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Students’ study strategies are developing in response to an increasingly digital scholarly environment, and the term ‘digital literacies’ is gaining currency as a means by which to understand and support student engagement. However, 'digital literacies' tend to be positioned as measurable, discrete and ultimately residing in the individual. In this view, the student is seen as a ‘user’ of technologies, suggesting a clear division between the human and machine, action and context, writer/reader and text, and the university and other domains of life.
This conception often reduces debates to questions of ‘skills’, undermining insights from New Literacy Studies (NLS) that ‘skills’ do not exist in a generic, decontextualized form, but are always situated in specific practices (Lea & Street, 1998). However, while NLS emphasises the social rather than the cognitive, it has not placed a great deal of emphasis on the embodied materiality of what students actually do, where they do it and what resources and artefacts they do it with. This paper will argue that Actor Network Theory (Latour, 2005) allows us to develop the insights of NLS by addressing sociomaterial aspects of engagements with texts in more detail.
Drawing on these perspectives, a JISC-funded project was undertaken involving longitudinal, multimodal journaling by a dozen students from four programme areas (PGCE, taught MA, distance MA and doctoral) over a period of nine months. Each was issued with an iPod Touch handheld device and asked to take images and video documenting where and how they studied, and the resources they used. All students were interviewed 3-4 times across this period, with interviews structured around the images and other artefacts provided by the students.
The interviews revealed that what disrupts engagement from these students’ perspective was not the presence of new technologies; instead it was the inability to reconfigure sites of study engagement. Disruption frequently arose from the well-established technologies that the institution provided and expected students to use, rather than from ‘bringing their own devices’ – devices which they were perfectly capable of using successfully in other settings.