Friday, January 2, 2015

In a galaxy not so far away

Phil Ostroff | Flickr
Look it up on Wikipedia (Google entry number one) and you learn that a galaxy is a "massive, gravitationally bound system consisting of stars, stellar remnants, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and dark matter." French computer scientist Owen Cornec has applied this concept to browsing the World's most famous Internet encyclopedia. Cornec's WikiGalaxy visually transforms Wikipedia, mapping every entry to a star in a virtual, searchable galaxy. It also illustrates the breadth of information published on Wikipedia since its launch 14 years ago. There are currently more than 4.6 million articles in the English language Wikipedia alone.

The social practices combined with the technology that make Wikipedia, and other platforms, possible represent new literacies for which understanding is emerging among researchers. Some argue literacy is context dependent, continually changing as new technologies appear while most recognize the social practices that guide work and learning are changing and evolving with technology. If one considers how rapidly technology is developing (see Moore's Law), literacy is becoming quite a fluid concept.

Professors Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear summarize new-literacy research findings in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. They frame the research as focused on "ways in which meaning-making practices are evolving under contemporary conditions" along with, and perhaps due to, the expansion and refinement of digital electronics and communications technologies (read Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations).

Knobel and Lankshear distinguish between new and conventional literacies by what they call a different ethos that is emerging through the more integrated social practices made possible by digitization. New literacy practices are more participatory, collaborative, and distributed. Wikipedia has grown into one of the largest reference sites with hundreds of millions of visitors monthly and tens of thousands of contributors working on more than 31 million articles in 285 languages. It's success depends on aggregating knowledge on a massive scale; on the abilities of people to research, evaluate, synthesize, coordinate, disseminate information, and communicate across diverse communities. Examples of platforms where new literacies are emerging include social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, affinity spaces like the fan fiction site, Kindle Worlds, blogging and micro-blogging platforms, photo curating and sharing sites, mobile applications, digital storytelling and pod-casting media, and online gaming. There are economic implications as well. Peer production platforms are emerging in a variety of sectors, giving rise to new modes of labor, providing new services, and disrupting older services. Online marketplaces like Fiverr and Amazon's Mechanical Turk allow people to hire others to do simple jobs. eBay is a market place for selling almost any type of merchandise. Etsy creates a massive international market for crafts. The computer operating system, Linux, is an open-source software developed by a peer production network, and peer production has also been utilized in producing Open Educational Resources. Knobel and Lankshear say participation in these platforms involves "deep interactivity, openness to feedback, sharing of resources and expertise, and a will to collaborate and provide support that is writ large into myriad contemporary everyday practices."

Young people learn and engage with new literacies in ways that are often not accommodated in schools' instructional methods, according to Knobel and Lankshear. They point to key findings from new-literacy research for educators to consider: Collaboration and peer dialogue are important. Authenticity matters. Learners should be active. Young people value customization. Creativity requires opportunities to make connections across disciplines. Communication, deliberation, and reflection matter. Meta-cognitive awareness, regulation, and experiences are necessary for learning. And exploration is engaging. Student achievement research reflects such findings as well.

However, another line of research might be of equal importance when considering new-literacy practices. As most teachers have experienced, and most of us are intuitively aware, communications technologies can be distracting. Cognitive scientists are studying technology as it relates to executive function, which refers to one's ability to manage and control one's own cognitive processes. While there is no evidence yet to suggest a negative impact on long term executive function, there are studies that show these technologies can have an immediate negative impact on one's cognitive ability to exert self-control and concentrate, both necessary for deep learning. The challenge, then, is to figure out how to leverage the new-literacy platforms for the better. No matter where the research on executive function leads, negative effects on executive function have more to do with how these technologies are used, not simply that we are using them.

What can schools do?

First, don't ignore the problem. Embrace it. Technology isn't exactly rolling back these days. Moore's Law is still playing out. Furthermore, collaboration is the bedrock of innovation. Or so says Walter Isaacson in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. In a biographical study of individuals working at the intersection of computing and networking, Isaacon makes the case that innovation most often happens collaboratively, when individuals work together to synthesize disparate insights that had not previously been connected. Isaacson has written about many of America's geniuses, people individually credited with extraordinary accomplishments. People like Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. But all of these people, while perhaps gifted, were collaborators. They were connectors, working across disciplines and invoking the expertise, perspectives, and talents of others to create something that could not have otherwise come about. New literacies and new technologies make this kind of work more possible than ever.

Second, follow the research. In addition to the findings above, Knobel and Lankshear point to something educationists already know: frequent formative assessment and feedback are critical for deep learning. They provide structure and accountability around learning objectives and can also be useful in helping students navigate new platforms for learning and new literacy practices. Video games are well known to integrate frequent assessment and feedback to provide scaffolding for game-players to improve.

Finally, educators themselves must experience and understand what it means to participate in new literacy practices. Only by internalizing the ethos of some of these practices can educators effectively navigate the nuances that distinguish them from conventional literacy practices and facilitate real meaning-making around learning standards, goals, and objectives.

Where to start?

In this post alone I have incorporated Blogger, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Google Search. Or how about a Wikipedia entry? Anyone can do it. And... you would have your very own star in the WikiGalaxy!

  • Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2014). Studying New Literacies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58(2), 97–101. 
  • Ossola, A. (2014). Why Kids Won't Quit Technology. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

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