My Research Path and New Literacies: Following Digital Footprints

The Wikipedia article for New Literacies casts research into two separate, and often incompatible, camps of thought. I would tend to disagree. Different lines of inquiry while rooted in varying traditions, are not as dichotomous in nature such as the debates of Locke and Hobbs. Nor are they as different as humanistic traditions that grew from Kantian empiricism versus schools of Critical Theory that emerged from Heidegger and Hegel.

I tend to view “the different camps” as combined efforts in an “open-source approach to theory development” (Leu, O’Bryne, Zawilinski, McVerry, and Everett-Cacopardo, p. 265) as we try to “account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multi-media technologies” (The New London Group, 1996, p. 11).

Yes, the questions asked and thus, the research methods chosen are influenced by philosophical differences in views of learning, but general agreement exists that technology is reshaping the “stuff” and “space” of learning (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003). What questions we ask simply depend on the spaces and stuff we study.

At the lab we study the digital literacy practices that are favored in both schools and the workplace. Thus an emphasis is placed on the teaching and measuring of more discrete skills. While these are connected, for better or worse, to “specific social, cultural, institutional, and political practices” (Gee, 1999, p. 356) I feel being able to locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information is central to participation in a global economy.

Studying this “stuff” of learning leads us to methods that involve positivist methods of assessment models and verbal protocol analysis (Afflerbach, 1995). This does not mean other methods or questions are not as important. For example, in studying the contexts that support learning of new literacies of online reading comprehension a participant-observer ethnography maybe the only option.

Other work in the broader field of New Literacies research, which often takes a more participatory view of learning (Gee, 1999, Greeno,1989), study different “stuff” and “spaces” for learning. These theories look to assess not discrete skills but involvement in “affinity spaces” (Gee, 2004) by examining both participation and proficiency through ethnographies (Black , 2008) or through design based measures (Hickey,Honeyford, Clinton, & McWilliams, 2010).

I, however, do not agree that positivist methods cannot be used to investigate learning through participation. Socio-cultural views (Smagorisnky, 1999) and cultural-historical (Cole, 1989) views of literacyshare common roots in Vygotsky (1978) (similar to constructivist learning theories). If learning and language development are rooted in social practices through mediated tool use, can’t this tool use be counted? The idea that we can’t build our knowledge base by counting things just seems silly.

I also agree that positivist methods of measuring learning do not capture the entire picture of the mediating affects that culture has on learning and development. Instead I would argue, using Wittgenstien’s (1980) metaphor of learning as an “immense landscape,” that measures of observable skill and strategy use are like samples on flora and fauna. Its not the entire landscape but this information sure helps put the picture in focus.

This is why I am drawn to the concept of open-source theory development. This is why I ask questions that require me to draw on both cognitive and learning as doing models of learning.

Most importantly however, wherever you stand both constructivist and situated visions of learning seem to promote the same type of inquiry based collaborative pedagogy. The theories may have different methods for measuring and observing but as educators we all want to have kids leave their digital footprints as they transverse the “immense landscape” of learning.

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