Why it’s not all about the learner: a sociomaterial account of students’ digital literacy practices


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While digital literacies are seen as an important area of current research and practice, most accounts of this rely on capability or competence models of what "digital literacy" means. These decontextualised, cognitive accounts ignore the insights developed in areas like New Literacy Studies, (e.g. Lea & Street, 1998) which have shown that research that focuses on a 'free floating' learner, ignoring settings, resources and cultures, fails to explain important aspects of how literate practice is achieved and enacted.
Adopting a sociomaterial account of learning provides an alternative to these free-floating narratives about student literacy. From this perspective, 'literacy' is an achievement that involves the successful coordination of human and non-human actors – including teachers, other learners, pupils, devices, texts and so on. Drawing on work undertaken as part of a JISC-funded project, we will present a critique of exclusively learner-centred accounts of digital literacy; outline the theoretical framework on which our work has been based; and present a series of case studies that show how an individual's ability to act in a digitally literate way depends on much more than an assumed set of stable, internalised qualities. These will involve data collected by students through multimodal journalling that took place over a period of 9-12 months, and from in-depth interviews that explored what these meant to them.
We will then draw out implications for both research and institutional practice. We will focus on three themes that were developed in the analysis: the importance of textual practice in understanding studying in Higher Education; the idea of spaces and places for study as things that are made, rather than just found or given; and the interactions between technology and temporality. These three themes intersected in rich and complex ways for students. We argue that if institutions wish to develop students' digital literacy, they need to recognise that students are already 'building new cultures of learning' (as the conference themes it), and are doing so out of people, devices, texts and other resources. Institutions therefore need to take these considerations into account in the way that they manage resources and provide services to students.
Delegates will have the opportunity to try out elements of the research approach used, in order to see how these data reveal the role of situational as well as individual elements of students' experiences, and will be have the opportunity to explore implications of the research for resource management and the provision of services to students.

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Why it’s not all about the learner: a sociomaterial account of students’ digital literacy practices

  1. 1. It's not all about the learner: a sociomaterial account of student digital literacy practices Lesley Gourlay & Martin Oliver ALT Conference 2013 (@lesleygourlay)
  2. 2. Mainstream accounts of digital literacies
  3. 3. ‘Digital literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society’ (Beetham, 2010) • Access • Skills • Social practices • Identity
  4. 4. Belshaw (2011): Eight Elements of Digital Literacies: • Cultural • Cognitive • Constructive • Communicative • Confident • Creative • Critical • Civic
  5. 5. The DigEuLit project: • ‘Digital Literacy is the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyse and synthesize digital resources, construct new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specific life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to reflect upon this process’. (Digital competence; digital usage; digital transformation) (Martin & Grudziecki, 2006: 255)
  6. 6. Features of these accounts • Assume DLs to be quantifiable, stable, generic and transferable entities, ie taxonomic • Seen as residing in the individual and amenable to ‘development’ of the student • Cognitive or attitudinal, mixture of capabilities, skills and attributes • Using aspirational, qualitative adjectives: ideology of the graduate as a quality-assured ‘product’? • Gives the impression of ‘learner- centredness’, however learners and enacted
  7. 7. Critique 1: New Literacy Studies
  8. 8. Academic Literacies • Challenge to ‘skills’ paradigm (Lea & Street 1998) • Situated social practices of meaning-making • Textual practices (linguistic, verbal, multimodal) central • Fundamentally unstable and in flux • Context-specific and under contestation • Emergent via struggles with meaning-making • Constitutive of identities and learning
  9. 9. The material campus saturated with digital mediation Status of ‘face-to-face’ placed in radical doubt (Gourlay 2012)
  10. 10. So digital literacies: • Are also overwhelmingly textual and concerned with meaning-making • Are situated in range of cultural, social and disciplinary contexts, and physical and temporal domains • Involve engagement with multiple devices and platforms
  11. 11. An NLS definition ‘The constantly changing practices through which people make traceable meanings using digital technologies. Within this broad definition, specific aspects of digital literacies can be investigated and explored further, understood as in many ways offering a continuity to our understandings of literacies in general as social practice’. (Gillen & Barton, 2010: 9)
  12. 12. Reflexive relationship between textual media and knowledge practices in higher education (Kittler 2004) Need to explore ramifications of devices & digitally mediated semiotic practices on meaning making
  13. 13. However… NLS perspective restores the focus on meaning- making and situated practices, but… There is a need to theorise the digitally-mediated semiotic practices, particularly: The relationship between the student, text and device The multiply distributed nature of digital literacies (Gourlay, Lea & Hamilton in press)
  14. 14. Removing the agency of texts and tools in formalising movements risks romanticising the practices as well as the humans in them; focusing uniquely on the texts and tools lapses into naïve formalism or techno-centrism. Leander and Lovvorn (2006:301), quoted in Fenwick et al 2011 (p104)
  15. 15. Critique 2: Sociomaterial perspectives
  16. 16. If you can, with a straight face, maintain that hitting a nail with and without a hammer, boiling water with and without a kettle...are exactly the same activities, that the introduction of these mundane implements change 'nothing important' to the realisation of tasks, then you are ready to transmigrate to the Far Land of the Social and disappear from this lowly one. (Latour 2005: 71)
  17. 17. Material assemblages Humans, and what they take to be their learning and social process, do not float, distinct, in container-like contexts of education, such a classrooms or community sits, that can be sits, that can be conceptualised and dismissed as simply a wash of material stuff and spaces. The things that assemble these contexts, and incidentally the actions and bodies including human ones that are part of these assemblages, are continuously acting upon each other to bring forth and distribute, as well as to obscure and deny, knowledge. (Fenwick et al, 2011)
  18. 18. Human /nonhuman actors ‘… The more one works with digital technologies, the more one comes to appreciate the capacity of networked and programmable machines to carry out sophisticated cognitive tasks, and the more the keyboard comes to seem an extension of one's thoughts rather than an external device on which one types. Embodiment then takes the form of extended cognition, in which human agency and thought are enmeshed within larger networks that extend beyond the desktop computer into the environment.’ (Hayles 2012:3)
  19. 19. Technologies as mediators An intermediary is ‘…what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs’, while mediators ‘transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry’ (Latour 2005: 39) ‘…for ANT, there is no preferable type of social aggregates, there exist endless number of mediators, and when those are transformed into faithful intermediaries it is not the rule, but a rare exception…’ (Latour 2005: 40)
  20. 20. Entiming ‘... which role do technologies play in ‘entiming’ social action? Do technologies have time? Are they time-loaded? Are there time regimes embodied in technology? Are there temporal norms built into technical artefacts that not only determine the technology itself but also affect the daily uses of the artefact? Or, as we like to ask: how do the temporalities of technology relate to the various temporalities embodied in different social practices?’ (Horning et al 1999: 294)
  21. 21. So digital literacies are • Emergent through networks of human and nonhuman actors • Constitutive of ‘context’, spaces and places • Locally negotiated, created and maintained • Reliant on resilience and creativity • Dependent on robust and flexible infrastructure
  22. 22. Text trajectories Texts and discourses move around and are recontextualised into new interpretative spaces In these transitions they undergo significant changes in meaning (Blommaert 2005, Ehrlich 2012) Entextualisation, where talk is lifted out of interactional setting and becomes text (e.g. Silverstein & Urban 1996) ‘Modes and media of communication carry meanings between streams and flows that make up the texture of the contemporary world, and historically literacy is one of the most important channels through which meanings have crossed space and time’ (Kell 2006)
  23. 23. JISC project research findings
  24. 24. IOE Digital Literacies Project • JISC Developing Digital Literacies Programme • http://diglitpga.jiscinvolve.org/ • IOE, University of London • iGraduate survey / Focus groups / multimodal journalling in year 1 • Case studies across four areas in year 2: • Academic Writing Centre • Learning Technologies Unit • Library
  25. 25. Focus groups
  26. 26. Journaling 12 students recruited from the focus groups, 3 from each of the four groups (distance students via Skype) A structured sequence of interviews: A digital ‘biography’, exploration of current practice, guidance on data generation Students capture images, video and other forms of documentation to explore engagement with technologies for study 2-3 further interviews, building student analysis of data via presentations
  27. 27. Data and findings • Rich body of data • Images, videos and presentation a powerful stimulus for discussion • ‘Interview plus’ (e.g. Mayes, 2006) • Visual methodologies (e.g. Rose, 2012) • Orientations towards engagement with technologies and texts: • Curation, combat and coping
  28. 28. Activity stage 1 Draw your own map about your practices
  29. 29. Now discuss: • How do you engage in networks with devices and in the various domains? • Are spaces associated with particular tasks, texts, times or patterns? • Which spaces do you feel in control of? Where do you feel supported? • What do you need in order for your literacy practices to be enacted?
  30. 30. And add… • What various identities are enacted / constituted? • Where on your map do you do these? • How is that achieved through digital literacy practices Which social actors (human /nonhuman) were enrolled?
  31. 31. Findings
  32. 32. Nonhuman actors / mediators I feel like, also that Google is equally watching you. You know, they’re all watching you, they’re all trying to sell you things […] You know, I don’t want my friends to spy on me, I don’t want my friends to know what I listen to on YouTube. (Sally Interview 1) My third half of my brain is Google scholar. (Frederick Interview 2) I think they (the technologies) control me as well, because I can’t really do anything without them (Faith Interview 1)
  33. 33. Nonhuman actors / mediators …It’s not necessarily the working with, sort of, the traditional practices, but much more about the, you know, our physical bodies in space, rather than… And thinking about online environments as being… the iPhone, or whatever it is, connected to a projector, or working then with the iPad, and connecting, so you’ve got this kind of circuit within a physical space. (Django Interview 1) My favourite way of studying something is sitting down with a book and…a pen and some yellow paper and taking notes…. And then I will use the technological side as well, because… Yes, I like combining the two, but I also like to be… the demarcation lines between them, you know, if I, if I have a reading to do then I can, then I almost, I invariably print it off and highlight. (Juan Interview 1)
  34. 34. Temporality / entiming Slowness / overload Keeping up Intrusive technologies Technological/embodied action Making future time Constant entanglements (Gourlay in press)
  35. 35. Temporality / entiming I don’t feel I’m kind of like I’m really up to date with computers compared to a lot of people, but I feel like you just have to keep moving otherwise you will get left behind (Sally Interview 1) Once-upon-a-time, you know, you check your email or we didn't even have email, you know, it was a message in your pigeonhole, you know. And now you're bombarded at seven o'clock in the morning. You walk in, you're, like, what? I've got 100 emails in my, in my, you know, box to go through. (Masters Focus Group)
  36. 36. Co-constituted spaces
  37. 37. 39
  38. 38. Co-constituted spaces • That’s really interesting how much I use the iPad for a start everywhere and anywhere...And I have the information there all the time constantly, and I just feel as though I don’t have to be anywhere physical at all anymore... (Django Interview 3) • I’ll only work at the computer usually to actually do the final part of writing an essay. I enjoy… the image of being, sort of, in a dusty, you know, sort of, wooden shelved, kind of, old library, where it’s, sort of, cosy and warm, that’s, you know, I like that and that’s a part of the experience of studying that I enjoy. (Juan interview 1)
  39. 39. Project outputs & implications
  40. 40. Resources for the sector • Project blog • Slideshows outlining key messages and methodology • The following OERs will be available end Sept. 2013 • Staff development resources based on the findings of our equivalent study with academics. Developed in collaboration with SEDA by Lindsay Jordan at University of the Arts. • Resources for librarians, based on findings from the our student data. Developed in collaboration with SCONUL by Nazlin Bhimani &Barbara Sakarya at the IOE. • http://jiscdesignstudio.pbworks.com/w/page/50732695/ Digital%20Literacies%20as%20a%20Postgraduate%2 0Attribute%20project
  41. 41. ALT Webinars • Sept – Nov 2103: 4 free ALT-supported webinars featuring a selected authors talking about their DL research, from the forthcoming Research in Learning Technology Special Issue on ‘Digital Literacies and Digital Scholarship’. • To be curated by Lesley Gourlay, Martin Oliver and Norm Friesen • Speakers confirmed: • Juliet Hinrichsen & Anthony Coombs • Robin Goodfellow • Mary Lea & Mary Hamilton • Jeremy Knox & Sian Bayne • Information will be announced after ALT-C
  42. 42. Implications for research • The student accounts of their practices do not accord with existing mainstream definitions and taxonomies • It’s not just ‘all about the learner’ • Methodological development in this area can lead to more nuanced qualitative accounts of actual student practices and perspectives • Sociomaterial perspectives can be used to complement NLS, to allow for an alternative theorisation of DLs • Future research is needed to deepen our knowledge of student practices around texts and technologies
  43. 43. Implications for institutions • Meaningful institutional development must be based on research evidence of student experiences, as opposed to abstract of skills-based aspirational checklists • Institutions need to recognise that students are already 'building new cultures of learning’ via fluid networks of people, devices, texts and other resources • Institutions need to think about how they can provide students with the spaces, resources and services they need to do this • This evidence shows the kinds of processes students have to undertake to meet assessment demands; this has implications for academics and support services
  44. 44. Project blog: http://diglitpga.jiscinvolve.org/wp/ Project webpage: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elea rning/developingdigitalliteracies/DigLitPGAttribut e.aspx Project contacts: Lesley Gourlay (l.gourlay@ioe.ac.uk, @lesleygourlay) Martin Oliver (m.oliver@ioe.ac.uk)
  45. 45. References Beetham, H. (2010) Review and Scoping Study for a Cross- JISC Learning and Digital Literacies Programme. JISC, www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/funding/2011/04/Briefingpape r.pdf Belshaw, D. (2011) What is ‘digital literacy’? A pragmatic investigation. Doctoral Thesis, Durham University. http://neverendingthesis.com/doug-belshaw-edd-thesis-final.pdf Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ehrlich, S. (2012) Text trajectories: legal discourses and gendered inequalities. Applied Linguistics Review 3(1), 47-73. Fenwick, T., Edwards, R. & Sawchuk, P. (2011) Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial. London: Routledge.
  46. 46. References Gillen, J. & Barton, D. (2010) Digital Literacies: A Research Briefing by the Technology Enhanced Learning Phase of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. London: London Knowledge Lab. http://www.tlrp.org/docs/DigitalLiteracies.pdf Gourlay, L. (2012) Cyborg ontologies and the lecturer’s voice: a posthuman reading of the ‘face-to-face’. Learning, Media and Technology 37 (2), 198-211. Gourlay, L., Hamilton, M. & Lea, M. (in press) Textual practices in the new media digital landscape: messing with digital literacies. Research in Learning Technologies Special Issue: Digital Literacies and Digital Scholarship. Hayles, K. (2012) How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. London: University of Chicago Press.
  47. 47. References Horning, K., Ahrens, D. and Gerhard, A. 1999. Do technologies have time? New practices of time and the transformation of communication technologies. Time and Society 8(2-3): 293- 308. Kell, C. (2006) Crossing the margins: literacy, semiotics and the recontextualisation of meanings. In Pahl, K. & Rowsell, J. Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies: Instances of Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 147-171. Kittler, F. (2004) Universities: wet, hard, soft and harder. Critical Inquiry 31(1), 244-255. Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  48. 48. Lea, M. & Street, B. (1998) Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education 23 (2), 157-172. Leander, K. & Lovorn, J. (2006) Literacy networks: following the circulation of texts, bodies and texts in the schooling and online gaming of one youth. Cognition and Instruction 24 (3), 291-340. Martin, A., & Grudziecki, J. (2006). DigEuLit: concepts and tools for digital literacy development. Innovation in Teaching And Learning in Information and Computer Sciences, 5 (4), 249 -267. Mayes, T. (2006) L E X – Methodology Report, Glasgow Caledonian University and Open Learning. http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/elearningped agogy/lex_method_final.pdf Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage Silverstein, M. & Urban, G. (Eds.)1996. Natural Histories of Discourse. London: University of Chicago Press.