Wednesday 11 January 2012

Design or be designed for

In the new digital literacy campaign from Michael Gove's office (as reported here in the Guardian) there are a few things to celebrate but perhaps more to regret.

1. Yes, at the classroom level we should focus on teachers' digital capabilities - as an integral aspect of their professionalism - rather than on specific hardware. But it's the government's job to ensure schools have the ICT infrastructure that allows teachers and learners to develop, experiment, and be creative. Higher level capabilities are built on the foundation of basic functional access. In place of the previous Government's investment in ICT infrastructure for schools - whatever we might have thought of how this was targeted - there is just a nod to Google and Microsoft to move into the gap.

2. Yes, computer science is a scholarly, rigorous, exciting and intellectually demanding field of study, and computer scientists will shape all our futures. Courses which focus on the use of basic Office applications should not be confused with computer science. Coding, creating apps, design, understanding formal logic, working with user needs and HCI are all IMO critical skills for the coming decade. As Douglas Rushkoff argues in his book of the same title, we must all learn to 'program or be programmed' by others with better access to digital capital. But how do we make these courses attractive to students again when they have been so thoroughly devalued, not to say trashed as a 'soft option' by the rightwing press?

3. Yes, digital literacy - like reading, writing and the use of number - has life-wide, curriculum wide implications and should not be coralled into a specialist subject area. But where are the teachers with the time - where are the rewards for investing the time? - in substantially rethinking their subject area and teaching practice? Which is what this approach, taken seriously, requires.

Young people in our society, on the whole, can use a diversity of digital devices for entertainment and social networking. The role of schools and the education sector beyond school should be to develop a critical and creative digital literacy, which goes beyond the capacity to choose and use the latest digital product. David Buckingham calls this the capacity for critical reading and creative production. For me the key questions any digital curriculum should ask are:

How are applications, interfaces and environments designed? What are the affordances and implications of those design decisions? Can we use technology 'against' the purposes for which it was designed? How do we recognise the purposes - subtle and unsubtle - for which technology offers itself as the means? How can we use digital networks and infrastructure to further our own collective and individual aims? How are we being threatened, pacified and controlled by technology (and what can we do about it)? How do messages in digital media work on us as audience, and how can we construct our own messages persuasively?

These are questions that the digital media does not exist to ask - only formal education can encourage young people to ask them. We will not find a curriculum of this kind emanating from Gove's offices, but we might find elements of it elsewhere. Read Josie Fraser's blog post on the same topic for signs of hope - at least if you live in Leicester.


Catherine Cronin said...

Excellent post, Helen -- as is Josie Fraser's. There are certainly thorny issues to be worked through re: school resources. Josie's work in Leicester sounds like a wonderful model. Development of creative and critical digital literacies, or a digital curriculum as you call it, within schools is absolutely essential. I teach 3rd level IT students -- already proficient (and even expert) coders -- and issues surrounding digital and social media (e.g. digital identity, online search and research, privacy, collaboration) are often new to them. Having digital skills does not imply having the critical skills and capacity with which to use them effectively, wisely. Digital literacies must be addressed within education, at all levels -- ideally, in addition to computing/IT education.

Catherine Cronin said...
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Catherine Cronin said...
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Frances Bell said...

Thanks for writing this post Helen _ I have wanted to write one but only found time to comment on yours and Josie's. You are so right about the criticality aspect and the need for (some) computer scientists and all digitally literate learners and teachers. For example, not all students need to know how to code a Facebook app but all should and can understand how Facebook's application of default privacy settings impacts on the availability (as a commercial commodity) of Facebook members' personal data. They can also perceive the possibility, at least, of members' actions impacting on Facebook's decisions on privacy settings - digital citizens as well as digital learners.

Martin Oliver said...


Incidentally, I think there's a halfway house between coding and use, which might loosely be described as something like "model literacy", and which involves understanding how models (systems, representations of practices) get created, quantitatively and/or qualitatively, and then used to design with or to change others' practices. It's a more conceptual or strategic kind of reading and writing than pure coding, but surely provides the foundation for good design, and I think it lends itself to the kinds of critical questions (about representation, normalisation, codification and so on) that you rightly highlight here.

No idea where that might get taught, though!

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