In Search of an Understanding of Digital Literacies Worth Having

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This is a review of Doug Belshaw’s insightful book, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. I have been meaning to write this review for a long time. The book ends with an invitation to write your own conclusion. The problem is that I didn’t really know what to write or how to write it. Should it really be in the written form? Did I need to create a video? Sticking to what I feel comfortable with, I have decided to stick with a post in a similar style to the book itself. So here then is my review …

Literacies as Process ≠ Product

There are two big takeaways from Doug Belshaw’s book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. Firstly, that there is no singular definition of literacy, let alone digital literacies. Like the notion of PLN (whatever you want to take that to mean), our definition of digital literacies is something created by a community and continually negotiated. More often than not, this definition is taken for granted, rarely given air. Belshaw does not identify the eight different elements as an answer, but as a point of discussion. The definition is start of this discussion.

I have attempted to write about digital literacies before and in reflection feel that I got something wrong. My focus was on a singular definition and on the product. What I was trying to do was to differentiate digital literacies from more traditional notions of literacy. However, at the end of the day, our understanding of both is flawed. What is important is the process of co-creation. My way of engaging with digital literacies is only one of a myriad of options, while if I were to readdress it now there would most likely be things that have changed. To borrow from the work of David White in regards to residents vs. visitors, some places that I previously resided, I now simply visit, while others I have taken up home in. This is not something that we co-construct within a community, but is something that is in a constant state of flux.

Dean Shareski provides an interesting take on this by mapping his internet footprint using four different quadrants. What I think would be an interesting activity would be to use this framework create a series historical snapshots in order to represent this constant state of change.

It is easy to get sucked into the notion that one must simply do this or join that in order to be digitally literate. However, such focuses on the what and how overlook the most important aspect of them all, the why? At the heart of the process is the constant nagging question, why am I doing this and what am I trying to achieve? I would argue that using a site like just about anyone can create a meme, but this misses something. The question that remains unresolved is why we would create a meme? What is our purpose? What are we trying to achieve? It is these questions that are at the heart of the process, not necessarily the product.

Beyond Good and Evil

Associated with this focus on process, co-construction and community, being digitally literate involves embracing choice and consequence. In a post for DML Central, Belshaw outlined five eras of web literacy. Although in no way concrete, the exercises was designed to demonstrate how our negotiation with the web (and web literacies) has evolved over time.  One of the things that stood out for me was the transition from the ‘Web 2.0 / Everything is an App’ stages to the post-Snowden period which we are now in. This unveiling marked a dramatic change to how we saw the internet, but more importantly how we participated with it. As Belshaw stated:

We collectively realised that we didn’t understand what was going on underneath the surface. We were shocked to discover who had access to our data. We started to worry more about how to manage our increasingly-important online identity and reputation.

What is significant about this shift is that the spotlight is placed on the process. Although the web and technology in general had become a means through which so many could flourish, the question has become at what cost?

It has long been said that if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. However, it was Snowden’s revolutions and everything that followed which has made this situation real for many. The challenge is what next, this is where digital literacies fits in.

For example, following the Heartbleed compromise, Quinn Norton provides a portrait of the web as a fractured foundation we have so easily come to take for granted. Story after story, she paints a picture of a world where technology barely works and no-one is ever in control, no matter what measures are put in place. One fix leads to another and all we are doing is staying afloat. However, as she states:

Your choice: constantly risk clicking on dangerous malware, or live under an overpass, leaving notes on the lawn of your former house telling your children you love them and miss them.

What is important is that we actually realise this situation. For it is only then that we can even begin thinking about doing anything about it.

Coming from the perspective of big data, Danah Boyd questions the merit and meaning of measuring endless amounts of stats online. This is not to say that statistics are all bad, but the incessant amount of numbers associated with hits, follows, likes are not helpful.

Stats have this terrible way of turning you — or, at least, me — into a zombie. I know that they don’t say anything. I know that huge chunks of my Twitter followers are bots, that I could’ve bought my way to a higher Amazon ranking, that my Medium stats say nothing about the quality of my work, and that I should not treat any number out there as a mechanism for self-evaluation of my worth as a human being. And yet, when there are numbers beckoning, I am no better than a moth who sees a fire.

Such statistics are more often than not a by-product of our actual actions. I follow someone to extend my network. I write a response to a book to bring together my thoughts. What is important is not the number of likes or downloads, but the ability to communicate and participate within a civic society. This is why digital literacies is more than just about simply constructing and creating.

On the flip side of this, Boyd provides a more meaningful take on statistics in her post exploring teen’s use of social media. In it she uses various points of information to confidently create a critical analysis of the different cultural arguments put forward about teens. This was then communicated within Medium, the same platform that the original post was made.

The challenge is to go beyond good and evil to consider the part we play. It is not that we should stop using online programs and applications, we instead need to be more conscious of our role and the influence we can have.

Curate or Be Curated, That is the Question

In a post investigating the place of information in today’s society, Belshaw posits that, “having opinions and using them to make decisions about our role in the world is part of what makes us human”. The problem is that such ‘opinions’ are becoming more and more controlled. Whereas in the past, information may have been curated for us in the form of the same newspaper, meaning that although this was one editorial, it was at least something we could all talk about. These days, with the development of the web, we are each provided with our own curated content. Through the use of algorithms, companies like Google and Facebook are able to predict what we are searching for or wish to see come up in our stream and provide content accordingly. It is creating what Eli Pariser has called the ‘filter bubble’. Here I am reminded of David Weinberger’s warning that, “even if the smartest person in the room is the room, this does not magically make all who enter it smarter”. The first step that we can take is to be aware that our lives are being curated in the first place and then start challenging this curation.

There are many ways to curate your own existence online. Sites like allow you to search for content without being tracted, while using social bookmarking sites, such as Diigo and Delicious, provides a means for developing your own curated content.  In regards to housing your data, there are many companies, like Reclaim Hosting, that provide a means for people to manage their own content through open source platforms, such as Known and WordPress. Extending this, Alan Levine suggests that even if we do not house our own data, there are also ways in which we can co-claim. That is, keeping a personal copy of all our digital content, rather than relying on the web.

What is important is that many of these changes are near on impossible to implement in isolation. For example, it would not be a very ‘social’ platform if there was only one person there. It is for this reason that there are no clear cut solutions. There are measures that we can take to encourage civic practise, such as using Creative Commons to license work to make it available to be shared and remixed. It is important though to remember that such change involves communication and dialogue for it takes a village.

It is easy to get caught up in the impact of digital and the web, but at the end of the day what really needs to be addressed is our understanding of literacy. Traditionally, literacy is considered as encapsulating reading for understanding, writing to be understood by others and using tools to write. However, as Belshaw suggests, such a definition denies to important aspects, that literacy has always been and will always be social and will involve some sort of technology. The challenge then is to move our understanding of and engagement with literacies beyond ‘elegant consumption’ to consider the what, the why and the how. This all starts with the who and that who is you and your community. As Belshaw suggests:

Being aware of the way that tools shape the way we think and interact with the world is the first step on the way to changing behaviours. As learners, as teachers, as citizens, we have a duty to ourselves and to one another to be mindful of this.

This chapter in a Nutshell

  • Digital literacies are about process as much as product
  • Lets move beyond good and evil and focus on choice and consequence
  • Literacy starts with you, curate rather than be curated

If you are wanting more information on Doug Belshaw’s book, here is a collection of resources to help you:

Or you can simply buy the book, the choice is yours.

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It’s Been That Way and It Always Will Be

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We got talking the other day at school about our NAPLAN reading results. Again, the reading results were below the state average. It was therefore raised that maybe this needed to be a focus and that maybe we should investigate bringing in a coach from outside of the school. So even though we have several great coaches already working within in the area of literacy and we had a focus on reading a couple of years ago, it was believed that the answer was to get a new perspective on the problem. As long as you are seen doing something then that’s alright.
Having been a part of the push across the region a few years ago in regards to literacy I posed the question as to whether anyone had carried out any sort of audit of the current practises to identify any areas of improvement. For I was told that to bring about deep and meaningful change takes between three to five years. The comment that I got in response really startled me. I was told that it wasn’t anything that we were doing or not doing, that what I needed to understand was that reading standards in the region have always been poor, a consequence of our clientele. Maybe I’m too much of a dreamer or just naive, but I think that before you go chasing the silver bulletin maybe you stop and reflect on your own practise and back your own staff.
This subsequently got me thinking of some simple things we could introduce tomorrow to improve reading and responding within the school. Here then are three changes that I would make:

Share the Conferences

A few years ago I investigated the idea of digital workbooks as an alternative to the usual exercise book. Going beyond the cliché of ‘saving paper’, I wanted something that I could check in at any time without having to go through the rigmarole of collecting books at the end of the lesson. After moving to Google Apps, I then realised that there were benefits far beyond the workbook. One change I brought in was making reading conferences collaborative.
Before that moment, the conference notes were kept by the teacher, with students writing their goals in their reading journal. Other than being owned by the teacher, rather than the student, the process of a literacy coach checking how students were progressing was rather tedious. In moving the notes to a collaborative document, sharing with all the various stakeholders was just a click of the button. This provides a means for teachers to possibly touch base with students on a more regular basis, even if they are not able to literally conference them. It also allowed the process, which was done by Session Five teachers, whoever that maybe, to be shared with English teachers in order to gain a better perspective as to where students are at.

Recognising Digital Literacy Too

One of the things that has always confused me in regards to reading and comprehension is the dominance of the written text to the digital text. Although there are differences between the two, I feel that the ability to be critical is pertinent to both. As I have spoken about elsewhere, I wonder how we are modelling the way we read online within today’s curriculum.
Personally, a majority of what I read is online now. One of the reasons is that I feel it supports my comprehension, allowing me to annotate texts, as well as is interact with others in a way that was not possible before. In the past such sharing was often stunted by whether they too had read or were interested in what I was reading. Now online I can find my niche community, those who are also interested in the same topics as me and connect with them whenever I like.

Fluency and Authenticity

Another interesting idea in regards to working on areas such as fluency and accuracy (see the CAFE menu) is the ability to record yourself and become your own critique. Usually when working with Secondary students I suggest reading to sibling or finding someone else. However, the challenge associated with this that not everyone has a sibling and for many it feels contrived. An alternative to this, that I came upon, via +Corrie Barclay, is to video yourself reading. Not only does this make learning visible, but it also allows students to watch themselves back and be their own critique.
A way of building upon simply recording yourself is to create an audio book. For example, I had some split kids in my class the other day and they had finished all their work, so I asked them to get a picture book and record themselves reading it for a Prep class using Adobe Voice. Not only does this then bring in visualization, as they need to choose the appropriate images to support the text, but I have found that the authenticity of the task brings something out in the students. Instead of recording a one take performance, they would read over each line, play it back and then often rerecord it until they felt they had perfected it.
In the end, the problem to me is that the search for a silver bullet is a facet of the fixed mindset. A belief that if we just get the right teachers or brought in the right coach that somehow everything will magically click and we will get the results. The only silver bullet for success is hard work. No outside coach can bring that in my view, this sadly needs to start at the top with the question why do you want to change and what is the desired outcome. So let’s start there.

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What’s So Digital About Literacy Anyway?

In a post titled, ‘The Importance of Modeling Positive Use of Social Media‘, +Chris Wejr suggested that schools need to do more to both model the appropriate use of social media, as well as promote more positive stories. Borrowing +George Couros‘ notion of ‘digital leadership‘, Wejr suggests:

Much like leadership offline, students and adults can LEAD others in how they interact and treat each other online. When we put our heads in the sand and ban social media, we miss a huge opportunity to showcase and tap into digital leadership and model a positive online presence.
This got me thinking about some of the other things that we may do personally online , but not necessarily model all the time in school. One such practise is that of reading and responding online. So often students are told to use tracks and be active readers, to write regular journal reflections, but this usually starts and stops at the physical book. When are students getting the same opportunity to read and respond online?

Moving Towards a Digital Literacies

One of the big challenges faced in the move towards 21st century learning is how to best embrace and engage with digital literacy. One of the first challenges though is actually defining what is meant by ‘digital literacy’ in the first place. Often digital literacy is simply assumed as the reading and writing of texts that involve in some shape or form digital technology. Although this may be true in part, it does not capture the whole picture. What this sort of definition misses is the different activities involved in dealing with digital media. For example, it fails to properly account for the ability to search for information, critically engage and evaluate it and subsequently curate it afterwards. As Patricia White suggests in her blog post, ‘Digital Literacy and the Australian Curriculum‘:
Digital literacy enables students to critically engage with technology, forming an awareness of how social and cultural understandings can shape how information and meaning is conveyed. It allows them to communicate and represent information in different contexts and to different audiences by re-contextualising their knowledge.
The reality though is that digital literacy is many different things to many different people and is constantly changing. +Doug Belshaw elaborates on this in his thesis on digital literac(ies). The best way, Belshaw suggests, of understanding digital literacy as an ever evolving set of subjective practises defined by contexts, rather than as some sort of stagnant concept. The most important thing is often the actual “process of coming up with a definition of what constitutes ‘digital literacies’”, rather than the actual definition itself. Associated with this, Belshaw identifies eight interrelated elements which each play their part when it comes to digital literacies.
These are not things in themselves, nor do they all come into play with each example, rather it is all dependant on context. For a more in-depth explanation of the each of the elements, see Belshaw’s slideshare.

Going Beyond the Book

Although, as Belshaw argues, there are many different contexts associated with digital literacies, I would like to focus in particular on the internet and how we consume web content. Continuing on from Patricia White’s extrapolation, I would argue that there are three general steps involved with working with the world wide web:
  1. The identification of content
  2. The critical engagement with this information
  3. The sharing and remixing of new ideas
Although we all may have different ideas as to what each of these steps mean, I will use them to provide a simple framework on which to discuss the whole affair and what it means to read online.


The first place that most people go when searching for information is the search engine. In addition to simply typing in the request as is, there are many ways of emphasing words or using various filters to focus these searches and requests. For a great resource in regards to searching online, see +Richard Lambert‘s ‘Digital Search Progression of Skills‘.

On the flip side, a lot of content we find online, in some way of another, actually finds us. The most obvious place we go to are sites and spaces that we trust. This includes news sites of one kind or another, often news of a specific nature. In addition to this, there are those sites and applications which help find information for us based on our history and preferences. This can include ‘following’ or ‘liking’ other users or pages on such sites as Feedly, Pinterest, Edmodo, Educlipper Youtube, Diigo, Google+ and Twitter, or news aggregation applications, such as Flipboard and Zite, which adjust the content based on your choices and interests. Services such as IFTTT and brower add-ons also make it easier to capture this content.

One of the biggest problems with dealing with digital content is what you do with it once you have found it. One of the catches with mediums like Twitter and Feedly is that they are not always about reading everything in the moment. Applications like Pocket, Dropbox and Google Drive allow users to properly digest content at a later date across any device.

Critical Engagement

Associated with capturing online content is the act of organising it. Sites like Diigo, Educlipper, Youtube, Pinterest, Evernote and Delicious allow for the curation of content. This often involves categorising and tagging, as well as adding annotations and comments. Whether it be commenting on a blog, repinning an image, liking a post, sharing a link, there are many ways to contribute ideas and information to keep the conversation going.

Creating and Remixing

One of the biggest differences between traditional and digital literacies is that we are all now a part of an open dialogue. Unlike in the past when we depended upon others to provide content for us, such as book publishers and media producers, these days we are all a part of the creation of content. There are many ways to creatively engage with content, to add back to the online community. This can include anything from posting a tweet, creating an image, writing a blog post or recording a podcast.

What is interesting about consuming online content is that unlike reading a traditional book, there are many ways of going about engaging with the Internet. For example, some may not use applications like Pocket to store content for later, while others may not necessarily create their own new content, instead continuing the conversation by commenting on blogs rather than writing their own. In the end, everyone has their own way of doing things, their own personal work flow, and that is what makes it all he more so special.

Quiet Digital Reading Time

I love reading books, but I also love reading online. In my view, we don’t give enough opportunity for this in schools. As +George Couros suggests, “Whatever you are looking for online, you will find it.” I think that the big challenge is what we do with dearth of information, how we choose it, how we sort it, how we manage it, that matters in the 21st century. Instead of getting students to always close their laptops or put their iPads to sleep during reading time, maybe we need to give more opportunity for them to develop their digital literacy, to stumble upon new ideas and information, to critic it, to share it and to remix it. 

So how do you help students develop their digital literacy skills? Do you allow them to stumble upon information or is their time online more structured? Would love your thoughts in the comments.

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The Worst Thing That We Can Do In Life is Forget About the Past: a Reflection on Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

Even though originally I thought that my blog would include a lot of ‘reviews’ and ‘reflections’ of various stories and novels, it hasn’t really happened that way, but here is a first… 


The Secret River by Kate Grenville tells the story of William Thornhill, a boatman who was caught stealing a load of wood and was subsequently deported, along with his wife Sal, to the New South Wales. Set at the turn of the 18th century, the novel provides a frank portrayal of life in the new colony and out in the frontier country.
Unlike other writers, such as Patrick White’s Voss, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang and the various poems and stories of Barbara Baynton, Joseph Furphy and Henry Lawson, that have tried to capture a particular 18th century life in the Australian bush, Grenville brings a certain dirtiness to the story. We are taken in on every part of the the lives of Thornhills. Although there is clearly a high point in the novel, the story is more about life. As readers, we feel for them, for the lives that they have been sentenced to, for the decisions that they make. I do not think that I have felt so emotional as a reader since reading George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Although clearly a different book altogether, set in a different world, with vastly different characters, both novels take us on a inner journey.
I think that they irony of Thornhill’s journey is that in investing so much thought and emotion into the characters and the lives we are lead back to our own lives – both personally and culturally. We are faced with the question, what would you have done? Could life have been any different?
In the end, I think that the purpose of the novel is to remind us that there is always a ‘secret river’ hidden beneath the surface, the uncanny past waiting to unsettle us. As Grenville writes in the novel about Thornhill and his new abode, “His children’s children would would walk around on the floorboards and never know what was beneath their feet.” Although the past is the past, the worst thing that we can do is to forget about it.

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Reading Conferences, Who’s Problem Is It Anyway?

Conferencing, the CAFE Way

A few years ago daily conferencing sessions came to the classroom with a whirlwind of change. Along with a plethora of comprehension strategies, it was argued by the local region that regular reading and direct teacher instruction would lead to an overall improvement in student reading levels. This change was all based around the work of Gail Boushey and Joan Moser and their book The CAFE Book: Engaging All Students in Daily Literary Assessment and Instruction.
Boushey and Moser divide the act of reading into four clear areas: comprehension, accuracy, fluency and expanding vocabulary. This is where the acronym, CAFE, comes from. Associated with the focus on the different areas of reading, the program also has a big emphasis on making thinking visible, particularly through the use of tracts. Overall, there has been many successes since the initial implementation, the most obvious of which is that students now sit and read uninterrupted for fifteen minutes each day. However, looks can sometimes be deceiving, for when you dig just beneath the surface, there is an issue that seems to be raising up again and again, the issue being the lack of responses and deep student engagement with the program.

Conferencing, Whose Problem Is It?

If you go back to Boushey and Moser, their program was originally devised to be run for an hour a day – something not possible in a Secondary environment – where you would meet with four students, therefore meeting with every student at least every fortnight. In the Secondary classroom, the time allocated to reading only allows for one student conference per day. Subsequently, you are only able to see each student maybe twice a term. One of the problems that arises with this is that students can go for a month without conferring with a teacher, but more importantly, actually responding to the text. For many students, the time spent with the teacher is the only time that they ‘respond’ to their texts in any sort of meaningful and explicit manner. Even though responding is stipulated as a requirement at the start of each year and set as a ‘goal’ for many students through the conferencing process, a lot of students simply ignore it as there is no direct consequence. Before I move on, I just wish to clarify what I mean by ‘responding’. To me responding can be anything ranging from using tracks to record new words to writing reviews of their books once they have completed a text. Basically, any form of explicit action taken while reading, in regards to the conferences, this action is usually in a verbal manner. This all begs the  question, whose problem is this? We talk about problems all the time and finding answers and solutions. However, the issue with this problem is that no one quite owns it. Without any direct ties to curriculum, a part from an informal association with English, who owns it? Does the problem reside with the teacher facilitating the conference and setting the goals or with the student reading but not responding?


Real and Imaginary Reading

One of the big criticisms that students often raise is that ‘leaving tracks’ is not real reading, that is, it is not natural to stop reading midstream to jot down a question or make a connection. Firstly, I’d argue that many of our habits are learnt and not necessarily natural. While secondly, It is not the ‘done thing’ amongst teachers either in the classroom or within their personal reading. I maybe wrong, but I know many teachers who practise a ‘do as I say, not do as I do’ approach to such learning. This may work with tasks where the explicit goal is set within the task through assessment rubrics. However, this does not necessarily work when the task at hand is open-ended, primarily driven by the student and does not have a clear end in sight.
Originally, I thought that the answer was to create a collaborative document using Google Drive to share the goals and touch base with students in between conferences by getting them to record their responses. However, what I found was that most students who I conferred with still showed little interest in responding, let alone placing their responses in the document.
One of the biggest hurdles that I have found with developing responses is encouraging students to respond when they need to rather than when then have to or even worse, when they are forced to. This sense of authenticity is, in my view, is what is most lacking in the whole process. Personally, I have always annotated my texts as I read, this has only been enhanced through the use of technology, from making highlights and capturing quotes while reading eBooks to posting quotes and ideas via twitter and other such social media. One of the keys to this though is that it is ‘personal’ and has been my choice. No one told me to do it, instead I saw some greater good, some intrinsic motivation, to taking action in what I read. However, not everyone sees it this way, whether it is staff or student. 

Repositioning the Student

All this discussion of readers led me back to a book that got bandied around a few years back The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac.
Pennac mentions many things within his book, all of which strangely lead back to the reader and even more strangely lead away from a teacher centred process. I think that this is currently one of the big problems revolving around the way conferencing is currently being practised, the focus is too centred around the actions of the teacher-cum-facilitator and not around the student-cum-reader. I have therefore gotten to the point where something needs to happen to rebalance this equation. Some possible ideas of how to reposition this whole process include the gamification of the reading process through the implimentation the notion of badges in the classroom. In setting these achievements students would then be given some point of guidance through various competencies found within the reading continuum. However, as +Kevin Miklasz suggests: 
That structure behind your badge system is much more important than the simple fact that you use badges in your activities.
To point is that such a change would need to involve a complete rethink of the whole process and would be bound to fail if it were done in some sort of ad hoc fashion. Another plausible element of change is to make responses more authentic and meaningful by posting to a wider audience, not just for the teacher. Some possibilities include posting to social reading sites, such as Goodreads, or creating a blog to share with those in and out of the classroom. I have been particularly inspired by the work of Pernille Ripp and her blog Mrs. Ripp Reads. Although I am sure that she is not the only teacher out their using blogs to develop responses. What these things did teach me was that the first point of change in the whole process should probably be the teacher as leader learner, modelling what they preach, not preaching an empty practise.

In Conclusion: Is Reading Really Reading Without Responding?

I have come to the realisation that unless students are empowered and shown where the value exists for them, by teachers, and given more opportunities to develop authentic responses then the problem will continue to exist for teachers. The reality is, whether staff or students, we are all readers, therefore, in the end, we all need to find our way of responding. You may not want to write reviews online reviews or write extensive tracks in your margins, but the question needs to be asked: are you really reading if you are not responding?

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