Chapter 1 An introduction to the Research

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1.1 The Problem

Many digital literacy practices may be new to schools but they are often already well established among young people. Multiliteracies pedagogy and multimodal texts continue to slowly emerge in contemporary classroom practice. Multiliteracies approaches and online multimodal texts were incorporated into the curriculum within this action research (AR) study to encourage and develop students’ critical literacy skills and creativity in an attempt to prepare them for active participation into a hi-tech and globalised world. As a teacher/researcher, I used action research to incorporate new literacies practices into my day-to-day teaching practice with my year 9/10 and year 7 classes at a public high school in Victoria, Australia.
This research asked the following questions:
  1. What kinds of literacy and learning practices are adolescents involved as they interact in online social networks; how do they make sense of these, and how are they affected by them?
  2. What do online social networks (and adolescents’ engagement with them) have to teach us about both print and multimodal texts and literacies and how can this knowledge be used to update and strengthen literacy curriculum?
  3. What kinds of approaches, models and resources are needed to support teachers in the development and implementation of an ICT-based curriculum that addresses multimodal forms of literacy

I felt it was essential that students learn to explicitly interpret and interrogate the large bank of multimedia and complex visual imagery of the online virtual worlds which I learned were prevalent to their lifeworlds. I used action research (AR) to guide changes in my teaching practice where I focused on the use of online media and social networking to increase students’ ability to think, analyse and become critically aware of each other and the media they encounter in different online virtual worlds. By building social networking into my class, it enabled me to use the underlying characteristics of knowledge sharing and knowledge building in my everyday approach to teaching and learning. This study involved an Interpretivist paradigm using predominately qualitative data collection methods.
Being literate in the 20th Century was about acquiring a high level reading and writing proficiency. However, cultural, social, economic and political worlds have changed and multiliteracies pedagogy (New London Group, 1996) in the 21st Century is helping students become responsible for their own learning and providing opportunities for them to become socially aware of the world around them. These are the views typically expressed by Dillon (2006), Johnson & Kress (2003), Edmonds (2006), Luke & Elkins (2002) and Merchant (2007). My goal is to prepare my students for critical lifelong learning. As an educator, this means that I must develop new ways of teaching that incorporate the learning experiences my students bring with them to the classroom, as well as their out-of-school literacy practices in which they are involved as they interact in online environments. Information and media is reaching us in ways that hadn't been invented as little as fifteen years ago. Students are swamped by masses of information from sources across the globe. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to prepare them fTor New Times (Luke, A. & Elkins 1998) and the demands of the future workforce, resulting from increased use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). There is also the pressing need for students to be literate in the new kinds of digital literacy practices that will be needed for active participation as a citizen in a world where the notion of multimodal design (New London Group, 1996) will be necessary for improved personal, social and civic lives. By this I mean that my students will need to be equipped to comprehend, communicate, adapt and make positive contributions to the growing demands of our global economic world. In this study I explored contemporary methods of teaching and learning where students went beyond traditional decoding or encoding of words and texts to incorporate critical thinking and questioning; using a range of online media, capitalizing on students' out-of-school digital literacy practices and their participation in online virtual worlds and environments.

2.2 The School System

I recall attending a training session for teachers in the mid-nineteen nineties in which the presenter explained that we were in the middle of a fifteen-year period of dramatic change in education – the sort of change that would occur only once every century. She suggested that if a doctor from one hundred years ago was transported to a modern hospital he/she would be completely bamboozled by the equipment therein. Conversely, a teacher transported forward one century to a current school would not only recognize their surrounds but, arguably, could take over the class. I was enthused at the implied challenges in the changes, as a result of new technologies, that were to occur and have sought to incorporate relevant technological innovation into my teaching since that time.
Fifteen years on, in 2009 I should see an expanded view of teaching and learning that resonates with student lifeworlds, where students access and participate in different literacy practices that address the combined effects of writing with the dominance of the mode of image and the medium of the screen (Kress 2003). Instead I observe continuing educational conservatism with narrow print-based assessment and data collection whose (competitive) base is similar to the standards and style of education existing in my own youth of some 35 years ago. This archaic data is being used to inform curriculum, particularly in the literacy and numeracy areas and ignores students’ fluency with digital texts. Many seemingly “good” ideas have been presented but few are taken up and even those few have little relationship to the globalised communities, where website authoring is taking on a new powerful literacy practice through multimodal design where students - integrating text, images, animations, video, voice, music and sound (Lemke 2005) in new ways relevant to a changing public, social and work lives.
There were more than 100 desktop computers for student use in my 2008 high school. Indeed, all 85 teachers had their own laptop computer, but few used these for anything more professional than email, word processing, occasional internet searching or PowerPoint presentations (replacing blackboard or whiteboard notes) and preparing mandatory reports on student progress. After 12 years of portable computer access, this is unfortunately the extent of a good number of teachers’ exploration in this area. Consequently, little impact has been made on students themselves. In the area of literacy instruction, the use of new technologies and ICTs as direct learning tools, is almost non-existent at my school. I am left wondering, what happened to the so-called schools’ technological and educational revolution?
Government funded schools, such as my high school in Victoria, continue to base their successes on standard testing which is both scientifically naïve and, simply, bad educational governance (Luke, A. & Elkins 2002). Too often policy decisions are based on a narrow range of test data without triangulating and weighing it against a much richer field of possible data sources. Government schools, such as my own, teach a broad range of subjects but only Mathematics and English are assessed under our statewide testing programs, with policy decisions being made at my school on this narrow field of collected data. This phenomenon is all too common. In addition, based on these test outcomes, many parents are led to believe that their children’s’ skills and talents are inadequate. Based on these assessments, many students also receive this same negative reinforcement, when in reality the majority of their creative potential, multiliteracies and thinking skills have not been assessed. I believe that this lack of data and triangulation of data has the effect of channeling teacher energy away from innovation and into the “safe” well-trodden paths of the past.
Many of my 2008 class of 14 to 15 year old adolescent students will graduate from tertiary study in 2016 and their work life will extend until they retire around the year 2060. They need a different preparation for their work and personal life than their predecessors of, say, ten or twenty years ago; but they are still being educated as if they were in an age of print, where literacy is based on the written word. But text today is not bounded by the first and last pages of a book. It is distributed across multiple sites and media (Lemke, 2005). Students come into my classroom tired from late nights of socializing online. They are tired from activities such as social networking, from using mobile devices or from gaming and downloading music and videos on their hidden (because they are “forbidden” by my school’s regulations) and most treasured possessions; their ipods and mobile phones. In their pockets are powerful tools (banned across most educational institutions) that have the potential for authentic genuine learning, a type of literacy learning that is relevant to them and that will be required of them in the future for work and to communicate in their social lives. But each day, they are required to conform to an outdated print-based education system.
Hence, students come into my class prepared to be passive sponges of knowledge rather than active participants in the learning process. The over reliance on print-based literacy practices continues to support a passive learning style which is inappropriate for the youth of today. Imagine their virtual schoolbags (Thomson 2002) full of things they have already learned at home, with their friends, unable to make use of it in today’s print-based classroom – a schoolbag which is in and from the world in which they live and it lies in wait of the end-of-lesson bell. Students then go home to their multimodal literacies and communications systems (known to them by other names, of course) multitasking and collaborating with others through online devices - having spent the bulk of their time at school learning in a manner that belongs to an era that is no longer relevant to them, having no meaningful voice in their own education (Prensky 2005).

1.3 Issues in Literacy Education

Today we are in an era of information overload, hence the term “digital age literacy” (Dillon 2006). The technological landscape of the 21st century has changed and the medium of text is no longer the most significant cultural tool deployed to shape our social attitudes and beliefs (Walsh 2009). Different ways of producing and distributing text, including the use of social networking, create new possibilities of how we might construct and operate within the educational environment. The new genres of digital text suggest a need to re-conceptualise our approach to learning and teaching in the classroom. This leads to the importance of critical literacy as tools that enable and give productive power, as discussed by Janks (2000). There is a powerful argument to suggest that an education system has a responsibility to provide the young with the tools and understandings necessary for interpreting the constructed nature of popular culture and to provide a critical view (Merchant 2007). Building flexible and intelligent educational responses to digital literacy becomes important both from the point of view of valuing children’s everyday digital experiences and in terms of preparing for the future. Schools need to provide students with opportunities, understandings and methods to critique the digital media they encounter including those presently overlooked by schools – using digital media in our classroom needs to become part of our toolbox for everyday teaching and learning.

Young people today have learnt very little digital literacy from schools. The scaling up of digital literacy is left largely to entertainment and software providers and those that want to compete on the general retail market (Hartley 2007). Formal education at most secondary schools restrict school based access to a wide range of digital environments and priority is given, not to making students digitally literate, but in protecting them from inappropriate content and online predators as well as ensuring that the school does not spend more than their monthly internet bandwidth allocation. “Over the last 10 years we have moved to a position in which a literacy curriculum that ignores on-screen writing is an impoverished one, so rapid has been the pace of change” Merchant (2007, p. 190). Merchant’s revealing exploration of digital communication raises some fundamental questions about how we conceptualise literacy and literacy pedagogy. Educators need to challenge existing models of definitions of what constitutes text and what it means to be a reader, confounding recent attempts to simplify or reduce literacy to a set of basic skills and routines. Luke and Elkins (2002, p. 669) argue for “the need to re-envision a literacy education that would enable us and our students, schools and communities to navigate through these changes”.

1.4 The School Research Site

The city of Geelong has a population of approx 200,000 and is located about 80 kilometers south west of Melbourne in Victoria, a state in Australia. Geelong High School is a Year 7 to Year 12 co-educational school located near the centre of Geelong and is adjacent to parkland. Established in 1910, it is one of the oldest secondary schools in the region. Enrolment appears stable with 920 students in 2008, drawn mainly from East and South Geelong, Newtown, the Bellarine Peninsula and Geelong’s outskirts. The school draws its student population from 30 to 40 feeder schools. Students are predominantly Anglo Saxon from a wide range of socio economic backgrounds. School staff is made up of the Principal, two Assistant Principals, seven Leading Teachers, 74 teachers and 20 non-teaching staff (Geelong High School Review Report 2008).
At the time of this research, the school had 3 computer labs, 4 computer pods and 4 portable notebook trolleys as well as a small number of computers arranged in the back of some classrooms. The senior study centre and the library also had a small number of computers for student use. Five interactive white boards had been installed in classrooms and digital cameras, scanners and microphones were available from the library. The school housed 190 desktop computers and 40 notebooks for student use with a 4MB Internet link coming in and out of the school. Ninety-eight percent of the school was accessible via a wireless network and most staff had an education department leased laptop with wireless access. The school had a range of software available for both students and staff including the newest Microsoft Office® 2007 and Adobe® Creative Suite® 3, Photostory®, Windows® Movie Maker®, Stop Motion Pro® and Game Maker® as well as some freeware such as STIOK® for file conversion and some subject specific software.

The school requires that student Internet access be restricted through education filtering. Students have a choice of access to a free internet cache, that is provided by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) where teachers can submit URL sites into this cache, or students can pay for greater internet access, filtered to a lesser extent, but this is expensive (could cost up to $5 per hour for video content) and is often used for playing games and other non-teacher-directed content. Student access to social networking sites such as MySpace, Flickr, and Facebook is not available but teachers can set up blogs, wikis and nings for class use on a range of online sites.
The school operates (since 2004) a vertical curriculum from years 8 to 10 using level A, B, C and D as subject levels (“A” being the lowest of these) where each subject runs for one semester. The vertical curriculum means that students in years 8, 9 and 10 can be in the same class together.