Concepts, Assessments, Subversions
Edited By Matteo Stocchetti
Digital Introductions as Critical Practice
The possibilities for new kinds of writing afforded by digital technologies and social media now permeate digital worlds. Conceptualisations of literacy in relation to how we learn and practise multimodal forms of communication have undergone significant evolution over the past few decades. In education, research suggests that while young people are deeply engaged with a proliferating range of digital technologies, many classrooms continue with print-based textual approaches. Multiliterate understandings engage complex relationships among visuals, space and text as well as interpreting a range of symbols in critically and culturally appropriate ways. I explore in this chapter the reshaping of semiotic form and disruption of author (and reader) expectations, expanding to wider debates around technology, representation and communication. In this project, I created a digital introduction task to replace a traditional written student introduction which began a 12 month class in an English teaching method. The task required students to construct aspects of themselves digitally, present this representation and then critically reflect on the practices and technologies involved. The task was structured as an open-ended ‘problem’, grounded in a literacy concept. The framework we chose as the best fit for the task was Bill Green’s (1988) 3D literacy model, which describes three interrelated dimensions of literacy: operational, cultural and critical. Operationally, students had to understand and use digital technologies, employing a repertoire of (multi)literate practices strategically and appropriately for their audience (the cultural dimension). Introducing themselves to a new cohort of peers called upon social and deliberate meaning-making. To participate in the critical dimension, students explored the self reflexive, or constructed nature of identity and representation. One aim of the interaction was to push students into a less comfortable space. This space was created through their need to learn new media skills, and critically reflect on the capacity of technology to shape their purposes, as well as the choices they needed to make to characterise themselves for a particular audience. These ‘pedagogies of discomfort’ (Boler, 1999) were, in turn, constructed by me as generative learning conditions in which students might be forced out of habituated practices. The study, while small in scope, has resonances which can extend to other intercultural settings. These environments are ones where digital technologies, used creatively, can serve as provocations for new forms of critical thinking.
Bill Green (2001), speculating on the implications for subject English in the 21st century, points to ‘the proliferating phenomenon of techno-textuality’(p. 249). The possibilities for new kinds of writing afforded by digital technologies and social media now permeate digital worlds. Conceptualisations of literacy in relation to how we learn and practise multimodal forms of communication have undergone ← 315 | 316 → significant evolution over the past few decades. This has precipitated, according to Peel et al. (2000), the ‘biggest seismic shift’ in curriculum history.
Can such a claim can be substantiated and, if so, how do we identify and describe such a shift? In education, research suggests that while young people are deeply engaged with a proliferating range of digital technologies, many classrooms continue with print-based textual approaches (Papert, 1992; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006; Morris, 2010).
A dimension of this techno-textuality, however, has been the opening up in terms of what can now be authored, not only of new kinds of content, but also of form (Green, 2001). Multiliterate understandings engage complex relationships among visuals, space and text as well as interpreting a range of symbols in critically and culturally appropriate ways. I explore in this chapter the reshaping of semiotic form and disruption of author (and reader) expectation, expanding to wider debates around technology, representation and communication. I then link these concepts to Green’s (1988) critical dimension of literacy, asking how the introductions mobilise mode and content as ‘constructed and contingent experiences’ (Duffelmeyer, 2001: 359).
In this project, I created a digital introduction task to replace a traditional written student introduction which began a 12 month class in an English preservice teaching method. The task required students to construct a version of themselves digitally, present this representation and then critically reflect on the practices and technologies involved. The task was structured as an open-ended ‘problem’, grounded in a literacy concept. The framework I chose as the best fit for the task was Bill Green’s (1988) 3D literacy model, which describes three interrelated dimensions of literacy: operational, cultural and critical. Operationally, students had to understand and use digital technologies, employing a repertoire of (multi)literate practices strategically and appropriately for their audience (the cultural dimension). Introducing themselves to a new cohort of peers called upon social and deliberate meaning-making. To participate in Green’s critical dimension, students explored the self reflexive, or constructed nature of identity and representation.
One aim of the interaction was to push students into a less comfortable space. This space was created through their need to learn new media skills, and critically reflect on the capacity of technology to shape their purposes, as well as the choices they needed to make to characterise themselves for a particular audience. These ‘pedagogies of discomfort’ (Boler, 1999) were, in turn, positioned by me as generative learning conditions in which students might be forced to reconsider habituated practices associated with learning and teaching. ← 316 | 317 →
Universities and schools are increasingly populated with learners who are shaped by their relationships with information and communication technologies (ICT) in ways unimaginable to many current educators (Green and Bigum, 1993). These students actively develop their literacy skills in online environments – they are adept at multitasking, collaboration, sophisticated in their uses of electronic technologies, and used to a trial and error approach to solving problems. This stands in stark contrast to a more logical, rule-based approach by previous generations (Oblinger, 2003; Oblinger, Martin and Baer, 2004). New Literacy Studies (Street, 1984; 2003) argues that formal learning practices which decontextualise ways of knowing increasingly lead to student disconnection with school learning. One commentator notes:
[It is] no surprise that when we incarcerate teenagers of today in traditional classroom settings, they react with predictable disinterest […] They are skilled in making sense not only of a body of content, but of contexts that are continually changing. (Economist.com)
Differences within ways that in-school and out-of-school literacies are organised have been usefully analysed by Bernstein (1999). While schooling values vertical, segmentally-structured discourses of knowledge, popular (and digital) ways of knowing to which everyone has potential or actual access can be described as ‘horizontal’. They are ‘likely to be oral, local, context-dependent and specific, tacit, multi-layered and contradictory across … contexts’ (p. 8). Young people take up valued knowledge by word of mouth and there is a rapid turnover of what is required to be a participant within and across a number of cultural contexts. Students as readers and producers of Green’s techno-textuality thus need to disembed themselves from familiar, and increasingly multiliterate ways of thinking, in order to immerse themselves successfully in formally-constructed knowledge, knowledge which continues to privilege print forms of language. Moreover, while pre-school learners naturally discover the world in multimodal ways, the balkanization of school curriculum serves to fracture and isolate approaches to learning (Kalantzis and Cope, 2012).
Under the new knowledge economies however, not only has the conceptualisation of literacy undergone significant evolution, but also how we learn and practise multimodal forms of communication. Multiliteracies call for understandings of complex relationships among visuals, space time and text and interpretations of a range of symbols in critical and culturally appropriate ways. Arguing that we are now experiencing a ‘visual turn’, Kress (1995) examines the cognitive shift from print to illustrative text. Syntactic demands on print language have lessened as ← 317 | 318 → visual material becomes more complex and abstract. While the move away from print has been resisted by traditionalists, Kress sees the increasingly sophisticated emphasis on visual material as creating a rich rescripting of what we mean by ‘literacies’.
Given these disparate discursive formations of learning, how is education negotiating the new capacities, forms of knowledge and skills demonstrated by our contemporary learners? The debates around schooling in the digital age are sometimes ‘overpowered’ in relation to technology’s promise, and founded on narrow research questions, argues Selwyn (2011). This has often produced, he maintains, a kind of techno-evangelism which ignores the complexities of social, economic, political and cultural contexts. Notwithstanding the transformative hype, however, the patterns of educational life have been changed by actual and potential uses of ICT.
Many people would argue that education has proved to be a particularly significant site for the reconfigurative properties of the digital. In particular, many people see the primary concerns of education as resonating especially closely with those of digital technology – ie. the production and dissemination of information and knowledge through communication and interaction with others. (Selwyn, 2011, p. 8)
The theory of multiliteracies (The New London Group, 1996; Cope and Kalantzis, 2000) takes reconceptions about literacies in a technologized, globalised environment and maps them on to more established notions of situated practice. Through building a social-semiotic theory of multimodality, Kress develops the notion of affordances. Crucial to choices individuals make when designing multimodal artefacts are the potential resources available for socially and culturally-shaped uses of different modes. The rules and norms of cyberspace create a different, and distinctive sense of spatial awareness, involving a ‘fracturing of space’ (Lankshear and Bigum 1999). We can now shift back and forth between different modes of meaning, creating new design patterns. Space is no longer closed and purpose-specific, but ‘open, continuous and fluid’ (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007: 11).
Kress (2003) calls the ways that we can purposefully mobilize these resources synaesthesia, or the remaking of semiotic resources within modes (transformation) and across modes (transduction). Within each mode exist different systems, or organizing logics which affect the ways that the semiotic elements are integrated, or ‘braided’ (Mitchell, 1994). While multimodality is not new, through rapidly-changing technologies, we can, and increasingly do, deploy innovative ways to overlay image, word, gesture, image, sound and space. Three dimensional space opens prospects for cognitive reshaping of texts, which have become, Kress (1997) argues, affordances. In this sense, the producer’s relationship with the text has become something more generative and creative. The processes which drive ← 318 | 319 → this shifting meaning-making create qualitatively new forms from those that have previously existed, pre-internet. Users of formerly static systems have become remakers, or transformers, of representational resources. Potter (2012) argues that the term ‘curation’ can be appropriated to describe these forms of digital self-representation, capturing not only the idea of writing and creating but adding the acts of collecting, distributing, assembling and disassembling in a digital space.
I sought to understand how pedagogical design could encourage authors – tertiary students in this case – to use digital technologies to represent themselves in new ways. If synaesthesia, or shifting back and forth between modes were evident, how might students conjure and recombine elements from available resources? While students who engage in social media may be experienced ‘curators’ (Potter, 2012) of their own digital lives, I wanted to bring their practices into the formal learning environment. In this sense, the task was designed as a form of personal rhetorical persuasion aimed at producing a particular set of peer responses and interpretations. Author consciousness through reflection would then link multimodal practices to critical frameworks.
A critical multimodal approach
In exploring whether and to what extent my participants exploited the potential of digital technologies to create innovative, synthesised forms of authorship, related questions emerged. Awareness of communication and representation on the part of the creators is integral to confident literate practice. As a way of heightening media awareness, the written reflections would, I hoped, detail the combinative approaches the authors used, simultaneously developing appreciation of the creative processes involved.
Multimodal texts offer high levels of playfulness and creativity for young people, who are generally expert readers of their complex semiotic worlds (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001; Johnson-Eilola, 1997). However, while young people make discriminations about and within their chosen texts, they do not always consciously evaluate or articulate the criteria they use (Buckingham, 1994; Doecke and McCleneghan, 1998). Articulating tacit knowledge examines one’s own meaning-making processes, and thus self-reflexivity, or a critical knowledge of the constructedness of students’ own texts, became integral to the process of writing the technologies. I wanted to investigate how far students’ reflections suggested understanding of Green’s (1988) critical dimension of literacy. The critical reflections and student use of metalanguage, along with the introductions themselves, contributed to observations I made from the responses. ← 319 | 320 →
The digital introductions
This study explored changing forms of textual practice using new technologies and asked how far participation invited a critical awareness of (self)representation. In asking students to create a digital innovation, I also wanted to discover pedagogical resonances, or the ‘disruptive’ possibilities for re-imagining routinised teaching practices. The small-scale observation was, then, heavily loaded as an exploration of how students used the technologies for rhetorical purposes and the pedagogical potential of the task for more critically reflective professional practice.
Twenty-four education students completed the introductions as part of their English preservice teaching method course. The introductions were prepared as students’ first task in the first semester of a year-long course. Students arrived from an undergraduate degree to complete their Diploma of Education unfamiliar with the university, me or their peers.
They developed and presented a 5 minute digital introduction to me, as course lecturer, and their fellow postgraduate teaching method students. The purpose of the elements of the task was to introduce students to a new cohort, extend their current digital knowledge from where it currently stood (Green’s 1988 notion of ‘operational’ literacy) and consider the potential of software choices for their purpose and audience (‘cultural’ dimensions of literacy). More critically, students were asked to link their self-representation processes to literacy theory from their readings and then to think reflexively on what they had learned (the critical dimension) and the implications that the learning held for their teaching practice.
I sought preservice teachers’ permission to use their introductions and reflections for investigation of my research questions. I also invited written responses to a series of questions asked. Extended survey responses were followed up in further directed discussion with nine of the original twenty-four participants, as I sought clarification and elaboration.
From this, I highlighted, grouped and regrouped different patterns of response, complicating and refining themes and categories. Exploring contradictions and assumptions in the writing, I investigated prevailing discourses underpinning contributions, and linked these to ideas emerging from the literature in relation to multimodality and disruption.
The introductions ranged in from limited, in terms of exploitation of form, to rich and boundary-pushing. At the limited end, the presentations used the task as a kind of digital scrapbook, posting photos of friends, family and pets, following a chronology from baby to university student, occasionally supported by a favourite music track. The visual and audio resources in these cases mimicked print resources of self-representation; they tended to be linear in structure, relied more strongly on written text and drew upon known conventions such as photo albums.
However, other students consciously wrestled with the ‘messiness’ of ICT (Bigum, 1995), producing conceptually and visually spectacular introductions. Working at the edge of personal digital expertise, their range of programs included iMovie, Prezi, Xtranormal, Movie Maker, PowerPoint, Google Earth, Animoto, websites and blogs. A number of reflections detailed hours spent on learning new software, time willingly expended in pursuit of a program that would achieve self-representation ends. Music, for example, was often problematic to add to images. Yet, reflections suggest that students read guides, searched Youtube instructions and sought advice in their efforts to have their chosen digital platform achieve the effects they wanted for their intended audience.
In some cases, authors ‘bent’ genre conventions as they played with identity constructions. This was done from a distanced perspective and, often using knowing humour. Amy, for instance, filmed people talking about her and talking ‘as’ her – at no point did she ever either appear or reveal anything substantive about herself. Employing documentary and vox pop techniques, Tom edited clips of his family and friends discussing him posthumously, with one brother struggling to remember he had even existed. Another introduction engaged an animation program with computer generated, HAL-type voices, to parody his decision to become a teacher education student. He chose a Napoleonic war scenario to request safe passage to the outer suburb where he would commence his teacher education diploma (http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/12353479/rmit-english-digital-intro-2011).
In terms of ‘braiding’ elements to create new spaces, a number of students experimented successfully with technological possibilities. Koh from Singapore constructed an on screen digital jigsaw puzzle with his name written in the centre piece. Other digital pieces contained hyperlinked identity features (a Google map link to his street, satay recipes, a trailer to a favourite television series). Clicking and dragging the irregular pieces to the centre piece completed his jigsaw, which formed a map of his home country.
Liam filmed himself in profile, intermittently speaking. He then stood opposite his interactive screen profile and conducted a conversation with himself – a playful, decentred expression of authorial voice. ← 321 | 322 →
Google Earth provided a platform for Matt to offer an annotated tour of the history of his relationship and work with a Japanese tent theatre company. He uploaded to Google Earth photographs and notes of events that took place in Tokyo and Melbourne linked to his ongoing collaboration, ‘flying’ us to Tokyo and pasting theatre photos on relevant points of the map. The blending of literal and figurative modes extended his understanding of communication and representation. No two dimensional form could replicate the geographical space Matt wanted to overlay as an architectural layer to his photographic images.
The level of ‘orchestration’ (Kress, 2003) in these examples was high, as students borrowed and experimented with combinations. This was not, however, an effortless process, as evidenced by Gert:
I felt a bit scared as I know my ICT smartness is not exactly fed every day by trying out and using new technologies (but I think it should be, if only to keep up with what some students might know about or like to use.) Also, a sense of playfulness kicked in pretty quickly, connected to the challenge to organize one’s life into a 5 minute digital show.
Caroline discussed the semiotic shift to the visual, linking image to authorial voice:
A very real challenge for me was to ‘let the images do the talking’. I observed some of my peers make extensive use of the spoken and written word, which did make me consider how easy it might be to fall into the trap of providing the students with too much of a teacher’s voice and not allowing them to develop their own.
Some written reflections alluded directly to the shifting between modes – Kress’s ‘synaesthesia’. David understood this as a 21st century teaching tool:
The digitally-based problem solving that the introduction exercise provided was extremely important, as it provided the impetus to think creatively with new media, and to use it as an instrument of alternative pedagogy … Some people see the digital medium as a way of reframing what is … Others seem far more willing to manipulate space, image, sound, and notions of interactivity and clusters of disparate media – and they seem to handle it with far greater success.
What could be seen as surface play is linked by Matt to increased potential for depth of exploration:
The point is that these technologies are only special in as much as they allow us to see pictures, hear sounds and read text close to instantaneously, and from places that might usually have taken a week to order through libraries. It is this fluency of information flow that allows questions to be researched more deeply.
As well as mixing and blurring genres, students integrated voice, gesture, image, film and animation to engage audience attention. To different degrees, they ← 322 | 323 → controlled the ‘version’ of themselves they revealed through both content choice and the mediation of that content.
Did the presentations and reflections enable awareness of communication and representation processes? Caroline writes ‘I had the benefit of watching others’ introductions and processing ideas about what I had seen while still structuring my own. I began to reflect even before presenting.’
Linking his introduction to more complex understandings, Matt reflected on the potential of the task to develop critical perspectives:
The creation of a digital introduction was an interesting process because it forced me to examine perceptions of my own identity. It required that I construct a version of myself and my story for a particular context and audience. Beyond instances of fact, considerations of ‘truth’ are relatively constructed. Upon reflection I understand, to a greater extent than I did before, the role of my ideological viewpoint in constructing a discourse that is not universally shared. I think this is important for a prospective teacher to understand.
Matt’s appreciation of knowledge as contingent is taken further by David, as he articulates the significance of the introductions for reconceptualising pedagogy. David claims:
The digital introductions were an immediate challenge [digital media being largely dismissed as lacking in academic rigour or pedagogical value]. The digital introductions immediately legitimised digital spaces as valuable and dynamic sites of classroom activity. With the structural and aesthetic possibilities presented by the task, it was remarkable to see the potential of a multiliteracy approach manifesting through my classroom experiments with digital media.
Lankshear and Knobel’s ’ethos stuff’ (2006) entails a Web 2.0 mindset that is oriented to collaboration and folksonomic, or building knowledge from the ground up. While the notion of ‘Web 2.0’ itself has been contested (see, for instance, Allen 2012), features of this disposition are alluded to by Kirk:
Teens today appear to learn far more intuitively and laterally by using forms of ICT, than if they were expected to learn exclusively through methods of rote learning, engagement with paper-based (static) texts, or through physical face-to-face socialisation. As I see it, digital technology actively encourages contemporary learners to explore new ways of visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and metacognitive representation. Learners are provided with a new channel through which to socialise, interact and collaborate, and it constantly changes and regulates itself in response to the collective needs of those who use it. Digital technology invites content creation from its users in such a way that a hierarchical, top-down, unitary or “classical” model of teaching and learning has become increasingly invalid or inapplicable to teenagers’ lives. ← 323 | 324 →
Not all students reflected in such depth and detail, nor exploited the multimodal affordances of the technology. Some introductions made few connections beyond self-evident statements. It could be argued that the range of artefacts and responses from the students (aged between 22 and 37) complicate any simple notion of ‘digital natives’ whose learning objects transcended prosaic traditional pedagogies. Moreover, David Buckingham (in Thomas, 2011) asserts that ‘most of young people’s use of digital technology is mundane rather than spectacular: it is characterised not by dramatic manifestations of innovation and creativity, but by relatively routine forms of communication and information retrieval’ (p. x). To encourage new combinations and expression of students’ local knowledge, then, the role of the teacher becomes significant.
The creativity of Kress’s synaesthetic affordances is thus not inevitably implicated in digital technologies. The inventive play with time and space by students described in this study could have been mediated through other technologies. In this sense, technology works as a language through which pedagogies are explicated. Selwyn (2011: 18) points to Guile’s argument that enhanced learning often occurs because teachers have designed innovative contexts and scaffolding to encourage new practices. In this task, there was, a central focus on semiotic communication and representational interrelationships. Moreover, the task design emerged from a belief that critical understanding, rather than encouraged as a theoretical concept, is ‘better achieved when students have some grasp of how media texts are actually produced’ (Durrant, 2011: 76).
Authors indicated that personal learning in relation to attempting something new and motivated included strategies such as trial and error, collaboration, just-in-time and point-of-need instruction. Some students considered how frequently they had seen such ‘bootstrapping’ practices (Gee, 1994) in classroom contexts and the implications of such approaches for their own digital pedagogies. Animating new challenges enabled reflexivity in relation to personal framing (Green, 2001) and thus provided agency to think from new positions about ‘doing school’. David describes the activity in terms of his own background as a digitally-connected person, and the implications for his own teaching:
For me, it was a validation of the kind of pedagogy that I wanted to embrace and promote during my career. Technology, gaming, and the Internet have always been passions of mine in everyday life, and throughout my own education I had little – if any – opportunity ← 324 | 325 → to use them as tools of learning. As a preservice teacher, I was expecting to be placed in a relatively powerless situation in which I would be confined to the same forms of print media that I had been given as a student.
The digital introductions were designed to explore identity boundaries through potentially innovative technological spaces. The mode in this case potentially ‘reformulated’ and expanded communicative possibilities. However, prevailing discourses in schools around generational and technological determinism continue to be interrogated in the literature, as contextual influences influence and limit educational change. It is therefore still in the classroom, perhaps, where the teacher can play with what is possible.
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