Reflections by Bob Heath

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Rich Reflections 1, ED 654

Belshaw, D. (2014). The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. Retrieved from <>

Chapter 1

Chapter one is a welcome, a context, and a roadmap of what is to follow. I am amused that Belshaw throws down the Lemony Snicket [1] warning, “If you keep reading then don’t say I didn’t warn you.” However, after skimming the book through I am not entirely certain he needs to be defensive. On the other hand, there may be subtle boast as well in this that we will be changed by what we read and think subsequently. In truth, his credentials, bio, and role as a thought leader are as reliable as they come mainly in such a fluid field/industry. I am also fascinated with the process of writing and revising in full public that Belshaw used while drafting this book.

I'm also quite interested in Doug's process of publication from beginning to end. As one who has been involved in various publishing ventures, I think it behooves writers to understand what the new and emerging publishing ecosystem looks like, something sadly missing from most of the formal educational ventures. It's amazing to me, for instance, that writers come out of high-powered MFA programs without any hint that publishing has changed in the last 20 (or even 50) years! --- Fncll (talk)

Chapter 2

A recurrent, but uncited, theme in the ONID program[2] has been the misgiving around modifying “literacies” or “citizenship,” for example, with “digital.” Reading Belshaw’s book has provided the connection to this shared misgiving among my professors. Belshaw makes a two-part observation about the proliferation of literacies, “visual, garden, digital” and this use of the notion “zeugmas” in particular the functional exchange of efficiency for ambiguity that occurs when we coin terms like “digital literacy.”

What underlies all of this is that being literate is not only an ongoing process, but necessarily a social activity. We use tools for the purpose of communicating with one another. This requires both tool-knowledge and content-knowledge. Crucially both of these aspects of knowledge are in flux in the 21st century meaning that, “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read, he will be the man who has not learned to learn.”

I am intrigued by the radical shift in the final statement. Indeed, in my time in schools, students were deemed in need of teaching, and it was assumed that there was a causal connection between teaching and learning. This seems to be gone altogether from this statement. Learning is expected to be intrinsically motivated, perhaps idiosyncratic, and eccentric, and yet socially situated and constructed. Again I think John Seely Brown's description of how four young surfers used online learning communities to leverage their way into the professional circuit is and prominent example of this.[3] I feel like much of my adult life has been arguing for this and to find it here taken for granted is a little unnerving. Perhaps that is the printing press quality of the internet is to have rendered the panopticon of schooling[4] moot in a single gigantic leap forward. The leveling of learners is unprecedented in human history and geography.

You might want to check out Chris Fliss - Reflection 2: What's the problem? as well.

As you know, understanding of teaching and learning tends to get framed in oscillating patterns. The "we teach; they learn" approach that was taken for granted is now, in some sets, replaced by nearly the exact opposite being similarly taken for granted. It's important to consider where Doug is in relation to the academy: I agree with most of what he has to say but he represents a small (but vital and loud) group that is still fighting a long war. I get nervous about the oscillations because of the temptation (for all kinds of reasons) to dispense with too much of "the past" or the work from the "other side" --- the radically decentralized learning experience (see DS106, rhizomatic learning...seriously, google them if you aren't familiar with those models/examples) offers real insight and opportunity, but there is still a lot to be had from some of the dynamics of the more traditional methods as well.

And I so love the notion and the phrasing about the printing press and panopticon. I think this really is at the heart of the educational changes. Speaking of which, are you familiar with Gardner Campbell's work? If not, I think a lot of what he is doing would resonate with you. I've assigned his work and had him guest speak with the class, but gave him a break this summer. I'd be happy to connect you two if you find something in his work of interest. --- Fncll (talk)

I have been in higher ed (think glacial pace of change) my entire career and so oblivious to the politics and sociology of these oscillations in other educational contexts. My experience has been more personal [5] idiosyncratic so perhaps not oscillations as much as iterative modifications as exposure and experience softened my rhetoric. I am intrigued by your mention of rhizomes. I remember reading Deleuze and Guattari in the 1990's A Thousand Plateaus[6] their opening chapter is an exploration of rhizomes as an alternative trope ordering knowledge. I wonder if their is a connection?

I'll look into Campbell as I am not familiar with him.

Chapter 3

Belshaw burrows into “ambiguity” in this chapter. Pleasantly, this topic is near and dear to my heart. And, like Belshaw, rather than running away from ambiguity I sought and celebrated it. He has spent a lot of time on the topic, and that is evident in his pithy schema/theory.

Generative Ambiguity, Creative Ambiguity, Productive Ambiguity, and Dead Metaphor

I understand Belshaw’s generative ambiguity to be aleatory in a way, rather like throwing dice without spots, or only adding the spots as the dice are in motion. In using this trope I am alluding to John A Schumacher's book Human Posture: the Nature of Inquiry which I highly recommend certainly on ambiguity at the least.[7] He is focused on language/thought but the principle is that words and notions are thrown like dice and what is being explored is entirely about the interplay and potential. Belshaw’s next stage is “creative” ambiguity he defines it as one aspect of the ambiguity being stipulated while leaving the rest in play and seeing how that tentative definition affects the interplay and potential. “Productive” ambiguity represents for Belshaw, a moment where both movement and meaning are at least tentatively stipulated a nearly common sense “reading” as it were. At the far end of Belshaw’s illustration is “dead metaphor” he follows Richard Rorty[8] and defines these as excessively common sense, trite, cliché. He offers the notion “digital natives” as an example specific to the conversation.

I see the idea of creative ambiguity as being oft-misunderstood. In particular, creative constraints can themselves be as unambiguous as it's possible to be while still openings field of creative ambiguity. ---Fncll (talk)

In response, to your comment Chris, I think an apt trope are the pentatonic scales on a guitar fretboard. There is very little ambiguity in that structure and yet vast variations in expression are possible.

I am sympathetic to Belshaw’s scheme. He defines these categories and they resonate with other theories of ambiguity. However, I struggle with his calling them a continuum. He does not actually develop the movement, the intellectual process, along with that continuum nor the connections or relations between the categories. He provides the thought experiment of the school principal but only partially develops that. My initial skim of the book also does not find a deep dive into that in subsequent chapters. I think it is important to explore how we use these different kinds of ambiguity, how we move between them and why.

You could spend the rest of the semester going through the door you opened in your last senstence. Want to? ---Fncll (talk)

Chapter 4

What does this mean in practice? It means that we should recognize a multiplicity of literacies, and especially in the digital realm. It is easy to paint a utopian picture of what can happen when learners connect to information and one another via digital tools. There’s plenty of rhetoric about learning and jobs being available to all through the internet. What is often missing is the recognition of the multiple literacies needed to not only turn desire into action but even to know what is obtainable.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is Belshaw’s trope about learning languages. He rightly points out that the best way is to move to a country that speaks the language and immerse oneself. So, then what are the analogs between this trope and any individuals online activities? My first, natural connection is to gaming. Computer games, whether single player or multi-player, are about learning, game interface, game mechanics, game objectives, and rewards – learning is part of the fun. In the case of MMO, this is further complicated by player actions. Moving to Eve Online[9] and immersing oneself in the gameplay is a kind of literacy. There is play in the game and there is play out of the game as one reads player blogs and forums and locates tools and apps to manage and navigate goth in-game and out of gameplay. The game itself is too complicated and rich to not specialize. Do those skills transfer to other contexts? Indeed, those skills transfer to other games. Do they transfer to other learning or literacies? That depends upon the pattern-recognition and subsequent feedback/feedforward cycle. Certainly, in game research and meta-gameplay, I have transferred online research skills from work and study. But that doesn't answer the question about skills flowing the other direction and to non-game activities. I have heard of surgeons using controllers like console controllers to perform micro-surgery so perhaps an example.

Pattern recognition seems to exist cognitively and technologically at a very basic level to understanding. Another area that is already somewhat generalized across a broad tech spectrum but, like languages, messy and only semi-susceptible to prescriptivist intrusion: interface/UI/icon/etc literacy. ---Fncll (talk)

Chapter 5

Belshaw identifies eight elements that inform literacy for him:

  1. Cultural
  2. Cognitive
  3. Constructive
  4. Communicative
  5. Confident
  6. Creative
  7. Critical
  8. Civic

I especially like his treating these as ingredients necessary in a recipe that each of us cooks up in the moment. I like as well his authorial decision to privilege “cultural” when the rest of the list is alphabetically ordered. To my mind, that is how this discussion bridges to a more broad discussion of citizenship in the online environment. We tend to imagine the primacy of our psychologies in making us who we are and forget our cultural embeddedness. I have to believe that a Pakistani woman does not easily assume the risk I might take for granted in my online presence and participation, for example, or she may take more risk than I can tolerate[10].

I am coming to acknowledge “constructive” as significant, as self-defining, as perhaps necessary. To be “literate” and maybe a citizen involves content creation, not just content consumption. I think of all the softball practices that I attended and assisted with while raising my daughter. That participation admittedly constrained, still contributed to the success of the central Maine summer softball tournaments. We gave many young woman practice in mental and physical toughness as they played 2-9 games in the summer heat. Our team usually lost their first game and then battled back to win the tournament. My point again is that putting my energy into that was a kind of content creation. If I had dropped my daughter off and picked her up as many parents did, I would have been a content consumer – assuming I watched the weekend tournaments. I am uncertain what my analog might be online but this realization represents a change in my self-perception and online activity since 1997.

In fact, the rest of the list isn't quite alphabetic "civic" has been moved to the bottom. It's a clever framing, possibly, making cultural and civic kind of a pair of brackets or, perhaps more accurately, a foundation.field in the former and a rule-set at the top?

I agree about the importance of "content creation" (though the phrase sounds so sterile)...more importantly you touch on a critical point about that: content creation covers a much broader range of activities, happenings and hooplas than it is traditionally conceived of in the ed/tech intersection. Perhaps this can be bundled under the rubric of being "participatory" which allows me to work in my hobby horses of "participatory agility" and "participatory resilience" ---Fncll (talk)