New Literacies and conflicting “mindsets”

This is the second in a series of reflections based on New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning, 2nd edition by Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel. Check this post for an overview of New Literacies as presented in Chapter 1 of the book. Here are some thoughts generated from Chapter 2, “New Literacies: Challenge of Mindsets”:

I am very interested in the subject of paradigm shifts and values conflicts in general and the way these play out in relation to technology and education reform, specifically. So, Chapter 2 of New Literacies was a fun read.

This chapter is framed by a tension between two distinct “mindsets” regarding the impact of information and communication technology on the contemporary world. Lankshear and Knobel explain:

The world is being changed in some fairly fundamental ways as a result of people imagining and exploring how using new technologies can become part of making the world (more) different from how it presently is (second mindset), rather than using new technologies to do familiar things in more “technologized” ways (first mindset) (p. 34).

The authors refer to these worldviews as “Newcomer” or “Outsider” (first mindset) and “Insider” (second mindset), with the pedagogy of New Literacies drawing heavily upon the emergence of the second. The distinction might remind you of the “digital natives” versus “digital immigrants” dichotomy popularized in an essay by author and futurist Marc Prensky. These buzz words are commonplace among technology educators today; although, some have since critiqued the concept as polarizing and shortsighted.

Of course, no where is the tension between the two mindsets felt more acutely than in our schools. Last year I witnessed this firsthand when I gave a short presentation to a small group of teachers about social bookmarking services, highly accessible web-based tools that enable groups of individuals (in this case, teachers or students or both) to collect and annotate web resources collaboratively.

Shortly after giving the presentation, I posted a long reflection on the experience; it boils down to the fact that my audience, rather than being receptive to the potential of this new web tool, was largely preoccupied with the fear that somehow students would misappropriate it or abuse it.

This preoccupation with safety, security, and control limits the ability of schools to keep pace with the evolving “Insider” mindset. Lankshear and Knoble write:

Schools are often trapped here and inevitably go for the safe option, because for teachers to play an educative role that truly assists young people to assume moral responsibility for their internet activity, teachers themselves need to “know their internet,” which, to a large extent they still do not (p. 39).

But I would argue that the solution goes beyond teachers merely needing to “know their Internet.” It’s about school systems truly valuing the Internet and participation on the Internet as an educational resource equivalent to traditional, adopted texts and classroom tasks. The need to teach “filtering behaviors” and the rules of engagement in cyberspace has to be viewed through multidisciplinary lenses, rather than relegated to the purview of the media specialist or computer teacher.

One aspect of teaching the “New Literacies” that I am missing in Lankshear and Knobel’s Chapter 2 and hope the authors will address in a subsequent chapters is the need for educators to set up and facilitate opportunities for students to evaluate and judge the merit of all this rapid change. I absolutely embrace the new worlds opened up to me as a teacher/learner via Web 2.0, and I admire and often try to emulate the multitasking abilities of the “Insider” set. But what are the costs? What are the consequences to our identities and relationships in real time and in real space? What about the largely economic divide that prevents “out-of-school access to ‘new’ literacies” for certain groups of learners (p. 30)?

And I bristle just a little at dispassionate assertions about the complete obliteration of the “text paradigm” (p. 52). The authors maintain that “norms” still exist,

but they are less fixed, more fluid, and the sheer proliferation of textual types and spaces means there is always somewhere to “go” where one’s “ways” will be acceptable and there will be freedom to engage them, ad where traditional emphases on “credibility” become utterly subordinated to the pursuit of relationships and the celebration of sociality.

Isn’t it a bit dangerous to accept that all this change is purely inevitable? What are the consequences?

For example, I take exception with the authors’ uncritical take on Google’s “free” search services (pp. 43-44). Yes, I use Google, but I do so with the knowledge that every time I do, I “pay” with bits of information about myself. If you have a Gmail account, then you know exactly what I am talking about with the microadvertising on the right-hand column that is pinpointed to the subject matter of each and every email message that you open and read.

Plus, Google (and other search companies) are constantly experimenting with the promise of optimized personal searches, in which our personal search histories can be mined for data about us, supposedly for the purpose of refining and perfecting our future searches.

As a practice, I don’t trade in conspiracy theories, but as is seen in two spoofs based on Google’s web dominance, Google’s Master Plan and EPIC 2014, there are a lot of issues to consider. These are issues I would love to explore with digital “Insiders” and “Outsiders” alike, but especially with the “Insiders” who don’t necessarily have an alternate context from which to judge.

And that’s what I think.

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