompaniment to reading (thank you, Ian). I also came across this piece on tagging, which is really informative. Cathy Marshall investigates the up and downside of tagging in Flickr, a subject that I’ve written about (but not in such an analytical way). Her argument implies that we could be better taggers (maybe?). It would be interesting to get students to tag learning objects, such as the paper Ian refers to, after a close reading, maybe using a better tool to build a folksonomy within a more focused affinity space. Maybe that could be achieved by ‘negotiated tagging’ in a learning space like pbworks?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The road ahead

I was very pleased to be asked to contribute to the University of Exeter Graduate School of Education seminar series, yesterday. This gave me an opportunity to develop my thinking about virtual world literacies in classrooms, good because I’m currently putting the final touches to a journal article on this topic. I’m also making final changes to the Web 2.0 and participation paper, which should see the light of day, soon. That leaves a book chapter on social networking and primary schools and that’ll be me done for this year. Early next year I have a chapter-length entry for The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. After that it will be time to knuckle down and do a more thorough analysis of the teen social networking data. Then I suppose we must turn our attention to publishing the outcomes of the ESRC Seminar Series!

Friday, October 23, 2009

After Heath

The other day I tweeted this quote, which captures an idea which has become very popular. But does written representation actually enjoy that privilege? In many ways literacy is a rather limiting description, all too often associated with schooled practices, skills and drills, and quite basic competences. Yet for many of us the idea of events and practices frees us from that trap. Heath was instrumental in showing that a strict distinction between the oral and the literate doesn't really capture our relationship to texts. Understanding the social is 'integral to participants' interactions and interpretive processes' (1982:50). In other words meaning-making doesn't happen in isolation. So any text could work in that way, whether in writing or any other modality. The only privileges that writing enjoys are those that are directly related to power structures in the job market, in business and the legal system (to name but a few). We need to give learners access to those privileges, whilst building a curriculum that takes an informed view of everday communication.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Virtually more

Victor Keegan writes in today’s Guardian about the 3-D web and the rush to create virtual cities. It’s techno-utopian stuff but he draws attention to the narrowing gap between social networking and virtual worlds. Interesting stuff, but when most people you meet turn their nose up at the idea of virtual worlds, you begin to wonder who signs up to all those accounts. But I’m also interested in the whole notion of what’s virtual and how it’s immediately associated with heavily technologically mediated experience and a Snowcrash-like alternate reality. So reading Nicholas Burbules (here) is food for thought.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Animoto - Morocco

It's easy to make a quick animated show with animoto. I'm hoping to be working with some enthusiastic young primary school teachers who will be using this in the classroom. For my part, I've only just started experimenting - maybe more later!

....not quite so good with video, though. Perhaps that's something to do with the size of the file, or maybe it's just the functionality. I like it as a quick way of presenting images.

....but, all things being equal, I think I'll stick to pics.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New doorplates

So it's new professorial doorplates for Andrew Burn (yay!!), Carey Jewitt (yay!!) and Gemma Moss (yay!!); and of course for Dr John Potter.....The humble doorplate turns that institutional space into your place. It labels and claims the space that it guards. After reading Latour on doors (ways through walls) and door-closers (as agents), I'm now seeing office spaces in a new light. But I'm also appreciating revisiting Nicholas Burbules' work on the virtual. It's a densely packed piece, but I like his ideas on transformation. 'Eventually, the sense of inhabitance, familiarity, and comfort people feel in virtual space and time - especially when these are experienced in conjunction with the simialr engagements of other people - achieve a further qualitative shift: from virtual spaces to virtual places.' (p.174). He goes on to develop the idea of place by referring to the idea of an 'objective location' . One that becomes personally and socially meaningful. Somewhere where one can belong (or not). Burbules is useful - but I don't think he really accounts for the importance of objects and texts, or for the fact that some spaces are other people's places. That there are hostile, bad or forbidden places, too

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Doctoring the doorplate

I seem to remember having to wait about four months for my Dr nameplate to arrive. It took about the same length of time to get the Prof one - not, you must understand that I'm particularly bothered about such titles, but when they're all you get for your labour I suppose they have some sort of significance. Anyway I moved office so now it looks like another four month wait until I get a name, let alone a title. As you can see above there's a particular kind of literacy practice involved - sticking plastic letters on to an aluminium strip. In the picture I'm reversing the process. Erasing some of the letters.

This subversive literacy practice has now left me with this sign. Now I'm guessing that corporate signage actually becomes so invisible that it will be hardly noticed - except that is by colleagues who are covert readers of my blog. All the same I'm not anticipating a queue of mixed reality tourists outside the office tomorrow or any other day!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Extending the seminar

It was a really good idea to extend Monday's seminar into Second Life and I really enjoyed sitting on a cushion watching the sun go down! We mainly picked up on Sheila's work on information literacy and were interested to learn how keen librarians are on this kind of work. I suppose that maybe because they are more used to self-directed learning and helping people to find things out (as opposed to telling people, which is still the dominant discourse of teaching). Sheila took us on a bit of a tour and this really fleshed out what she was referring to on Monday.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Seminar summary

Day One of the ESRC Seminar Series was excellent, or as Sheila Yoshikawa might say, v good (and certainly not puke-worthy). I thought it might be useful to post up my summary of what emerged as the key themes of the day, leaving aside Michele's new kitchen in New Jersey (too many news, there?). So first of all, and I suppose quite predictably, the themes of identity and identity performance came to the fore. Initially in the notions of self-presentation in virtual spaces, and also the whole fascinating area of relational identity. For instance: how do you decide which penguins to talk to in Club Penguin? Who do you think is like you ,and who do you think will like you? But also through several examples, other aspects of performance were highlighted. Jackie talked a lot about socio-dramatic play, and others, including Michele refered to various kinds of enactment of texts (Andrew reminded us of the way in which John Carrol applies drama theory to gaming). This theme of identity also touches on the whole area of immersion and the move from a third person to a first person connection with one's avatar. I wrote about the phenomenon of 'flow' or being in the zone a while back, and I guess this is one of the fears that fuel moral panics; the idea that we might get 'lost' in a virtual world, provoked by the technology into some sort of personality disorder. Julia alerted us to the various media discourses around virtuality, and Sheila underlined the particularly strong reactions that Second Life provokes. Questions of how we research and theorise children and young people's engagement with virtual worlds were never far away throughout the day. I was struck by the ways in which different virtual worlds have different affordances and of course the role of written language (digital literacy) is always a pre-occupation. Towards the end of the day we were debating those very definitions of literacies, multimodality and meaning-making that are central to the field.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Virtually starting

It's great to be at the beginning of a new semniar series - and on my birthday, too! Thank you ESRC , for the present. The series is called 'Children and young people's digital literacies in virtual online spaces'. Today Julia Gillen will be giving a history of the virtual, Jackie Marsh will explore the nature of virtuality and Sheila Webber will talk about her life in Second Life. And, just before Sheila, I get to talk with Michele Knobel via Skype. Wow! I've also set up hash tag for tweets and that's #virt09. You can check out the web-site here, which we hope to develop as the series progresses.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Virtually meeting

Meeting online holds great promise for those who need to collaborate but are geographically separate. Fast connection speeds now mean that it’s relatively easy to communicate synchronously, and there are whole host of different ways of doing this. One-to-one communication gets ever more sophisticated. Skype still leads the way in this respect. But when we scale-up and want any kind of sophisticated group communication (as opposed to presentation or formalised debate), things can get tricky. I’ve been working with various web-conferencing tools such as Elluminate and more recently Connect that provide a range of tools that could make educational interactions possible. Organising a fully-participative discussion is hard work. The problems are legion. There are problems of time lag, echo and sound balance (simply technical, but still important) and then there are problems of convention (signalling tentativeness, establishing turn-taking and conversational repair). I much prefer meeting in Second Life, it feels more like a real space in which you can see the room rather than imagine it, move and gesture in ways that just look daft on a webcam. But in many ways there are the same limitations. And I’m left wondering whether all this is because these media inevitably reduce communication or whether it is because we haven’t yet developed the basic conventions to make it work.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Gateway to social media

This is it! Just what I’ve been looking for, a mobile app that I can use to update on the go. ShoZu offers a seamless gateway to social media like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and Blogger (as well as others). You can download a free trial or pay a small fee. This is the kind of convergence I’ve been waiting for since I upgraded my Blackberry. Speaking of which I really like the new feature that allows you to send a map of your location to someone else on messenger. Great for co-ordinating social meeting, when it works. Unfortunately it’s not very reliable and can often just send an ‘unable to retrieve data’ message. But as with ShoZu it’s the potential that is interesting!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

New doctors

I'm just back from Cork and want to congratulate Dr Concannon-Gibney for a great thesis on implementing comprehension work in Irish schools. It's great to talk to researchers who are passionate about their ideas. Congratulations also to Dr Mugliett for her fascinating work in creating on an online community of teachers in Malta. Both pieces of work show how carefully designed educational research can really make a difference. As much as I'm suspicious of the whole notion of impact, work that engages practitioners is important to celebrate.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

End-game literacies

Even in the face of a family bereavement old media insists on re-cycling what they think we want to read. Obituaries of my brother have not been too kind. The literacies of power are everywhere at such times, even in the documentation which is recorded and signed, and then signed again. I remember Roy Harris in 'Rethinking Writing' claiming that your signature is the only thing you can't forge - but that's indeed what I thought I was being accused of at the Registry of Births and Deaths in Barnstaple. 'What does that say?' I was asked. 'My name.' I replied in all honesty. 'But what?' came the reply. And so I had to slowly write my name on some scrap paper to try to recall what exactly that scrawl was supposed to represent! Anyway literacy aside, the photograph shows the two of us outside the Captain's Table a week before he died.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I've just been reading about active lurking - what a great concept! I must say it sits up there with Ron Carter's 'purposefully vague' and Jim Gee's 'pleasantly frustrating'. Active lurking can be used to describe that early stage when you just watch what's going down online - in a discussion, in social software or in a virtual world. You're watching and learning, rather like young children do, just before they join in. It reminds me of the idea of the silent period we used to refer to in second language acquisition. The idea being that you are actively learning the rules of the game, but not yet ready to participate. Of course, the frustrating part for the teacher or facilitator is working out whether the lurking is shirking - when that attentiveness has become passivity. Still, feel free to actively lurk in the blogosphere. I'll only know if you've moved on when you leave a comment!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What's new?

I suppose there will come a point at which the 'new' of new literacies and the 'new' of New Literacy Studies will no longer be so new, suffering the same fate as the 'modern' in modern art. But that time has yet to come. Colin and Michele's idea of new literacies has been very influential and has suceeded in capturing and labelling some of the significant ways in which literacy is changing. These are not only changes in the creation and distribution of texts, but also in the ways in which meanings form and mutate - and as they point out, this involves a changed mindset. But literacy, like language itself, is always in transition and to a large extent new literacies have evolved out of earlier practices, and new-er literacies inevitably come around. New literacies has, however, enabled us to talk about some of the important shifts that have taken place in the last ten years and has given a focus for what we encourage educators and policy-makers to take on board. On the other hand, New Literacy Studies, although it has often become entwined with new literacies emphasises instead a new approach to the study of literacy - an approach that recognises the plurality of literacy and the influence of power in patterning both macro forms (or practices) as well as micro processes (or events). I imagine that New Literacy Studies remains 'new' partly because - Brandt and Clinton, aside - an alternative approach has yet to emerge. In Web 2.0 for Schools, Julia and I draw on both these 'news' to develop something newer. Unfortunately, what we didn't have space to do was to evaluate these approaches in terms of their capacity to help in conceptaulising Web 2.0. As attention shifts to virtual worlds and social software, I have a feeling that this sort of evaluation may begin to emerge.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Seeing through machines

When Second Life works well, you're not really so aware that you're 'on the computer'. The machine itself becomes transparent and you're looking into the world or else feeling that you're immersed in it. If linguistic transparency is what enables us to be in the world of the text, then technological transparency does something similar - it simply mediates your communication. That's how Second Life becomes 'a place to meet'. Bolter and Grusin refer to virtuality as a 'medium whose purpose is to disappear' and they describe it in terms of the 'logic of transparent immediacy' (2000:23). Today all four of us had sound and for once the technology seemed transparent!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Paying for it

'Oh, machines!' cursed the woman at the pizza checkout. The machine, in this case the card-reader, is the object that comes into focus when it's broken. The technology is obstinate. But, for the rest of the time it's just an integral part of the everyday transaction of ordering lunch. It's embedded in the whole process. In fact, the card-reader involves a very basic kind of digital literacy. The customer punches in a pin number, keys 'enter' and then waits. The machine responds and, if all goes well, payment is accepted with the appearance of a message on the small screen. Behind the scenes, of course, the technology connects to processes in the banking infrastructure - but all this is hidden from view and rarely requires much attention. We take it for granted that the correct account is debited by the exact amount. This is new technology at work. I wonder if we can make any connections to other digital literacies or even those associated with technologies in the classroom? Maybe - for instance, the example shows us technology fully embedded in a purposeful social context. It is easy, almost transparent and provides a convenient alternative (in this case to cash payment). In the same way, the search, the message, the collaborative project done on a networked computer could be the same: an easy, almost transparent, convenient alternative to traditional literacies. But the example of the card-reader also illustrates different orientations in research - what Cathy is calling the researcher's gaze. We could perhaps focus our attention on the technology (the card-reader) itself, and get interested in the magic, the functionality, the thing-ness of the machine and how it substitutes for human endeavour. Alternatively, we could get interested in how the various actors - employees and customers interact with each other around the card-reader. We could see the card-reader as a kind of catalyst for interaction and transaction. Or alternatively, we could see the card-reader as an integral part of the social experience and, in turn, the whole lunch-time economy. This becomes closer to actual everyday experience, removes the 'wow factor' from technology and embeds it in the wider ecology of the context. Three perspectives or three gazes, and they're probably all important, just different ways of paying for it!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Virtual worlds symposium

Today was the virtual worlds symposium at BERA (Manchester University). It was good to be presenting alongside Andrew, Julia and Peter, and Jackie - although I don't think any of us had long enough. It was also a pleasure to have Helen Nixon as a discussant and she made some great summary points. I'll now have to retrieve whatever I wrote about transmedia skills, because I forgot to include it in my preseentation, and she picked up on that! I also liked the way she talked about our challenge to the transformational discourses sometimes attached to new media and digital literacies. So there's plenty to set things in motion for the new ESRC Seminar Series which promises so much. I'm not a great fan of BERA and I've often complained about the timing, but this year it felt like a good start.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Close Encounter

Well, I’ve just finished revising the Sci-Fi materials for Scholastic and by far the most eye-opening thing has been re-jigging the activities to fit the new Primary Strategy objectives for writing. With 12 strands to look at and as many as 5 objectives per strand in each year, it’s a fairly complex task. I also felt that some of the objectives needed re-wording or else are just too general to make sense. Then, of course, some of the objectives are broken down into 3 steps for learning. To make matters worse the QCA assessment focuses for writing complicate rather than simplify the endeavour, often referring to concepts that you might find in Grammar for Writing. This is of course exactly what we mean by schooled literacy (coined by Cook-Gumperz, 1986). It’s all very worthy, but at the end of the day it seems rather like an atomised description of skills that get orchestrated (a favourite Strategy word) to produce texts that conform. Progression is sequenced in a rather arbitrary way. One can’t help thinking of the whole exercise as one of control....over on Planet Foucault.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Infected by fiction

I've been busy writing curriculum materials on science fiction. One of the themes is about alien beings, so I was rather put out to catch sight of myself in the mirror with a little red-eye invasion. This has now blossomed into a real top quality alien eyeball (see pic). The chemist shrugged. 'Buster Bloodvessel' is how he addressed me, 'just give it time'. Now no-one can look me in the eye. I feel like an alien. This must be infiction. But at least I don't smell of bacon!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Remembering things differently

Our self-narratives are stitched together from half-remembered fragments. I’m learning this through sharing memories of childhood with my brother. What has become a significant event for me has been forgotten by him, whereas his version of fact is often differently remembered by me. So when Siri Hustvedt writes: 'There is no clear border between remembering and imagination', it strikes a resonant chord. I love the way she talks about how we re-imagine ourselves in narration. 'Time is a property of language, of syntax, of tense' is another favourite. These are both in The Sorrows of an American. But I also recently read her essay on the same themes and this weaves in these threads with the topic of identity 'Identities, identifications anddesires cannot be untangled from one another. We become ourselves through others, and the selfis a porous thing, not a sealed container. If it begins as a genetic map, it is one that is expressed over time and only in relation to time...We do not author ourselves, which is not to say that we have no agency or responsibility, but rather that becoming doesn’t escape relation.' Granta 104. These sort of things occasionally get posted in Blogtrax which seems to have decided to ban me of late. Hustvedt is here and here, but if you want a more intimate and sustained view, this is from the Australian tour.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Literacies past

My father started working life as a teacher in a Nottinghamshire mining village at the time of the Depression. He used to talk a lot about the hungry children with no shoes on their feet. I’ve recently come across his teaching notes from that time, written in pen and ink in a flowing cursive hand. It’s a fascinating insight into the curriculum of the time, concerning what was thought to be important to pass on to the young. Geography and history are unsurprisingly anglocentric, undeniably nationalistic, and sometimes what would now be deemed racist. There’s a strong emphasis on nature study and lots of English. This is usually subdivided into prose, verse, reading, language study and composition. An extract from prose study runs like this: How a Little Boy Spent Two Shillings. The story itself is quite simple, but the following needs explanation :- disposed to talk confidentially; common complaint; lattice; Chippendale. The questions will be asked orally. The surviving students from that era will be about 85 years of age now, having lived through the Depression, World War Two, the Sixties, the Miners Strike, and so much more. I hope their education served them well and that they are disposed to talk confidently!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I don’t know why but I seem to be writing curriculum materials again (Code MD is a theme). So I thought I’d look for some official support for using multimodal texts and video extracts in the primary classroom. Despite all the optimism about curriculum reform I was surprised how little there is out there. OK, so the National Strategies which have been the heavy handed steer on literacy teaching will be disbanded in September 2011 and the new curriculum area ‘English Communication and Languages’ sounds promising, but the draft subject descriptions don’t look that different. QCDA consultations on subjects claim that multimodality has been introduced, but it’s just tweaking, and apart from ‘searching using various sources’ what has been simply titled English is mostly about print and handwriting. Meanwhile, back in the present, the National Strategy has an uncredited and unbranded paper on Multimodal ICT Digital Texts. Not particularly inspiring. I found myself doing a cut and paste on the principle concerns. Here goes: 1.Digital technology and ICT texts will not replace traditional literacy. 2. Books will remain as central to the reading experience 3. Pen and paper will not disappear. 4. Keyboarding and touch typing will need to be balanced with the development of fluent handwriting. 5. There will also be occasions where more traditional forms of literacy are better suited to the job in hand.6. [children] need to be helped to make discriminating judgements about when and how to draw on digital or more traditional forms of texts for communication and understanding. It’s a document of concerns rather than ambitions. I hope the new primary curriculum can be more inventive. Early indications are less than inspiring.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Writing 1540

If you’re anything like me, you just think of Palatino as a font on a drop-down menu, but actually Palatino (Giovani Battista Palatino) was an early scholar of the technology of writing. He was fascinated by the different forms of writing systems and those used in other languages at various times in history. This is his rendering of Arabic. In 1540 he published a writing manual in Italian called The New Book of Learning to Write. Was this literacy sponsorship? Anyway I suppose that it was his version of new literacies!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

DJ literacies as process

The practices of music production and consumption have always fascinated me. In writing about literacy, DJ-ing and remixing have become popular metaphors, as for example in the work of Dyson (2003) and Lanshear and Knobel (2006). They have also been used to describe the Web 2.0 user/developer (Boutelle, 2005). But I want to re-focus on the DJ and what might be called DJ-literacies. The short video segment shows a successful London-based DJ, preparing his material. Note how the tracks are downloaded from specialist sites, assembled on CD, catalogued on word-processed labels ready for remixing on digital decks in performance. There’s a whole string of literacy events that lie behind the live recontextualizing. To me this illustrates how a focus on digital literacy as text can be rather reductive, concealing the depth and complexity (or the absence of these!) of everyday practices. And that's a call for a richer description!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

All a Twitter

Reading today’s Guardian you might be forgiven for thinking that the nation is obsessed with Twitter. The front page reports the Ofcom story of young people’s declining use of Facebook and Twitter, the Sports section has a piece on a footballer who’s using tweets to slag off his manager in a transfer deal, and the IT section has two pieces. The first of these is perhaps the most interesting because it looks at this guidance on governmental tweets. The second reports on Guardian journalists at play with the techies. The best of the latter is the Guardian Twat Race (their name not mine) which captures government feeds and uses them to animate a robot! When I was out with friends last week the T-word quickly became a topic of conversation. Somebody 'didn’t get' social networking...common enough...and then this was followed by '... and as for Twitter!' But you don’t need a very long memory to remember the same about blogging or about texting. The trajectory is interesting. At first these things bumble along quite nicely, then you get some high profile users, the application gets popular and it’s quickly followed by plenty of coverage which polarises public opinion. And after that? After that it all settles down, gets integrated in people’s everyday literacy practices, end of story.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Reviewing new literacies

Although I always look forward to the latest edition of Reading Research Quarterly, I rarely read all the articles. One thing the journal excels at however is the essay book review. I nearly always look at this. In 44:1 there was an excellent review of The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky, which was well argued, erudite and gave a balanced appraisal of the book. I learnt so much about how Vygotsky has been differently interpreted by different translators and theorists. In the current issue, Robert Tierney has an extended review of The Handbook of Research on New Literacies. It is a very close reading of an impressively sized tome. Ever the egotist, I quickly noticed that there was a decent paragraph on my chapter! There is also a perceptive conclusion; a summing up of the work which I suspect would have even stretched the illustrious editors. On another note, I’ve been asked to do an entry on Critical Media Studies for a new dictionary of applied linguistics, so if anyone has any suggestions please leave a comment. I’ll also try Twitter (often really useful for this sort of thing).

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Heidegger's hammer

I’m back, but slowly, slowly. First Second Life, then the emails, next a bit of Twitter and now the blog! The video is from my daughter’s blessing in Marrakech and that’s where I was last month (there’s another video here). Whilst I was away the Special Issue of Literacy that I guest edited with Vic came out. It’s a great issue and explores some interesting themes on identity and literacy. Check it out! Although I’ve not been working I have been reading. One of the things that’s made the most impact has been Heidegger on technology, and particularly the idea that users become absorbed in their interactions with technology until the tool itself ‘withdraws’ from experience. This phenomenological approach offers an alternative way of looking at the experience of being in the zone as described by gamers. Vic also writes about this, using the example of the way the mobile phone only really comes into view as an object when you can’t get a signal (as with Heidegger’s hammer). And so, back to the blog as a fairly fluid way of expressing myself. Yes, I said fluid; not fluent!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Blog off

Just to explain that not posting for a week isn’t the result of Twitteration, but just the domination of life circumstances. I’m also off on leave this week, so don’t expect much more until August! First of all I’ll be here, and then I’ll be here. The highlight of recent events has to be listening to Anne Haas Dyson at the New Literacies event. She is impressive. I was particularly struck by the way in which she concluded that official literacy in school is marked by individual performance on a rather narrow range of literacy practices, which I noted here. She also spoke eloquently on writing (and children’s writing in particular) as a dialogic process. That, of course, and so much more. Well done, Anne!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Digital conclusion

Just finished the next draft of a paper on virtual worlds. It's strange how the writing process moves you to previously unarticulated positions. Does it make sense? I'm posting a bit of my final paragraph here, in the hope that I get some reaction. Here goes, warts and all... If the digital literacy practices of virtual worlds offer anything distinctive to formal education these attitudes and dispositions may hold the key. Enthusiasts claim that virtual worlds can promote learning that emerges from what Graham (2008)calls the ‘playfully social’ in which learners can benefit from network effects (Gauntlett & Jackson, 2008), developing interest-driven collective intelligence in which knowledge is distributed and collaboratively produced (Gee, 2004). If this is indeed the case then they pose a fundamental challenge to traditional schooling. The current emphasis on standards, derived from measures of individual performance on a rather narrow range of literacy practices coupled with pervasive and powerful discourses of what constitutes literacy instruction, limits our capacity for innovation. Changes in teacher preparation, continuing professional development as well as wider educational reform may be needed. The real transformation may rest on how we can re-imagine meaningful interactions in which pupils and teachers have the wider access to the ideational and relational resources that new technology can enable.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Digital literacy

I’ve been wanting to return to the matter of defining digital literacy for some time now, but never quite seem to get the opportunity to write a whole piece. After several encounters this week it seems like a good idea to put some markers down. Look out, this could be an uncharacteristically lengthy post! Here goes. My basic standpoint that digital literacy is best described as digitally mediated written communication (literacy qua literacy) remains unchanged. Unchanged for the reasons I’ve put forward elsewhere and synthesized in this piece. It seems to me that there are two substantive criticisms of this position. The first is that digital communication has become such a densely textured multimodal affair that it is unrealistic, reductive or somehow artificial to regard the different modes as separately functioning entities. They make meaning in and because of their interaction. The second criticism flows from this first one and suggests that that a literacy purist’s definition of the digital reduces literacy to letter-acy or basic alphabetic decoding and is therefore old-school. My counterargument is that literacy has always described the production and consumption of written language in a way that includes everything from the simple, perhaps unattractive but nonetheless essential, act of decoding letters, right up through comprehension into the critical reading of literature, media texts and so on in the various and diverse contexts in which it occurs. The fact that many texts are complex multimodal constructions does not undo the fact that we read different semiotic systems differently in order to build our various holistic meanings (that point follows on from Kress). In other words digital literacy has its origins in print literacy but reaches out and beyond the confines of bookspace. And this, I think, is the point at which digital literacy gets interesting; the very point at which the written word starts to take on new appearances, to perform new functions, to interact with new media, to connect different ideational and relational resources, to mutate, hybridize and so on. When we apply this sort of view of digital literacy to education it gets even more interesting! We are forced to re-evaluate the curriculum (what is literacy and literacy learning, how does it develop, where should it be placed in an education of communication etc etc) and our pedagogy (who learns what from whom and what, as well as how and when). I suspect that these are thoughts that will get developed in later posts!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Facebook tentacles

Wethink - the Facebook tentacles are everywhere. Already enormously popular, the social newtorking site is aggressive and ambitious. Last week I met 3 other academics who are researching Facebook - more or less by chance, and there are many more. But according to this piece, Zuckerberg hasn't just been very successful, he's aiming for world domination, or at least web domination. The idea is to make the social graph an integral and ubiquitous element of life fundamental to the way we use and search the web. The stats are staggering. 4 billion pieces of information uploaded each month means there's a lot of digital literacy going on. But the article also points out that the 850 million photos and 8 million videos uploaded are hidden from Google search engines. Anyone wanting to access them must go through Facebook because the social network treats it all as its own data. So is there competion for our interest? You bet there is. And there's plenty of scope for critical analysis, too. Time for educators to get active!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Worlds apart

I was in Lancaster today, doing this. I enjoyed returning to the Barnsborough material, and it’s interesting how a second reading of the data reveals new issues. Given the discussion that followed, I also thought how there’s scope for a methodological paper, too. Perhaps that could be a collaborative endeavour (maybe Tetra would be interested?). Tomorrow I’m meeting some of the Future Lab people. Dr Joolz will join us, too. Thursday we’ll be in Second Life for a planning meeting. Another day, another world!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pessimism and new literacies

In the paper I'm currently writing I argue that the social control of pedagogic practice mitigates against significant innovation, and that new literacy practices tend to be pressed into the service of older ones. I'm reminded of Foucault’s (1997) description of schooling in which the use of space, disciplinary time and the regulation of activity institutionalise conventional approaches to literacy learning and teaching. The dominant discourses of schooled literacy that emphasise particular understandings of particular textual genres tend to inform the views of both teachers and students. Testing regimes, although very different from the examinations described by Foucault, still guarantee ‘the movement of knowledge from the teacher to the pupil’ (Foucault, 1997:187) and secure the identity of pupils in individual performances of ability, rather than in collaborative acts of problem-solving. In this sense learning through partcipation seems doomed to failure without a radical reshaping of the education system. A pessimistic view?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Virtually planning

Planning the future, again! This is a snap of our first virtual planning meeting for the ESRC Seminar Series "Children’s and Young People’s Digital Literacies in Virtual Online Spaces". The hardest thing was arranging the dates. And isn’t that always the hardest thing in RL, too? There’s no getting away from it. As Willis says "Surprisingly, though, the place where anything is possible bears a striking resemblance to the physical world where what is possible is determined by cultural, legal, temporal and physical constraints "(2007). Maybe I’m not so surprised, after all. Anyway it was good to make some progress. We now need to find a good tag for the series, so we can do the Twitter, Flick mash-up thing; and I need to get back to writing about virtual worlds.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Planning, again

All planning involves imagining the future. In education that often means imagining the setting, the texts and resources, as well as the teachers and learners. But our imaginings are always coloured by previous experiences and constrained by different discourses. Often these discourses are enshrined in official documentation, and are themselves a reification of a past order. And so the past gradually begins to infect the imagined future, right up until the point at which the present is produced. So perhaps innovation rests in the strength and originality of our imaginings of the future and our ability to resist the gravitational pull of the past.