Monday, October 31, 2005


The time in Oslo was partly spent working on the author questionnaire for the new edition of New Literacies. Not only was this a pretty onerous and time-consuming task -- it took a lot of hours -- but it also brought us face to face with having to find crisp answers to questions that basically ask 'How is this book going to convince the audience you are pitching at?'

In our case this meant asking ourselves yet again 'who is our audience?' This in turn got us caught up in reflecting on reviews the first edition received and on the reviews solicited by the publishers to get guidance for the second edition. Hence, it meant recalling reviews that pull in different directions. Some ask for more explicit theory, others say there is more theory and conceptual stuff for at least one audience we would desperately love to meet: the undergraduate textbook buying audience.

During these reflections we affirmed a few things for ourselves. We know we don't want to write just for people who are looking for a book that mainly makes a theoretical contribution -- although we want the book to be sufficiently theoretically robust to be respected by people whose opinions we care about. At the same time we want to continue the line we ran in the first edition: namely, that the kind of theory we are most interested in pertains to phenomena like an attention economy, and includes constructs like 'second phase automation', and looks at things going on around the take up of new technologies in education in terms of different kinds of mindsets. We aren't especially interested in trying to advance, for example, social semiotic theory about multimodal texts, or space theory pertaining to where online and offline lives take up and leave off. There are plenty of top theorists around doing that kind of work. There are fewer folk, however, tryng to push academic theory into areas we think need to be explored.

For example, in one of our email exchanges today Michele commented that there are many interesting phenomena out there to think and write about that very few people in education are getting at. "This is the part I really don't get and find really troubling. Like, something that's intrigued me for a while is what I've been calling 'just because' phenomena -- like the photoshopping stuff on and and especially like what's happening on flickr such as this. I noticed the other day that Anil Dash, an A-list blogger, is developing a concept called 'interestingness' to describe similar observations."

Beyond interests around theory, however, there are other constituencies and purposes we really want to address. For example, we have long believed it is very important to try and provide sound 'insider' descriptions of social practices we think educators and educational researchers should be aware of, and of some of the issues arising around such practices. At times we really struggle with the extent to which we can meet our aspirations in this regard. It is easy to have doubts and to wonder whether maybe we should not just have left things at the first edition and had a long vacation instead.

Needless to say, then, it was a wonderful thing to find some of the work that will go into the new edition of New Literacies blogged by one of our favourite bloggers, Ernie Hsiung, in his mini blog at little.yellow.different. Ernie's blog won the overall Bloggies award for excellence in 2003. Partly for this reason, and partly because we just love his take on life as reflected in his blogging, we use little.yellow.different as an 'exemplary blog' when writing about weblogs. Somehow the text we produced out of our plenary address to the 2004 National Reading Conference came Ernie's way. He comments that 'it is weird to see yourself as the subject of a research and social practice literary paper'. Maybe it is, Ernie, although it shouldn't be, because if what you are doing is not among the things such papers should be paying serious attention to, then we don't know what is.

But the real buzz for us came from what Ernie said about what we said about him and his work: namely, 'cool, but weird. And a pretty right-on description of my blog style, albeit in "smart speak".' That is close enough for us just now. The kind of feedback that will sustain the hard writing work that lies ahead when the going gets toughest. After all, the people who esteem exemplary blogging are certainly an audience -- indeed, a constituency -- we want to reach.

Ojala que some of them have good sized classes looking for a textbook ......

Monday, October 24, 2005

Northern Exposure

Last week we attended the annual conference hosted in Oslo by ITU - The Network for IT - Research and Competence in Education, where we presented the opening plenary address on Digital Literacies: Policy, Pedagogy and Research Considerations for Education. It was the usual routine of nerves, sleepless nights before the event, and the same old 'why did we ever agree to do this?' angsting we've come to know so well. The same old 'This is going to be the last talk'.

And the same old experience of all the nerves going and the fun beginning as the first slide hits the screen and the sound system proves to be as good as one could possibly have hoped for. The paper actually works for this audience, even though we have worried beforehand that the stuff will be as old and familiar to them as it is for us.

Scratch a plenary, I guess.

And, of course, as soon as it is over you know you are really glad to be here. The audience has been receptive, the hospitality is overwhelming, the papers are interesting, and the participants are doing things you wish you were part of yourself. New opportunities open up for research and publishing collaborations. And you get that sinking feeling that you probably would do it again. Well, maybe once more. Definitely not more than that.

Seriously, it was a great week, for all sorts of reasons. It was a real privilege to hear Avril Loveless and Lawrence Lessig present their papers, and to find out about the rich cutting edge work being done by ITU researchers. It was particularly interesting to experience the ITU phenomenon: a research institute established to produce work that policy makers actually listen to and take some leads from. The week before the conference we were archiving Jim Gee's paper on 'the projective stance' in digital gaming for an upcoming issue of E-Learning. In this paper Jim talks about how certain games provide players with opportunities to players to enact the projective stance of an ‘authentic professional’, thereby experiencing deep expertise of the kind that so widely eludes learners in school. The following week we learn of a game developed at ITU and currently being trialled in France, whereby players enter the professional world of biotechnology, and resolve to check it out with Jim's argument in mind.

Flying over I read a small article in the Wall Street journal about Norway's new centre-left government that had just taken office the day before, and how one of its first measures was to announce the withdrawal of Norway's troop participants in Afghanistan and Iraq. That generated an upbeat mood ahead of the work ahead. But what I found most intriguing was the experience of flying to Europe for a conference from the circumstance of being a northern hemisphere 'resident'. It was the first time I had ever done that. I was knocked over by how easy it seemed. Well, I had flown from Montreal, so there was not the same kind of 'security experience' one endures out of major US airports. So that made it quick and easy at the front end. And en route itself there was the ease of 'moving through' the EU. Into Paris and a 5 minute breeze through Immigration. Walk a few hundred metres to the next terminal, then walk directly onto the flight through another very short security queue. Onto the plane, 2 hours to Oslo, no immigration or customs, out the door and onto the express train -- well, there was a 5 minute wait.

For anyone who has spent their life flying anywhere from the Antipodes, the ease of such passages must seem as amazing as it did to me. I mean, you can't even get to Singapore from the Antipodes in that time. And you'd typically only be going there in order to be going somewhere else that will take a further 12-15 hours. To say that I had to wrestle with something of a 'ripped off' feeling would be to put it mildly. Coming back there was barely time to watch the Bob Dylan DVD (2 disks) and Pearl Jam's New York Concert from last year's tour, and it was all over.

Mind you, it's a kind of 'truncated inconvenience' one could easily learn to live with.

What would doubtless be more challenging lay in the fact that yesterday was 23 October -- and it was snowing en route to the airport. And while Oslo's exposure is a little extreme, there is a lot of the North that still finds it a good idea to freeze for 4 months of the year.

Which is one reason I'm kind of looking forward to that flight to Cairns at the end of the month ...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The perfect trope...

Image taken from here

...for my worklife right now is W. Heath Robinson's hilarious drawings of incredibly complex and often dilapidated machines used to complete very simple tasks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Homework Domework

The last 10 days have been hard work. We are doing the opening plenary at an ITU-sponsored conference in Oslo next week, and have had to pull out all the stops to get a paper together on the theme of why it is important to problematise digital literacy when all the experts who frame policy seem to know with such comfortable self assurance exactly what 'it is' -- and for most of them, we suggest, it is the current incarnation of what we used to call 'functional literacy' back in the 1980s.

What has really stitched us up, however, is finding out after we agreed to do the plenary that the closing one is being done by Lawrence Lessig. It could have been worse. He might have spoken before us, and then the obvious would have been well and truly evident. Nonetheless, we have toiled and toiled on this paper to make it as much as it can be of what it might be.

The occasion, of course, upped the ante for getting up to date on Lawrence's work. It has been a while since Code, and his most recent book, Free Culture, was one of Businessweek's Ten Best Books of 2004. The McGill bookstore had a copy, so I have sailed into it with mucho gusto.

Early into the book, around pages 45-50, Lessig is talking about the way the law is closing down scope for learning on the part of digitally 'at home' youth, by making it illegal to 'tinker' in all sorts of ways. He cites part of an interview he did with John Seely Brown in relation to Brown's concern about "the learning kids can do, or can't, because of the law" (p.47). He quotes Brown as saying that we need to "understand how kids growing up digital think and want to learn". Yet, says Brown, "we are building a legal system that completely suppresses the ... tendencies of today's digital kids ... We're building an architecture that unleashes 60 percent of the brain [and] a legal system that closes down that part of the brain".

The extension of that argument, so far as we are concerned, is too obvious to bear making, but we have never been afraid to state the obvious. Precisely the same argument holds, every bit as strongly, for education. We are not talking any conspiracy here, although it is tempting. Rather, we think that what is involved is a kind of alignment of tendencies that currently work out for a very happy 'marriage' on the part of those whose privileges and advantages would be undermined by any approximation to a democratic unleashing of creative energies. Teachers who aren't familiar with new technologies and don't want to have to become so find their predilections supported and reinforced by policies that close down all kinds of tinkering in the name of 'risk', 'duty of care', and the importance of ensuring that everyone can meet minimal standards (which is what they are) of basic print literacy. The one way kids HAVE to do it is the sure passport to suppressing creative drive and the capacity for innovation -- the rewards of which must be maintained for a small minority.

Official definitions and 'standardised operationalisations' of "Digital Literacy" are the educational equivalents of the current legal overstretching of 'property rights' in law, in the service of protecting the overbloated interests of corporations and other elites.

We all know that, but as I said, we've never shirked stating the obvious.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Taking back the name

This absolutely confirms that truth and quality aren't necessary conditions for a popular meme. Snakes on a Plane, a new Samuel L. Jackson action thriller movie, is set to become a new meme -- over a year before the movie itself is due to be released! The title of the movie sums up the action nicely. A plane is flying in the air and an assassin lets loose a bunch of snakes inside it. No messing around with arthouse names or faux-noir kinda titles here; no pretensions of granduer or sophisticated plotlines. As Samuel L Jackson put it, "Either you want to see it, or you don't".

In fact, when the producers tried to up the ante a little on the film (which is being roundly panned by reviewers, even though it's not even finished yet!) and rename it "Pacific Air 121" or something inane like that, Samuel L. refused to give over "Snakes on a Plane" as the title, arguing the title of the movie was the main reason he decided to take the role! And a meme is born.... and possibly a mutating meme at that.

And, of course, I absolutely, positively have to have this t-shirt [warning: not work-safe language] AND/OR this one [language here ain't work-safe, either].

Perhaps the movie isn't all that far from real life, after all...
  • Scorpion Onboard

  • Taipan on a Plane (scroll almost to the bottom)

  • Giant Snake on a Plane

  • Monday, October 10, 2005

    Speaking of BoingBoing

    After Johnson's blog I skipped to BoingBoing and it became official: it is open season on The Prez. Johnson had done a pretty solid job, I thought, on 7 September in "Bush's Perfect Storm". But it was eclipsed, I thought, by this, which comes from one of BoingBoing's paying sponsors.

    Generally speaking, I'm inclined to think it is not good form to poke fun at folks who don't know any better. On the other hand, I suppose you have to allow for the exception that proves the rule.

    Friday, October 07, 2005

    Guilty of loitering

    OK,OK. I plead guilty. Don't tell anyone, but it's true that I got sidetracked from "head down and key key key kontent kos I'm so far behind and some deadlines won't wait". But I lapsed, momentarily, and in the middle of updating some cut and paste about Steven Johnson's blog actually went there and read his recent post on Web 2.0. Wanting to push it further, cos Anya and others have mentioned it recently, I ran a quick search and came up with Tim O'Reilly's wonderful article of a week or so ago on What is Web 2.0?.

    For some reason that could be linked to the fact that right now we are having to turn our attention to producing within a tight timeline the second edition of our New Literacies book -- and thank you to those of you who have read it or, at least, who have wrestled with some of it (smile) -- the way O'Reilly juxtaposes Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 resonated strongly with the idea of contending 'mindsets' that, for us, mark what we think is really at stake between 'new' literacies and those we might not call 'new'. The difference in 'mindset' between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 seemed to me to run kind of parallel to much of what, for us, constitutes 'Old' and 'New' respectively in the literacyscape.

    Still more resonated -- and I think it probably represents work we will need to do before long. It goes to the idea we have clumsily referred to in our fledgling work on 'digital epistemologies'. The points I homed in on were O'Reilly's references to Wikipedia and to the Cloudmark collaborative approach to producing spam filters. Whereas our work on digital epistemologies to date has tended to focus on aspects of credibility and validity and significance that do not seem to lean toward some kind of 'truth' criterion, it is obvious that there is useful work to be done around the Web 2.0/Wikipedia variant of 'expertise'. For what is at stake here is not so much a matter of questioning or abandoning 'quality' defined in relation to something like 'reasonableness' or 'defensible arguability' or correspondence to what the best formed minds in the area think. Rather, it is more a question of how a knowledge community gets to that quality. The 'old' way was through nurturing and honouring individual expertise. A kind of disciplinary equivalent to 'power blogging'. The 'new' way seems to be through harnessing collective expertise through successive refinements and ongoing conversations.

    This suggested the question of whether and, if so, to what extent, there is any prospect for moving from School 1.0 to School 2.0. Because, thus far, for all the hype about digital literacies, 21st century literacies (yetch, how presumptuous can this rhetoric get?), new basics, more new basics, and all the rest of currentspeak, I can't see anything much on any horizon anywhere that looks like official interest in something that might plausibly be called School 2.0 at the points of producing and assessing scholastic knowledge and understanding that really matter.

    Or am I just looking for 2.0 in all the wrong places?

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