Author Archives: Julian Sefton-Green

Is the re-contextualization of digital writing inevitable, escapable or desirable?

My own contribution to the date on digital writing can be found here. I suggest that Digital writing is constantly in tension with the way that school recontextualizes forms of resistance and vernacular knowledge in order to sustain control and power relations across society. Yet the social practices of digital writing are diverse, wide-ranging and constantly challenge forms of authorized knowledge across a wide variety of different social domains. I consider definitions of digital writing (what is counted as such, by whom and in whose interests?) with the aim of disentangling vernacular and formal ‘digital writing’ literacies. The discourse of other arts fields (film and photography especially) raise questions about the logocentrism of print. Such discussion of variation in forms of expressivity and communication challenges and redefines what counts as writing in a conventional sense. I argue that the balance between school control over what counts as writing is under constant stress and is central to the politics of literacy.

Reconceptualizing the teaching and learning of Digital Writing

In August 2019 myself and Jessica Zacher Pandya held a seminar held at Deakin University in Melbourne. We invited a range of scholars to bring their different perspectives about digital writing to an open-ended discussion in which we explored some of the important challenges facing the teaching and practice of writing in the 21st century.

The results of the seminar are now available in a series of essays in a special issue of Theory into Practice where we have taken an interdisciplinary and international approach to ‘digital writing.’ There is no single or simple definition of this term that is widely accepted. We used it to encompass all forms of communication, expression and creativity taking place through, on or with digital technologies and digital platforms. It may include traditional forms of ‘writing,’ that is the use of alphabetic text, but it may also include hybrid forms that mix text with image, emoji, sound and music. It may mean the use of recognizable genres and media forms, advertisements, short films, essays or presentations, but may equally involve the production and circulation of these forms to a wide range of readers or viewers online or through direct one-to-one communication. By definition it might include different kinds of writing activities in the production of a particular artefact, such as the use of storyboards, script and directions in the making of a film. Finished products might encompass modes, voices, images and sounds that blend, mutate and continue to evolve. In the issue, authors from Australia, the UK, the US, Singapore, and Chile conceptualize all forms of meaning making, including selfies, being active on social media, contributing to blogs or forums, texting, extended filmmaking, animation, and complex design as what we are calling digital writing.

One particular area of focus in this issue is on the development, or progressions, of writing in curriculum and policy. A concept of digital writing (that is, the capacity to communicate across media rather than simply in print) ought to be amenable to being mapped along lines similar to those we already use to describe stages of print-writing development.The authors represented in this issue suggest, that principles of progression and development can thus be approached from looking at: individual learners’ growth; communication with and across peers and communities; and study of curriculum rubric and assessment measures

We also asked authors to make sense of the interrelationship of meta-literacy writing principles (narrative, editing, composition) across different media forms and, conversely, to make sense of the interrelationship of artistic traditions and forms through the lens of learning to write . Thirdly we asked authors to address policy and practice implications of the changing writing landscape for teachers and teacher education. These are always evolving, and the current health and economic crises will only pressure national curriculum and examination boards to reflect on and perhaps change writing standards in shifting times.

The joint introduction to the issue is available here.

Play and learning in the digital age

My chapter in a new book published by OECD in their series on Digital childhood examines the cultural history and discursive construction of play and learning, drawing attention to the way that both human activities have been differentiated but are now becoming ever more blurred. This is analysed in the context of changes brought about both by the technical affordances of digital technologies and the political economy of digital culture which has focused on turning learning into a commodity purchased and used in the home as much as in the school. The existential open-ended nature of play itself has been significantly influenced by video gaming and the turn to playfulness in public culture more generally. The chapter argues that it is important not to subordinate play as an instrumental developmental function of learning and that learning itself should not be conflated with the outcomes of the formal education system.

I conclude by arguing that learning is not the binary opposite of play and that making learning not serious, or strengthening its intrinsically playful nature, has helped the commodification of learning and thus its marketability into the home and consequential datafication of learners, teachers and families. I suggest that rather than simply being a natural process of conceptual progress, the specific cultural values that now pertain to both play and learning have been part of the political economy of digital culture. It serves a particular set of interests and therefore the chapter will end with a series of questions challenging the ways that current definitions of play and learning could or should be addressed by policy, families, young people and schools.

  1. What is lost and gained, if:
    1. play is interpreted as being in the service of learning?
    2. what schooling counts as learning is not constantly challenged?
  2. Whose interests might be served by:
    1. conflating play with learning?
    2. broadening the reach and range of digital play as a proportion of all play?
  3. How can we evaluate:
    1. the relationship between the quality of the playified learning experience and school outcomes?
    2. what counts as “good” play or “better” learning?
  4. Given that the option of de-digitalising social life is not available, what can or should other institutions (schools, families, childcare, early childhood centres, kindergarten, and museums and galleries) do to ensure that the global trend to playify learning or learnify play remains varied and diverse?
  5. How important is understanding the changing relationship between play and learning to the future purposes of education systems?

Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age

My contributions to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education on this topic has been published here.

I suggest that digital technologies pose a threat to the post-Deweyian visions of how schools educate for democracy and civic participation at a number of levels. The datafication of interpersonal interactions (as the private individual self is surveilled and commodified by supra-national global technology companies) has enormous consequences for what we want young people to learn and how they ought to behave as citizens in the reconfigured power relations between the individual, the state, and the market. Indeed, questions surrounding what it means to be a citizen and what comprises the new polis in a digitalized global economy have created a distinct new challenge for the purposes of education.

The digital reconfigures the nature of agency, understood as being an intrinsic right of the liberal individual person. In addition there are political dangers for democracy, for these technologies can be mobilized and exploited as the neoliberal state fragments and loses regulatory authority (exemplified by the Cambridge Analytica and “fake news” fiasco). At the same time, the accepted paradigms of the civic, juridical, and identitarian self that traditionally comprised the democratic “citizen” are being rewritten as changing privacy practices reconfigure these models of identity.

What vision of educating for democracy is necessary in the early 21st century? One answer has been to focus on “critical pedagogy,” but that model of educating for full participation in democracy needs to be reworked for the digital age—especially in terms of how schools themselves need to develop an institutional and communal form of digital-social life.

The Final Report from the Connected Learning Research Network: Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship

I am one of the co-authors of the final report of  The Connected Learning Research Network: Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship. We report on a decade’s work of MacArthur Foundation Connected Learning Research Network.

The new report describes the connected learning approach and research in the context of broader social, economic, and technological changes. Here, we have the benefit of drawing from a number of research studies conducted over the life of the network, learning from partners putting connected learning into practice, as well as dialogue and debate in the network meetings that took place four times a year for nearly ten years. Readers can find substantial updates to the connected learning model and design principles, a new synthesis of research evidence relevant to connected learning, and an overview of the studies conducted by the network.  

In a blog, the lead author of the report, Mimi Ito summarises the connected learning approach as follows:

  • We focus on how to support the interests and development of diverse learners rather than center our work on organizational goals, considering how learning and pursuits span settings such as home, school, community, and online. The focus is not on reforming a particular institution, such as schools or libraries, but on situating these institutions within a broader set of supports for youth pursuits.
  • We conceptualize learning and development as a process of network building, in which building social capital, contributing to collective goals, and belonging to communities is essential. This view is in contrast to approaches to learning that center on individual knowledge and skill acquisition and see education as a linear pipeline and progression.
  • Designing for connected learning takes an ecological and systemic approach, which emphasizes partnerships across sites of learning. It is not about implementing a particular technology or technique. 
  • Rather than see research standing apart, we believe in community-engaged scholarship. The stakeholders we study and seek to benefit have essential knowledge and perspectives that must be at the table in research and design that aims for equity and positive learning outcomes.

The social utility of ‘data literacy’

This co-authored article examines the social utility of the concept,‘data literacy’. Recent developments in the processes of datafication challenge long-held assumptions about privacy and the role of both state and commerce in individual lives. Typically, these have been addressed through:regulatory legal constraints underwritten by the nation state but are difficult to enforce at a global level; tactical resistance through forms of self-regulation and technical innovations, and; educational interventions, typically as ‘literacy’, which brings understanding of the new forms of digital control. The article considers the benefit of theorising digital data as a‘text’ and reviews current educational models of data literacy, categorised here as formal, personal and folk pedagogies of data. The article concludes that while the analogy between print and data has many inconsistencies, the term has rhetorical benefits. However, to become a meaningful strategy ‘data literacy’ requires both a more complete theorisation and complex practical development

The article can be found here.

From the personal to the societal – the challenge of moving from everyday ‘interpersonal’ digital literacies to deeper social understandings

I am presenting on this topic at a conference on Media Information Literacy in Seoul, funded by the Ministry of Education and jointly organized by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO (KNCU), the Korea Press Foundation (KPF), the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS), the National Information Society Agency (NIA), the Korean Community Media Foundation (KCMF), and the National Association of Community Mediacenters of Korea (NACM).

The talk argues that in a context of digital transformations in social relationships and arrangements and the ways that they now mediate what we know about the world, and how that knowledge constitutes and legitimates forms of authority, forms of power and contemporary politics, we need a changed version of media or digital literacy. My argument first of all is that while forms of media literacy or digital literacy have taken their time in becoming an acceptable part of both the school curriculum and, just as importantly what it means to be a responsible citizen, there is now a greater urgency in adapting these kinds of media and digital literacy frameworks for the current situation. Secondly, I talk about the differences between everyday, common sense ‘interpersonal’ digital literacies – that is the kinds of understandings people make up as they learn to live with these technologies – and the more formal critical literacies that we usually encounter in the school or university curriculum. I challenge how people can travel from the everyday to the more formal and who should take responsibility for this, how we might measure it and above all what will happen to our societies if we don’t take on this responsibility.

A full PDF of the talk can be found here. A video of the talk can be found here.

Research on Educational Platforms in Public School Classrooms: A Call to Action

This short co-authored commentary published in the Teachers College Record here, examines the growth of new digital platforms that link families, children, and teachers through the well-known example of ClassDojo. We argue that the ubiquity of platform use is a relatively new phenomenon in schools, that it is not driven by findings from empirical research, but rather the result of a perfect storm of popular psychology and market forces.

These platforms allow for communication between teachers and families in real time and across many languages. Teachers can send pictures of children, comment about student behavior, achievements, or activities, share information about upcoming programs, and more, all via a self-contained online platform or app on a phone. Parents in turn may message the teacher (usually via smart phone), but not other parents. Although they build on seemingly established and normed forms of communication between teachers and parents, we challenge how platforms like ClassDojo create and shape behavioral norms for families and teachers. For example, what impact does the digital footprint of a student’s classroom behavior have on how their parents treat them at home? And to what extent might casual family conversations become centered on the concerted calculation of ClassDojo avatar points, akin to how our daily “steps” (vis-à-vis the Fitbit) have come to stand for how far we have walked in a given day?

We put forward this commentary as part of a broader call to action for the field to consider how interactions via platforms may be shaping family relations with schools and to continue to foreground in our collective studies the more general ways that the “datafication” of education is transforming teaching and learning practice.