Friday, 23 October 2009

Digital literacies - LiT meets TEL?

Just been reading Robin Goodfellow's post about the seminar last Friday at the University of Edinburgh on Literacy in the Digital University. He makes some good points about the clash of the 'literacies in learning' and the 'technologies in learning' frameworks, and I'm always in favour of surfacing these tensions. We spend far too much time in e-learning trying to pretend it doesn't matter whether we're hardened instrumentalists or dyed in the wool social theorists, and it won't do.

However, I'm not sure ANY of the presentations I heard at the event, with the possible exception of (some bits of) Chris Jones' summing up (blog it Chris!), fitted the charge that we 'simply utilised the term 'literacies' as a descriptor for different kinds of technical practices'. Personally I avoided the term 'literacy' as much as possible in that company, recognising that it has already been comprehensively theorised and to some extent therefore claimed by academics working in a very particular domain. I prefer to talk about knowledge practices, i.e the expression of some presumed personal capacities, preferences and habits in particular situations (I'm interested in the practices and situations, I'm not at all sure how one goes about accessing or even very usefully defining the personal capacities otherwise). By knowledge practice I do not at all mean 'signing up to follow someone's tweets' as a single action in a particular technology-enabled space, but I probably do mean the bundle of actions I perform using twitter and the meanings they have for me, and for others involved.

One problem may be that just as the literacy people are making certain assumptions about 'their' frameworks being widely shared, we too are making certain assumptions about 'our' technology being widely used. For example, putting a twitterstream live behind a speaker is for me so 'normal' that I didn't even stop to think that there might be sensibilities to consider. For any given f2f event of that kind I expect there to be an accompanying 'event' taking place on twitter (not a 'representation' of the 'real' event but another, parallel event). This 'other' is not even necessarily less interesting or engaging than the first (see on the great keynote/harshtag debate - and twestivals, tweetmeets and flashmobs are examples of an originary twitter event breaking out into the 'real'). And bringing the two events into closer proximity through projection has evolved (I now realise) as a means of dealing with several social issues, e.g. exclusion (people not tweeting can at least take part vicariously in that event), respect (tweeting cannot take place behind anyone's back), interaction (questions can be taken from 'the floor' on a much broader basis), equality (people lacking the confidence to speak in public can tweet in public) etc etc.

I should mention that as a fairly regular presenter using Elluminate and twitter streams I don't find it difficult to speak, monitor a room, and monitor a stream of text at the same time. That is clearly something I have learned to do, but I don't think it's nearly as interesting as what the participants are doing - that is what changes the meaning of the situation. It also, for me, changes the meaning for *everybody* in the room, including those not tweeting.

I was frustrated in Edinburgh (for reasons not at all the fault of the University or our lovely hosts) that I couldn't get online to twitter, and so could not involve the many people outside of the physical situation who I knew were interested in it. In fact, to confess my own technology predelictions, I didn't feel properly 'there' as a result. Had I been tweeting I would not have been failing to engage properly in 'the real': on the contrary, I find tweeting an event for others at least as reflective as writing notes, with the added advantage of bringing other people's reactions and ideas into the live event.

Before we have appropriated a technology to a personal and social practice, the technology itself seems to be the point (this is Robin's perspective). To the outsider, whether by choice or exclusion, the technology IS the practice. I guess writing and print demanded exactly the same focus on the technologies at one time - those bastards have PENS. To the insider, the technology is only visible when it becomes a problem (can't get online). The social practices that Robin found objectionable did need surfacing and exploring and negotiating, but to suggest that they were 'simply' technical practices, and that the technical was hijacking the social, is an equally one-sided perspective.


Fred Garnett said...

Great post, and some provocative points concerning technical issues, literacies and knowledge. The Learner-Generated Contexts Group's Open Context Model of Learning has a concern with developing learners "epistemic cognition", that is inclucating the ability in learners to create new knowledge, we think is overlooked developmentally in education. So analysing technical, literacy and knowledge issues is the way forward here I would think.

HelenB said...

Thanks, Fred. I think framing literacy questions as questions about relationship to knowledge is helpful if we want to take a developmental approach. Learners are straddling several knowledge cultures: it is not just about how they add on new skills, it's also about recognising their existing practices and contexts, and helping them negotiate conflict between cultures. As we are all doing here!