Reflections by Valerie Wheeler

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Reflection: Chapter 1

Since the introductory chapter primarily outlines the road map for the rest of the book, I thought I'd create a basic infographic that does the same thing. Once I've finished the book, I'd like to return to this infographic and answer each chapter's main question.


Reflection: Chapter 2

It’s really easy for us to get stuck inside our own time period; to judge past events based on what we experience and know in the present. For example, we don't think of “pen and paper” as a form of technology, but we do think of computers and twitter accounts as "technology." We probably all have (at least to some extent) a form of "historical myopia" (myopia being "near-sightedness"), in which we are only able to see and understand what is directly in front of us. Belshaw encourages us to get over our near-sightedness, look farther, and consider our own "modern" technologies in the context of the whole history of literacy. That's why I particularly like this excerpt:

"Before books went digital, they were created either by using a pen or by using a printing press. These tools are technologies. Literacy, therefore, is inextricably linked with technology even before we get to ‘digital’ literacies."

When the alphabet, or paper/pen (quill?), or the printing press were invented and their use became commonplace, these were “disruptive technologies” (mentioned in "Digital Facelifts"). We’ve always lived in a world that easily uses these inventions, so we forget that they were “hi-tech” when they were introduced, and forget that they drastically influenced the possibility and progression of literacy. I wonder what it would've been like to live through the invention of the printing press-- probably a lot of the fears and complaints people had about the changes brought about by the printing press would sound somewhat similar to the fears and complaints we hear in relation to today's digital tools. So how have even newer technological tools changed “literacy”? Belshaw leaves it at, “digital literacy is an ambiguous concept,” and I look forward to seeing how he explores that concept in future chapters.

Reflection: Chapter 3

In the beginning of Chapter 3, Belshaw refers to a 1930s book by William Empson, called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Since Belshaw says he spent a great deal of time wrestling with the ideas in Empson’s work, I wanted to track down more information on this book. I found a short biography of Empson that offered this quote from Seven Types of Ambiguity: “Ambiguity impedes communication when it results from the writer's indecision.” This particular quote made me think of this excerpt from Belshaw:

"Given how context-dependent language can be, it’s a wonder we manage to successfully communicate our ideas at all! …We assume that if we mean what we say then everything will be alright. So long as we use what we consider to be appropriate words then others will understand what we’re trying to convey."

Belshaw says that “we assume that if we mean what we say then everything will be alright.” Now, obviously, that doesn’t always work out. We can say what we mean and still be misinterpreted. Or, even more, we can say what we think we mean…but maybe, truly, we really aren’t sure. Or maybe we say something even though we have no idea what we’re actually talking about. This is what I think Empson is talking about when he says that, when ambiguity stems from “writer’s indecision,” it can cause problems in communication.

Similarly, Empson encourages us to consider "purpose, context and person" as well as "the critical principles of the author and of the public" when trying to convey meaning. In some ways, as Belshaw drills down from the creative, generative, and productive forms of ambiguity, he is encouraging us to to do just that. Belshaw’s “generative ambiguity” is located “one step away from being vague” on the continuum of ambiguity. So, then, we consider “purpose, context and person,” and we can move from generative ambiguity to creative ambiguity. Then, maybe we consider “critical principles of author and public,” and drill down even more specifically to productive ambiguity. While I find this whole reflection that I just wrote somewhat confusing (and, aptly, ambiguous), this is my reflection on Chapter 3 in a nutshell: All language has built-in ambiguities, which is not a negative nor positive characteristic in and of itself. Instead, as we consider things like audience, context, purpose, connotation and denotation, we can better identify what level of ambiguity is appropriate and useful for a given situation/context.

Reflection: Chapter 4

To me, the most meaningful part of Chapter 4 and the Tedx Talk it referenced was the section describing the sequentially-encoded and progressively-encoded images. As Belshaw explains:

"I think that the difference between sequentially-encoded and progressively-encoded images serves as a useful metaphor for learning digital literacies. Our tendency in education in general is to package-up blocks of learning on a linear pathway. The learner literally does not see the ‘big picture’ of learning — only what comes next. On the other hand, letting the learner roam, whilst providing just-in-time support, can lead to a much richer and more enjoyable experience. They can see how it all fits together, even if they haven’t got all of the detail and nuance just yet."

I’ve taught introductory political science courses for a couple of years, and I really like this analogy and the educational philosophy that it represents. Every semester, when I was prepping syllabi and mapping out the course architecture, I would outline what broad topics / chapters would be discussed at what point in the semester. This always became the most time-consuming and difficult part of writing my syllabus, because I could never figure out what topics should be discussed “first,” what should be discussed “next,” and what should be discussed “last"... primarily because, I would reason, you need to know the content of Week 1 to understand the content of Week 15, but you also need to know the content of Week 15 to really, truly understand the content of Week 1. After reading Chapter 4 in Belshaw, it occurs to me that I was conceptualizing my course architecture as linear, when it doesn't necessarily work that way. Sometimes, you need to know all of it to deeply understand any of it. The concepts within political science (like most subjects I imagine) are recursive and interlocking. In other words, once you understand political culture, you can better understand social movements. But once you understand social movements, you can better understand political culture. I think students also tend to expect a linear progression through course material, which means they may not be as vigilant about making connections between past lessons and future lessons. Or, if they expect a linear path through the subject and instead get an opportunity to roam and explore, they may start to feel like the course is disorganized.

Consequently, I thought it would be useful to create this visual illustration based off Belshaw’s example. I took a course-related image and made my own version of pixelated and linear loading. Perhaps on the first day of class I could introduce these images to students to help explain to them what to expect from the course. Something like this could help explain to students that, while the course will be organized and intentionally designed, they shouldn’t expect concepts in political science to unfold in a neat, linear fashion. The political world is too complicated for that; instead of a linear path, we will work towards sharpening, adding detail, and correcting the “big picture” of politics that they already posses.

Reflection: Chapter 5

Not surprisingly, the final essential element of digital literacies that Belshaw describes—the “civic” component—was particularly interesting to me. Civil society is actually one of my favorite concepts in political science and a important part of my thesis for my last graduate program. Belshaw defines civil society as “the arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests.” The updated Wikipedia definition of civil society is: "the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens." Clearly, civil society is a nebulous concept, as the civil society “ecosystem” can include NGOs, social movements, faith communities, labor unions, grassroots movements, online groups/movements, etc. This report by the World Economic Forum provides a comprehensive list of 9 “roles” that civil society can play in society:

  • Watchdog: hold institutions/government accountable and promote transparency
  • Advocate: raise awareness of certain issues
  • Expert: provide expertise to shape policy/strategy and solve problems
  • Service provider: provide direct services like education, food, disaster management
  • Incubator: develop long-term solutions
  • Capacity builder: provide education, training
  • Representative: give power to marginalized or voice to the underpresented
  • Citizenship champion: encourage citizen engagement, citizen rights, and mobilize citizens
  • Create bridging social capital: bring people from different groups together in unity

I think this list is a fairly comprehensive exploration of the positive influence that civil society can have on society. As Belshaw states,

“The focus here is upon literacy practices supporting the development of Civil Society…the Civic element is about using digital environments to self-organise… literacy practices are empowering.”

The list above certainly represents the “empowering” potential of civil society, and most of those functions of civil society can apply to digital forms of civic participation as well as the non-digital. I imagine we could fairly easily come up with examples of digital tools serving each one of those 9 civil society roles above. For example, an organization like Kiva uses the internet to provide direct services, to build capacity, to create bridging social capital, etc.

I appreciate that Belshaw also points out that:

“This empowerment, however, does not always lead to positive consequences, as the rioting across English cities in the same year as the Arab Spring proved. In addition, the rise of Al-Quaeda-like ‘cells’ across the world is predicated upon digital communications. These practices and associated literacies are disruptive — leading to consequences both positive and negative.”

We forget that the Klu Klux Klan and the Nazi People’s Welfare Association are also “civil society” groups-- they just represent the dark side or "bad civil society." In other words, civil society does not always support democratization; sometimes, it can be co-opted by hate groups or used by the elites to maintain control. In this way, I think the “civic” essential element of digital literacies that Belshaw discusses in this chapter can be closely tied to the “critical” element. Belshaw states that the critical element “is about analysing the power structures and ambitions behind literacy practices.” I would contend that whenever you’re talking about “civic,” you’re talking about politics… and whenever you talk about politics, you’re talking about power structures.

Reflection: Chapter 6

I appreciate that Belshaw emphasized the social element of digital literacies. For example, in Chapter 6, Belshaw states:

“Memes are fundamental to understanding why digital literacies (and in particular web literacies) are different to traditional print literacy. Reading and writing have never been so intrinsically social. We’ve moved from a position where until a few hundred years ago literacy was something practised by only an elite few. Now, with almost universal literacy in the developed world, and near-instantaneous communication, someone with an idea and access to a digital device can create a ‘text’ and send it to a potentially-huge audience.”

Memes certainly have the potential to reach a huge audience, and because of this potential, I would contend that they have a greater civic impact that it may seem at first glance. For example, Belshaw breaks down the Y U NO meme, comparing it against the eight essential elements that he outlined in Chapter 5. Interestingly, he says,

“Which of these elements are involved with the Y U NO meme? I’d suggest all but the Civic element — but it depends at which stage an individual is involved.”

I think a case could be made that some memes (maybe not this particular Y U NO meme, but some), can contain a civic element—even if the text or content of the meme isn’t particularly political or social or “civic.” One of the functions of civil society, as I mentioned in my Chapter 5 reflection, is to “create bridging social capital,” or to “bring people from different groups together in unity.”

So how might this work? For example, Belshaw mentions Gangnam style as becoming a “cliché.” Having been viewed over 2.5 billion times on YouTube, I’d say its safe to say it’s been “over-played.” (To put that number into perspective, the current U.S. population is around 320 million and the world population is around 7.4 billion.) Probably most American teenagers have seen this video, but so have people from all over the world. They may have nothing else in common—different backgrounds, language, religion, socioeconomic status—but, they have seen this same video.

This is why Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon declared Gangnam style to be a “force for peace.” He explains that, "There are no languages required in the musical world. That is the power of music, that is the power of the heart. Through this promotion of arts we can better understand the culture and civilisations of other people. In this era of instability and intolerance we need to promote better understanding through the power of music."


This sounds like bridging social capital to me, which could support the argument that memes do contain a civic element. Even if a meme doesn’t reach as far as Gangnam style and spreads selectively throughout the U.S., that could still be a way to create bridging social capital. It can be a way to transmit shared values and ideas, and create connections between diverse or polarized groups. Are memes are particularly powerful way to create “bridging social capital”? Or are they only a weak form of social capital? Now, that I don’t know. However, I believe the potential does exist for it to have at least some influence on the development of similar social values, and gives diverse groups something to talk about. That is not particularly insignificant.

Reflection: Chapter 7

“If the digital world is fundamentally different to the analogue, then the skills, competencies, literacies, behaviours and attitudes required must differ too. We cannot just take those we learned offline and expect them to translate well online. Interacting within a social network offline, for example, is different from interacting with one online. There are different norms, behaviours, methods of expression and such like that those who are new to the network must learn and abide by if they are to be ‘successful’ in their interactions.”

This sounds like a key quote for the development of a definition of “digital citizenship.” What struck me about this quote is that, I think we often tend to only judge internet or digital behaviors against their traditional counterparts. I thought of two examples:

  • Many articles compare digital activism to traditional forms of activism. They argue that digital activism requires less motivation, or that traditional activism is more organized and consequently more influential. Or, they argue that digital activism de-sensitizes people to important issues, while traditional activism actually results in change.
  • Or, you always hear about how “kids these days” only know how to text and tweet, and that those practices are forever damaging their social skills. We talk about "real-life" friends versus Facebook friends.

In both of these two examples, the primary conversation is a comparison-- it is a comparison between the digital and the analogue. As I thought about these two examples and the quote above from Belshaw Chapter 7, it occurs to me that maybe it would be more useful if we, as Belshaw suggests, judge internet behaviors against their own potential, and judge in-person/traditional behaviors against their own potential. Belshaw explains that the "digital world is fundamentally different to the analogue," and so it is only logical to treat them as two separate, distinct categories. Maybe instead of always talking about how “online activism is useless and traditional activism is powerful,” maybe we should consider at least sometimes changing the conversation and ask different questions. Maybe we should talk about how a particular form of online activism is more powerful than another. Or, maybe we should spend more time talking about a particular form of digital social engagement has different implications than another form. We should judge digital behaviors on their own merit instead of expecting them to behave like or have the same results as their analogue counterparts. While there is a time and place for conversations that compare digital the digital and analogue, maybe at least sometimes we should considering treating them, as Belshaw suggests, as "fundamentally different."

Reflection: Chapter 8

I particularly liked Belshaw’s description of the “interest-based pathways to learning” at the end of Chapter 8, so I decided to reflect on each one of his final four points.

  • “We tend to treat knowledge, skills and understanding in fairly siloed subject areas…Many, if not most, ideas are improved by thinking in a cross-disciplinary way.” Political science is inherently interdisciplinary—to really understand even one political event, you have to understand sociology, economics, history, psychology, geography, economics…and the list goes one. So I completely agree with this first point by Belshaw. Cross-disciplinary learning can help students learn how to work towards “uncovering” knowledge and advance their critical thinking skills. Similarly, I think cross-disciplinary thinking and learning teaches us to embrace ambiguity (which would align well with Belshaw’s discussion of ambiguity in Chapter 3).
  • “Leveling-up in one area can also mean leveling up in another.” I remember the summer before I started graduate school, the one bit of advice I was given was to “read a lot.” I was told that I didn’t even have to read anything related to my intended area of study- just read anything and everything. I observed that towards the end of graduate school, I could power through and read an advanced scholarly work in an hour when it previously would’ve taken me three. “Leveling-up” my reading skills didn’t just improve my reading skills, though, it improved my critical thinking skills, my creative skills, and my writing skills. Thus, “leveling-up” in one area meant I “level-ed up” in another.
  • “One doesn’t have to learn everything about a subject…many topics and areas allow us to follow our interests rather than plot through sequential learning activities.” We can’t learn everything about a subject, that’s for sure! Belshaw gives the example of liking a few songs on an album, and I think that is true of our own learning. I know for myself, I love learning about the nuts and bolts of governmental structures, but am not all that interested in the politics of campaigning. “Interest-based pathways to learning,” as Belshaw suggests, tend to be very effective.
  • “Learners can—and should—decide their own learning goals…the human brain learns better through curiosity and some serendipitous linkages than a constant diet of pre-packaged morsels.” As a famous quote by Plato says, “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” When we are interested in something, we can spend hours and hours pouring over it. Like Belshaw suggests, by “deciding our own learning goals,” we are stimulating our own curiosity and creating true motivation for knowledge acquisition.

Reflection: Chapter 9

For the concluding chapter, I wanted an opportunity to recap some of my key takeaways from the book. I returned to the infographic I made for the Chapter 1 reflection and used the primary question from each chapter as a jumping off point for my Chapter 9 reflection. I found this exercise useful—many of my chapter-by-chapter reflections just focused on a very specific excerpt, so this reflection gives me a chance to return to the “bigger picture” ideas in the text.

  • Chapter 1: Where is this going? This is going to explore literacies (plural not singular). Because literacies are plural and context-dependent!
  • Chapter 2: What does “literacy” look like, and how does this change when we add “digital”? All practices of “literacy” are linked to technology—the paper and pen were technological advances, just as tweeting and texting are today. Digital literacy is even more social than previous forms of literacy.
  • Chapter 3: What is the role of ambiguity in digital literacies? Embrace ambiguities in digital literacies, but avoid being vague. Work through the continuum of ambiguity, moving from generative and ending up in productive ambiguity.
  • Chapter 4: Why are literacies plural and context-dependent? Digital literacies take on many specific shapes, “each comprising an identifiable set of socially constructed practices.” All skills are developed within a specific context.
  • Chapter 5: What are the 8 essential elements of digital literacies? Cultural, cognitive, constructive, communicative, confident, creative, critical, and civic.
  • Chapter 6: How do memes illustrate digital literacies? Memes are intrinsically social, more so than other types of print literacy. Memes give the creator the opportunity to exercise any/all of the 8 essential elements of digital literacy.
  • Chapter 7: How is the concept of “remix” at the heart of digital literacies? Interest-driven learning is a great way to learn in digital spaces, and “remixing” gives us the chance to exercise interest-driven learning and imitation.
  • Chapter 8: What is the difference between coding and web literacies? Coding is “the ability to read and write a machine language and think computationally,” while web literacy is a form of digital literacies; it’s learning how to interact and use the web.
  • Chapter 9: What’s next? Consider the 8 essential elements of digital literacies in new contexts, and look for ways to remix Belshaw’s text!