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Digital literacies: tracing the implications for learners and learning

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This is a report on the third of our series of seminars, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, to examine ‘The educational and social impact of new technologies on young people in Britain’. Its purpose is to bring together academics, policy makers and practitioners from many different backgrounds in order to consider the contexts and consequences of use of new information and communication technologies for children and young people, with a particular focus on the implications of technological change of formal and informal education. The first seminar scoped key theoretical frameworks, focusing on questions of age and development, on social approaches to technological change, and to diverse notions of learning. The report, titled ‘Theorising the benefits of new technology for youth: Controversies of learning and development’, can be freely downloaded from esrcseries/home/index.php. Seminar 2 concerned questions of space: we were interested in learning environments, seeking to understand how changing spatio-technical arrangements are affecting the learning environment in the classroom, school, home and community. The report, titled ‘Changing spaces: Young people, technology and learning’, can also be freely downloaded from esrcseries/home/index.php. In this third seminar, titled ‘Digital literacies: Tracing the implications of learners and learning’, a lively group of academics, educators and policy makers gathered at the Department of Education, University of Bristol to discuss three stimulating papers addressing the burgeoning debates over digital (or information-, cyber-, new media or other) literacies and competences that, supposedly, especially characterise today’s generation of children and young people. The first paper, appropriately, served to ground the academic and policy discussion in children’s own experiences. Chris Davies, from the University of Oxford, has spent recent months interviewing children at UK primary and secondary schools to hear what they have to say about the possible benefits and problems of using diverse forms of information and communication technologies in school. In this paper, he compares and contrasts children’s experiences with the ambitious if somewhat ideal specification of the key elements or skills of digital literacy outlined by scholar Henry Jenkins of MIT in his work for the MacArthur Foundation. While the latter provided some valuable analytic criteria with which to interpret children’s reflections on their practical ‘literacies’, the scare quotes must remain firmly in place: for Chris Davies concludes, although there are indeed promising signs that a ‘self-managed participatory culture’ is emerging, ‘this is still a long way removed from evidence of a true process of developing new media literacies’. The second paper, by Gunther Kress, from the Institute of Education, took the seminar back to first principles by inquiring into the very nature of communication – what resources does it require? what are the environments of learning? what is really meant by literacy? Beginning with some theoretical reservations about the concept of literacy, Kress widens the frame to examine what he calls ‘cultural technologies of transcription’; to be sure, writing is the most familiar of these, but this can be broken down into writing using an alphabetic script or a character script for example; meanwhile, there are other technologies altogether – notably the visual, the multimodal, indeed also the oral. To understand each, and especially to understand the implications for those who learn, we must understand the technologies that record and reproduce what has been transacted. As he says, ‘every technology of transcription has potentials and limitations, speech and writing not excepted’. Kress concludes by centring the analysis of literacy not on the expertise of the teacher but the interpretative motivations of the learner, a salutary conclusion for those who treat literacies as a set of demands against which learners must ‘match up’. Having studied youthful digital literacy practices across a range of formal and informal settings, the third paper from Kathleen Tyner, from the University of Texas at Austin, offered a wide-ranging survey of the rapidly-evolving conditions under which new technologies are used and negotiated. Linking digital literacy to social capital, she is especially interested in the diverse benefits that gaining new skills may offer young people as well as the costs it poses for those who do not learn these skills so effectively. Beginning by scoping the research agenda that such study demands of the academy, Kathleen Tyner also emphases the ‘strategic uses’ of technology by children – for they also need to escape the constant surveillance enabled by ubiquitous computing, especially surveillance by parents and teachers (though adults also worry about commercial surveillance). Other downsides, as she notes, include the avalanche of misinformation, the moral panics associated with new media, and the more mundane frustrations of getting the technology to do what you want it to do. Each of these three papers stimulated lively discussion among the seminar audience, which we have captured briefly in the discussion summaries that follow. Many of these points were then developed by the final panel session of the day, chaired by Keri Facer and including Rosamund Sutherland, Julian Sefton- Green and Shelagh Wright. A summary of the points they raised appears at the end of this report. The series will hold its fourth and last seminar on 2nd March 2009 at London School of Economics and Political Science, entitled ‘Digital identities: Tracing the implications for learners and learning’. The series will conclude with a conference on 14th July, 2009 at the University of Oxford. Interested participants should contact Lisa Currie at lisa.currie@education. or visit the project website. The series is coordinated by John Coleman, Ingrid Lunt and Chris Davies (University of Oxford) and Sonia Livingstone (LSE), together with Keri Facer (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Neil Selwyn (London Knowledge Lab).

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