Momentum or freefall? Digital literacies and the dangerous metaphor of progress


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Invited keynote presentation, "Losing Momentum? Current challenges in Learning and Technology", 2012, Oxford.

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  • Oliver, M. (2011) Technological determinism in educational technology research: some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27 (5), 373–384.
  • Laurillard, D. (2008) Digital technologies and their role in achieving our ambitions for education, A professorial lecture, Institute of Education, London. Republished by the Association for Learning Technologies, Oxford.
  • Oliver, M. (2011) Technological determinism in educational technology research: some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27 (5), 373–384.
  • Feenberg, A. (2010) Between reason and experience: essays in technology and modernity . London: MIT Press.
  • Woolgar, S. & Grint, K. (1997) The Machine at Work: Technology, Work and Organization. London: Polity.
  • Leander, K. & Lovvorn, J. (2006) Literacy networks: following the circulation of texts, bodies and objects in the schooling and online gaming of one youth. Cognition and Instruction, 24 (3), 291-340.
  • lesley Review and scoping study for a cross-JISC learning and digital literacies programme: Sept 2010
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  • lesley Review and scoping study for a cross-JISC learning and digital literacies programme: Sept 2010
  • Hayles, K. 1999. How we Became Posthuman Hayles, K. 2006. From cyborg to cognisphere. Fenwick, T., Edwards,R. & Sawchuk, P. 2011. Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial . London: Routledge.
  • Momentum or freefall? Digital literacies and the dangerous metaphor of progress

    1. 1. Momentum or freefall?Digital literacies and thedangerous metaphor of progress Martin Oliver London Knowledge Lab Institute of Education, University of London 1
    2. 2. • Metaphors and orientations• Issues and theories• Digital literacy and notions of progress• Data• Project “Impact”, and other ways of talking 2
    3. 3. • Momentum: the impetus gained by a moving object – A linear model – Connotations of smooth forward motion, unidirectional progress• An enlightenment, modernist metaphor• What’s the direction of travel? (…down?!) 3
    4. 4. The trouble with words…"Youd better be prepared for thejump into hyperspace. Itsunpleasantly like being drunk.""Whats so unpleasant aboutbeing drunk?""You ask a glass of water.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’ s Guide to the Galaxy 4 ©
    5. 5. …is it unpleasantly like having “impact”?"And wow! Hey! Whats this thing suddenly coming towardsme very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, itneeds a big wide sounding name like ... ow ... ound ...round ... ground! Thats it! Thats a good name --- ground!I wonder if it will be friends with me?And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’ s Guide to the Galaxy 5
    6. 6. Technology and progress• Hard technological determinism – Boosters & utopianism – Doomsters & dystopianism• Change is an inevitable consequence of technology (…even if we quibble about whether or not it’s desirable) 6
    7. 7. Education is on the brink of beingtransformed through education; however, ithas been on that brink for some decadesnow. - Laurillard, 2008 7
    8. 8. Technology and progress• There are alternatives to simple linear narratives… – Soft technological determinism (technology an influence rather than a determination) – Socially deterministic accounts – Non-deterministic accounts 8
    9. 9. Bringing agency back to technology• Feenberg (e.g. 2010) – Design is socially relative: it incorporates social terms of reference – Where design prefers particular groups, social injustice arises – Dominant technical codes, and the over- determination of action: managerial control – ‘Room for maneuver’ as necessary and desirable in designs 9
    10. 10. Over-determination• Technology “offers” (causes) or constrains – A way of designing user agency out – Appealing to designers who want users to behave – Cf. Woolgar & Grint (1997) and “configuring the users” (an STS take on the problem) 10
    11. 11. • Affordances tend to collapse into unhelpful extremes – Either a determining, governing set of forces controlling human action – Or an unconstrained space in which human agency can operate unimpeded• But literacy studies often ‘under-determined’ – Skills and capabilities as ‘free floating’; unimpeded agency – Critique of cognitive, individual model – Focus on meaning-making and texts 11
    12. 12. Removing the agency of texts and tools informalising movements risks romanticisingthe practices as well as the humans in them;focusing uniquely on the texts and toolslapses into naï ve formalism or techno-centrism. – Leander and Lovvorn (2006:301), quoted in Fenwick et al (p104) 12
    13. 13. Grappling with inconsistent theories• JISC funded project: “Digital literacies as a postgraduate attribute” –• An opportunity to relate different ways of thinking about technology, learning, practice, cause, etc.• If technology were deterministic this would be a non-issue – Technology would make us all literate, or we’d all fail to become literate… 13
    14. 14. • Project team - – Jude Fransman, Research Fellow – Lesley Gourlay, Project Director & Academic Writing Centre – Susan McGrath, Students’ Union – Martin Oliver, Deputy Director & Learning Technologies Unit – Gwyneth Price, Libary 14
    15. 15. Grappling with definitions of digital literacies“Digital literacy defines those capabilities which fitan individual for living, learning and working in adigital society.” (Beetham, 2010)•Four-tier framework: – Access – Skills – Social practices – Identity 15
    16. 16. A “top up” model of digital literacy• A modernist vision of linear progress• Perhaps it’s plausible for uncontested, entry-level skills in controlled conditions• Does it work anywhere else? © 16
    17. 17. Grappling with methodology• Multimodal journalling – To generate ethnographically informed data – Ethnography impractical• Artefacts – emphasis on experience over abstraction, sense of fine-grained day-to- day lived practices – Reflecting diversity, complexity, etc – Data as close as possible to practices, not accounts of practices 17
    18. 18. Literacies as social practice 18
    19. 19. Literacies as situated practice 19
    20. 20. 20
    21. 21. 21
    22. 22. What do our students use?• Lots of things - many institutional, but also many that are not institutionally supported – Office tools (primarily Microsoft, plus Google docs and Prezi) – Institutional VLEs (Moodle and Blackboard) – Email (institutional, personal and work-based) – Synchronous conferencing services (Skype, Elluminate) – Calendars (iCal, Google) – Search engines and databases (including Google, Google Scholar, library databases, professional databases such as Medline, etc), – Social networking sites (Facebook,, LinkedIn) and services (Twitter) – Image editing software (photoshop, lightbox) – Endnote – Reference works (Wikipedia, online dictionaries and social bookmarking sites such as Mendeley) – GPS services – Devices (PCs at the institution and at home, laptops including MacBooks, iPhones, iPads, Blackberries and E-book readers). 22
    23. 23. “The student experience”• No evidence that the student experience is singular – Marked differences in experiences and priorities across the four groups – PGCE, MA students, PhD students, Online masters’ students – Coping with whiteboards and staff room politics of access; using the VLE to access materials; library databases; using the VLE to create a sense of community (…and Skype behind the scenes…) – Professional, personal, study 23
    24. 24. Complexity: domains and devices 24
    25. 25. The only thing I struggle with […], is the issue of likekeeping your private life separate from your work lifebecause I think increasingly the two, youre beingforced to kind of mush the two together. Because like[Another Institution] used to have its own email serverand it would provide you with an email. Now it’sprovided by Gmail and it’s like everybody knows thatGmail is the nosiest thing in the world and tracksabsolutely everything you do. And […] Im a little bituncomfortable with the idea that my work email knowswhat shopping I do and, you know what I mean? I justfind the whole thing is starting to get a little bit scary. 25
    26. 26. YukiJapanese, female in her 40s, MA studentFor me the most important thing is portability, because I usetechnologies, ICT, everywhere I go, anywhere I go. Forexample of course I use some technologies, PCs andlaptops and my iPad in the IOE building, and in the IOEbuilding I use PC, I use them in PC room, in library, and forsearching some data or journals. In the lecture room I recordmy, record the lectures and taking memos by that. 26
    27. 27. Digital/digitised texts, and boundary crossing 27
    28. 28. Domains 28
    29. 29. 29
    30. 30. Themes from the journals• Complex, constantly shifting set of practices• Permeated with digital mediation• Strongly situated / contingent on the material• Distributed across human /nonhuman actors• Texts are restless, constantly crossing apparent boundaries of human/nonhuman, digital/analogue, here/not here, now/not now 30
    31. 31. Grappling with consequences 31
    32. 32. A stand against progressive definitions• A focus on orientations, not skills and capabilities – A situated account implies situated development, not monolithic institutional programmes – …agility, adaptability, resilience, tolerance of ambiguity, ability to interweave institutional/non- institutional technologies, ability to work across a range of physical, temporal, digital and analogue domains – A challenge to the general direction of the programme 32
    33. 33. A stand against local policies• A reaction against an over-determined IT strategy – From interview to transcript – From transcript to report – From report to working group – From report to recommendation document – From document to committee – From committee to constitution of a User Group, creation of room for maneuver 33
    34. 34. A link to wider debates and theorisationHumans, and what they take to be their learning and socialprocess, do not float, distinct, in container-like contexts ofeducation, such a classrooms or community sits, that can besits, that can be conceptualised and dismissed as simply awash of material stuff and spaces. The things that assemblethese contexts, and incidentally the actions and bodiesincluding human ones that are part of these assemblages,are continuously acting upon each other to bring forth anddistribute, as well as to obscure and deny, knowledge. (Fenwick et al 2011) 34
    35. 35. Revisiting today’s theme…Have these promises led where expected?During this day we will explore morenuanced realities about new technologiesand learning current in various settings andcontexts. (Event poster) 35
    36. 36. Some conclusions• A non-linear account – “Un-defining digital literacies” (Lesley Gourlay) – A tolerance of mess, ambiguity and specificity – An account that unravels in very different directions – Unhelpful to “top up” accounts 36
    37. 37. Some different metaphors• Not about sustaining momentum – A rush to where, exactly? (Unchecked freefall?) – Progress towards whose ends, and on whose terms?• Not all that much about impact – Less about the “effect” technology has had – More about collisions between technologies and practices, and about rebounding and coping 37
    38. 38. Some different metaphors• Potential energy, not kinetic energy? – The project holding back momentum (so things are visible, study-able; and to make decisions more deliberate) – Building capacity to endure, cope and work around – Entangling, not progressing 38
    39. 39. Some different metaphors• ‘Black boxing’ – Not a tale of simplicity and sophistication, but of decisions about which choices to force on people, and which to deny them (How was it ever plausible to assume one pattern would work for everyone…?)• Shoring up – Not a model of progress, but an account of how people rebuild and repair as edifices crumble 39
    40. 40. Questions and comments? 40