Saturday, April 28, 2012

Digital Bloomsday

I'm drawn to looking at the cross-cutting layers of our literacy practices and what these look like in an era of digital communication. Thursday provided some rich material for this, so I'll give a chronological account. First, though, I must explain that I'm working with Julia Gillen from Lancaster on a number of joint projects including a paper on Twitter, an edited book on virtual literacies and a development project funded by JISC. So, back to Thursday. Soon after getting up, I checked my email to see if I'd received an invoice from Julia. I couldn't find anything, but I did note a couple of other messages from her on other matters. About an hour later she was scheduled to take part in a meeting via Skype. In the few minutes before the meeting started, I was able to check up on some details with her in an informal way. The meeting began. Julia was passed round the room in tablet form, on my iPad. Five of us were sat round the table, Julia was a couple of hundred miles away in her office. We looked at the same project wiki. In the room the wiki was projected onto the whiteboard; Julia watched it on her office PC. Throughout the meeting those in the room talked in fuller, more explicit utterances than normal, and at a slightly higher volume, conscious perhaps of performing to the absent presence of Julia. When she spoke we all leaned in and nodded attentively. Anyway, later in the afternoon, I was back on email, and began to attend to other business. This included checking some documents that Julia had left on Dropbox. When I was eventually done, I emailed her with comments, and then wrote a cheque for her (associated with a completely different matter). I put the cheque in an envelope with her work address on it, ready to take to the postbox. Before doing this, I emailed her, listing all these varied strands of communication as a bit of a joke.......end of story. So what interests me here is the way in which all these strands overlap, whilst at the same time each having quite distinct trajectories defined by processes and projects that take place in different communicative spaces along quite varied timescales. Perhaps there is nothing new here, apart from an amplification of complexity, a density, and a pace that would have been impossible to achieve in a previous era.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Literacies and complexity

On my idiosyncratic pathway through informal meetings and programmed events at AERA 2012 I became interested in how becoming literate with technology is now being conceptualised and investigated. Researchers I have a close affinity with see digital practices as hard to pin down, difficult to describe and often associated with disrupting assumptions about literacy, pedagogy and curriculum. As the simple attractions of the iPad capture the attention of early years researchers, they raise similar issues to those of their colleagues working with older children and youth - both in school, and out-of-school contexts. Issues of varied experience, questions of what is age appropriate, and re-considerations of the processes and products of meaning-making recur. I seem to have come down firmly on the side of embracing complexity, and resisting simple frameworks and accounts, and search for this in the work of colleagues. At the moment I can see three reasons for upholding this acknowledgement of complexity. Firstly, it seems to me to be the stongest theme in my own empirical work. Secondly, it is in sympathy with post-modernism's rejection of grand narratives. And thirdly, from the educational perpective, it defies the sort of reductions that make learning seem measurable and something to assess and therefore a subject for numerous attempts to monitor and control - to render it as a mechanism that holds those institutions and individuals responsible through the vice-like grip of accountability.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


I'm back in the UK, after the annual pilgrimage to AERA, which this year was in beautiful Vancouver. As always it was great to meet up with people and learn new things from the sessions - more on this later. This year I decided to travel in a technologically lite style - with just iPad and flash drive for presentations. Apart from a few teething problems this really does seem to be the way forward. AERA's phonebook of a programme is usually problematic on at least 2 counts. Finding stuff in it can be a challenge, and unless you rip the page out, finding it again is difficult. Then you've got to lug it around multiple venues. Well after some experimentation with the online version, this year we had the conference app. An excellent innovation. You could search the programme, favourite specific schedules and then they would appear on your calendar. Furthermore you could also make notes attached to that particular session and then email them on. If that appears tp privilege the techie, it's not at all like that, because you still have the print version if you prefer it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The shock of the new?

Sifting through some old books I came across an almost pristine copy of the 'Handbook of Suggestions for Teachers' released by the Board of Education (HMSO), 1938. It contains some fascinating material, including this on new technology: 'The films and wireless have already begun to play an important part in education and there is every prospect of their becoming even more important. It must be remembered that they do not so much introduce us to a new kind of education as provide additional opportunities for making existing forms of teaching more concrete and more interesting and for linking up the work of the school with what is going on in the outside world. Certainly, the teacher who is able to employ films or wireless as an aid to instruction may find in one or the other of them an instrument for infusing fresh life and purpose into his syllabuses.' Fairly transferable statements, if you think about it.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Talking about a digital revolution

I have a lot of respect for academic and Guardian columnist John Naughton, who regularly contributes measured responses to debates about technology. However, I think he is misguided in jumping on the coding bandwagon and turning it into a big deal in last Sunday's Observer. So the editorial leader of that paper has some fiery talk about a digital revolution (in the classroom). Here's a quote: ‘For more than a decade, the teaching of information technology in schools has focused on using software rather than understanding systems; and on treating computers more like magical boxes than tools to be programmed and critiqued. With the government's recent decision to throw away this old syllabus and replace it with something better fit for 21st-century purpose, we have an opportunity to rectify a dangerous imbalance and set a new standard.’ It's true that ICT is dead in the water, but across the sectors there have been some highly creative uses of software in just about every subject area. Don't knock it! There have also been some very important moves in critique, but I'd be the first to argue for more in this area. But Naughton's manifesto hangs far too much on coding. He says 'every child should learn some computer science from an early age because they live in a world in which computation is ubiquitous' - well that's not really a justification, and anyway a lot hangs on what he actually means by 'computer science'. The devil is in the detail. He argues against the economic rationale (I'm not convinced that government ministers would go along with this) and suggests that the real issues are moral. He fears that children will 'grow up as passive consumers of closed devices and services, leading lives that are increasingly circumscribed by technologies created by elites working for huge corporations such as Google, Facebook and the like.' Well, there are probably worse things, but actually I think he is dead right. It's just that computer science and coding are unlikely to deliver anything more than the sort of divisions that already exist in classrooms. I'd put my money on the sort of critical media literacy that colleagues have been writing about for some time now. That comes from the best work on digital literacy and the best of media literacy. Yes ICT in schools is 'a toxic brand', but computer science and coding could go the same way. There are parallels in language education and English teaching. Despite the hours spent on grammar teaching, and reviving grammar teaching for the 21st century, its impact on students' language and literacy is very hard to demonstrate, and it mostly ends up showing that some kids are better at grammar than others. Attempts to show how we can be manipulated by grammar (see Hodge & Kress, 1988) were impressive, but despite the best efforts of the LINC project, they had little purchase in schools. Structure may not always be the best way to critique meaning. I happen to believe that meanings are negotiated and critique comes when meanings are contested - and that should be at the heart of the enterprise of public education. If new media are about the meanings we make, then I think that this is a more productive place to begin than coding.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The fashioning of the new consumer

OK - I really like the New iPad, and I'm glad I indulged myself. Like my last purchase, the Kindle, it demonstrates how slick digital technology is becoming. That's the enthusiast talking, of course. But the Kindle is nothing without a few books, a newspaper or two....and then maybe some more books. So, it is just a platform for selling digital content. And the iPad? Well you're going to need some apps, after all, and they're not all free. More digital content. Then, of course, the iPad works very well with iCloud and that's the big sales push. Can that work with my laptop? No. I need to upgrade the Leopard, and that comes at a cost, too. Ah well, there's a cold snap on the way, and it may even snow again, but no need to worry, there's no need to leave the house, I can do all this from home. Who needs shops? They seem curiously old-fangled, now. I'll get a couple of books on the Kindle - click, that's twenty quid out of my bank account, and when I get bored, then what? Well I'll go to the app store and buy a bit more....maybe, I'll do the nostalgia thing and buy some music from the early 70s (iTunes springs to mind), or watch a movie (downloaded from LoveFilm). OK, I made the point. You click, you get - they've already got your card details. No need to leave the sofa. I have become the new consumer.